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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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Chapter Two: The Scottish Church and State in Historical Context



The Scottish Church and State in Historical Context

Like many Scots at the turn of the nineteenth century, Thomas Chalmers was raised in a Christian home and raised by pious Presbyterian parents, John and Elizabeth Chalmers. Raised in the village of Anstruther, a nautical-oriented village on the southeast coast of the shire of Fife, Chalmers was the sixth child of fifteen, nine brothers and five sisters. His father, John, was a second-generation and second-rate merchant,1 more concerned with responsibilities as the local provost than his business. He and Elizabeth2 were conservative in their politics and theology,3 which tended to bleed together. In their mind, faithfulness to the Kirk was part of their national identity, a perspective inherited and passed on to their children.

This perspective was not unique to the Chalmers family but indicative of how the Kirk was viewed in relation to the state. And while not obvious, an understanding of the role of church and state in the Kirk can help better understand Thomas Chalmers’ curious conversion.

Dating back to Emperor Constantine’s alignment of church and state in the Roman Empire, the interest of the state has been tied to the health of the church and often vice versa. Zeal for purity in the church could translate into trials for blasphemy in the state, while transgressions in the state could reveal an impotent church. In the early years of the Scottish Reformation, so intertwined were church...

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