Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Thomas Chalmers

This past weekend, I finished a biography on Thomas Chalmers, the 19th-century Church of Scotland evangelical who was the main impetus behind the creation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Authored by Stewart Brown, professor of ecclesiastical history at Edinburgh, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth (1982) suggested that Chalmers' true importance came from his attempt to renew Scottish society through the extension and intensification of the parish system. By limiting parishes to cover 2000 people and a spate of new church building, ministers and elders would be able to care directly for the needs of working class and transient poor through a visitation system that extended the church's poor relief directly to the needs of the people.

Chalmers' dream, however, was crushed ultimately through the failure of the British government to endow ministerial salaries for the new churches and to fund the building of new church structures. In addition, the government argued in the 1840s that the church was actually subordinate to the state--when the state provided incomes for ministers and funded churches, then the state (through the agency of landed heirators who placed ministers in their livings) had the right to dictate to the church even in "spiritual" or ecclesiastical matters. As a result, Chalmers' vision was caught on twin horns: needing government financial support truly to succeed; and yet desiring to avoid governmental interference with what it funds.

This well-wrought book raised all sorts of questions for me on matters as wide-ranging as the nature of the church's social involvement; the character of the "spiritual" nature and mission of the church; the relationship between church and state in situations of establishment; and the character of Chalmers himself, who despite his notable achievements was a profoundly flawed and not very likable individual (at least, in this presentation). It caused me to desire more, both about the period in the United Kingdom (next will be Roy Jenkins' Gladstone) as well as about Chalmers and his effect on Christianity in Scotland into the present day.


Brian said...

Professor Lucas,

Speaking of the legacy of Chalmers, have you heard of Peru Mission? We're friends with several of the missionary families down there, and their central model for the entire mission is, you guessed it, Chalmers.

If you haven't heard about them already, check out www.perumission.org.

westportexperiment said...

I am mystified that Thomas Chalmers has been nearly forgotten in Reformed circles. He was a giant of a figure, who despite his flaws has left a profound legacy.

Brown's work is superb. I've yet to read his work on establishments, which I'm sure is just as good.