The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 1

Thomas Chalmers gained renown as an orator, preacher, political economist, philanthropist, educationalist, ecclesiastical statesman and – above all – as an incomparable motivator of his fellow Christians. Men of high birth and scholars of world-renown sought his friendship. The University of Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws; the French Institute enrolled him as a corresponding member. Neither of these honours had ever before been conferred on a Scottish clergyman. When he died, he was buried “amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours”.

Yet, as his biographer points out, “behind the outer history of his life there lay that inner spiritual history which made the other what it was”. It is easier to preach the doctrines and to apply the methods of Dr Chalmers than to live his life – especially his inner life. But this was the secret of all else and it is at this point that he has more to teach us.

The early years

Chalmers was licenced to preach the gospel in 1799 when he was only 19 years of age and it is virtually certain that at that time he was not, in the biblical sense, a Christian. We say “virtually certain”, because his early years were not altogether lacking in memorable experiences of a spiritual kind. The most notable of these arose out of his reading Edwards’ treatise The Freedom of the Will, which, according to a friend, he studied “with such ardour that he seemed to regard nothing else, could scarcely talk of anything else and one was almost afraid of his mind losing its balance”. The experience left him with a lasting impression of the greatness and power of God. Twenty-four years afterwards he wrote: “I remember, when a student of divinity, and long ere I could relish evangelical sentiment, I spent nearly a twelve-month in a kind of mental Elysium, and the one idea which ministered to my soul all its rapture was the magnificence of the godhead and the universal subordination of all things to the one great purpose for which He evolved and was supporting creation.”

Another incident from his pre-conversion days also suggests that he was not altogether lacking in theological understanding. One of his College exercises contained the following passage: “Amid all their discouragements the primitive Christians were sustained by the assurance of a heavenly crown. The love for their Redeemer consecrated their affections to His service and enthroned in their hearts a pure and disinterested enthusiasm. Hence the rapid and successful extension of Christianity through the civilised world. The grace of God was with them. It blasted all their attempts of opposition. It invigorated the constancy of their purposes. It armed them with fortitude amid the terrors of persecution and carried them triumphant through the proud career of victory and success.”

More than forty years later, when the Evangelical ministers of the Church of Scotland met in solemn convocation to lay plans for the Disruption, Dr Chalmers used this very exercise to stir up the enthusiasm of his colleagues; and, according to Hanna, “no passage he ever wrote was uttered with more fervid energy or a more overwhelming effect”.

Other factors, however, clearly indicate that for the first eleven years of his ministry, Dr Chalmers had not submitted to the righteousness of God. One symptom was his attitude to the ministry itself. He was pre-occupied with academic distinction, more interested in St Andrews University than in his congregation and engrossed in the study of chemistry an mathematics to the total exclusion of theology. His very first publication, written in 1805, was a defence of this professional lifestyle: “The author of this pamphlet can assert from what to him is the highest of all authority – the authority of his own experience – that, after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him to engage.”

It was in connection with this pamphlet that Chalmers stood, twenty years later, “a repentant culprit before the bar of this venerable Assembly”. “Alas! So I thought in my ignorance and pride. I have now no reserve in saying that the sentiment was wrong, and that, in the utterance of 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.”

His attitude to the great doctrines which lie at the heart of the Christian message of salvation was equally unsatisfactory. In one of his sermons, for example, he referred to the doctrine of the atonement in the following terms: “In what particular manner the death of our Redeemer effected the remission of our sins, or rather, why that death was made a condition of this remission, seems to be an unrevealed point in the Scriptures. Perhaps the God of nature meant to illustrate the purity of His perfection to the children of men: perhaps it was efficacious in promoting the improvement and confirming the virtues of other orders of being. The tenets of those whose gloomy and unenlarged minds are apt to imagine that the Author of Nature required the death of Jesus for the reparation of violated justice are rejected by all free and rational enquirers.” His doctrine of justification was equally inadequate – a gospel of justification by works in its crudest form: “Let us tremble to think that anything but virtue can recommend us to the Almighty.”

His own assessment of his spiritual condition during those years was unequivocal. Reviewing the period, he wrote: “There has been a total estrangement of my mind from religious principle; and my whole conduct has been dictated by the rambling impulse of the moment, without any direction from a sense of duty, or any reference to that eternity which should be the end and the motive for all our exertions and actions.”

His conversion

The change came gradually. In June 1809, his uncle died at Anstruther. At the time, Chalmers was ill and unable to attend the funeral. Later that year, however, he did visit Anstruther to settle his uncle’s affairs. The exposure which he suffered on the return journey brought on a serious infection of the liver – “a long, severe and most momentous illness during which the first stage of a great and entire spiritual revolution was accomplished in him”. According to one of his friends, “it was a year or two before he recovered and during that period he had much the appearance of an old man, who would never again be able for much exertion”.

For four months, Chalmers never left his room, and his mind, “left to its own profound and solitary musings”, sank under an overpowering impression of human mortality. His brother George and his sister Barbara had already died of tuberculosis, the former in 1806 and the latter in 1808. Two of his surviving sisters were threatened with the same disease. His uncle’s death precipitated a crisis. He became convinced that he was about to die. For days and weeks he gazed upon the prospect, intent and solemnised. “My confinement,” he wrote to a friend, “has fixed on my heart a very strong impression of the insignificance of time – an impression which I trust will not abandon me though I again reach the heyday of health and vigour. Strip human life of its connection with a higher scene of existence, and it is the illusion of an instant, an unmeaning farce, a series of visions and projects and convulsive efforts, which terminate in nothing.”

During this period he read Pascal’s Pensees and was struck by the contrast between his own attitude to life and that of the great Frenchman. Shortly before his illness he had written in eager anticipation: “I propose setting off for London about the middle of August. My great object is to get introduced into some of the literary circles. The great success I have met with in Scotland encourages me to hope that I may meet with proportional success in the greater theatre of the metropolis, if I could only get into the way.” But the very days to which he looked forward so eagerly were spent in his sick-room, under the shadow of death. It was against such a background and in such a frame of mind that he read Pascal. “You know his history,” he wrote to a friend: “a man of the richest endowments and whose youth was signalised by his profound speculations in mathematical science, but who could stop short in his brilliant career of discovery, who could resign all the splendours of literary reputation, who could renounce without a sigh all of the distinctions which are conferred upon genius and resolve to devote every talent and every hour to the defence and illustration of the Gospel. That, my dear sir, is superior to all Greek and to all Roman fame.”

Towards the end of 1810 there fell into his hands a book which was to influence him even more decisively. This was Wilberforce’s Practical View of Christianity. Under the impulse of his new spiritual concern Chalmers had been striving with all his might to meet the high requirements of the divine law. But he found that the harder he tried the more demanding the law became: “it still kept ahead of him with a kind of overmatching superiority to all his efforts”. Wilberforce ended this attempt to establish his own righteousness. Chalmers learned that we cannot possibly restore the image of God in our souls by our own strength; that we must rely on the operation of God’s Spirit, promised to all who embrace the gospel; and, above all, that reconciliation through the sacrifice of Christ is an indispensable pre-requisite to holiness. The gospel, thus presented, was accepted instinctively and spontaneously, without a struggle.

This article first appeared in The Monthly Record, March 1980, to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Thomas Chalmers.