Thomas Chalmers

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Thomas Chalmers

The Scottish church reformer and theologian Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was a central figure in the 1843 secession of the Free Church from the Presbyterian Establishment.

Thomas Chalmers was born in Fife on March 17, 1780. While attending the University of St. Andrews, he was drawn both to the study of mathematics and science and to a clerical vocation. After Presbyterian ordination in 1803, he was a successful preacher and instructor. In his late 20s he became aroused to evangelical fervor; for the first time he was struck by his own incorrigible depravity, the imminence of death, and the promise of salvation through faith in Christ. This position was characteristic of the intellectually simple, scripturally bound, evangelical awakening typical of many of his generation. Chalmers, however, attempted to broaden evangelicalism by reconciling its zeal with secular ethics, science, and philosophy and with concern for social and economic issues.

In this spirit Chalmers delivered his "Astronomical Lectures" and preached to large congregations of the educated and well-to-do from his pulpit in Glasgow, where he became minister in 1816. Four years later he took a new parish in the poorest section of the city. By reviving the methods of personal visitation and private, church-directed charity, he provided relief for the poor while drastically reducing expenditure.

In 1823 Chalmers became professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews. From 1828 to 1843 he was professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh, and during this period he wrote many of his 34 volumes of published works. But more important was his leadership of the reformers in the crisis over patronage in the Scottish Church. The issue involved the right of lay proprietors to appoint clergymen over Scottish congregations. This practice had been imposed by British law in 1712 and reinforced through the next century by the domination of "moderate" clerics in the national church.

At the annual Presbyterian General Assembly in 1832, with Chalmers as moderator, a proposal to change the patronage system failed. Finally, in May 1843, Chalmers regretfully led the famous secession of 470 ministers, who then began the Free Church of Scotland. As the first moderator, Chalmers raised substantial sums to finance the building of hundreds of new churches for the schismatics. From 1843 to 1847 he also served as principal of the Free Church's New College. Chalmers died suddenly on May 31, 1847. It is said that half the population of Edinburgh attended his funeral. Parliament later reversed the offensive act of 1712, and ultimately the Free and Established Churches were reunited.

Further Reading

Two early sources on Chalmers and the Free Church are still important: Chalmers's son-in-law William Hanna wrote Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers (4 vols., 1849-1852), and Robert Buchanan wrote The Ten Years Conflict: Being the History of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland (2 vols., 1857). The most recent study is Hugh Watt, Thomas Chalmers and the Disruption (1943).

Additional Sources

Brown, Stewart J. (Stewart Jay), Thomas Chalmers and the godly commonwealth in Scotland, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. □

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Scottish Presbyterian theologian; b. Anstruther, Fifeshire, Scotland, March 17, 1780; d. Edinburgh, May 30, 1847. After studying at the University of St. Andrews, he taught mathematics and was ordained a minister. In 1810 he experienced a conversion and adhered to the evangelical party of the Church of scotland. His preaching was highly praised by William Wilberforce and others of the Clapham Sect. His Astronomical Discourses (1817), a series of lectures on the relations between astronomy and Christian revelation, gained wide popularity. Chalmers also won a respected reputation as a political economist and philosopher. In 1815 he was appointed to the Tron Church, one of the leading churches in Glasgow, but he transferred to the largest and poorest parish in the city, St. John's Church, where his success was remarkable. He became professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews (1823) and professor of theology at Edinburgh (1828). After his election to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1832), he supported the "veto act" of 1833, restricting the rights of laymen to nominate candidates for ecclesiastical positions. Together with the evangelical party, Chalmers advocated that ministers be selected by the congregations. The civil courts declared this procedure illegal (183839). When Parliament did not take action on the matter, Chalmers led nearly a third of the clergy and laity of the Church of Scotland into a schism known as "the Disruption" (May 1843), which lasted until 1929. Chalmers was chosen first moderator of the Free Protesting Church of Scotland (later the Free Church of Scotland) and was responsible for establishing it on a solid financial basis. He acted also as professor of divinity in the Free Church's New College at Edinburgh. Chalmers also published numerous works, which have been collected in 34 volumes.

Bibliography: w. hanna, The Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers, 4. v. (Edinburgh 184952). h. watt, Thomas Chalmers and the Disruption (Edinburgh 1943). w. g. blaikie, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 18851900) 3:135863.

[t. p. joyce]

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Thomas Chalmers (chä´mərz, chô´–), 1780–1847, Scottish preacher, theologian, and philanthropist, leader of the Free Church of Scotland. His preaching and his interest in philanthropic work during his ministry (1815–23) in Glasgow brought wide recognition. In 1823, Chalmers became professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews Univ. and in 1828 was made professor of theology at the Univ. of Edinburgh. His Bridgewater treatise (1833) On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man brought him a number of honors. Chalmers took a leading part (1843) in organizing the Free Church of Scotland, formed when, after much friction between church and state and trouble over patronage, 470 clergymen withdrew from the Established Church. His foresight had planned for the rapid organizing of the Free Church of Scotland, of which he was the first moderator. He was made principal (1843–47) of the New College (Free Church) at Edinburgh. His published works fill 34 volumes.

See biographies by M. O. W. Oliphant (1893), A. Philip (1929), and H. Watt (1943).