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The Conversion of Thomas Chalmers

Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), little known today, has been described by one biographer as “the greatest spiritual force Scotland saw in the nineteenth century.” He is credited with the recovery of Presbyterianism in Scotland, leading to the “Disruption of 1817” (a schism between Church of Scotland “moderates” and “evangelicals” over how much influence the State had in appointing ministers). Iain Murray writes that “He was at the centre of a recovery which brought the churches of Scotland from mediocrity, indifference, and unbelief to new conditions of spiritual vitality.”

But Chalmers had not always been the great man of God that he became. At the young age of eleven, he entered the University of St Andrews, and began his theological studies at fifteen with the intent of pursuing professional ministry. Of this time he wrote, “St Andrews was at this time 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.” Chalmers became one of these Moderates. His view of ministry was that it was a good profession for making one’s name in the world. He devoted little time to pursuits of actual ministry, often leaving preparation for preaching until Sunday morning. “After the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties,” he wrote, “a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure . . .”

In 1808, his career plans were interrupted. Intending to go to London “to get introduced into some of the literary circles,” he instead found himself at the bed-side of a sister, who soon died. Then it was the death of a beloved uncle, followed by his own severe illness, which kept him in his own room for four months. During that time, Chalmers was converted, and his life was dramatically changed. Previously, ministry had consumed little of his attention, and genuine spiritual issues none at all. His energies had been directed towards the study of science and mathematics. Murray writes:

Iain MurrayChalmers was to confess that he was then blind to the lesson which even those scientific studies should have taught him: ‘What, sir, is the object of mathematical science?’ he had replied. ‘Magnitude is the proportion of magnitude. But then, sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought not of the littleness of time—I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.’

—Iain Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (Banner of Truth, 2006), 83.

Chalmers’s ministry was dramatically effected by his conversion. Murray quotes biographer William Hanna:

His regular and earnest study of the Bible was one of the first and most noticeable effects of Mr Chalmers’ conversion. His nearest neighbor and most frequent visitor was old John Bonthron, who, having once seen better days, was admitted to an easy and privileged familiarity, in the exercise of which one day before the memorable illness, he said to Mr Chalmers—‘I find you aye busy, sir, with one thing or another, but come when I may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath.’ ‘Oh, an hour or two on the Saturday evening is quite enough for that,’ was the minister’s answer. But now the change had come, and John, on entering the manse, often found Mr. Chalmers poring eagerly over the pages of the Bible. The difference was too striking to escape notice, and with the freedom given him, which he was ready enough to use, he said, ‘I never come in now, sir, but I find you aye at your Bible.’ ‘All too little, John, all to little’, was the significant reply.

ibid., 84–85.

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