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Thomas Chalmers, Preaching


Thomas Chalmers
(1780—1847)

Founder of the Free Church of Scotland

The most famous and dynamic minister of his day, a vociferous advocate of social and religious reform through self-reliance, and the leader of the party whose walk­out of General Assembly in 1843, sensationally split the Church of Scotland.

More About Thomas Chalmers. Thomas Chalmers, who was to lead the seceders from the Church of Scotland and become the first moderator of the new Free
Church in 1843, had many American admirers and supporters with whom he corresponded. From the 1820s onwards they showed particular interest in his campaign for the abolition of legal poor relief and the reinstitution of a communal ideal based on the old parish system. More than 80 years later, in 1900, Thomas Chalmers was 'rediscovered' in the United States. Those who advocated a 'social gospel' in the late 19th-century American cities found much in Chalmers's earlier publications that appealed to them.

Sections of his works were republished in America and held to be an example of a rational Christian philanthropy in industrial society. Many other American commentators claimed that his approach to social problems led him to be considered a pioneer in the development of modern sociology.

Thomas Chalmers and the Disruption. If the extent of the Disruption of the Church in 1843 is best understood as a feature of the sweeping socio-economic changes taking place in Scottish society, Thomas Chalmers stands out as the single most important personality in the event itself. As an impassioned Evangelical preacher, he emerged in the 1830s as the most influential figure within the leadership of the Church of Scotland.

His background was fairly typical of a minister of the period. Born in 1780 at Anstruther, into a relatively well-off merchant family, he attended St Andrews University from the age of 13 (an age not unusual for the time). Chalmers himself was very much a product of the system of patronage, which he used to full advantage to obtain presentations both in the Church and the universities.

Although a supporter of the Evangelical cause Chalmers was fundamentally conservative in attitude and opinion. He stood by the principle of an established church and might be seen as an unlikely seceder. He strongly believed in the right of the Church to reform itself. Yet if the Westminster Parliament had been prepared to intervene in the '10 years' conflict' it is likely that Chalmers would have been prepared to compromise. As it turned out, it was he who led the symbolic march of the seceding ministers from the fateful Disruption Assembly, carrying more than a third of the clergy and half the membership out of the Church of Scotland.

As first moderator of the Free Church, Chalmers' role was crucial, in that his presence conveyed an air of respectability that many of it members so urgently sought. He also contributed his considerable experience and organisational ability to laying the successful foundations of the new church. In 1843 Chalmers could be regarded as its elder statesman. If Chalmers's decision to secede and support the Free Church was of
fundamental importance to that church, his role in the Disruption remains a subject of controversy. Not all historians would agree with his portrayal as a champion of the Scottish Church's spiritual independence, a man who sacrificed all to protect it from the inroads of the British state. For some he is a wicked and evil man whose personal ambitions and desire for power drove him to destroy the unity of the Scottish Church. By doing so he created great bitterness in an already divided society and poisoner Scottish religious life for the rest of the century. Whatever the truth, the shadow of Thomas Chalmers still looms large over 19th-century Scotland.