Thomas Chalmers - Scottish Amyraldian? I
[Note: all biographical information taken from Hanna]
The life of Thomas Chalmers may be summed up in a single paragraph, as Norman Walker does[P. 20]. Born in Anstruther, Fife on St. Patrick’s Day 1780, sent to St. Andrew’s University in 1892, ordained pastor of Kilmany, Fife, 1803, converted winter 1810-11; translated to the Tron Church, Glasgow, 1815, then to the Church of St. John, built especially for him, in 1818. In 1823 appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews, appointed Theology Professor at Edinburgh University in 1828. At the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 Chalmers led the Free Church party and therefore left the University to become Principal and Divinity Professor at New College, Edinburgh, founded as the Free Church theological college. He died in 1847. Thus Thomas Chalmers’ life in brief. Now we must look more closely at his early life up to and just after his conversion at Kilmany.
Thomas Chalmers was born in the town of Anstruther, Fife, on 17th March 1780, the fifth of fourteen children. He was born into a respectable family; his parents were Christians and taught their children the Shorter Catechism, but as was the custom in middle-class households in the period, they largely left the upbringing of their children to others – with results as disastrous in that day as they are in this. Having survived a cruel and selfish nurse and a schoolteacher whose sole mode of instruction was to apply the rod to his charges, Chalmers was sent at the age of twelve to the University of St. Andrews. While twelve sounds a remarkably young age for anyone to go to university it was quite normal for boys as young as fourteen to be sent to university in Scotland in that period, and Chalmers was not the youngest in his class.
Chalmers’ parents were evangelical Christians, this meant, in the Scotland of the last decades of the 18th century, that they were staunch Calvinists; the university of St. Andrews, however, was of another character. Although it could boast such stalwarts of Calvinism as Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Halyburton among its former professors, by the 1790s it was the stronghold of Moderatism. Chalmers would write of it: “St. Andrews was at this time overrun with Moderatism, under the chilling influence of which we [students] inhaled not a distaste only but a positive dislike for all that is properly and peculiarly gospel.”[Hanna Vol. 1 P. 11]
Sir Richard Hill, an evangelical of a slightly earlier era characterised ‘Moderates’ thus: “A moderate divine is one who has a very moderate share of zeal for God. Consequently, a moderate divine contents himself with a very moderate share of labour in his master’s vineyard. A moderate divine is too polite and rational to give any credit to the antiquated divinity of our articles, homilies and liturgy [Sir Richard is speaking of English Moderatism, a Scots Moderate would not give much credit to the Confession or catechism]. And therefore he seldom quotes them except it be to show his contempt for them, or to torture their meaning; nevertheless, a moderate divine is ready enough to subscribe to them, if by so doing he can get an immoderate share of church preferment. A moderate divine is always very cool and calm in his pulpit; he never argues, except when he is preaching against… the principles and conduct of the evangelical and zealous servants of Christ, who seek to do away with abuses which are favourable to Moderatism. A moderate divine is usually an advocate for card-parties, and for all assemblies except religious ones; but thinks no name too hard for those who assemble to spend an hour or two in prayer, and hearing God’s Word.”[Quoted in Robert Buchanan: The Ten Years’ Conflict (Glasgow, Blackie and Son, 1859) Vol. 1 Pp. 150-1] It is no wonder that, in such an atmosphere, Chalmers preferred natural science and mathematics to theology.
Nevertheless, at the end of his arts curriculum at St. Andrews he chose the Christian ministry as his profession and enrolled as a student of Divinity. I use the word ‘profession’ advisedly, for that was what he saw it as. Though intellectually assured of the truth of the Bible, he had no living faith at all. His true love was mathematics, and he saw the ministry as a profession that would give him leisure time to pursue mathematical studies and one that (since at the time the Church of Scotland dominated the universities) might very well lead him to a mathematical professorship.
God willing, we shall continue our re-presentation of the paper next time.
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