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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 42

The Centenary of Thomas Chalmers; An Oration

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The Centenary of Thomas Chalmers; An Oration

By J. G. S. Grant.

Dunedin: Coulls and Culling. Printers MDCCCLXXX. Rattray-St.

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Thomas Chalmers.

Thomas Chalmers heading

Thomas is a name that figures conspicuously in the Republic of Letters—take the following list by way of demonstration of this fact:—Thomas Aquinas, Thomas A'Kempis. Thomas A'Beckett, Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Soott, Thomas Reid, Thomas Brown, Thomas More, Thomas Moore, Thomas De Quincy, Thomas Hood, Thomas Arnold, Thomas Aird, Thomas Guthrie, Thomas Carlyle, and Thomas Chalmers.

Of them that are born of women, a greater than Chalmers never arose since the days of Luther. His "soul was like a star, and dwelt apart." He had a great heart aglow with the fires of enthusiasm. "His voice was like the sea—pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free."

From his birth he was consecrated and marked out by Providence for a leader of Israel, a king of men, and a great orator. Anstruther, an obscure village in the county of Fife, has the honour—the immortal honour—of having given birth to Chalmers. Kircaldy, another town in Fifeshire, has produced another great man in another walk of life—to wit, Adam Smith, the celebrated author of "The Wealth of Nations." The one revolutionise the political, while the other metamorphosed the ecclesiastical world.

At thirteen years of age Chalmers entered the renowned University of St. Andrew's. He was, of course, the youngest under-graduate. He was full of life and ecstatic glee. As a sample of his boyish freaks, witness the pulling down, at night, of a shopkeeper's signboard by our young hero and his scholastic companions. They carried the wooden tablet to their lodgings, and warmed themselves with its glowing and crackling flames. All at once the enraged retailer pursued them, and when his knock was heard at the door, Chalmers proposed to his comrades that they should kneel down to evening prayer. Our hero prolonged the devotions until the board had been consumed. In the midst of his orisons was heard the pathetic words, "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of the prophet Jonas." The enraged shopkeeper was startled, became repentant, and sneakingly retraced his steps to his signless shop, "a sadder if not a wiser man."

After leaving college, he was for some time assistant Professor of Mathematics in St Andrew's, and also an assistant parochial minister at Cavers. He soon, however, was ordained a parish minister. The sphere of his labours was Kilmany. For twelve years he was the page 3 teacher of that rural parish. People may talk, as they glibly do, of his godless preaching then, but during those twelve years the genius of Chalmers shone forth in its true, natural, and unrestrained course of glory. He was much addicted to chemistry, as well as mathematics. On one occasion he sallied out of his manse, under the covert of darkness, and carried home from the bleaching field a poor woman's web of plaiding. He subjected it to a chemical operation, and caused it to shine as the snow in whiteness and purity. The distracted woman rushed to the manse, told the tale of her bereavement to her minister, and was ironically consoled for the loss of her web. Next morning the workmanship of her hands was returned to her, and it astonished her eyes with the brilliancy of its hue. She afterwards told a neighbouring cottager that their minister was "a warlock," for he could bleach clothes without soap. Her friend replied, "I wish he could teach me to make porridge without meal!"

Chalmers, thinking that he had been slighted in the matter of the assistantship of Mathematics, set up an opposition class to the University. After the services of the Sabbath had been perfunctorily performed, he always rode into the academic bowers of St. Andrew's to pass the week. Chivalrously and nobly did he fight the fossil Professors. He poured fresh blood into the shrivelled veins of his Alma Mater. One Sabbath day he preached an eloquent sermon to his rustic parishioners, and likened the advent of sin to a great catastrophe. As he was riding to St. Andrew's, an old woman shouted out to him that she wished to know what he meant by a catastrophe. The waggish minister abruptly responded, "The tail o' anything!" Next Sabbath afternoon, as he was pursuing his course to the scene of his week's labours, and had to pass through a wood, a bramble having stuck to the tail of his horse, he was startled out of his decorum by the same unsophisticated parishioner crying out, "Stop, stop, sir, till I remove that bramble from your horse's catastrophe!"

When his Presbytery interfered with him in his secular pursuits, he coolly told them that a few hours on a Saturday evening were sufficient for the preparation of the Sabbath's work. At that time the current of his thoughts ran in other channels. He published his "Inquiry into the extent and stability of National Resources." He sent contributions to the Edinburgh Encyclopædia and the "Christian Instructor;" also an essay on the "Influence of Bible Societies on the temporal condition of the poor." His sermons at this time were composed of "thoughts that breathe and words that burn." Indeed, the poor farmers of Kilmany opened their mouths with idiotic amazement, and fully believed that "from his large grey eyes flashed gleams of insanity." Pew of them came to hear him. Some of his greatest discourses were delivered in his own parlour. Occasionally visitors from afar put in an appearance at Kilmany, attracted by a vague curiosity to see and hear the eccentric preacher. An heritor who had been out shooting hares on the Sabbath was moved one day to step in and hear the inspired madman. He was struck with his personal appearance, and the strange and even mysterious intonations of his voice. He felt there was something unearthly about him, and wrote to a friend in Edinburgh his impressions of the man. This paved the way for the first appearance of Chalmers in a Metropolitan pulpit page 4 The clergy then, as now and always, stood and looked askance at that new prodigy. During his stay in Kilmany a shipwreck took place in the stormy Bay of St. Andrew's. A fellow-student of his, who afterwards became a minister at Bendochy, bravely saved seven lives on that occasion. Through that superhuman feat he had contracted an asthmatic disease, and died. Chalmers preached his funeral sermon. The windows of the church were taken out, and both within and without the sacred edifice a vast assemblage sat down on seats and tombstones, &c., while the preacher thundered forth the pregnant words of genius.

In the course of his oration, he uttered these memorable words, "It strikes me as the most impressive of all sentiments that it will he all the same a hundred years after this. It is often uttered in the form of a proverb, and with the levity of a mind that is not aware of its importance. A hundred years after this! Good Heavens! with what speed and what-certainty will those hundred years come to their termination. This day will draw to a close, and a number of days makes up one revolution of the seasons. Year follows year, and a number of years makes up a century. These little intervals of time accumulate and (ill up that mighty space, which appears so big and so immeasurable. The hundred years will come, and they will see out the wreck of whole generations. Every living thing that now moves on the face of the earth will disappear from it. The infant that now hangs on its mother's bosom will only live in the remembrance of his grandchildren. The scene of life and intelligence that is now before me will be changed into the dark and loathsome forms of corruption. The people who now hear me will cease to be spoken of; their flesh will be devoured by the worms; the dark and creeping things that live in the holes of the earth will feed upon their bodies; their coffins will have mouldered away, and their bones be thrown up in the new-made grave. And is this the consummation of all things? Is this the final end and issue of man? Is this the upshot of his busy history? Is there nothing beyond time and the grave to alleviate the gloomy picture, to chase away these dismal images? Must we sleep for ever in the dust, and bid an eternal adieu to the light of the sun?"

The great orator left Kilmany at last and went to Glasgow. His minstrations and labours there threw the city into a terrible commotion. Society heaved under his herculean labours. He electrified the people, and his madness became contagious.

The Glasgow ministers were in the habit of holding a weekly conversazione for mutual pleasure and instruction. Chalmers did not attend them.

Dr. Wardlaw was appointed to call upon him to ascertain the cause of his absence. The reply was quite characteristic of the man—"Were I to attend your meeting, the whole contents of your theological spittoon would be thrown in my face." And he was right. That is the way the world generally, and the Church particularly, serve a truly great man. In the presence of a great man, there is a something of an awe-inspiring character. When the Apostle uttered these words—"Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord"—his terrified soul and trembling frame testified to the truth of the great influence streaming forth from personal contact with Genius,

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His astronomical orations on the boundless condescension of the Deity in deigning to take notice of man and this mole-hill of earth fairly set the city in a blaze. The military had to be stationed at the door to keep the multitude from rushing into the church and throwing down everything before them. When the question of pluralities came up before the General Assembly, Chalmers opposed it with all his might. He had, however, on that occasion to rat his own words as to the duties of a parish minister. Like a great soul—as he was—he stood "as a penitent culprit at the bar," and owned his mistake, and freely confessed that when he had said those words, he did not fully estimate "the littleness of time, and the greatness of eternity."

The talented Editor of the Edinburgh Review said of him—"I know not what it is, but there is something altogether remarkable about that man. It reminds me more of what one reads of as the effect of the eloquence of Demosthenes than anything I ever heard and the rolling flood of Tully's eloquence.

After his tumultuous and multifarious labours towards the amelioration of humanity in Glasgow, he removed to the serene retreat of a Moral Philosophy Chair in the United Colleges of St. Leonard and St. Salvador, St. Andrew's. He was not a great metaphysician, nor a professed philosopher, but his teachings were eminently healthy, and calculated to elevate conscience on the throne of the heart. He hated every form of materialism. His enthusiasm flamed forth even in his class-room and set the students and visitors into paroxysms of passion and applause. On one occasion, a dog in the class-room joined the chorus and began to howl vociferously. This called forth a rebuke from the Professor to his visitors and auditors. In modern class-rooms, there is not much danger—particularly in these avaricious colonies—of similar exhibitions of enthusiasm.

His Lectures on Political Economy were master-pieces, and they proved the thorough knowledge he possessed of all the intricacies of that dismal science. His views of Pauperism—its causes and remedies—were far ahead of his age. He had, also, the ideal picture of what a parish minister ought to be. He should be, as a lion in his parish. The companion of the Peer, the comforter of the poor, the adviser of the people, and the fearless censor of all classes and conditions of men. He should be both loved and feared. Not a namby-pamby creature and hunter after popularity—such as now disgrace our pulpits. In place of fearless men, like Chalmers, we have a cowardly and devirilised set of men, whose every step and utterance seem to offer up an apology for their aimless and idiotic mode of life and preaching.

He was an intense lover of Nature and an admirer of all sorts of beauty—natural, moral, and mental. He adorned his lectures—like Dr. Thomas Brown—with racy poetical quotations—e.g.—

Oh how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields;
The warbling woodland—the resounding shore.
The pomp of groves, and the garniture of fields;
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even;
All that the shady mountain's bosom shields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven;
Oh, how canst thou renounce, and hope to be forgiven

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He recited these lines with much emotion, and solemnly declared his heartfelt conviction that Beattie was inspired to pen them.

When he read the contrast between Voltaire and the Cottager, drawn with the pen of Cowper, he openly wept before his students—

Yon cottager who weaves at her own door,
Pillows and bobbins all her little store:
Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay,
Shuffles about her threads the live-long day;
She for her humble sphere by Nature fit,
Has little understanding and no wit:
He praised, perhaps for ages yet to come:
She never heard of half a mile from home.
Ah! happy peasant, ah! unhappy bard:
His the mere tinsel, hers the rich reward,
He lost in errors his own heart preferred,
She safe in the simplicity of hers.

The deep sea of his emotional nature was stirred to its hidden depths with the breath of inspiration flowing from those noble lines as they swept over the cords of his heart.

Chalmers was of a truly disinterested disposition of mind. Like his Master, disinterested labour for others constituted his real greatness. When he learned that the avaricious Processors of St. Andrew's were in the habit of appropriating certain monies which had been set apart for bursaries for indigent students, he indignantly refused to accept his Candlemas dividend. At that time the emoluments of his chair could not have exceeded £300. Yet he spurned such an accursed increment to his salary! Moreover, he held them up to public odium, and when the Royal Commissioners had solemnly recommended him to accept the money—he published an indignant letter against their base conduct and avowed that British honour and British integrity would eventually reprobate their conduct. Where are the professors now—particularly in Australasia—who would refuse such considerable additions to their ill-gained stipends?

Chalmers's "Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns," show what manner of a philanthropist and thinker he really was. Ideas of moral sublimity pervade these glowing and practical pages. He was a great statesman and a petifogging politician he spewed out of his mouth. His schemes were broad, liberal, and expansive as the heavens and the sea, fresh as the breezes of the sky, and luminous as the light of Heaven.

His love for Scotland was so intense that he refused the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the London University. His acceptance of the Professorship of Divinity in the Edinburgh University marked a new era in the history of the Scottish Metropolis and Nation.

Like an eagle in a dove-cot.
He fluttered the Volcians in Corioli.

The publication of his lectures on Political Economy aroused the nation from the lethargy of indolence and caused it to thrill with new life and energy. His Bridgewater Treatise opened up afresh the beauties of natural theology. His tours through Scotland, Ireland, and England are replete with the fruits of his keen observation of page 7 men, manners, and institutions. His soul caught fresh fire, as he stood on the pinnacles of the Cathedrals of England. English endowments for learned sinecureships he greatly admired. But his righteous soul would have scowled out of his presense drones, who fattened, like swine, at the public troughs of the State. Endowments were valuable in his eyes only as they provided ample means for the scholar to nourish, at his ease, free from worldly cares and excitements, his soul in the divine silence of devout contemplation.

By way of demonstrating the gigantic labours of Chalmers, we have only to remember that, in the space of four years, he succeeded in adding two hundred churches to the Scottish Establishment, at an expense of £200.000. This achievement of his gave the lie direct to his arguments against Voluntaryism in religious matters. But, then, we must bear in mind that a man like Chalmers comes only at rare intervals of centuries. With a Chalmers in every parish, crime and dissent, law and medicine, gaols and gibbets, judges and police, &c., would disappear from off the face of the earth, and Paradise regained would bloom afresh over this sterile and benighted planet of our habitation. A man of genius himself, he had reverence for men of genius. There was no envy in his composition. He set himself, like Burns, to rear a monument in honour of a brother—even Dr. Thomas Brown. He had not the metaphysical subtlety of Brown, but he had a larger heart and greater energy. Chalmers was a practical as well as a theoretical thinker. Brown was simply an Idealist. The catholicity of his spirit was manifested by his great and glorious speech on Catholic Emancipation. On his way home, that night, he fell senseless before the porch of the University. He had put forth a more than ordinary exertion on that great and memorable occasion. It was a feat worthy of Demosthenes at Athens, or Cicero at Rome,

He took London by storm during his course of lectures there. Like a great tragic actor, his name was on every lip, and his thoughts pulsated in the public veins of the great Metropolis. As a matter of course, literary honours were showered upon his head. Oxford and Paris were conspicuous in awarding him intellectual distinction and homage. Who can read his "Horæ Biblicæ Quotidinæ" and "Sabbaticæ" without feeling his moral and religious nature transformed, as in a mirror, from glory to glory, as by the direct power of the Lord? As a theologian, he was not very profound, nor learned. Indeed, the giants of the seventeenth century had exhausted that field. But, nevertheless, his "Institutes of Theology" are characteristic of Scotland, and breathe a spirit of goodness and common sense.

It was during the ten years' conflict between the Church and State that his heroism blazed forth with the resplendence of the sun at noon. He was, literally, the Agamemnon of the Church hosts—the Moses of the nation. He led the people about, he instructed them, he kept them as the apple of his eye from the contagion of Moderatism, and from the withering blight of Indifference and Infidelity. When the House of Lords, through the mouths of Lords Brougham Cotton, and Campbell, finally decided against him and his, his sou rose up in tumultuous and holy defiance, and in the spirit of Paul he said, "To whom we give place by subjection, no, not for an hour, no, not by a single hair's breadth." He maintained unsullied the reli- page 8 gious independence of the Church upon the State, and marched at the head of 500 ministers out of St. Andrew's Church, and left the Queen's representative to preside over a band of selfish drones in the main. Like Gideon, at the head of his army, he entered the Cannon Mills, took his seat as Moderator, and caused the great assembly to sing aloud the soul-inspiring words of a characteristic Psalm—

O send Thy light forth and Thy truth.
Let them be guides to me, &c.

The sun shot his beams, almost instantaneously, through the windows of the primitive but spacious hall, and all thanked God, and took fresh courage. The result, the far-reaching influences of that movement, are now apparent. There are upwards of 1200 Free Churches in Scotland, and wherever the British flag waves, there is a Presbyterian church—in England, Ireland, the Continent of Europe—Rome herself not excepted—Africa, America, Asia, Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. The personal genius of Chalmers has sent a thrill of religious emotion to Earth's remotest bounds. As Luther awakened Germany from the sleep of death, so Chalmers stirred up the dry bones of the Scottish Zion, and breathed upon them the inspiration of life, and they stood up erect upon their feet, an exceedingly great army, prepared to fight for their rights, and to propagate their faith all over the British Empire. Chalmers himself erected a church in the most abandoned spot in Edinburgh—the scene of the atrocities of Burke and Hare. He bearded the devil in his own peculiar den, and transformed that earthly hell into a comparative heaven.

His sagacity, wisdom, and provision are abundantly illustrated in the case of the Sustentation Fund. He was the heart, the mind, and soul of the Free Church. He died fighting her battles. After returning from a visit to London, where he was engaged in pleading her cause before Parliament, he preached a simple and solemn sermon to the denizens of his territorial church of the West Port. He retired early to bed as he was expected to address the General Assembly next morning. But that speech never came. The people and ministers were anxiously waiting for his entrance. A messenger was sent to Morning side to ascertain the cause of his delay, and lo! it was found that his spirit had soared away into the presence of his God. Malice—which always accompanies greatness even to the tomb—circulated through the thousand tongues of Humour, that Chalmers had committed suicide! But the lie had not a peg to hang by. He lay on his couch, beautiful as a Grecian statue of Parian marble. He presented an attitude of such perfect beauty and repose as left no doubt on the mind of the beholder that he expired without any conscious agony or perturbation—

Servant of Rod! well done!
Rest from thy loved employ:
The battle o'er, the victory won,
Enter thy Master's joy:
The cry at midnight came,
He started up to hear.
A mortal arrow pierced his frame.
He fell, but felt no fear,