“On Friday, June 4, 1847, one of the most amazing funeral processions ever seen in Edinburgh made its way to the Grange Cemetery. Well nigh half the population of the city lined the route. It was the dust of a Presbyterian minister which the coffin contained and yet they were burying him amid the tears of a nation and with more than kingly honors.”
So Hugh Millar in a contemporary newspaper chronicled the funeral of Thomas Chalmers, who died suddenly on a Sunday evening in his sixty-seventh year.
Carlyle said of him: “No preacher ever went so into one’s heart. I suppose there will never be such a preacher in any Christian church.” Later on, hearing of his death, he said: “I believe that there is not in Scotland, or all Europe, any such Christian priest left.”
It was in the little fishing town of Anstruther, in the ancient kingdom of Fife, that on March 17, 1780, this great Scotsman — the sixth of fourteen children — was born into a middle-class home. To us today his educational career seems incredible. Beginning at the parish school at the age of three, he proceeded to the University of St. Andrews when twelve years old, to Divinity Hall at fifteen, and after four years’ training was licensed to preach the Gospel before he was twenty.
Following a short term as assistant in a Presbyterian church, he was appointed to the living at Kilmany. An acceptable preacher and a friendly visitor, his work was crowned with more than average success, but his heart was not in Kilmany; it was nine miles away in St. Andrews, where during the week he lectured on mathematics and chemistry. He was absorbed in matters intellectual — never idle, alert in body and mind — but he had not found his soul; his heart was not yet ablaze with a love for Christ.
His congregation was very fond of its young minister and proud of his academic attainments. Already in his preaching there were hints of that sublime thunder that afterwards rolled through the world. In his later years it was said of him that Scotland shuddered beneath his eloquence as a cathedral vibrates to the deep tones of the organ.
But his farmer folk at Kilmany could not be expected to foresee all this. They felt that their minister was no ordinary man; yet there was one thing that puzzled them. Why did he persist in preaching to these hard-working and law-abiding farmers in a strain that implied that they all ought to be in prison? He thundered forth each Sunday against the wickedness of theft, murder, and adultery. This kind of thing continued without a break from 1803 until 1811 and the parish stood bewildered.
Apart from that he made an excellent minister. He loved to get to the homes of his people and he won their admiration, confidence, and love.
He remained in Kilmany until 1815, but the last four years saw a great change. Every Sunday he had something fresh to say about the love of God, the Cross of Christ, and the way of salvation. He urged his people with tears to repent, to believe and to enter into life eternal. He set before them the beauty of the Christian life and sought to lead them into it.
“He would bend over the pulpit,” writes one who heard him before and after the change, “and press us to take the gift, as if he held it that moment in his hand and would not be satisfied until every one of us had got possession of it. And often after the sermon was over and the psalm sung, and he rose to give the blessing, he would break out afresh with some new entreaty, unwilling to let us go until he had made one more effort to persuade us to accept it.”
What brought about the change? The fire of love divine was lit by pain, sickness, and death. First of all, a favorite uncle was found dead on his knees in the act of prayer. Chalmers was ill himself at the time and could not leave his bed but the news pierced his soul.
A long and severe illness followed. For four months he never left his room. For six months he never entered his pulpit. For a whole year his parish duties had to await his recovery. Then, when it was all over, the minister of Kilmany was a mere shadow of his former self. But he had been born again.
On March 17, 1810, he wrote in his Journal: “I have this day completed my thirtieth year and upon a review of the last fifteen years of my life, I am obliged to acknowledge that at least two-thirds of my time has been uselessly or idly spent. For by far the greater part of that time there has been total estrangement of my mind from religious principles.” On August 21 he wrote: “I have conceived the idea of abandoning mathematics and expending my strength upon theological studies.”
Regular and earnest study of the Bible was one of the first-fruits of his conversion. Before the crisis of his illness a neighbor remarked: “I find you are busy, sir, with one thing and another, but come what may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath.” He replied: “O, one hour or two on the Saturday evening is enough for that.” The same friend, observing the striking difference, remarked: “I never come in now sire, but I find you are at your Bible.” “All too little, John, all too little,” was his reply.
“I am much taken,” he writes in his Journal in May 1811, “with Walker’s observation that we are commanded to believe in the Son of God.” Years afterwards he wrote to his brother, giving him a description of the change. He describes it as a great revolution in all his methods of thought. “I am now most thoroughly of the opinion that on the system, ‘Do this and live’ no peace can ever be found. It is believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
“Thus,” says Hanna in his biography of Chalmers, “we can see him stepping from the treacherous ground of ‘Do and live’ to place his feet on the firm ground of ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ’.” From that time he preached Christ as he had never preached Him before. His tongue was on fire. His half-empty church was filled. His sermons convicted soul after soul from sin and converted many to God. In the story of his crisis one is reminded of the early struggles of John Wesley.
Referring to his Kilmany years in a speech before the General Assembly in 1825 on the evils of combining ministerial office with professional duties, he said: “What, sir, are the objects of mathematic science? Magnitude and the properties of magnitude. But I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought not of the littleness of time. I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”
In 1814 he was called to the pulpit of the Tron Church in Glasgow and there for four years he exercised a remarkable preaching ministry. It cost him a lot to leave Kilmany. In his farewell sermon he said: “You have taught me that to preach Christ is the only effective way of preaching morality and out of your humble cottages I have gathered a lesson which, in all its simplicity, I shall carry with me into a wider theatre.”
On Thursday, November 23, 1815, he delivered the first of his Astronomical Discourses, the preaching of which literally closed down the coffee rooms and business section of the city as merchants, their clerks and apprentices, flocked to hear Chalmers. Ready for publication in 1817, six thousands copies of the discourses were sold in ten weeks; nine editions in one year; and for a whole year the sales of his first volume of sermons kept pace with those of Walter Scott’s newly published Tales of my Landlord. In London, preaching the anniversary service of the London Missionary Society, Chalmers found the Surrey Chapel packed by 7 a.m. for a service due to begin at 11 a.m.
“All the world,” wrote Wilberforce in his diary, “is wild about Chalmers.” In another entry he wrote, “I am off early to hear Chalmers. I was surprised to see how greatly Canning was affected: at times he was melted to tears.” The verdict of the future member of Parliament was, “The tartan beats us all.”
In 1818, Chalmers became the first minister of the new parish of St. John’s, a parish of some ten thousand of the poorest of the city’s population, and here took place one of the greatest social experiments of the century: an attempt to demonstrate that by the application of the normal parochial system of the Church, the problem of poverty could be tackled.
By means of a system of visitation by deacons in districts, he provided for the needs of all the poor in his parish from the church collections. From the surplus of income over expenditure he erected and endowed parochial schools. In 1832 he left St. John’s for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews, having, as Lord Roseberry expressed it, “warmed Glasgow and inspired its citizens with a new conception of social zeal and evangelical fervor.”
His sermons were massive, closely-reasoned productions of a first-class brain, often taking two hours to deliver, and read closely from the manuscript in a voice with a strong Fife accent. J. G. Lockhart said of him: “I have never heard any preacher whose eloquence is capable of producing an effect so strong and irresistible.”
Chalmers held his manuscript in his left hand and followed each word with the index finger on his right hand. But once he got started, all constraints and awkwardness disappeared. One hearer said: “His whole being seemed to rush into his preaching.” Another said: “His eyes were afire with intelligence and rapture and zeal. In spite of the reading his personality broke through to the people.”
One who regularly heard him said: “His extempore discourses delivered to working men on the outskirts of Glasgow were far more effective and more truly eloquent than the sermons which he delivered with so much applause in the Tron Church.” His style was cumbrous and pedantic and his sentences sometimes ran to an inordinate length. He had great powers of abstraction so that he could compose his sermons in moments snatched from travel or amid the interruptions of a life of many engagements.
In his sermons there is little advance. Robert Hall, the great Baptist preacher, compared them to the motion of a rocking-horse, which moves but does not go on. But the one idea with which he starts is set in every possible light, illustrated with great brilliance and emphasized with resistless force. An American hearer noted in Chalmers “a straightforwardness of delivery, as if his sole object was to communicate a conviction with which his own mind was charged.”
The movement in his sermons comes from its intellectual importunity, from the entire surrender of the preacher to his theme, from his vivid imagination, and his abandonment to the feelings of the moment. The power of Chalmers’ preaching lies in this, that all the weight is in one direction and is intended to carry one point. The movement never for an instant ceases to revolve around one thought. This is clearly seen in his most famous sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.”
After five years at St. Andrews he became professor of divinity at Edinburgh University. In 1832 he became moderator of the General Assembly and began to play an influential part in church polity. He was the leader of the Disruption of 1843, when 474 ministers left their churches and manses for conscience’ sake. His capacity for leadership, his experience of administration, and his evangelical zeal enabled him to lay the foundations of the Free Church of Scotland.
Chalmers died in his sleep on Sunday evening after a happy day spent with his children and grandchildren at the age of sixty-seven. Lord Roseberry said of him: “Here was a man bustling, striving, organizing, speaking and preaching, with the dust and fire of the world on his clothes, but carrying his shrine with him everywhere.”
His preaching was saturated by his personality. One who heard him preach three months before his death said: “As he preached, the huskiness of his voice and hesitation of manner vanished and the barbarous pronunciation was forgotten and there with blazing eye and face, he stood before you, like one possessed by a divine spirit, rolling out in great sentences the glorious truths which he had set himself to expound. You were thrilled and carried away as you have never been before and you felt that this man is the great power of God.”
There was nothing light or flimsy about Chalmers. He was a man of profound insight: solid, robust, courageous, his mind combining the exactness of a man of science with the breadth of a stateman, and, above all, a man of God.
David Read preached the sermon at the bicentenary commemoration of Chalmers in 1980 and ended with these words: “Pray that a new generation of church leaders, clothed with the mantle of Chalmers, will arise to declare and live the Gospel with a new courage and a new power.”

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