Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chalmers, Thomas
CHALMERS, THOMAS, D.D. (1780–1847), theologian, preacher, and philanthropist, was born at Anstruther in Fife 17 March 1780. His father, John Chalmers, whose family had been connected with Fife for several generations, was a general merchant, possessed of good abilities and high character. Thomas was the sixth of fourteen children, and the family being so large, and both parents busy, the instruction of their children was committed chiefly to other hands. At the parish school he was ‘one of the idlest, strongest, merriest, and most generous-hearted boys.’ At the university of St. Andrews, during his first two sessions, he had the same character. His excess of vitality displayed itself in frolic and adventure. When he entered the mathematical classes, however, his intellect awoke and the vigour of his nature found a new outlet. Pure geometry had a strong attraction for him and exercised a great influence in moulding his mind. From his childhood he had for some reason desired to be a minister of the gospel, and this wish he carried out, though his worthy father could not but deplore his want of adequate seriousness. Mathematics and other branches of science had such a hold of his mind that he did not enter into the study of divinity con amore. Even after he was settled as minister of Kilmeny in Fife (May 1803) he continued to give courses of lectures on chemistry at St. Andrews, and before he was twenty-five he had been a candidate for the chair of natural philosophy at St. Andrews, and for that of mathematics at Edinburgh. In his parish the question of pauperism, and of social economy generally, engaged his attention from the first. His pulpit work at Kilmeny was also remarkable from the beginning. His ability as a preacher, original, independent, profoundly convinced of all he said, and striving with immense enthusiasm to inspire his audience with his views, soon carried his fame far and wide. His own mind had already been the scene of great religious conflicts. For some time, when a student, he had been attracted by materialism, but having emerged from that view of things, the French ‘system of nature’ had cast its spell on him, and he had long hovered on the confines of atheism. His misery under that state of mind, and the ‘sort of mental elysium’ in which he spent the first year of his emancipation from it, were ever afterwards vivid remembrances. But in his thirtieth year he underwent a more profound religious change. Partly through his being employed to write the article ‘Christianity’ for the ‘Edinburgh Encyclopædia,’ then coming out under the editorship of Mr. (afterwards Sir David) Brewster; partly from his reading Wilberforce's ‘View of Practical Religion;’ and partly from the effects of a severe illness and family trials, he accepted with great earnestness the evangelical view of the gospel, and from this time (1810), being now in his thirty-first year, he became a pronounced, though still independent, evangelical preacher. The tone of his pulpit ministrations was elevated greatly, and his fame was such that in November 1814 he was nominated by the town council of Glasgow minister of the Tron parish there, removing to it in 1815.
Before leaving Kilmeny, besides a controversial pamphlet, he had published a book entitled ‘An Inquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources,’ of which the object was to show that even if Napoleon succeeded in his endeavour to shut all European ports against British merchandise, the effect would not be, as many mercantile men dreaded, to ruin British trade, but only to cut off certain superfluities, and turn to other and perhaps better purposes the fund out of which these luxuries had been supplied. His article on ‘Christianity’ appeared in the ‘Encyclopædia’ in 1813, and was soon published in a separate form. A pamphlet on the ‘Influence of Bible Societies on the Temporal Necessities of the Poor,’ and some reviews and other articles in the ‘Christian Instructor’ and the ‘Eclectic Review,’ were among the published results of his literary activity at Kilmeny.
The rapid rise of the commercial city of Glasgow had fostered a large amount of what Chalmers used to call ‘home heathenism.’ To rescue the lower classes from pauperism and degradation was the ruling effort in Chalmers's mind. To this, rather than to the ordinary work of the pulpit, his main energies were directed; yet the power of his natural eloquence soon caused him to be acknowledged facile princeps among the pulpit orators of his day.
He preached in London with as great effect as in Glasgow. In London in 1817 Wilberforce wrote in his ‘Diary:’ ‘All the world wild about Chalmers. Off early with Canning, Huskisson, and Lord Binning. … Vast crowds. … I was surprised to see how greatly Canning was affected; at times he was quite melted into tears.’ John Gibson Lockhart, in his well-known ‘Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk,’ after a very elaborate description of Chalmers's appearance and manner, both of which were rugged and uncouth, proceeds: ‘At first there is nothing to make one suspect what riches are in store. … There is an appearance of constraint about him that affects and distresses you. … But then with what tenfold richness does this dim preliminary curtain make the glories of his eloquence to shine forth, when the heated spirit at length flings from it its chill confining fetters, and bursts out elate and rejoicing in the full splendour of its disimprisoned wings. … I have heard many men deliver sermons far better arranged in point of argument, and have heard very many deliver sermons far more uniform in elegance, both of conception and style; but most unquestionably I have never heard, either in England or Scotland, or in any other country, a preacher whose eloquence is capable of producing an effect so strong and irresistible as his.’
Chalmers delivered on weekdays during his Glasgow ministry two eminently characteristic sets of discourses. One of these was his ‘Astronomical Discourses,’ in which he sought to bring science into harmony with christianity by showing that the comparative insignificance of this globe in the universe of God gave an incomparable moral glory and significance to the incarnation and atonement of the Son. The ‘Commercial Discourses’ were designed to imbue the life of commercial men with the spirit of the gospel. In both these directions Chalmers set aside the current traditions of the evangelical pulpit, enlarging both its scope and its methods. His independence exposed him to the suspicions of some of the more narrow-minded of his brethren, who thought no man safe if he did not keep to the old-established methods. By his boldness Chalmers adjusted the pulpit to the exigencies of the age.
His extraordinary success in the pulpit did not for a moment divert Chalmers from his aim of elevating the whole body of people that inhabited his parish. The parochial system had fascinated him in Kilmeny. His Glasgow parish was more than ten times as populous as Kilmeny, and certainly ten times as difficult to work. But this was to be met by subdivision and increase of agents. When he was translated in 1820 to the new parish of St. John's he found his opportunity. St. John's was the largest and likewise the poorest parish in the city. Chalmers succeeded in getting from the town council leave to administer the fund raised by church-door collections for the poor, and, in consideration of this, undertook the whole management of the pauperism of the parish. Dividing the parish into districts and sub-districts, he placed laymen of christian character, office-bearers of his own church, over each, established day schools and Sunday schools wherever they were needed, and strove to raise the people to a sense of their moral dignity, especially in the light of the gospel. He was highly successful in all respects, but especially in his pauper scheme. Instead of 1,400l., which the pauperism of the parish had formerly cost, the outlay at the end of the three years and nine months during which he presided over the experiment was reduced to 280l. This result was accompanied not by a diminution but an increase of comfort and morality. Drunkenness decreased, and parents took an increased interest in the welfare of their children. Chalmers was intensely attached to the old Scotch method of dealing with pauperism, not by assessment but voluntary contribution, believing that to give the poor a legal right to parochial relief was sure to destroy the spirit of independence, and to impair the readiness of children to help their parents in old age. Afterwards, when, at the instigation of the benevolent Dr. W. P. Alison of Edinburgh, a compulsory method of supporting the poor was contemplated, Chalmers, who had already expounded and enforced his own system in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ and in separate writings, vehemently opposed the new proposal. His opposition proved ineffectual, and in 1845 the new system was introduced [see Alison, William Pulteney]. During his residence in Glasgow, besides his astronomical and commercial discourses and a volume of miscellaneous sermons, Chalmers published an elaborate work on the civic and christian economy of our large towns. In 1816 he received the degree of D.D. by the unanimous vote of the senate of the university of Glasgow.
During two years of his ministry in St. John's he had for his assistant Edward Irving, the bosom friend of Thomas Carlyle. Irving had deemed himself a failure in the Scottish pulpit, and, despairing of success, was on the eve of setting out in a most chivalrous spirit as a missionary to Persia, when Chalmers, after hearing him preach, offered to take him as assistant. The two were very happy together. Through Irving, Chalmers came into contact with Carlyle. They were very unlike, but they appreciated each other. Speaking of their first meeting, Carlyle says: ‘The great man was truly loveable, truly loved; and nothing personally could be more modest—intent on his good industries, not on himself or his fame.’ Nearly thirty years elapsed before they met again, a very few weeks before Chalmers's death. ‘He was a man,’ says Carlyle in the ‘Reminiscences,’ ‘of much natural dignity, ingenuity, honesty, and kind affection, as well as sound intellect and imagination. A very eminent vivacity lay in him. … He had a burst of genuine fun too, I have heard. …’ But ‘he was a man essentially of little culture, of narrow sphere all his life. … A man capable of much soaking indolence, lazy brooding and do-nothingism, as the first stage of his life well indicated; a man thought to be timid almost to the verge of cowardice, yet capable of impetuous activity and blazing audacity, as his latter years showed.’
The work in Glasgow was so multifarious and exhausting that, having triumphantly proved by the experiment of St. John's the success of his ideas on the parochial system, he was glad to escape from the crowded city by accepting an appointment in 1823 to the chair of moral philosophy in the university of St. Andrews. He held this chair for five years. In the special department of ethics, the position which charmed him most, and which he was at most pains to establish, was the authority of conscience. He cordially acknowledged the merits of Butler's ‘Sermons on Human Nature.’ Chalmers, however, advanced on Butler by showing how the conclusions of ethics harmonised with the teaching of Scripture. Natural ethics showed man to be a sinner. Revealed theology took him up where ethics left him, and discovered to him a mode of reconciliation. On the fact of human guilt as shown by conscience Chalmers laid much more stress than had been done by most writers on ethics. To a large extent his view commended itself to the religious teachers of Scotland, and influenced their line of preaching. At St. Andrews he did as much as the circumstances allowed to exemplify his principles of parochial activity, and initiated many students into his methods. He encouraged the rising spirit of missions to the heathen, and it was one of his pupils, Alexander Duff, who, on a mission to India being resolved on by the general assembly, became the first India missionary of the church of Scotland.
In 1828 Chalmers was removed to the chair of theology in the university of Edinburgh. He held this office till 1843, when, leaving the established church, he became principal and professor of divinity in the New College (of the Free church), Edinburgh. In the theological chair he was more distinguished for the impulse which he gave to his students than for original contributions to theological science. On the border-land between philosophy and theology, embracing ethics and natural theology, he was thoroughly at home. In theology, while strongly Calvinistic, he differed from many of that school by taking his departure from the needs of man rather than from the purpose of God. His ‘Institutes of Theology’ present in mature form the views he propounded from the theological chair. Accepting the Scriptures as the record of a divine revelation, he held that true theology was simply the result of Bacon's inductive method applied to the book of Revelation, as true science was the result of the same method applied to the book of nature. On this basis his whole theology was reared.
On 19 June 1830 Chalmers became chaplain in ordinary of the Scottish Chapel Royal, a post which he held till his death. In 1832 Chalmers was invited by the trustees of the Duke of Bridgewater, on the recommendation of the Bishop of London (Blomfield), to write one of the eight treatises on natural theology provided for in that nobleman's will. The subject allotted to him was ‘The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man.’ The volume was published in 1833, and after a successful sale (notwithstanding an unfavourable critique in the ‘Quarterly Review’) was recast as a portion of a larger work on ‘Natural Theology.’
It was a few years after his settlement in Edinburgh that Chalmers found himself engaged in a movement which in after years was to bear fruit little dreamt of—a movement for giving to the members of congregations an efficient voice in the election of their ministers. The ancient constitution of the Scottish church provided for this, but by the act of Queen Anne restoring patronage (1712) the right was practically superseded. In 1832 Chalmers had been called to the chair of the general assembly, and being thus brought more into contact with ecclesiastical matters, he moved in the assembly of 1833 in favour of an enactment, which, though rejected then, was carried next year on the motion of Lord Moncreiff, and is known as the veto law. It was entirely in accord with his views of the moral dignity of the people, and the importance of quickening their interest in the work of the church, that they should have an effective voice in the choice of their pastors. The veto law did not withdraw from the patrons the right of nomination; it only gave to the male heads of families a right of veto. The measure worked remarkably well during the few years when it had a fair trial. But it was this law that gave occasion to the litigation which ended in the disruption of the church ten years afterwards. The veto was then declared to be ultra vires. Chalmers is believed to have wished that this question should be legally settled before the act was passed; but Lord Moncreiff and other eminent lawyers thought that its legality could not be questioned—an opinion afterwards ascertained to have been unfounded.
Fresh honours continued to flow in. In 1834 he was elected a fellow, and in 1835 a vice-president, of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1834 he was also elected a corresponding member of the Institute of France, and in 1835 the university of Oxford made him a D.C.L.
During his years of calm academic work Chalmers had never been unmindful of the condition of the country, and especially of its large towns, nor ceased to desire the erection of new churches and parishes where increased population demanded it. In 1821 he had proposed a scheme for the erection of twenty new churches in Glasgow, but the proposal was scouted as visionary. In 1834 the proposal was renewed by an eminent citizen of Glasgow—Mr. W. Collins, publisher—and Chalmers threw himself most heartily into it. Its success led to a larger scheme—the erection of two hundred new churches and parishes throughout Scotland. Though greatly eclipsed by subsequent achievements, this was regarded at the time as an enterprise of extraordinary boldness, but it succeeded through the exertions and influence of Chalmers, who went over the country advocating it. Chalmers was most desirous to obtain help for this scheme from the government, but intense opposition was raised to this endeavour by the advocates of the ‘voluntary’ system, and the desired aid was not obtained. The ‘voluntary controversy,’ directed against all civil establishments of religion, became very lively, and Chalmers came out as the champion of established churches. A course of lectures delivered by him in London in 1838 in their defence was a triumphant success. ‘Dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, barons, baronets, bishops, and members of parliament were to be seen in every direction.’ ‘London seemed stirred to its very depths. … Probably his London lectures afforded the most remarkable illustrations of his extraordinary power, and must be ranked among the most signal illustrations of oratory in any age.’ It has often been represented as inconsistent in Chalmers to argue so powerfully for establishments in 1838, and five years after head the largest withdrawal from an establishment ever known. But from the beginning he had always maintained that it was essential for a christian church to possess the right of self-government, undisturbed by the intrusion of any secular power, and that the people should not be subjected to the ministrations of clergymen to whom they had a decided antipathy. It was because he believed that these conditions belonged to the Scotch church that his advocacy of its establishment was so strong in 1838; and because he believed that it was deprived of these conditions by what followed, he felt constrained in 1843 to abandon it. It must be said of Chalmers that he was accustomed, in maintaining the two principles of self-government or spiritual independence and non-intrusion, to dwell much less than some of his brethren on the direct ‘divine right’ or scriptural obligation of these principles, and much more on their being indispensable to the efficiency of the church. Deprived of these attributes he thought that an established church was not worth the maintaining, and that it was better to quit the establishment and seek them elsewhere.
Scarcely had the London lectures been delivered (April 1838) when the controversy in the church, commonly called ‘the non-intrusion controversy,’ assumed a new form. A few weeks, indeed, before their delivery (8 March) the court of session had delivered a judgment in the ‘Auchterarder case,’ in which the veto law was declared illegal, and the church courts were virtually called on to disregard it, as a res non. The general assembly, however, determined that an appeal against this decision should be carried to the House of Lords, so that it was not yet final. But it became final in May 1839. In the assembly of 1839 Chalmers, who had not been a member for six years, spoke emphatically against the claims to control the spiritual jurisdiction of the church put forth by the civil courts, and thereafter he took a most active part in negotiations designed to terminate the collision through a legislative enactment recognising, in some shape, the rights of the people. All the efforts thus made to heal the breach, though continued for some years, proved in vain. The church having subjected to discipline certain ministers of the presbytery of Strathbogie who had disregarded her orders by obeying the court of session, and Chalmers being among those who for this reason were held rebels against the law of the land, parties became so keen that all efforts at conciliation were encompassed with very great difficulties. Meanwhile the civil courts gave fresh decisions, impugning more and more the principles held to be indispensable by Chalmers and others, denying among other things the right of the church to form quoad sacra parishes, or to make the ministers of new churches members of church courts, thus aiming a heavy blow at the church extension enterprise of Chalmers, which had added two hundred ministers and quoad sacra parishes to the establishment. The result is well known. Neither parliament nor government would admit the claims of the church. On 18 May 1843 a formal separation from the established church took place on the part of those who were opposed to the pretensions of the civil court. Four hundred and seventy ministers resigned their livings and joined the Free church. Chalmers was elected first moderator of the free protesting church of Scotland. The disruption was ‘a sore, bitter, crushing disappointment—the blasting of all his fondest hopes.’ The step on his part was prompted by the conviction that under the fetters of the civil courts the church could never grapple effectually with the great work of reclaiming and elevating the whole population of the country, and his consolation lay in the hope that the disestablished church would now address herself to the task, that thus the home heathen would yet be reclaimed, and the desert and solitary place be made to rejoice and blossom as the rose.
But it was necessary to find means of support for the disestablished church. To this question Chalmers bent his mind a year before the catastrophe occurred. The result was his devising the well-known sustentation fund, with which the history of the Free church has been identified. It was founded on a very simple arithmetical principle. On the basis of a contribution from each member of a penny a week, Chalmers showed that a stipend of 150l. a year might be provided for five hundred ministers. Great incredulity followed his announcement of his plan, but its foundations were on solid rock, and ultimately it found favour. Though not without weak points, it was adopted by the church; it has been substantially carried out ever since, and though the number of ministers is now double what Chalmers contemplated, the amount paid to each exceeds considerably what he proposed.
This matter being disposed of, Chalmers now returned to the great scheme which he had cherished so warmly since his entry into Glasgow. The home-heathen problem was still unsolved. In the great cities especially there were yet many thousands attending no church, many of them in a condition of fearful degradation. In his eyes there was just one way of dealing effectually with this problem—the territorial, aggressive system. After the recent ecclesiastical changes, he could not hope to carry out any undertaking directed to this object on a scale corresponding to the extent of the evil. But he might, by an experimentum crucis, show the possibility of success under his scheme. He selected the West Port, one of the worst districts of Edinburgh, for a territorial experiment. Marking off a district with a population of about two thousand souls, he divided it into sub-districts, as in Glasgow, and obtained the aid of a body of zealous christian friends as visitors, each to labour in a sub-district of a few families. Engaging an old malt-barn, he procured the assistance of a zealous and able student to labour among the people and conduct sabbath services in the barn. A day school was opened for the children of the district, and, contrary to the remonstrances of many friends, a fee was exacted for their education. The sabbath school was added to the day school. By-and-by a plain church and school were built. Begun in 1845 this enterprise had become a great success before his death in 1847. Its subsequent history has been most encouraging. What Chalmers desired was that similar churches should be built in every suitable locality, till the whole destitution of Scotland should be overtaken. It was an unspeakable joy to him, after the loud sounds of long and bitter controversy, to return to this practical outcome of all his ecclesiastical ideas, and show the bearing of all on the good of the country and the elevation of its lowest class, and thus on the solution of the most difficult of all the problems with which economists, statesmen, or churches have to deal.
Chalmers died suddenly on the night between Sunday and Monday, 30–31 May 1847. He retired to rest in apparent health and was found dead in bed next morning. The passage from life to death seemed to have been made without the shadow of a struggle. The impression produced on the community, and on the general assembly, which was then holding its sittings, was most profound. The funeral on 4 June was attended by an immense multitude of spectators–half the population of Edinburgh, it was estimated; while journals and pulpits without number, and many public bodies at home and abroad, expressed their admiration of his life and character, and their profound sense of his services to his country and to humanity.
Looking at the influence of Chalmers on the religious thought and life of Scotland generally, we may say that he let in daylight and fresh air on the evangelical enclosures of the church. He hardly ever opened his lips without uttering something fresh and racy. The evangelical message assumed a new importance at his hands. It came from him sustained by intellect, embellished by imagination, and enforced by eloquence, while new relations, hitherto overlooked, were brought into view—to the science, the culture, the thinking of the age. As Chalmers advanced in life a rare sagacity became conspicuous; with broad, statesmanlike view he was seen to have apprehended the evils of modern society, to have detected the remedy, and girded himself, in all his strength, to apply it. While thus broadening out and acquiring fresh influence, he was at the same time growing in humility and devoutness. The culture of personal piety was a growing object of his solicitude. His journals and his ‘Horæ Sabbaticæ’ bear ample testimony to this. The result was not merely the revival of evangelical life in Scotland, but the communication to it of qualities unknown before. It became more genial and catholic, more refined, more intellectual, and more practical. It never was allowed to lose itself in speculation, or to terminate in doctrinal elaborations. It could never forget the terminus ad quem (a favourite phrase of Chalmers's)—first the regeneration and elevation of the individual, and then the regeneration and elevation of society at large.
The writings of Chalmers fall into two classes—those published during his life and his posthumous works. Of the first, his principal works, in twenty-five volumes, were: 1. ‘Natural Theology,’ 2 vols. 2. ‘Evidences of Christianity,’ 2 vols. 3. ‘Moral and Mental Philosophy.’ 4. ‘Commercial Discourses.’ 5. ‘Astronomical Discourses.’ 6. ‘Congregational Sermons,’ 3 vols. 7. ‘Sermons on Public Occasions.’ 8. ‘Tracts and Essays.’ 9. ‘Christian and Economic Polity,’ 3 vols. 10. ‘Church Establishments.’ 11. ‘Church Extension.’ 12. ‘Political Economy,’ 2 vols. 13. ‘Pauperism.’ 14. ‘Lectures on Epistle to the Romans,’ 4 vols. The posthumous works (1847–9), edited by Dr. Hanna, are in nine volumes, viz.: 1. ‘Daily Scripture Readings,’ 3 vols. 2. ‘Sabbath Scripture Readings,’ 2 vols. 3. ‘Posthumous Sermons.’ 4. ‘Institutes of Theology,’ 2 vols. 5. ‘Prelections on Butler's “Analogy,”’ &c. To these many separate pamphlets, sermons, &c., are to be added.[Memoirs by his son-in-law, W. Hanna, LL.D., 4 vols. 1849–52; Selection from Correspondence, 1 vol.; Biographical Notice from Transactions of Royal Society of Edin., by Dean Ramsay; North British Review, May 1852 and November 1856 (articles ascribed to Isaac Taylor); Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (John Gibson Lockhart); Carlyle's Reminiscences, vol. i.; McCosh's Scottish Philosophy; The Chalmers' Lectures, 1st series, by Rev. Sir Henry W. Moncreiff, bart., D.D.; Records of General Assembly of the Free Church, 1849; Witness newspaper, 1 and 9 June 1849; Dodds's Thomas Chalmers, a Biographical Study; Walker's Thomas Chalmers; Fraser's Men worth Remembering; Chalmers's Proceedings at the Centennial Celebration of the Birth of Dr. Chalmers, 1880.]