Monday, March 18, 2002

Yesterday, March 17th is known to most people as St. Patrick's Day. And indeed, St. Patrick deserves to be recognized, but from now on, I'll be celebrating not only St. Patrick's Day on March 17th, but also Chalmers Day. Thomas Chalmers was born on the coast of Scotland (Anstruther) on March 17, 1780. He was a brilliant young student who entered St. Andrews University at about the age of 11. His first love was mathematics, but likely to please his parents, he began to study theology and train for the ministry. After graduating from St. Andrews, he served the rural parish of Kilmany, while simultaneously serving as an assistant instructor in Mathematics at St. Andrews. By his own admission, he was more dedicated to mathematics than to ministry, but after watching two of his thirteen siblings die, and suffering from a serious illness himself, the Chief Shepherd got hold of this undershepherd's heart, and he began to tend the Lord's sheep wholeheartedly.


After 12 years ministering in Kilmany, he took a call to the Tron Church in Glasgow, a prestigious pulpit in Scotland. There he began to experiment, against conventional wisdom, with reviving the parish model, which he had done so effectively in rural Kilmany. "Maybe in the rural areas ," his critics said, "but not in Glasgow." Not only was Chalmers successful in reviving the parish at the Tron Church, but he was inspired to plant another church in the poorest and most corrupt section of Glasgow. The St. John's experiment was born in 1819, and quickly became an incredible success, ministering to 10,000 of the city's poorest inhabitants. Chalmers remained at St. John's until 1823 when he left to take the chair of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews, followed by a position as Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh (1828-1843). In both places he trained aspiring pastors to minister the gospel and encouraged them to plant parish churches among the poor. In 1843 he led the conservatives out of the Church of Scotland, and was elected moderator of the newly formed Free Church of Scotland. He was immediately appointed Principal and Professor at New College, Edinburgh.

So what is the parish model that set Chalmers' ministry apart, and so transformed the worst neighborhood in Glasgow? Chalmers' parish model sought to battle the worst effects of the industrial revolution - dehumanization, horrible poverty, and the rapid increase of population in the city (mostly very poor families). Scotland's answer was the "poor laws." Chalmers vehemently opposed them, convinced that the parish church could better minister to and provide for the needy within their bounds, and could do so on a "human scale" combating the tendency toward "gargantuanism" which was so anonymous and untailored to individual situations. Chalmers believed that the paish serving its own was not only good for the poor, but was good for those of the higher classes too. He believed in class networking, which allowed relationships to be built between and among the classes within the parish, thus setting a natural context for ministry to those in need. In a charge to a young crop of deacons he said:

By putting ourselves under the roof of a poor neighbor, we in a manner put ourselves under his protection, we render him our superior...The true object is not to subsidize but to elevate...What now looks so formidable in the distance will on the actual encounter, dwindle into a very moderate and manageable affair. Both the facility and success of it will very much astonish yourselves.

This brief account of Chalmers ministry is woefully inadequate, but gives you something of an idea why he's one of my heroes. You can read more about Chalmers here, and I encourage you to do so.

Happy belated 222nd Birthday Dr. Chalmers!!

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