The Spiritual Life of Thomas Chalmers - Part 2
Effects of the change
What Chalmers himself called “the very great transition in sentiment” was accompanied by an inward peace and joy which he never lost. Reflecting on the experience years later, he wrote: “The righteousness which we try to work out for ourselves eludes our impotent grasp, and never can a soul arrive at true or permanent rest in the pursuit of this object. The righteousness which, by faith, we put on, secures our acceptance with God and secures out interest in His promises. We look to God in a new light – we see Him as a reconciled Father; that love to Him which terror scares away re-enters the heart.”
Another result of the change was that he gave himself to regular and constant study of the Bible. Before his conversion, a humble Christian neighbour, who used to call frequently, once said to him: “I find you aye busy, sir, with one thing or another; but come when I may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath.” “Oh!” said Chalmers, “an hour or two on the Saturday evening is quite enough for that.” After his conversion, the same visitor had to remark, “I never come in now, sir, but I find you at your Bible!” “All too little, John, all too little,” was he reply. His practice in these early days was to read one chapter a day, committing striking passages to memory and fixing one special sentiment of the chapter on his mind “for habitual and recurring contemplation throughout the day”. At the same time, while “his zeal was burning with a pure an ardent flame” he began to study Greek and Hebrew afresh, in order to come to closer contact with the thought of Scripture.
His conversion also engendered a consuming evangelistic concern. This itself took several different forms. At one level it meant a complete revolution in his attitude to the ministry: “I am advancing in my conceptions of the mighty importance of my office and that every minute should be devoted to its labours.” Along with this went a desire to preach lucidly and compellingly: “I am not sufficiently intelligible to the lower orders”, he wrote, “and must study to be perspicuous and impressive in my address to them.” Later, he observes in the same connection, “I feel that I do not come close enough to the heart and experience of my hearers, and begin to think that the phraseology of the old writers must be given up for one more accommodated to the present age.”
It was not only the form of the message that was changed, however. The message itself was radically different. In his early ministry he expatiated on “all natural indignation of the human heart”. Even from the point of view of morality, the method was a total failure: “I am not sensible that all the vehemence with which I urged the virtues and properties of social life had the weight of a feather on the moral habits of my parishioners. It was not till reconciliation to God became the distinct and the prominent object of my ministerial exertions and the free offer of forgiveness through the blood of Christ was urged upon their acceptance and the Holy Spirit was set before them as the unceasing object of their dependence and their prayers that I ever heard of those subordinate reformations which I had made the ultimate object of my earlier ministrations.” “You have at least taught me,” he said in his farewell to the people of Kilmany, “that to preach Christ is the only effective way of preaching morality in all its branches.”
But some of the infirmities of the new convert were also in evidence. For example, his conscience was hurt if he allowed himself to discuss anything but religion. He notes at one point in his Journal: “After dinner, Mr R, M, and two of Mr R’s cousins came in and I entertained them till after supper. The society is not congenial; and, in general, those hours which you cannot devote to religious conservation may be considered as so many blanks in the existence of an immortal being.” He also felt a certain embarrassment at the prospect of conducting family worship: “In the expectation of Mr Eadie remaining with me all night, I was unmanly enough to look forward with cowardice to family worship.”
Sometimes, like the rest of us, Chalmers’ mind was captivated by things he afterwards thought trivial. On 4th March 1811, he wrote in his Journal, “Spent the day in experimenting upon the cutting of my hedge for fuel”. Two days later he notes with exasperation: “I have had a complete cessation of all regular study these three days back, and what has been the mighty avocation? Preparing and experimenting with wood as a fuel! I have not succeeded in the object and, at all events, how preposterous to put the main business of my life at the mercy of every idle and amusing novelty!”
Yet, sensitive as his conscience was, Chalmers had little patience with asceticism. He wrote to one of his correspondents: “Remember that useful amusement is not idleness – healthful relaxation is not idleness – attention to friends and acquaintances is not idleness.” When those same friends and acquaintances began to arrange his life for him, however, his reaction was vehement. Did his wife ever read the following comment, written not all that long before his marriage? “The truth is, they want me to marry. It is not their own accommodation they want; it is their idea of my incapacity for house-keeping that prompts their arrangements. I do not feel this incapacity; and if the offensive peculiarities of others be so apt to distress me, why hazard my future tranquility upon a wife?”
His naivety, too, could produce moments of high comedy. In the Tron Church, Glasgow, huge crowds flocked to hear him and their behaviour sometimes distressed him. On one occasion, a particularly dangerous incident occurred and he later related to Dr Wardlaw the steps he had taken to prevent a recurrence: “I preached the same sermon in the morning and for the vey purpose of preventing the oppressive annoyance of such a densely crowded place I intimated that I should preach it again in the evening. Have you ever tried that plan?” “I did not smile,” said Dr Wardlaw, “I laughed outright. ‘No, my friend,’ I replied. ‘Very few of us need to resort to special means to get thin audiences!’”
Horror of anti-nomianism
Chalmers never lost his love of his first days. The righteousness to which Wilberforce had pointed him remained at the very centre of his life. A typical entry in his Journal reads: ‘Began my first waking minutes with a confident hold on Christ as my Saviour. A day of great quietness.” The next day he strikes the same note: “Let the laying hold of Christ as my propitiation be the unvarying initial act of every morning.” Not only did the doctrine lie at the heart of his preaching. It was the daily comfort of his soul: “What would I do were it not that God justifies the ungodly?”
But right beside this there lat a horror of anti-nomianism and an unrelenting desire “to grow in the practical and experimental knowledge of Christ”. He had an abhorrence of “flaming orthodoxy, or talk of religious experience” when it was not borne out by the life. He was suspicious of the common evangelical tendency to value sanctification chiefly as the evidence of justification; on the contrary, holiness was “the great and ultimate object to which our justification may be considered as only a means and a preliminary”. He could almost (and perhaps more than most) forgive men like McLeod Campbell and Edward Irving their heresies because they were “holy and affectionate Christians”.
All this was clearly registered in his own devotional life. Chalmers was never an erudite theologian, but he was a tireless reader of religious classics – books like Marshall’s Sanctification, Hervey’s Meditations and the anonymous Marrow of Modern Divinity. He lovingly guarded his Sabbaths as sanctuaries from the pressures of a busy life: “Yesterday being Sabbath I employed in part, as usual, in the perusal of difficult theology, when I was visited by a sense of the injunction, Thou shalt not do any work. On that day let me rest, and let it be a day not of study but of sentiment, and of sentiment allied with repose, such as resting in God, having peace and joy in believing, waiting on God and rejoicing in hope.” The same preoccupation is evident in his attitude to the public events – in which he was involved. If his Journal mentions them at all it is because of their spiritual bearings. The following entry is typical: “Much exercised by the conflicting church politics around me and feel the earthiness of these engrossments . . . A dreary interval, throughout which the influences of God’s Word have been choked and overborne by the thorns of controversy.” At another time we have the laconic comment, “Recovered my spirits but not my spirituality!” Even more intriguingly, he writes, “Came over to Burntisland. O my God, let a quiet withdrawment from Edinburgh recall to this earthly soul its departed godliness.”
It was out of this inner life that there arose the impulse to all that was public about the career of Thomas Chalmers. Church extension, poor relief, ecclesiastical politics, theological study and even his lectures on chemistry – it was “the practical and experimental knowledge of Christ” that led him into these involvements. Yet even the most exalted of them never engrossed him. They were incidental to his primary concern: “Oh! Let me abide in Christ, and in Him have nourishment and strength. Quicken me, O Lord, and let me so keep thy words as to have the love of the Father and the Son.”