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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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Appendix Seven: Revival in the Parishes of Early 19th Century Scotland



Revival in the Parishes of Early 19th Century Scotland


In April of 1821, W.H. Burns became the parish minister of Kilsyth, a small town and parish in North Lanarkshire. Despite a documented revival that occurred in 1742, Burns found the town and parish to be in poor condition both morally and spiritually. Likening the valley of Kilsyth to the fertile valley of biblical Sodom,1 Burns found few redeeming community virtues except for a regular prayer meeting, consisting mainly of the kirk session. While Burns remained faithful to his charge, little changed until 1835, when in the middle of the children’s Sabbath School, “[I]t appeared as if an overpowering light broke in upon their minds; an unusual solemnity pervaded the school, and soon there were heard in all directions sighs and sobbings.”2 The episode continued until the adults assembled for corporate worship, witnessing the children lamenting their sins and “crying aloud to God with groans and tears for the salvation of their souls.”3 From this revival of 1835–1838, concern for spiritual things permeated the public of Kilsyth with a growing number of conversions.

Concern in Kilsyth began to shift from the carnal to the spiritual with a new interest in foreign missions coupled with regular prayer meetings, providing fertile ground for Tuesday, July 23, 1839, the day the minister’s son, the young William Chalmers Burns, preached.4 A favored son returned home, the...

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