Thomas Carlyle said of him “What a wonderful old man Chalmers is. Or rather, he has all the buoyancy of youth. When so many of us are wringing our hands in hopeless despair over the vileness and wretchedness of the large towns, there goes the old man, shovel in hand, down into the dirtiest puddles of the West Port of Edinburgh, cleans them out, and fills the sewers with living waters. It is a beautiful sight.”
The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers was born on March 17, 1780 at Anstruther on the Fife coast. His father was a prosperous businessman in the town and Thomas grew up as the sixth in a large family of fourteen children—he had eight brothers and five sisters.
Showing early signs of prodigy, at the age of three, he went to the local parish school to learn the classical trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His parents were people of strong Calvinist conviction and keen that their family should grow up to bear witness to a lively and relevant Christianity. Piety and intellectual rigor marked their daily lives.
Before he was twelve, he had sufficiently mastered language, literary, and philosophical skills that he was recommended to advance his studies at the University of St Andrews. His brother, William, who was just thirteen, accompanied him. At the time, Thomas was the second-youngest student at St Andrews and widely recognized as a student with extraordinary promise. Although a great part of his time in the first two sessions at the university were apparently occupied in boyish amusements, such as golf, soccer, and hand-ball—in which he was remarkably expert, owing to his being left-handed—he had already begun to demonstrate the great intellectual power which was to be one of his chief characteristics throughout adult life. For mathematics he developed special enthusiasm and to its study he gave himself with great energy and dedication. Ethics and politics were also themes of special interest to him as he sought to integrate his life and faith with the evident woes of the world around him.
In 1795, now fifteen years-old, he sensed a call into the ministry—though as yet still quite immature in his faith—and so he was enrolled as a student of Divinity. That session, he actually studied very little theology because having recently taught himself sufficient French to use the language for study, he pursued his researches into theoretical mathematics with renewed vigor. Nevertheless, towards the end of the session he was deeply stirred by the power of the writings of Jonathan Edwards and came to an intellectual grasp of the magnificence of the Godhead and of the providential subordination of all things to His one sovereign purpose.
During these years another part of his great talent began to come into prominence. On entry to the University his expressive proficiency in English grammar and rhetoric was at best immature, but after two years of study, there was a perceptible change. The gifts of powerful, intense and sustained expression revealed themselves with freedom, spontaneity and beauty. Student Debating Societies, class discourses, and daily prayers in the University were all enriched by his tasteful, capable and eloquent participation.
By 1798, having just reached the age of eighteen, he had completed his course of studies at the University of St Andrews. The foundations were laid for his future development. As his biographer Hanna would later assert,
“The intensity of his nature, the redundant energy that hardly knew fatigue, the largeness of his view, the warmth of his affection, the independence of his judgement, and the gushing impetuosity of his style, were already manifest from these college days.”
Permitted to Preach Early
In July 1799, he was licensed to preach after a special dispensation exempted him from the qualifying condition of having reached the age of twenty-one. At the same time, he became a teaching assistant at the University of Edinburgh in the widely varied disciplines of Mathematics, Chemistry, Natural and Moral Philosophy and Political Economy.
During the winter of 1801, he was offered a post as Assistant in the Mathematics Department at St Andrews as well as the pastorate of the small parish church in Kilmany. And thus began his remarkable dual career as an ecclesiastic and an academic. Over the next forty-four years Thomas Chalmers gave himself to public service. Twenty of these years were spent in three parishes: first at Kilmany and then later at, the Tron Church and St John’s Church, both in Glasgow. The remaining twenty-four years were spent as a professor in three different chairs, Moral Philosophy in St Andrews, Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh, and Principal and Professor of Divinity in the Free Church Theological Institution, Edinburgh, later known as New College. Often, he served both church and university simultaneously, evoking the wonder of the entire world.
As a teacher, he aroused the enthusiasm of his students. One of them later commented,
“Under his extraordinary management, the study of Mathematics was felt to be hardly less a play of the fancy than a labor of the intellect—the lessons of the day being continually interspersed with applications and illustrations of the most lively nature, so that he secured in a singular manner the confidence and attachment of his pupils.”
Likewise, his parishioners found his sermons to be both erudite and winsome, aimed at both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. His reputation was soon spread throughout Scotland.
The years of work given to parish ministry were extremely significant in the life of Thomas Chalmers. The mental capacity that he had shown in academic pursuits and his youthful strength of spirit were now brought to the test of service to rural and urban communities at a time of extremely significant social change, and the ever transforming power of the Gospel was to prove itself in and through his life and service.
Family Crisis Leads to a Renewed Focus
Family bereavements brought Chalmers to reflect more seriously about a dimension of life which, on his own confession, he had not fully considered. His brother, George, three years older, and his sister, Barbara, some five years older, both died within the space of two years. George had been the captain of a merchant ship, but succumbed to tuberculosis and returned home at the age of twenty-nine to die. He awaited the end calmly, his trust resting firmly in Christ.
Each evening he had read to him one of John Newton’s sermons and obviously derived especial comfort therein. His quiet and assured faith challenged his younger brother. Barbara, likewise, suffering the same disease, showed great fortitude and confidence in the face of death. The nature of these circumstances brought him to question his previous conceptions.
After Barbara’s death, Thomas, who had been commissioned to write several articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica on mathematical subjects, wrote to the editor and asked that the article on Christianity should also be allocated to him. Before finishing the article and just after he had made his maiden speech in the General Assembly of 1809, he himself fell gravely ill. Ill-health dogged him for months—at one point being so severe that his family despaired of his very life.