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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 Eleven: Disruption in the Kirk



Disruption in the Kirk

In 1828, Thomas Chalmers transferred to the chair of theology at the University of Edinburgh, a position seated in Scotland’s capitol city and of national influence upon the Kirk. While Chalmers’ arrival in Edinburgh likely encouraged Evangelicals, parliament dealt a blow to the Kirk in general with the repeal of the Test and Corporations Acts, in part as a response to the continued disenfranchisement of Protestant dissenters. The act granted complete civil and political rights to the dissenting churches and their members,1 enabling dissenters such as Andrew Marshall of the United Secession Church to advocate against support of a state church.2 Not coincidentally, the following year the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, granting voting rights to all British Catholics as well as the ability to serve in public office.3 While more of a liberation in Ireland than Scotland, the principle of the act conveyed a sense of equality among Christians in the once-covenanted kingdom of Scotland.

While the Union of 1707 brought multitudinous benefits to Scotland, it also resulted in a decreasing parliamentary representation. The parliamentary acts of 1828, 1829, and 1832, while different in measure and scope, had a united effect on the political and religious landscape of Scotland, culminating in the Reform Act of 1832, eliminating 140 seats and shifting greater representation from the landed gentry to the metropolitan middle class.4 By 1833, dissenting Protestants, or “Voluntaries,”5 organized a protest against paying required Kirk...

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