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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 Six: Midnight in the Kirk



Midnight in the Kirk

A product of his age, Thomas Chalmers remembered his education at St. Andrews as “overrun with Moderatism, under the chilling influences of which we inhaled not a distaste only but a positive contempt for all that is properly and peculiarly gospel …”1 His reflection tells of Moderatism’s influence within the Kirk and Scottish academia, notably St. Andrews whose divinity school was an incubator for future Moderates.

In the divinity school, Chalmers studied under the revered George Hill, a champion of the Moderate party. Though influential, Hill was less a revolutionary and more a conservative, choosing to carefully articulate the Kirk’s Westminster Calvinism while cautioning his students against carrying the doctrines into the pulpit.2 Though frustrated with Hill’s ambiguity,3 Chalmers did experience a brief intrigue, bordering on excitement,4 with Christianity, but eventually his interest waned5 though his intellect did not.6 Continuing in the Moderate heritage of St. Andrews, and in many ways mirroring the Kirk, he continued a talented but disinterested divinity student.7 Yet, in historical context, Chalmers as well as his professor were recipients of the academic heritage of the Scottish Enlightenment, which left an indelible mark on Scottish education for generations, and a secular influence within the Kirk.

Post-Union Scotland and Its Enlightenment

If seventeenth-century Scotland was characterized by instability, then the eighteenth century was characterized by change, commenced in part by the Act of Union of 1707, which revolutionized Scotland,...

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