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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 Five: Telling Trials in the Kirk

Extract

CHAPTER FIVE

Telling Trials in the Kirk

When he began work in his first pastorate in Kilmany, unconverted and uninterested, Thomas Chalmers had a low view of pastoral ministry.1 His sermons2 were disdainful of evangelical Christianity and highly moralistic. His congregation was instructed to be suspicious of “the cant of enthusiasm—the effusion of zeal—the unintelligible jargon of pretended knowledge,”3 and instead seek the “rewards of heaven” through the works of “virtuous affections.”4 Rather than faith, Chalmers argued it was only personal virtue that “can recommend us to the Almighty.”5

What Chalmers preached from the pulpit he carried into the parish. When asked by a young parishioner how she might have assurance of her salvation, Chalmers encouraged her to “read the Bible with honesty, and not be convinced of the absolute divinity of our Saviour.”6 Perhaps later ashamed by his unorthodox counsel, Chalmers justified himself,7 claiming that he “stood up … for [Christ’s] high pre-eminence, for unqualified submission to the authority of Scripture, and for the clear, undeniable revelation of an atoning sacrifice”8 ironically revealing that his savior was pre-eminent yet not divine, his scripture was authoritative but could be denied, and Christ’s sacrifice was atoning but lacking divine satisfaction. He was an ordained minister of the Kirk but believed not its historic doctrines, even the essential doctrine of Christ’s divine nature. He was not an anomaly.

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