Thomas Chalmers - Scottish Amyraldian? III
Thomas Chalmers had been ordained to his first parish, where he was far more concerned with becoming a professor of mathematics than he was with the care of souls. However, in 1806 an event occurred that shook the young Moderate minister. His brother George, captain of a merchant ship, fell ill and returned to the family home at Anstruther to die. George shared the Evangelical faith of his parents, and it was that faith that comforted him in his decline.
A short time before this, Thomas Chalmers, in a fit of Moderate zeal against evangelicalism, had condemned certain Christian writers from the pulpit at Kilmany. Leaning on the pulpit, he had said: “many books are favourites with you, which I am sorry to say are no favourites of mine. When you are reading Newton’s Sermons, and Baxter’s Saints’ Rest, and Doddridge’s Rise and Progress, where do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John go to?”[Hanna Vol. 1. P. 72] Which is not to say that Chalmers was reading his Bible very much at the time (he was in fact reading scientific works), but that he didn’t want his congregation to be reading evangelical books! Yet in his last illness, Captain George Chalmers got great comfort from just those books! Every evening one member of the family read George one of the very sermons of John Newton that Thomas had denounced from the pulpit. The family took turns reading to him – and so Thomas was practically forced to read Newton.
George Chalmers died on the sixteenth of December 1806, trusting in Christ alone for salvation. On his lips were the words of Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” It was the first time that Thomas Chalmers had seen one of his close family die, and seeing the comfort and support George got from the evangelical doctrines he despised shook the young minister. It did not shake him out of his Moderatism, but it shook him in it. Less than two years later one of his sisters was taken ill and died in the same faith. He saw the solid comfort evangelical religion gave in death, and it troubled him.
Thomas Chalmers had already been asked to contribute several articles on mathematics to the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia. Following his sister’s death, he asked to be allowed to write the article on ‘Christianity’. Really what he began to write was an essay on the evidences of Christianity. He began in a thoroughly Moderate tone, not understanding how it was that the death of Christ could take away sin; but before the article was finished, he too was struck down with a terrible illness. For months he hovered on the brink of death, confined to bed. He found that he had no comfort in his religion, and he realised that, though a minister of the Church of Scotland, he had been living without God.
Chalmers recovered, and then, like many who have been convinced of their need of God, he laboured to convert himself, giving up mathematics and chemistry and concentrating on the reading of theological books and the Bible. It was in this condition of trying rather than trusting that he picked up William Wilberforce’s book A Practical View of Christianity (recently republished in a modernised edition). Under God, Chalmers owed his conversion to that book; it awakened him to the true depths of human sin, and our need for atonement. It revealed to Chalmers his need for a supernatural salvation from outside himself. Thus Wilberforce was used to strike off the chains that held Thomas Chalmers in a worse slavery than any man could impose – a slavery to sin. Wilberforce urged his readers to examine their foundations and insisted on justification in the sight of God by faith in Christ alone, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” was the message brought home to Chalmers as Wilberforce ‘preached’ to him through his book. In later life Chalmers would come to know the great abolitionist personally.[See Hanna Vol. 1 Pp. 138-141] Thus Thomas Chalmers, the minister, was brought from darkness into light by a book written by an MP. Truly God moves in a mysterious way.
Following his conversion, Chalmers devoured the books he had once denounced from the pulpit. Baxter and Doddridge were particular favourites of his, especially Baxter. On one occasion he exchanged a horse for a volume of Baxter! As a result of this course of reading, Chalmers’ preaching was formed in a particular way. In his pastoral work he followed Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor. He found the Parish plan to be particularly suited to a Baxterian method, and Kilmany was a model Scottish parish. When he was called away to Glasgow Chalmers found the city parishes had become too large; he therefore sought to have the oversized parishes broken up into smaller ones to allow each parish minister to be the sort of parish minister Baxter had been in Kidderminster.
Now preaching the very evangelicalism he had long opposed, Chalmers was made a great instrument for good.
Next time, God willing, we shall turn to the theology of Thomas Chalmers.
[Kilmany photograps from www.newble.co.uk]
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