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Thomas Chalmers Preaching

Thomas Chalmers


Kilmany Church

The Free Church

Dr Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847).
Thornas Chalmers was one of the most distinguished ecclesiastic politicians and social reformers of his generation and a leader of the movement that brought about the Disruption and the establishment of the Free Church in 1843. Born in Anstruther, Fife, in 1780, the sixth of fourteen children, he was educated at the parish school and then the University of ST Andrews. Typical of the broad education followed at the time, he studied first mathematics and science, then divinity. On graduating he began his career as minister of Kilmany, Fife, in 1803 - though he continued to teach mathematics and chemistry at St Andrews. He was later an unsuccessful candidate for chairs at both St Andrews and Edinburgh.

Kilmany was to Chalmers what New Lanark was to Robert Owen - a test-bed for his ideas about practical theology. Social conditions and the problems of the poor were as important to him as his success as an evangelical preacher, and it was at Kilmany that he realised the importance of the parish as a unit of administration for poor relief - as much as for preaching the ministry. During his time at Kilmany he also found time to publish widely - including a book entitled An Inquiry into the Extent & Stability of National Resources (1808), an essay on 'Christianity for the Encyclopaedia (1813), and a pamphlet on The Influence of Bible Societies on the Temporal Necessities of the Poor. Meanwhile, his fame as a preacher spread far and wide and in 1815 he moved to the prestigious charge of the Tron Kirk in Glasgow.

Two years later he took London by storm, greatly impressing Wilberforce (1759~1833), Canning (1770-1827) and other distinguished persons. Back in Glasgow preaching against heathenism was combined with efforts to rescue the less fortunate from degradation and poverty. After moving to the new parish of St Johns in 1820, Chalmers implemented his 'parish system' of relief. He divided the parish into twenty-five proportions', each under an elder who supervised poor relief paid from church collections. He also established for modest fees - a system of comprehensive education in two day schools and fifty Sunday schools. If cost was the sole consideration his scheme was certainly a success for the annual poor relief budget was reduced from £1400 to less than £300 - figures that would undoubtedly impress those in authority both in Glasgow and elsewhere. A major work on The Civic and Christian Economy of Large Towns and a series of articles on pauperism for the Edinburgh Review sprang from this period.

Chalmers then returned to academic life, accepting the offer of a chair in moral philosophy at his alma mater in St Andrews in 1823, later moving to Edinburgh as professor of divinity in 1828. Thereafter he became increasingly involved in church politics, particularly the issue of patronage, which was hotly debated and contested throughout the 1830s. The so-called 'Ten Years' Conflict' led ultimately to the severing of the Free Church from the established Church in the Disruption of 1843, when Chalmers became first Moderator of the new Church's General Assembly as well as principal of the Divinity College.Although so clearly a radical evangelist, Chalmers was also innately conservative, being decidedly opposed to the first Reform Act.

If you would like to visit Anstruther and Kilmany as part of a highly personalized small group tour of my native Scotland please e-mail me:

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