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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 Ten: Revival in the Kirk



Revival in the Kirk

The story of Thomas Chalmers in many ways mirrors the Kirk. Just as Robertson served as the prototype of the Moderate Party in the eighteenth-century Kirk, Chalmers was the prototype of the Evangelical Party in the nineteenth century. Just as the young Chalmers had forgotten that his ministerial duties were to be fulfilled in Kilmany, so the Moderate-led eighteenth-century General Assembly had forgotten that the church consists of its members. As the Moderates dominated the war at the assembly level, the popular party Evangelicals focused on winning battles at the parish level. Parish poor-relief, education, discipline, and preaching among other parish ministries became the Evangelical focus, consistently losing the annual political war but winning the hearts and minds of their parishioners.1

Scotland had grown in population especially in the urban centers without corresponding new church planting and construction.2 To meet the demands of a growing Scottish population, especially in the urban centers, “chapels-of-ease,” or quoad sacra3 parish churches, were constructed, which solved the practical problem of overcrowding. They did not however meet the legal definition of a kirk and therefore had neither authority in their parish nor in the Kirk’s courts.4 Despite the accommodation of these new kirks, the growing country was outpacing the parish-based ministry of the Kirk.

Revival in the Parish: The St. John’s Experiment

Shortly after Thomas Chalmers’ conversion and while still serving in Kilmany, the ministerial position in the heavily...

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