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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 Three: A Divine Right



A Divine Right

Prior to his conversion, Thomas Chalmers was met with consistent failure of moral perfection, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. During what his biographer describes as a “transition-period,”1 Chalmers prayed often and earnestly, seeking God’s provision for moral improvement. His private prayers are telling of his struggle: Beginning 1810 with seemingly superficial prayers to his merciful heavenly Father for enlightenment and “perpetual sunshine of faith and a good conscience,” he progressed through the year to relational prayers, pleading that a sense of God’s presence and authority would never leave his heart.2 Some of his prayers were situational while others were general appeals, but all of them reveal a progression from abstract, cultural moralism toward a relational (even conversational) faith.

As he prayed, he grew, especially in his awareness of the futility of worldly pursuits and the enduring value of the eternal. Describing himself as “encompassed with error,” he began to understand the words of Job that life is “few of days and full of trouble.”3 Imploring his heavenly Father for forgiveness for the past and direction for the future, he pleaded that he would be reminded that life is a sort of pilgrimage and that in doing so the enticements of worldly pleasure and the accompanying anxieties of life would be lessened.4 The once defiantly independent man began to confess his dependence upon God, desiring to become more pious, spiritual, even heavenly-minded.5


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