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The Curious Conversion of Thomas Chalmers

John D. Clayton

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.

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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,...

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