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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 Nine: An Evangelical Spark



An Evangelical Spark

Never considered a mere passive spectator in life, Thomas Chalmers was passionate about his pursuits, but by 1810 his pursuits began to narrow and shift in a more religious direction. Perhaps it was simply vocational conviction, but his diary entries reveal a more conscious distinction of the eternal over the temporal.1 He began to consider his ministerial duties less drudgery and more valuable, and he even began to pray that the positive influence of Christianity would reign over his emotions and actions.2

As a man confident in his own abilities, Chalmers’ prayers began to include requests for God’s enabling provision.3 He knew he needed God’s help, but the help he prayed for cannot be defined as grace but more like a zealous moralistic plea for resolve.4 On the one hand, he appeared to be thinking and living in a way more congruent with his vocation, but his prayers reveal that his religion remained a works-based system of reducing error and improving moral performance. From his perspective, he needed not so much the armor of God but “the armour of principle.”5 But despite his resolve, he continued to be overwhelmed by his “small and uncertain progress of religious principle.”6 He had to try harder. He had to do better.7

His efforts were not without gains, however. Keenly observant of his public image, he began to grow in a watchfulness of his behavior.8 Such introspection bred some...

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