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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 53

Walker's Life of Chalmers

page 44

Walker's Life of Chalmers.

The Rev. Norman L. Walker has favoured the republic of letters with a nice little book on Dr. Chalmers' centenary. It comprises 176 pages, setting forth Scotland's greatest philanthropist in his life, and deducing practical lessons there from. All the salient events of his remarkable career are lucidly expounded. "The gift of a truly great man is the very greatest which can be bestowed upon a generation. The discovery of a gold or diamond mine must ever be a notable event in any country's history. It tends to increase its population, and to add in many ways to its material comforts. But wealth of that sort has its drawbacks, and neither California nor Australia has been, on the whole, much the better for its riches. There can be no doubt, however, about the permanent benefits conferred by a man who has at once genius and grace. It is not too much to say of him that he contributes to the enlargement of even the temporal resources of the community to which he belongs; for when people become more intelligent, and honest, and industrious, and frugal, they come to have what is really equivalent to gold. In any case, by making his age more virtuous, he makes it happier. Such a man, therefore, is a great gift of God, and it is light that that fact should be rendered conspicuous. For this reason we are always kept in doubt as to where our next luminary is to appear. That we may realise the existence of a divine government, God keeps the reins in bis own hands, and sends leaders as he thinks best. We cannot make them. We cannot command their appearance when we please. And when one comes we are bound to regard the circumstance as a new and special act of divine interposition in the affairs of men." Humanly speaking, who would have expected such a genius as Chalmers from an obscure old Fife burgh? Yet Anstruther—not Edinburgh, nor Glasgow, nor Aberdeen—produced Thomas Chalmers. As the poet Cowper has finely written—

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform."

Of one thing we may be absolutely certain, "whenever there is a work to do, God finds one to do it." Chalmers was born on the 17th March, 1780. In my centenary oration I made a mistake about his age when he entered St. Andrews. It appears that he was matriculated before he was twelve. I had supposed he was thirteen.

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Chalmers showed an early predisposition for the study of Mathematics. "It is not a dry and mechanical study, in which there is nothing to stir the enthusiasm of ingenuous youth. Its fascinations are manifold and overpowering." He also cultivated the study of ethics and politics. He was licensed to preach on the 31st July, 1799. He was little more than 19 years; but being "a lad of pregnant pairts," he was received into the ministry at that very early age. He delivered his first sermon in Wigan. James, his brother, said of him on that occasion that "his mode of delivery was expressive, his language beautiful, and his arguments very forcible and strong. His sermon contained a due mixture both of the doctrinal and practical parts of religion, but I think it inclined rather more to the latter." We are told that "his mathematical studies seemed to occupy more of his time than the religious." He attended a session of the mathematical class of Professor Play fair. Next session, 1800, he "gave himself up to the study of chemistry." He was not very desirous of getting a call to the pulpit. Edwards' book on the "Freedom of the Will," and Godwin on the "Doctrine of Necessity" attractedvery early his attention; but Chalmers very soon discovered "that Edwards had by far the more sublime conceptions of the two. Teaching that the whole series of events in the spiritual as well as in the material universe are linked unalterably together, he showed behind these not a blind law, but a living person—God—directing freely the development of the system." He became successively assistant minister at Cavers, and about two years afterwards he was transferred to Kilmany. While he was in Cavers he acted as assistant to Professor Vilant in the Mathematical chair. He passed, therefore, another session in academic labour, besides his spiritual functions. He was ordained minister of Kilmany on the 12th May, 1803. His services as tutor of mathematics were dispensed with, and Chalmers conceived that he had been slighted by Professor Vilant on the ground of want of competency. He resented the insult, opened a private class in opposition to the University; also one on chemistry. His cause prevailed, and the professors gave him the right band of friendship. Kilmany got very little attention that winter. He went out every Saturday to preach and returned on Monday morning to St Andrews. He bearded both the Presbytery and the Senatus Academicus on the question of pluralities. In 1804 he applied for the chair of Natural Philosophy in St. Andrews, and for the Professorship of Mathematics in Edinburgh, and was unsuccessful. He wrote a stinging pamphlet, in which he asserted that "after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister might enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted page 46 leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him to engage. The great doctrines of revelation, though sublime, are simple. They require no labour of the midnight oil to understand them; no parade of artificial language to impress them upon the hearts of the people." A man of genius like Chalmers can, indeed, find it easy to write sermons, but it is far otherwise with the common herd of preachers. He afterwards repudiated his own pamphlet. On the doctrine of atonement he was not very sound at this period. "In what particular manner the death of our Redeemer affected the remission of our sins, or rather why that death was made a condition of this remission, seems to be an unrevealed point in the Scriptures. Perhaps the God of Nature meant to illustrate the purity of his perfection to the children of men; perhaps it was efficacious in promoting the improvements and confirming the virtue of other orders of being. The tenets of those whose gloomy and unenlarged minds are apt to imagine that the Author of Nature required the death of Jesus merely for the reparation of violated justice, are rejected by all free and rational inquirers." Chalmers was a philosopher, and taught that "the rewards of heaven are allied to the exercise of our virtuous affections. The faith of Christianity is praiseworthy and meritorious only because it is derived from the influence of virtuous sentiments upon the mind. Let us tremble to think that anything but virtue can commend us to the Almighty. True, our best endeavours fall short of perfection, and after all, we may be called unprofitable servants. But contemplating the wonders of redeeming love, and finding all the deficiencies of his imperfect virtue supplied by the atonement and propitiation of Jesus, we may go on our course rejoicing, assured that through Christ our sincere but imperfect obedience is looked down upon by Heaven with a propitious eye." His method of a sinner's justification is not orthodox nor Calvinistic.

Chalmers fulminated from his pulpit against Buonaparte. "May that day when Buonaparte ascends the throne of Britain be the last of my existence; may I be the first to ascend the scaffold he erects to extingush the worth and spirit of the country; may my blood mingle with the blood of patriots; and may I die at the foot of that altar on which British independence is to be the victim." The French revolution led him to study his favourite subject—political economy,—and he published a book thereon. Chalmers "possessed in an extraordinary measure a freshness, fire, originality, and inventiveness of mind, which revealed the presence in him of that peculiar quality which we call genius; a wonderful power of acute and exact observation; and a whole-souled out-goingness of nature, which made it certain that wherever he was set down he would not be a contemplative dreamer, but a very active force in life."