The Pilgrimage and Conversion of Thomas Chalmers

Following His Journey from Anstruther to Glasgow

by David Jackson (Author)
Monographs XVIII, 294 Pages


This book follows the life and work of Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) from his childhood in Anstruther to the end of his ministerial career in Glasgow in 1823. He became a theologian, minister and Scottish reformer and is best remembered for his involvement in the Disruption of 1843. Following Chalmers’ career up to the end of his Glasgow period offers a range of valuable insights into the human, spiritual and theological dimensions of a man who was once described by Thomas Carlyle as «the chief Scotsman of his age». It has been decades since Chalmers and his work have received any notable scholarly attention and this book attempts to unravel his complicated nature by pursuing a forensic investigation into his communitarian ideology and attitude towards social reform. New facts have come to light, not least the apparent reversion of Chalmers’ conversion, recognised and discussed here for the first time, allowing the reader to form a more accurate picture of his legacy within Scottish religious history. As the author meticulously unravels his subject’s disturbing psychological mindset, he provides a compelling critique of the Church of Scotland and examines the role of John Bunyan’s Mr Christian as Chalmers’ model and mentor.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Casting the Die of Chalmers as Boy, Youth and Man
  • Chapter 1. Early Environment, Influence and Development
  • Chapter 2. The Divine Imposter
  • Chapter 3. A Disturbed Mindset
  • Chapter 4. A Glorious Failure
  • Part II. The Cohabitation of the Phenomena of Conversion
  • Chapter 5. The Humbling Retreat of Lieutenant Chalmers
  • Chapter 6. A Theological Synthesis of Conversion: Butler and Pascal
  • Chapter 7. Properties Involved in Individual Conversion
  • Chapter 8. The Infinity of the Mind in Human Nature
  • Part III. The Breeding Grounds of Evangelical Communitarianism
  • Chapter 9. Imprints from Anstruther
  • Chapter 10. The Restless Genes of a Godly Commonwealth Ideology
  • Chapter 11. The Shadow of Napoleon
  • Chapter 12. The Dundee Sermon
  • Part IV. Providence, Rhetoric and Mission
  • Chapter 13. Instruments of Providence and Politics
  • Chapter 14. Piety, Power and Politics
  • Chapter 15. Members of the Same Body
  • Chapter 16. The Reluctant Missionary and Stevenson MacGill
  • Part V. Chalmers’ Relentless Commitment to Reform
  • Chapter 17. Into the Valley
  • Chapter 18. Theology and Chalmers
  • Chapter 19. An Astronomical Argument
  • Chapter 20. Power and Immortality: London
  • Part VI. Locum Ecclesia Reformata: Justice in Paradox
  • Chapter 21. The Glory of Theory
  • Chapter 22. Footprints of Reform
  • Chapter 23. Analysis of the St John’s Experiment I: Pauperism
  • Chapter 24. Analysis of the St John’s Experiment II: Education
  • Part VII. The End of an Era
  • Chapter 25. The Final Humiliation of Chalmers’ Ministry in Glasgow
  • Chapter 26. Roots, Conversion and the Establishment
  • Chapter 27. Literary Commentators on Chalmers, 1979–1988
  • Chapter 28. Summary and Conclusion
  • Appendix. Newspaper Comment
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← xii | xiii →


Frontispiece.Thomas Chalmers, 1780–1847.
Frontispiece.John Bunyan, 1628–1688.
Figure 1.William Wilberforce, 1759–1833.
Figure 2.Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769–1821.
Figure 3.William Booth, 1829–1912.
Figure 4.Rev. Professor Stevenson MacGill, 1765–1840.
Figure 5.The Tron steeple looking east with the Merchant City Tollbooth Clock Tower in the background at Glasgow Cross.
Figure 6.Goosedubbs Lane where Chalmers, Provost Aird and his geese walked through the puddles day or night.
Figure 7.The top of Goosedubbs Lane leading onto Provost Aird’s Lane.
Figure 8.The Tron steeple looking west down Trongate and Argyle Street, Glasgow.
Figure 9.The site of St John’s Church is now occupied by a public house and the large Glasgow Lodging House Mission building is seen rising in the background.
Figure 10.Early Sunday morning trading up Gibson Street, side of Barrowland Ballroom wall.
Figure 11.The Merchant City Tolbooth Clock Tower at Glasgow Cross.
Figure 12.St John’s Church, McFarlane Street, Glasgow (demolished in 1962). ← xiii | xiv →
Figure 13.La Pasionaria with the old Custom House Quay in the background on the banks of the river Clyde, Glasgow.
Figure 14.Memorial plaque to Chalmers’ predecessor at the Tron, Rev. Professor Stevenson MacGill, under the cloisters of Glasgow University.
Figure 15.Memorial plaque to Chalmers shared with his son-in-law, William Hanna, at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.
Figure 16.Police commemoration plaque fixed to the external walls of the Tron.

All photos courtesy of the author.

← xiv | xv →


I would like to express my gratitude to Professor David Jasper of Glasgow University for all his support and patience over many years in encouraging this work towards its completion. I hope that my efforts have contributed in some way to fulfilling his commitment to people as a priest and lecturer in the common Christian cause shared by all his scholars in Britain, China, America and other countries.

Without the impeccable research of Professor Stewart J. Brown, the authority on Chalmers, this work would not have been possible, and it was a privilege for me that he so graciously encouraged my quest when my project was discussed in New College, Edinburgh, and at my Chalmers symposium held in the Tron Church, Glasgow, in October 2011. There is faint aspiration that my work will follow in his footsteps as my modest contribution is merely an introduction to his authoritative research.

I am also grateful to Professor John R. McIntosh and staf for allowing me such generous access to the Chalmers Special Collection Library within the Edinburgh Theological Seminary. Their welcome and accommodation was much appreciated.

A special note of appreciation is expressed to Rev. Stuart MacQuarrie, Glasgow University chaplain over a period of some sixteen years since 2001. The genuineness of his conversations with me lightened some difficult times and without his recent support this work might never have been completed.

Finally, I am much indebted to Professor Ian Hazlett, Glasgow University, for his teaching, tutorship, discipline and genuine friendship over many years which kept this work within the tramlines of reality.

I thank them all and wish them safety in their own particular pilgrimage.

David C. Jackson,
University of Glasgow ← xv | xvi →

← xvi | xvii →


The Reverend Professor Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847) was a highly gifted academic and a Church of Scotland minister from Anstruther, Scotland, who underwent a religious conversion and later went on to become the uncrowned leader of the Evangelical party in Scotland.

His fame spread rapidly and in 1815 he came to Glasgow with the intention of setting up social reforms that would alleviate the city’s appalling poverty and improve its religious commitment. Though he worked in Glasgow for eight years as a social reformer, prolific author and Christian influence, since the publication of Stewart J. Brown’s book, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland, in 1982, there has been a marked lack of literary contributions about the life and work of Chalmers apart from the commentators I mention in Chapter 27.

Whilst Chalmers was best known in his time as the charismatic leader of the Disruption of 1843, which resulted in a break-away from the established Church of Scotland and thereby the formation of a new denomination, the Free Church of Scotland, there is considerably more to his story than this. My task in writing this book has been to address the lack of interest of scholarly contributions since 1982 and offer reason and evidence as to why this is the case, but in order to do so it has been necessary to focus on his conversion and the apparent redirection of the dynamics which fuelled it, which was originally central to his labours in Glasgow. Chalmers’ contemporaries in social reform included William Wilberforce, Robert Owen of New Lanark, Karl Marx and Rev. Dr Thomas R. Malthus, some of whom he even befriended. To follow his journey from Anstruther to Glasgow is to reap a harvest of valuable human lessons from Chalmers’ pilgrimage through success and failure towards his envisaged dream of Christian utopianism.

Chalmers’ mind-frame, post-conversion from the Establishment to the evangelicals, presents a platform of observation as to life after conversion and consequently allows us to examine the convertee’s strengths and ← xvii | xviii → weaknesses. Over a critical period, we observe Chalmers’ tug-of-war conversion and how this played out during his work in Glasgow.

As we make our own precarious pilgrimages through life, biblical influence is always helpful; therefore, this work, where appropriate, compares Chalmers to the character of young Mr Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Modelling Chalmers’ pilgrimage on the path taken by Bunyan’s character is appropriate because Christian’s journey is essentially a spiritual one of great importance. The same ups and downs, successes and failures, anxieties and disasters, despair and depressions evident in Chalmers’ journey are all present in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is especially interesting when we learn from William James that Bunyan himself was something of a moody depressive.1 From high school to university and the workplace, this book is aimed at a mature level of thinking and serves as a Christian reminder of the values that Bunyan held; to be forewarned is to be forearmed in a dangerous and ever-changing modern world.

1 See Chapter 3 of this book, ‘A Disturbed Mindset’, p. 25.

← xviii | 1 →


Thomas Chalmers’ life was a cornucopia of valuable human and religious experience, and his legacy within the Church of Scotland and Scottish literature and theology (for better or worse and in view of his excesses, some considered to be quite gross for a man of the cloth) should be further discussed and investigated by modern scholars.1 Whilst his legacy concerning the arts and social reform is historically well documented, this present work seeks more to raise awareness of the staying power (or the lack thereof) of Chalmers’ increasing variability within his conversion in relation to the day-to-day occupation of a converted Church of Scotland minister. In other words, my enquiries seek to pursue the following questions: Did the heartfelt conversion of Chalmers stand firm throughout his life? If not, why not, and what does this tell us about conversion and the convertee?

Inevitably this will lead us to discuss the serious presence of the Holy Spirit within a person following conversion, for such an occasion undoubtedly quickly leads to a special belief in Christ, as opposed to the inherited routines of institutionalised religion that Chalmers was born into. By comparison, this in turn raises the question of the nature of faith in the Establishment within institutionalised religion as opposed to smaller, more evangelical Christian denominations such as the Brethren, Baptist and independent Bible-based churches, which have no official connection with the state.

Chalmers diarised and elected his conversion date as 17 March 1810 (his own biological birthday) and following this experience of conscience and circumstance, he continued to remain within the Establishment of the Church of Scotland as a minister, but was now motivated by the language and belief of the evangelist and his Bible.

Before and after 1810, Chalmers’ career in the established Church offered a comfortable living at his own pace, interwoven with social dinners ← 1 | 2 → and the conviviality and pastimes of social rank, supposedly all within the strictures of a Calvinistic upbringing. After his conversion he remained within the state-connected Church of Scotland establishment, and this unique duality of experience is perhaps captured by the Bunyan-like2 warning: ‘What gain is there in possessing the very keys of the gates of heaven if you have not the compass of the evangelist?’

There are many paths that lead a person to arrive at the inclusion of the reality of Christ within their own life, and conversion must not be seen as producing a higher or more superior rank of believer, though obviously it can be dramatic and decisive and can deliver great relief and joy. Conversion produces a clear new starting point which should be succoured and maintained by the influence of a denomination that is Bible-based and, if possible, visibly Bible-practising.

Whilst this book will cover several aspects of Chalmers’ historical life, it will also highlight the heart and soul of human nature and all of its weaknesses, which can become obstacles when trying to live the life of a converted Christian in a turbulent world open to the darkest of influences. I look upon Chalmers as yet another pilgrim struggling to make his way through life, as depicted in Pilgrim’s Progress, in the hope that this should help us to identify the dangers in the journey of his life for the benefit of the reader and author. I should make it clear that the experiences of a pilgrim or a Christian are not specific to any gender, although our subject model in Chalmers’ case is obviously pre-established.

Though Chalmers’ relationship with the Holy Spirit is something of a special study, we should also concern ourselves with the thinking contained in his Institutes of Theology, for therein lie the fruits of his conversion and his newfound understanding.3 To this effect we will focus on his experiences ← 2 | 3 → at Glasgow’s Tron Church from 1815 to 1819, and then at St John’s Church, Glasgow, from 1819 to 1823.


XVIII, 294
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (February)
Theology Scottish History Conversion
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2018. XVIII, 294 pp., 18 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

David Jackson (Author)

David C. Jackson left school at the age of fifteen to become a printer’s copy reader. Following National Service in the Royal Air Force, he worked in sales and marketing for twenty-two years. After retiring, he gained a Bachelor of Divinity and a Masters at the University of Glasgow, before completing a PhD investigating Thomas Chalmers.


Title: The Pilgrimage and Conversion of Thomas Chalmers
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