The Curious Conversion of Thomas Chalmers

by John D. Clayton (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 204 Pages


Thomas Chalmers was arguably the most popular Scot and influential churchman of his age. However, when he was first educated, ordained, installed, and serving as a parish minister in the Church of Scotland, he was by his own admission not yet a converted Christian. How could a minister of the gospel not believe the gospel? How this happened is telling of his context, country, and church, but it is not a short story. From a confusion of church and state dating back to the Scottish Reformation to an increasing secularism in and through the Scottish Enlightenment, the Church of Scotland moved increasingly away from its Reformation roots and the necessity of the gospel in Christian conversion, as evidenced in the early life of Thomas Chalmers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: An Unexpected Conversion
  • Chapter Two: The Scottish Church and State in Historical Context
  • Chapter Three: A Divine Right
  • Chapter Four: Blasphemous Crime and Capital Punishment
  • Chapter Five: Telling Trials in the Kirk
  • Chapter Six: Midnight in the Kirk
  • Chapter Seven: The Rise of Moderatism
  • Chapter Eight: Moderate Ministers
  • Chapter Nine: An Evangelical Spark
  • Chapter Ten: Revival in the Kirk
  • Chapter Eleven: Disruption in the Kirk
  • Appendix One: The Westminster Assembly and the Confusion of Church and State
  • Appendix Two: The Influential Doctrine of George Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford
  • Appendix Three: Patronage in Scotland
  • Appendix Four: Natural Religion and the Scottish Enlightenment
  • Appendix Five: The Marrow’s Four Points of Divergence from the Kirk
  • Appendix Six: The Secession of 1733
  • Appendix Seven: Revival in the Parishes of Early 19th Century Scotland
  • Bibliography


On the day of Thomas Chalmers’ funeral, the two-mile route through Edinburgh was packed with people. It was as if a national hero had died. In reflecting on that somber day, Hugh Miller recalled, “Deep sorrow was shown by well-nigh half the population of the metropolis and blackened the public ways for furlong after furlong, mile after mile.”1 Scotland’s capitol city stood still in reverent respect.

Chalmers was neither wealthy nor aristocratic, neither a politician nor a laird. He was prolific in his influence, but in the end he was merely a Presbyterian minister yet buried “amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours.”2 He was arguably the Scottish “celebrity” of his age, “a golden age of intellectual and social development,”3 and recognized as both a scholar and a champion of the common Scot.

Chalmers was indeed a man of his age but to refer to him according to his vocation limits the scope of his influence. He served first as a parish minister but became an internationally recognized preacher. He served the church yet spearheaded social welfare reform. He was a professor of moral philosophy yet is remembered for his contributions to theology and economics. He was passionate for the Christian good of his homeland but also led Scotland into a Great Commission concern for the nations. He was a proud Scot, a Presbyterian by birth and conviction, an unwavering supporter of the Church of Scotland, and yet the catalyst of the Disruption of 1843 and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

However, it was his Christian conversion that served as the catalyst of his great influence, happening well into his first pastorate. Prior to his conversion, he had demonstrated noteworthy intelligence and talent in service to the church, but he had neither zeal nor conviction for his vocation. It afforded him a living, but it seemed to him a lifeless existence. However, after his conversion, Chalmers was imbued with what he would later refer to as “the expulsive power of a new affection,”4 and this new affection led to almost four decades of ministry and significant national and international influence.

To understand Chalmers’ conversion is to understand Chalmers, but it is also a means to understanding his context, his country and church. For example, it is curious how Chalmers could be raised a Scottish Presbyterian with no saving knowledge of Christ. How could he be educated at St. Andrews’ divinity school, licensed, ordained to parish ministry, and yet by his own admission have had no true Christian conversion? This book attempts to answer this question.

In the first chapter, Chalmers’ unexpected conversion will be considered. Prior to his conversion, he was a promising young minister in the Church of Scotland. Educated at St. Andrews, he entered pastoral ministry at an early age serving eventually as the parish minister of Kilmany. Due to a number of unexpected deaths within his family, including his own serious illness, Chalmers grew increasingly concerned about his spiritual state. Despite his best efforts of moral reform, he found little relief, until just after his thirtieth birthday, he was introduced to William Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of Christianity. In reading Wilberforce, Chalmers heard the Christian gospel as if for the first time. Though serving in ministry for years, Chalmers was converted, leading to a significant change in his life and ministry. His surprising conversion is not only telling of Chalmers as a man and his ministry but also is telling of his church.

In the second chapter, the historical context of the Church of Scotland, or Kirk, will be considered, and how a confusion between church and state evolved following the Scottish Reformation. External confusion that existed between the crown and the Roman Catholic Church, seemingly solved through the Reformation, was exchanged for an internal confusion, unique to Scotland. Scottish reformers, such as John Knox, considered the Roman Catholic queen to be the problem, but even after the abdication of Queen Mary and the rise of King James VI, confusion persisted. Though a national covenant was drafted and a Protestant king enthroned, disagreement grew as the Kirk argued for ecclesiastical independence and Presbyterian governance, as the king sought to protect his authority with a modified Episcopacy.

In the third chapter, the confusion of church and state in Scotland will be further considered through the lens of the crown’s perspective of the divine right over the church versus the Kirk’s view of Christ as the head of the church. James VI of Scotland was a Protestant, not a Roman Catholic, but was in consistent conflict with the Kirk. At the root of the conflict was the king’s belief that it was his divine right to govern the church as its head, which was contrary to the Presbyterian’s belief that Christ not the king governs his church and is its head. The disagreement led often to the brink of civil war.

When the king succeeded to the throne of England, as James I, the conflict increased, as the king found a welcoming Church of England, which agreed with his divine right. James I (VI) never witnessed a unified church under one king, but his heir was determined to see it. Considering it his divine right, Charles I proceeded aggressively to reform worship practices in Scotland. Rather than reform, the result was a rebellion and eventually the drafting of a Scottish National Covenant upholding the Reformed faith in Scotland and denouncing the king’s divine right over the Kirk.

Seeking support within England, Charles I called a Long Parliament, which unexpectedly aligned with Scotland in a Solemn League and Covenant. Parliament eventually called the Westminster Assembly, seeking to reform Protestant worship within the kingdoms. Contrary to the king’s divine right, Charles I was executed. The following years were tumultuous, from the rise of Oliver Cromwell to the succession of Charles II to the abbreviated reign of James VII. The Kirk experienced significant challenges but concluded the seventeenth century at peace with the reign of William and Mary. Yet in peace, confusion continued in the Kirk’s understanding of the roles of church and state.

The fourth chapter begins with a case study of the evolution of the Kirk in the “blasphemous” crime and capital punishment of Thomas Aikenhead, whose trial and execution revealed a unique relationship of church and state and a confusion of the boundaries of each. As Scotland struggled with disease and deficits, a national purification was sought by country and Kirk alike. Seeking to appease God’s wrath, Aikenhead became the perfect scapegoat and national example.

The civil trial and execution of Thomas Aikenhead was also consistent with the Kirk’s doctrine, which according to the Westminster Confession of Faith requires that the civil magistrate keep the “truth of God … pure and entire, [and] that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed.” But this doctrine would be culturally challenged as the country moved into a new century and under the tolerant influence of William and Mary. It would be a century in which the Kirk would remain Scotland’s national church, but Scotland and England would unify as one United Kingdom. Such a union further revealed a confusion of church and state, especially from the Kirk’s perspective.

In the fifth chapter, specific trials within the Kirk will be presented, further documenting an increasingly secular Kirk. For example, John Simpson, professor of Divinity at Glasgow, was accused of teaching heterodox doctrine in the classroom. He was tried and acquitted at the 1720 General Assembly, despite some skepticism. At the same General Assembly, the arguments of ministerial candidate David Craig were heard. Craig had refused to subscribe to the Auchterarder presbytery’s creed, which stated, “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ, and instating us in covenant with God,” and was therefore denied ordination by the presbytery. The creed, though poorly crafted, was intended to emphasize the importance of the free offer of the gospel. The creed was denounced by the assembly, and Craig was reinstated.

The result of the assembly left some minister’s, such as Thomas Boston, concerned for the Kirk, one in which a possible heretic could be acquitted, and a creed intended to convey the essence of the gospel struck down. Boston wasn’t alone. Others, notably from Auchterarder presbytery, were concerned by the assembly’s actions, such as John Drummond of Crief. In support of Auchterarder’s intent, Boston shared the title and summary of an unknown book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, with Drummond, unknowingly sparking a fire that would rage within the Kirk in the following years, dividing the assembly over the free offer of the gospel and paving the way to the Secession of 1733.

Although The Marrow was a relatively simple work of literature, it revealed within the Kirk a growing disdain for the evangelical and a foundation for the Moderate movement to follow. Through professors such as John Simpson, as well as William Hamilton, professor of Divinity at Edinburgh, signs of secularism began to seep into the Kirk. It was an age of change, where the zeal of a previous generation began to relax as did subscription to doctrinal standards. As a result, the primacy of scripture wanted yielding to an emphasis on Natural Religion.

In the sixth chapter, the Scottish Enlightenment will be considered and its impact upon the Kirk. In the years following the Union of 1707, life in Scotland improved significantly, laying the foundation for the Scottish Enlightenment to follow, primarily through the Scottish institutions of the national church, universities, and legal system. From each, notable intellectuals contributed to the Enlightenment in Scotland and beyond, many of them ministers with secular interests and pursuits away from the Kirk.

If there was a prototype of the Scottish Enlightenment, it was Francis Hutcheson, the internationally acclaimed professor of divinity at Glasgow. The son and grandson of Ulster Presbyterian ministers, Hutcheson diverged from his heritage and his Kirk’s historic doctrines, arguing for a more moderated and polite Kirk. Given its influence upon Scottish society, Hutcheson considered the Kirk to be a vehicle for a refined and polite Scottish society.

In chapter seven, the result of the Scottish Enlightenment upon the Kirk will be considered, notably with the rise of Moderatism. As a movement, Moderatism was in part a reaction to the zeal of the past, but it was also an advancing means of cultural refinement in Scotland. It was a primarily urban-oriented movement accomplished through a well-educated and increasingly sophisticated clergy.

Ministers who subscribed to the Moderate principles were well-connected politically and socially, contributing to their influence in the Kirk. Moderate pulpits served as influential platforms for disseminating their ideals within the Kirk. Preaching became a means of cultural cultivation, advancing Moderate principles in Moderate-led churches.

In chapter eight, three Moderate ministers will be considered, all of whom had a profound impact on the Kirk of Thomas Chalmers’ childhood and education. William Robertson, for example, could be considered the prototype of the Moderate party. He was a well-educated minister, eventually serving in Edinburgh. He was simultaneously the principal of the University of Edinburgh, and he was an internationally acclaimed historian. He also was arguably the most influential minister in the General Assembly.

If Robertson was the prototype of the Moderate party, Alexander Carlyle may be considered the prototype of the movement’s secular influence upon the Kirk and its ministers. By his own posthumous admission, Carlyle entered pastoral ministry not from conviction but due to family guilt and the pursuit of women. While Carlyle served a lifetime as a parish minister close to Edinburgh, it was in Edinburgh that he enjoyed the benefits of his liberal vocation in the social clubs of the day. Of questionable character, Carlyle was not without influence, contributing significantly to the rise of Moderatism in the Kirk, especially among the young and well-educated.

A companion of both Robertson and Carlyle, Hugh Blair may be considered the prince of Moderate preachers. Modestly eloquent in the pulpit, Blair’s written sermons were considered the sermon textbooks of Moderates. Yet, despite his eloquence, his sermons advanced a Moderate form of moralism rather than the gospel. Blair, Carlyle, and Robertson serve as examples of a powerful movement within the Kirk, laying the ministerial foundation for students and eventual ministers, such as young Thomas Chalmers.

In chapter nine, the period leading up to Thomas Chalmers’ conversion will be considered, a time in which he seemed to be more focused on his vocation as a parish minister and in serious pursuit of a moral life. He prayed frequently, intentionally tracked moral progress, and yet continued to fall short of perfection. But the more he witnessed his moral inabilities, the closer he came to the truth of the gospel.

In his pre-conversion years, Chalmers served as a typical young minister in the Moderate tradition yet drawing closer to an evangelical conversion. What Chalmers was encountering personally, the Kirk encountered toward the end of the eighteenth century. The Moderate party was powerful, but an evangelical spark was evident in the rural churches throughout Scotland. Such a spark transitioned into published critiques of the Moderate influence within the Kirk. John Willison’s Fair and Impartial Testimony and John Witherspoon’s satire Ecclesiastical Characteristics shined a national spotlight on the effect of Moderatism upon the Kirk.

In chapter ten, the years following Chalmers’ conversion will be considered, as news of his conversion spread throughout Scotland, bringing him to the recognition of churches in search of a new pastor, such as the wealthy and powerful Tron in Glasgow. In 1815, Chalmers moved from Kilmany to the Tron but found the ministry expected from him to differ from his perspective of pastoral ministry. Through his influence, he transitioned the Tron from an inward focus to an outward focus through the means of involving the church officers and members in parish ministry.

Witnessing the success with the Tron, Chalmers turned his attention to the neediest area of Glasgow and successfully formed a new parish, St. John’s, where he served as the new minister of a newly-formed congregation. Using St. John’s parish as an experiment of sorts, Chalmers established a privately-funded framework in which he engaged members of his congregation in poor relief through the parish deacons, the development of new parish schools, and home visits of the disadvantaged. As the St. John’s experiment thrived so did Chalmers’ national reputation, eventually warranting him an invitation as the professor of Moral Philosophy at the Moderate-stronghold and his alma mater, St. Andrews. At St. Andrews, Chalmers used his popularity to impact the city, carrying lessons from St. John’s, but also his students. Seeking to correct what he perceived as the negative influences upon his young and unconverted years, Chalmers influenced a new generation of ministers as well as missionaries.

In the eleventh and final chapter, the historical context of Chalmers’ post-conversion influence will be considered. In 1828, he transferred to the chair of theology at the University of Edinburgh, a position seated in Scotland’s capitol city and of national influence upon the Kirk. However, immediate change occurred outside the church, with the repeal of the Test and Corporations Acts followed by the Catholic Emancipation Act. The ecclesiastical landscape of Scotland was changing, as was control of the Kirk within.


VIII, 204
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 204 pp.

Biographical notes

John D. Clayton (Author)

John D. Clayton (PhD, Columbia International University) is the Senior Minister of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.


Title: The Curious Conversion of Thomas Chalmers