Thomas Chalmers

Associated Locations:

  • Anstruther, Fife, scotland

Associated Dates:

  • March 17, 1780 – Born

Thomas Chalmers is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

“Dr. Thomas Chalmers is considered by some as one of four greatest Scotsmen of his time. It was said of him that he was not on man but a thousand. Though a reformer, Chalmers reflected the social traditions of the preindustrial age. As a student in the University of St. Andrews, Chalmers developed the idea that a man’s value was based on his contribution to society: this in turn was a function, not of his personal wealth, but of his principles and his integrity. They well-working society was based on the fundamental social principle of benevolence.”1

“The despisers of godliness are the enemies of the true interest of our nation.”

– Thomas Chalmers

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.

Scottish Divine, Reformer 1780-1847

Thomas Chalmers preaching

Adam Smith in his wealth Of Nations wrote that the pursuit of wealth by the individual stimulated the economy and thereby benefited society. Chalmers felt Smith’s theory need a little revising. He felt that society was really benefited by the works of consciously benevolent men who and liberal dispositions and who with unbounded charity gave to the relief of the poor and distressed.2

Amidst the many social reforms in which Chalmers’ name stands connected, the most prominent was his effort to return the management of welfare of the poor to the Church. The age of great industrial triumphs had led masses from the countryside to the cities, which created an age of appalling social deprivations of before unknown proportions. Chalmers felt that if the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ could reach these people their lives could improve. This great church man believed that the salvation of his nation, Scotland, lay not merely in preserving traditional rural values but somehow in reintroducing them into the cities. Character, he said, is the parent of comfort, not vice-versa; the strong economic condition of the masses is dependent on their right moral condition.

In 1820, the chance came for Chalmers to implement his belief. He was transferred to the larges and poorest parish in Scotland, where he convinced the town council to give him the right to administer welfare funds raised by the church rather than funds from forced taxation. He divided the parish into districts and sub-districts, most as was done in the Law of the Covenant under Moses. He chose laymen of Christian character, office-bearers of his own church, to establish Sunday and day schools where needed.

Two schools and fifty new sabath school were established. Thee were now twenty-five districts, each with 50 to 100 families, over wgucg an elder and a deacon were placed. The elder worked with the families spiritual needs, and the deacon addressed their physical needs. Chalmers personally supervised the whole program, making an effort to visit every family in the entire parish. His efforts were highly successful.

Chalmers believed that compulsory assessment,” or taxation for welfare was we know it today, only resulted in the swelling of the welfare rolls and that relief should be raised and administered by voluntary means. Taxation for welfare did more to create the very monster of welfare than it did to eliminate it. He was highly criticized at the initiation of the program, but he persevered, knowing that it was founded on ancient and sound principles.

The deacon interviewed each family in his district who were making application for help. Every effort was made to enable the poor to help themselves. “When one the system was in operation, it was found that the deacon, spending an hour a week among the families committed to his charge, could not keep himself acquainted with their character and condition.”3

Chalmers taught them to analyze their resources and share with others within their district.

Within four years, Chalmers’ method showed its advantages. In the beginning, the poor of the parish were costing the city of £1400 per annum. Through the adoption of Chalmers method, the welfare cost to the city was reduced to £280 per annum. The results were accompanied not only by an economic success, but also by an increase of morality as well. Drunkenness decreased, and parents took an increased interest in the welfare of their children. Chalmers pleaded with the city to allow him to continue, but a new council had taken over and a law was passed taking control out of the church’s hand and placing it back into the hands of the government.

Early Life

Thomas Chalmers began his life 17 March 1780, in Anstruther, Scotland. He was the sixth of fourteen children. His father was a shipowner, general merchant, and provost if the town. His mother was an energetic woman, visiting the homes of the poor on a regular basis with parcels of food and clothing.

When Chalmers but two years old, the family hired a nurse, whose cruelty and deceitfulness haunted his memory throughout his life. When he could bear no more of her cruelty, he would run to tell his mother. The nurse would stop him and hig him and shower him with pleading tenderness, all the while extorting from him a promise not to tell. Once he made such a promise, she would turn around an treat him more harshly than ever.4

At the age of three he began to attend school, not because he even wanted to but because of the fear he felt towards his nurse. But even here the schoolmaster had a “thirst for flogging.” At this litte parish school Chalmers was known as “one of the idlest, strongest, merriest, and most generous-hearted boys.”5

Reading came easily to him and to his lifelong advantage he was absorbed many of the books in his father’s library. His favorite was Pilgrim’s Progress.

Even before he could read, stories and saying from the Bible became a part of his knowledge. One evening when he was about three years old the family could not find him. It was late and dark. He was discovered in the nursery, “pacing up and down, exited and absorbed, repeating to himself as he walked to and fro the words of David: ‘O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!” 6

Thus the gifts and talents which were to make him so famous in his life were observed in childhood.

During these early years Chalmers declared his heart’s desire to become a minister. Not only did he set his heart on becoming a minister, but he decided what was to be his first sermon: “Let brotherly love continue.”7

A neighbor girl recalled that as a child he burst into the room where her brother and Thomas were playing. She found the future great religious orator standing upon a chair and preaching most vigorously to his captive audience, her brother.

Student at St. Andrews

University of St. Andrews, Scotland

In the eleventh year, Chalmers was enrolled as a student in the University of St. Andrews. This early age of entrance was not uncommon for that time. Chalmers had a tremendous struggle during the first two sessions because if his faulty early education. He was still given to old habits of idle and boyish ways. It was not until the third session when he enrolled in a math class that he discovered one of the great passions of his life and began to grow serious about his studies. Mathematics and science held such a fascination for his mind that for some time he did not pursue his goal to be a minister.

In 1798, young Chalmers was sent to be a tutor of a family. The experience proved a great rial for the young college student. He worked from seven in the morning until six at night. The children had no discipline; and the parents treated Chalmers as nothing more than a mere domestic. He wrote his father often pleading for the opportunity to quit. One of the servants accused him of having far two much pride. Chalmers replied with an air of youth: “There are two kinds of pride, sir. There is that pride which lords it over inferiors; and there is that pride which rejoices in repressing the insolence of superiors. The first I have none of–the second I glory in.”8

After the summer he returned to school, and at the age of fifteen he entered divinity school. Some aspects of his education there disturbed him. He was disconcerted with lecturers who lacked sincerity and doubted the value of listening to mere intellectual power that had no basis in the heart. He also objected to Christianity being promoted as a system of authority, rather than as a faith winch is nurtured through personal experiences.

Chalmers completed his studies by the time he was nineteen; however, the minimum age for licensing was twenty-one. His father, anxious for his son to be on his way, petitioned some of his influential friends to waive the age requirement. Thus, at the age of nineteen, Thomas Chalmers received his doctor of divinity.

Becoming a Minister

In 1803, he became a minister of Kilmeny. Along with his pastoral duties he continued to give lectures in chemistry and math. This was very disconcerting to the presbyter. Chalmers merely responded that they had no jurisdiction over his weekday activities. It was about this time that Chalmers went through a very profound spiritual experience. Because there is no record given of the event, we know of it only because Chalmers occasionally referred to the incident.

As his health began to fail, Chalmers started to brood about the purpose of life, and these two forces created great unrest in his mind. As his health continued to deteriorate, he engaged upon the task of researching and reading the scriptures to prepare an article for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia entitled “Christianity.” Chalmers found peace for his troubled mind finding as he reflected that salvation was in Jesus Christ alone. This changed the course of his life, marking the beginning of his taking the principles of morality and self-sufficiency to the poor.

Chalmers maintained that it was essential for a Christian church to possess the right of self-government, undisturbed by the intrusion of secular government. This belief led to the great disruption in 1843, with Chalmers and other separating from the Church of Scotland and forming the Free Church of Scotland. Following Chalmers, four hundred and seventy ministers resigned their livings and joined the Free Church.

Chalmers’ teachings were unique for his day. He felt that social evils are cured by character rather than legislation; that though “Christianity may only work the salvation of a few…. It raises the standard of morality among many.”9

If parents do not teach their children to “seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” then when that child enters the world in the work force, “the parent is guilty of offering up their children at the shrine of the idol of the world, because inevitably they will perish.”10

The salvation of their children should be a parent’s challenge in life, their best and their dearest interest. Chalmers urged everyone to question himself to see if he cooperates in an orderly society out of good manners or out of goodness of his heart. Manners will not sustain society when control is lost! Finally, he felt “that unless a sabbath-school apparatus be animated by the spirit of God, it will not bear with effect on the morals of the rising generation.”11

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott

Chalmers was highly respected by Sir Walter Scott, the most noted man of Scotland. Scott detested being flattered by anyone about his works. One evening at a dinner party, a man said to Scott: “Well, Sir Walter, I was dining yesterday, where your works become the subject of very copious conversation.”

Scott merely replied, “Well, I think, I must say your party might have been better employed” Chalmers was identified as the speaker, and Scott said, “Dr. Chalmers? That throws new light on the subject. To have produced any effect upon my mind of such a man as Dr, Chalmers is indeed something to be proud of, Dr. Chalmers is a man of the truest genius.”12

Chalmers spent Sunday, 30 May 1847, with his beloved family and several guests. He bade all a good night and laid down to a slumber from which he never woke.

While Dr. Thomas Chalmers was a man of his time, he was perhaps ahead of his time. His socioeconomic experiment should not be dismissed, for Chalmers, endowed with divine connections showed “the truest genius.”

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 13

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
  2. Brown Stewart J. Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland. London: Odford University Press, 1982, p. 6.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th ed. 1911, 5:810.
  4. See Hanna, William Rev. L.L.D. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers, D.D, .L.L.D. By His Son-In-Law. Published for Thomas Constable. Edinburgh: Sutherland and Knox, 1849, 1:5.
  5. Ibid., 1:7.
  6. Hanna, p. 8.
  7. Ibid, p. 9
  8. Ibid., p. 32.
  9. Chalmers, Thomas D.D. A Sermon Preached in St. John’s Church, Glasgow, on Sabbath the 30th of April. Glasgow: William Whyte & Co., 1820, p. 38.
  10. Hanna, p. 191-92.
  11. Chalmers, p. 41.
  12. Scott, Sir Walter. The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890, 1:175.
  13. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
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