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The New Zealand Evangelist

Biographical Sketches. No. I. The Rev. Thomas Chalmers, D.D

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Biographical Sketches. No. I. The Rev. Thomas Chalmers, D.D.

We cannot commence our series of Biographies with a more appropriate subject than Dr. Chalmers, who was the very embodiment of Catholicity and Evangelism. The following sketch is from the pen of his son-in-law, the Rev. John M'Kenzie, of Ratho. It appeared in the August number of Evangelical Christendom, and must be new to most of our readers:—

Dr. Chalmers was born at Anstruther, in the county of Fife, on the 17th of March, 1780. He was the sixth child of his parents, who were eminent for their piety and worth. In his early boyhood he gave no particular indications of intellectual superiority, but powerfully attracted the love and esteem of his schoolmates by the singular nobleness and generosity of his disposition, and the sunny joyousness of his temperament. He was sent to college at St. Andrew's at the early age of eleven. In the literary classes he made no remarkable progress, and never had a taste for the acquisition of languages. We have often heard him say that he “was a very idle fellow” until he entered the mathematical class, and there it was that his genius, brought into a suitable clime, first began to develope itself. The bent of his mind was so decidedly towards philosophy, and more especially its exact and experimental departments, that from that time he gave himself up to the pursuit of science with all the ardour of the most enthusiastic devotee. We are not aware what was the motive which directed his choice to the ministerial profession. It would seem to have been the belief, which at that time he conscientiously held, that a faithful discharge of its duties was compatible, with the most ample leisure for the cultivation of science. But however this may be, certain it is that, at this time, and for years after, theology occupied a very subordinate place among the objects of his study. He was licensed to preach the gospel by the presbytery of St. Andrew's in the year 1800, and, having gone to England shortly after, he delivered his first sermon in a small Independent Chapel, at Wigan, in Lancashire. After officiating for some time as assistant to the minister of Cavan, in Roxburghshire, he was ordained to the pastoral charge of Kilmany, in the presbytery of Cupar, in 1803. During the first few years of his ministry he was much employed in giving lectures in St. Andrew's, Cupar, and elsewhere, on mathematics, chemistry, and botany. Meanwhile it could not be said page 7 that he was entirely neglectful of his flock. Up to the light he then possessed he did his duty by them. He visited among them as their friend (and a warm-hearted and open-handed friend he ever was)— he comforted the sick and the dying by such spiritual counsel as he was competent to give; and net with the frigid formality of the then prevailing moderation, but earnestly and eloquently enforced from the pulpit the moral precepts of the gospel. But not having yet experienced himself the mighty change of “passing from death to life,” and being “born again” he could not appreciate the importance and responsibility of that work which was designed as the instrument, in the Spirit's hands, of effecting this change in the hearts of sinners. He was ignorant alike of the remedy and the desperate malignity of the disease. On a memorable occasion he himself affectingly described the state of his feelings at this period, and we shall quote his own words, as furnishing one of the finest examples of the magnanimity of his character. About the year 1805 he had been candidate for the Mathematical Chair in the University of Edinburgh, vacant by the translation of Professor Playfair to the chair of Natural Philosophy; and that gentleman having published a letter to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, in which he represented the habits and occupations of clergymen as unfavourable to the prosecution of mathematical study, Dr. Chalmers came forth with an anonymous pamphlet, in which he maintained that, “after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister might enjoy five days-in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste might dispose him to engage.” In a debate on the question of pluralities, or unions of a pastoral charge with an academical chair, in the General Assembly of May, 1825, in which Dr. Chalmers warmly espoused the negative side, a clergyman of the opposite party, in order to convict him of inconsistency, charged him with the authorship of this pamphlet, and quoted the above, along with other sentences from it. In his reply, Dr. Chalmers acknowledged that it was his own production, and after explaining the circumstances which had called it forth, he said, in reference to the sentiment therein expressed, “Alas! sir, so I thought in my ignorance and pride. I have now no reserve in declaring that the sentiment was wrong, and that in giving utterance to it I penned what was most outrageously wrong. Strangely blinded that I was! What, sir, is the object of mathematical science? Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude. But then, Sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought not of the littleness of time, I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity!”

About the year 1809 he was engaged in writing the article “Christianity,” for Brewster's Edinburgh Encylopcædia; and it was in the course of his studies connected with that work, his perusal of the lives of the Primitive Christians, but more especially of Wilber-force's Practical View, that he began to perceive that the religion of Christ was something very different from what he had hitherto imagined. When in this transition state, he fell into a severe illness, which under God was the means, along with the councils of a pious Dissenting minister who visited him on his sick-bed, of consummating the blessed change; and great was the surprise and joy page 8 of many, when on reappearing in his pulpit, he boldly avowed his previous ignorance, and preached the doctrine be had once despised.

His lips being now touched with a live coal from off the altar, his native eloquence blazed forth with a brighter and purer flame, and all the energies of his powerful mind and intensely benevolent heart were henceforth concentrated on the grand object of promoting the moral and spiritual good of his species. He speedily abandoned, save as occasional recreations, his scientific pursuits, and gave himself up to more professional studies—retaining, however, his strong predilection for Political Economy, which he continued to cultivate as a potent auxiliary in the work of christianizing a people. His fame as a preacher soon spread beyond the limits of his native county, and in 1815 he was called to Glasgow, where Providence had designed a wider theatre for the display of his commanding genuis and farseeing practical wisdom. In the year following he published his Astronomical Discourses, which we need not here stop to characterize. But it is worthy of remark, as being honorable alike to this noble production and to the national taste, that in a long doubtful race through the first rapid succession of editions with one of the most popular works of the most popular writer of the age—Old Mortality, the discourses at length carried the day against the novel. The period of Dr. Chalmers's residence in Glasgow was remarkable, not only for his singularly brilliant and useful career as the most eloquent and impressive preacher of his own, or perhaps of any country, but for the practical enforcement of his views on the subject of pauperism, an evil which he succeeded in almost entirely eradicating from his own parish—one of the poorest in Glasgow.

After eight years of unwearied and herculean exertion in the cause of Christian philanthropy among the neglected masses of this crowded city, and amid the distracting bustle of an unusually public life, he was in 1823 translated to the chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of St. Andrew's; and in 1828, to that of Theology in the University of Edinburgh. The quitting of the ministerial for the professorial work, after giving such proof of his supereminent qualifications for the former, was a step the propriety and wisdom of which—however questioned by some at the time—have been amply vindicated by the result. For mighty though the influence was of his pulpit ministrations, in turning the tide of public opinion and taste in favour of evangelical religion, it cannot he doubted that he did more to extend and perpetuate that influence, and to stamp his own mind upon the age, by training others for the work of the ministry, and infecting them with his own ardent and evangelistic spirit, than if he had continued himself to labour regularly in the Lord's vineyard. He continued to occupy the theological chair in the University of Edinburgh till the period of the disruption in 1843, discharging its functions with a zeal, and ability, and eloquence, which they only can conceive who were privileged to sit under his prelections. Never had a teacher such hold over the hearts of his pupils, whom he regarded with all the affection and watchful interest of a father.

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But, during this period, his labours were not confined to the duties of the chair. In 1834, he started the Church Extension scheme, which, as Convener of the Assembly's Committee, he prosecuted with such prodigious energy that in a few years he had raised £260,000, and seen 200 churches built. Time would fail us were we to tell of his exertions in this cause by travel, public addresses, and correspondence,—his visitation of presbyteries, appeals to Parliament for endowments, and his strenuous vindication of the rights of the poor against the oppressive system of seat rents in the city churches. Meanwhile, the voluntary controversy arose, and, regarding as he did to the day of his death a state-endowed, but pure, and spiritually independent church as the most efficient instrument for supplying the religious wants of the country, he came forth with his usual eloquence and power in defence of the principle of establishments, and in 1838 obeyed a call to London to deliver a lectureship on the subject where bishops, nobles, and senators of the land, were among his admiring auditors. But his was no blind veneration for established institutions merely as such, nor could the applause and favor of the great for one moment divert him from the darling object of his life—the temporal and spiritual interests of the lower classes. It was shortly after the delivery of these lectures that the first encroachment was made on the spiritual independence of the Church of Scotland, and the first blow struck in that conflict with the civil courts which issued in the memorable disruption. He was indeed the Moses of that Exodus, not rashly precipitating the movement, but, after every expedient consistent with principle had been tried to bring our rulers to an acknowledgment of her righteous claims, with a clear eye and a steady hand guiding the church of his fathers to the only honorable outlet from her difficulties. Much though be valued “the treasures of Egypt” as auxiliary to the cause of Christ, he “esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches” than those treasures retained at a sacrifice of principle. At the convocation of Ministers held in Edinburgh, in November, 1842, where the abandonment of the Establishment was resolved upon in event of the final appeal to the Legislature proving unsuccessful, Dr. Chalmers, with zeal unabated and hopes unquenched by the prospect of seeing all the fruits of his past labour thrown away, expounded to a somewhat incredulous audience his scheme for the support of a Free Church by means of a great central fund, to be collected through the instrumentality of Congregational Associations. At the first Assembly of the Free Church in the month of May following, of which he was chosen Moderator, besides being appointed Principal and Primarius Professor of Theology in the New College, he was intrusted with the department of the Church's economies; and, as Convener of the Sustentation Committee he laboured as variously and energetically as ever he had done in the days of Church Extension, and with a success that excited wonder in every mind but his own.

After having put matters into such a train as bade fair to secure a competency to all the receding ministers and a continuance of the means of grace to all the seceding congregations, he again page 10 turned his energies as buoyant and hopeful as ever to the object on which throughout years of thwarting and disappointment his heart had been most intently set—the reclaiming of the neglected masses in large towns by means of district as distinguished from mere congregational cultivation. He fastened his affections on the West Port, as being about the most degraded portion of Edinburgh; got up the requisite agency, headed by a missionary, now the ordained minister; and, after having set a going a prosperous school and gathered a respectable nucleus of a congregation, he erected a commodious church and school-house. Ere he died, his prayers for the divine blessing on his experiment were largely answered; and on the last Sabbath but one on which he preached in Scotland, he had the unspeakable satisfaction of dispensing the communion in this territorial church to 132 communicants, 100 of whom were residents in the district.

Dr. Chalmers’ ardent philanthropy could not have existed in the same breast with the jealousies and suspicions of sectarian bigotry. Without the slightest Jeaning to Latitudinarianism, his mind was singularly devoid of these. So solid was the peace he found in resting his soul on the great foundation of the Saviour's stoning work and justifying righteousness, that while he could not admit the safety of those who rejected that foundation, he was ever ready to hail as Christian brethren all who build upon it, notwithstanding the “wood, hay, and stubble” they might appear to him to mingle with their “gold, silver, and precious stones.” He deeply regretted the disunion and estrangement among Christians, because of lesser differences as one of the mightiest obstacles in the way of the world's conversion. He yearned to have these divisions healed, and as the means by which, without compromise on any part, this might he brought about, he enunciated the principle of “co-operation without incorporation now as a step to incorporation after wards,” He threw his whole heart into the movement towards Christian union which issued in the formation of the Evangelical Alliance, and one of the wisest pamphlets that ever came from his pen, was that which he published on the subject just before the great meeting in London last year. In that pamphlet he strongly urged that the Alliance should recommend the members of the different Christian bodies who had joined it, to engage forthwith and in their own ways, in some common work of Christian philanthropy, such as a Home Mission among the population that had so vastly outgrown the means of grace. This kind of co-operation he deemed the likeliest means of promoting Christian love and cementing the union among true believers, founding on the apostle's exhortation to the Philippians; “Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.” It is well known that he felt much disappointed that the Alliance separated without recommending some such practical object in the name of Evangelical Christendom. He continued to press this suggestion in various communications to the periodical press, and we believe had proposed doing so in writing at the late Meeting of the Alliance in Edinburgh had his life been spared. Let us hope that, whatever difference of opinion may exist as to page 11 whether the time has yet come for entering on such a course, there is no difference as to the wisdom of its final adoption.

About the beginning of May last, Dr. Chalmers went to London whither he had been summoned to give evidence before the Committee of the House of Commons on the refusal of sites to the Free Church. He was absent in England for three weeks, and preached on three consecutive Sabbaths with all his wanted vigour and unction in London, Brighton, and near Thornbury, Gloucestershire. It is a striking fact and illustrative of the deity of his spirit, that the last as well as the first sermon he ever preached was delivered in a small Independent Chapel in England. He returned to his home on. Friday, the 28th May, apparently in the best health and spirits, and at midnight on the following Sabbath his spirit passed peacefully and painlessly to its eternal rest.

The following sketch of Dr. Chalmers as a preacher, from the pen of an eminent writer, appeared twenty years ago, when he was in the zenith of his popularity as a pulpit orator. After specifying various draw-backs in Dr. Chalmers's manner, the writer says:—

In what, then, it may be asked, consists the secret of the Doctor's eloquence?—simply, as we take it, in this, that while his arguments and illustrations are for the most part striking and original, he possesses prodigious enthusiasm and energy in enforcing them—that the defects of his rthetoric are completely lost in the force of his ratiocination—that while he has mathematics or logic enough to make his reasoning acute, grasping, and irresistible, he has poetry to prevent it from being dull; thus evening the very highest species of intellect—the union of a sound and comprehensive judgment with a fertile and brilliant imagination. We have said he possesses energy, and this we take to be the great redeeming quality of his manner, compared to which the tiny graces sink into insignificance. Whether we are facile or fastidious, whether we like or dislike the preacher's doctrine, one thing is certain, he forces us to attend to him. A man might easily get his pocket picked while listening to Dr. Chalmers, but we defy him to fall asleep. When the reverend orator engages in the development of a favorite principle, and gradually rises in his beautiful climaxes, till his eye kindles and his bosom heaves, he immediately establishes a sympathy betwixt himself and his hearers, from which the most listless or indifferent find it difficult to escape; and while he goes on unfolding his unequalled powers of amplification, and heaping one illustration upon another—no matter how unclassical, so that they bring the subject more strikingly home to our business and bosoms—it is impossible not to contrast him with the silky orator, who fearful of a verbal inaccuracy, dare not give his feelings their full swing—who tickles our ears in place of touching our hearts, and seeks to move the affections by a moral lever, without ever thinking of the fulcrum, which is only to be found in the preacher's own bosom. In all his discourses, the reverend gentleman busies himself far more with prin-page 12ciples than details, and even in his most rapid sketches it is easy to trace the workings of an original mind. In this way he resembles certain exotics, at once blooming and scattering seeds; and as the poor might often luxuriate on what the rich throw away, so a mind of ordinary dexterity might often begin where the Doctor leaves off, and by simply following out his views, produce sermons of no ordinary merit. In all his occasional discourses he appears anxious above all things to grapple with infidelity in every shape and form—the great enemy of practical Christianity. In this warfare he often displays admirable tact and judgment, pressing the argument home at every point, till he leaves his auditors scarcely a loop-hole to escape by; laying bare, as it were, the whole frame-work and machinery of the heart, and compelling hearers, like unwilling patients, to plead guilty to symptoms which we had supposed hid from every eye but their own. He knows that few sinners are altogether satisfied with their present condition; that they have many compunctious visiting, and still intend to begin at some future period the work of amendment; and accordingly his great aim is to quicken their resolutions, by awakening them to a sense of their present danger—to make them, in a word, not almost, but altogether Christians.