THE story of the early years of the life of James
Chalmers is quickly told. He was born at Ardrishaig, Argyllshire, in 1841,
and as an infant, or very small boy, resided successively at Lochgilphead,
at Tarbert on Loch Fyne, again at Ardrishaig, and finally at Glenaray,
within a mile or two of Inveraray, the county town of Argyllshire.
The boys parents were of humble
circumstances, and it is probable that his pedigree could not be traced;
but it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that the blood of two very
distinct racial stocks ran in his veins. His father was an Aberdonian; and
the Aberdonian Scot is heir to the hardy Norseman who traversed the
trackless wastes of the North Sea in days gone by, and, finding a kindlier
clime on the east coast of Scotland, took forcible possession, founding
there a race of navigators and traders, daring in their intercourse with
nature, shrewd in their dealings with men. On the other hand, the boys
mother was a Celt, and inherited from her Highland ancestors the
warm-hearted temperament, the fertile imagination, the fine eyes. striking
features, and fiery energy and grace which she transmitted to her son.
The Scottish parish school has
played no inconspicuous part in the equipment of Scotlands sons for the
prominent place they have taken in the work of the world, and Mr. MArthur,
the schoolmaster of Glenaray, was as successful as any of his class in
turning out boys who were to make a name and position for themselves in
the ends of the earth. Latin and mathematics were prominent in the
curriculum, and upon this strong mental fare young Chalmers laid the
foundations of his education. Although his tastes and instincts were more
bent towards the life of action than that of study, as a diligent scholar
he gave satisfaction to his teacher, and even took a place in the annual
But perhaps it was in the frolic and
adventure of the hours when he was beyond the dominies jurisdiction that
James Chalmers gave promise of the talents which were to win him an
honourable position among the worlds heroes. He led in all the school
sports, and no deed of mischief or daring ever daunted him. As originator
and leader of a Robin Hood band, he carried through a variety of boyish
exploits adventure. Twice he was taken home to all appearances drowned.
Four times before he left his native shores he rescued others from
drowning. "The wind and the sea were his playmates; he was as much at home
in water as on land; fishing, sailing, climbing over rocks, and wandering
among the hills,he spent a healthy and happy boyhood, all unconsciously
fitting himself for the arduous and adventurous life to which he was being
Chalmers has given us one instance
of boyish escapade: "I was a great favourite with many of the fishermen,
and was often allowed to spend some time on board of their boats. . . .
Four of us thought we could build a boat for ourselves, and even attempted
it, but soon took to the caulking and tarring of a herring-box, which we
finished quickly, and, as I was captain, I must have the first sail. We
got a long line, and I, sitting in the herring-box, was dragged along the
beach until the line broke, and I was carried out to sea. There was a
difficulty in saving me, because of the strong current."
The lads parents would seem to have
been God-fearing people, and at a suitable age he was encouraged to become
a scholar in the Sunday school conducted in connection with the United
Presbyterian congregation at Inveraray. One Sunday, when he was about
fifteen years of age, the school was addressed by the minister, the Rev.
Gilbert Meikle, on the interesting topic of mission work accomplished in
the Fiji Islands. Mr. Meikle, in closing, said, "I wonder if there is any
lad here who will yet become a missionary. Is there one who will go to the
heathen and to savages and tell them of God and His love ?" The boy
registered an inward resolve to consecrate his life to this object, and,
on his way home, went behind a wall, knelt down, and vowed to serve
Christ. Although this resolution was never forgotten, his heart shortly
became disaffected towards the claims of Jesus Christ.
By this time Chalmers had entered
the employment of a local solicitor as clerk; but his restless spirit
rebelled against the drudgery of routine which is the lot of the office
boy, and at the age of sixteen he, with two other lads, made arrangements
for running away to sea. At the last moment, however, the thought of his
mothers certain distress deterred him from taking this rash step. He
remained at his desk, but his religious aspirations continued to ebb, and
he gave up observance of the forms of Christian worship.
Two years later the great revival of
185960 stirred the whole of Scotland, and the movement penetrated to
Inveraray, then one of the most remote towns in the country. In November
1859, two evangelists from the north of Ireland visited this neighbourhood
for the purpose of holding a series of meetings. Chalmers has put it upon
record that he, in collusion with several other young fellows, decided to
do all in his power to interfere with the meetings, and prevent what were
called conversions. He was constrained, however, by the urgent appeal of a
friend, to attend one of the first meetings. "It was raining hard, but I
started; and on arriving at the bottom of the stairs . . . they were
singing All people that on earth do dwell to Old Hundred, and I thought
I had never heard such singing beforeso solemn, yet so joyful. I ascended
the steps and entered. There was a large congregation, and all intensely
in earnest. The younger of the evangelists was the first to speak, and he
gave as his text Rev. xxii. 17, and spoke directly to me. I felt it much,
but at the close hurried away back to town, returned the Bible to
MacNicoll, but was too upset to speak much to him." On the following
Sunday night he was "pierced through and through, and felt lost beyond all
hope of salvation." But on the Monday his old friend and pastor, Mr.
Meikie, came to his aid, leading him to kindly promises, and to light. The
text "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin" brought
the conviction that deliverance was possible, and "some gladness came."
After some time, he felt that God was speaking to him in His Word, and he
"believed unto salvation."
Chalmers lost no time in making public profession of
his Christian faith and hope, joining the United Presbyterian Church in
x86o, becoming a teacher in its Sunday school, and devoting his spare
hours to evangelistic work. His service was approved in the awakening of
many of the people to whom he spoke, and in his new-found zeal for the
cause of Christ he subjected himself to a strain of work which threatened
to break down his health.
This experience in Christian work led Chalmers to offer
his services to the Glasgow City Mission, and on 14th November 1861 he was
appointed, as their agent, to conduct evangelistic effort in connection
with Greyfriars United Presbyterian Church, a congregation then
ministered to by the Rev. Henry Calderwood, afterwards Professor of Moral
Philosophy in Edinburgh University. From Mr. Calderwood he received
sympathetic encouragement, and in the slums of Glasgowhis district
comprising the west side of the High Streethe came into personal touch
with phases of social degradation and heathenism well calculated to
depress the most buoyant confidence in the great evangel. In after years
he told stories of scenes almost unbelievable in their awfulness, "scenes
that most people think are only to be witnessed in Continental cities."
But these home mission experiences were of short
duration. In Glasgow, Chalmers had the fortune to meet with the Rev. Dr.
Turner of Samoa, who gave him information in regard to the operations of
the London Missionary Society, and revived in him the aspiration of his
boyhood to carry the gospel to the heathen in foreign lands. Under Dr.
Turners guidance, he made application to the London Missionary Society,
and after due examination was accepted, and sent to Cheshunt College for
training in September 1862, having obtained release from his engagement
with the Glasgow City Mission on 30th June in that year.
The term of study at Cheshunt lasted for two years. In
Dr. Reynolds, Principal of the College, Chalmers found a teacher fitted to
inspire him with a high ideal of the dignity of his calling and to draw
out his best energies as a student. The admiration and affectionate regard
became reciprocal, and Dr. Reynolds wrote of the young Scotsman: "He. gave
me the idea of lofty consecration to the divine work of saving those for
whom Christ died. His faith was simple, unswerving, and enthusiastic, and
while he could throw a giants strength into all kinds of work, he was
gentle as a child and submissive as a soldier. He used to pray for help as
If he were at his mothers knee, and to preach as though he were sure of
the message he had then to deliver."
For a man of Chalmerss active temperament, theology
had little attraction, and his theoretical studies did not bear heavily
upon him. But part of his training was of a practical order. He cheerfully
accepted charge of the mission station farthest from College, undertaking
a walk of fourteen miles thither and back every Sunday. His sermons were
instinct with humanity, sincerity, and conviction, and the common people
heard him gladly. "He was at home in some Hebrew story, and especially
fond of the two texts Dan. iii. 21 and 1 Sam. XVIII. 4: Coats, hosen. and
hats, and Sword, bow, and girdle,the one relating to perhaps the most
courageous act in the Old Testament, the other to the most generous." In
addition to the ordinary duties of his station, he undertook open-air
preachingon one occasion courageously addressing a crowd of gin-drinking
holiday-makers at the famous Rye Houseas well as visitation of the sick
and the poor. In all his labours he displayed thorough goodness and
kindness of heart, and gave generously from his slender purse in aid of
the temporal necessities of his people.
Withal, Chalmers retained his love of frolic and his
daring courage in the face of physical peril. If he did not shine in the
classroom, on the river no one could steer a raft like him, none could
take a ducking so coolly. "The river more than the college prepared him
for his great life-work." "For anything that needed strength or pluck or
endurance, Chalmers was the man chosen," says Mr. W. Garrett Horder, one
of his fellow-students. To quote the same authority, "Those who knew him
only in later dayswhen he had become a veritable son of Anakwill
scarcely believe that when he entered Cheshunt he was one of the slightest
and thinnest among the men, but wiry and sinewy to the last degree."
Withdrawn from Cheshunt in the summer of 1864, Chalmers
was sent to the London Missionary Societys Institution at Highgate, for
special training under the Rev. Dr. J. S. Wardlaw. A few days after his
arrival at Highgate, "the house trembled, and Mrs. Wardlaw in dismay
searched about for the cause of the unusual commotion. Upon entering a
room around which the students were seated, she found that it was only the
lively Chalmers entertaining them with a Highland fling."
At the time that this training was nearing its close,
Dr. Living-stone was thrilling the hearts of his countrymen with the
narrative of his pioneer work in South Africa, and there was born in the
young Scot a desire to give his life to similar work on the Dark
Continent. But the Directors of the London Missionary Society chose to
appoint him to Rarotonga in the South Sea Islands instead. Accepting this
decision as a matter of divine guidance, Chalmers made no demur, and threw
himself at once into the study of the Rarotongan language, and the
acquisition of a working acquaintance with medicine and photography.
We may close this chapter of "beginnings" by recording
the fact of the marriage of James Chalmers to Miss Jane Hercus, daughter
of a merchant in Greenock who had emigrated to New Zealand a short time
before. The ceremony took place on 17th October 1865, a few short weeks
before the young couple set sail for their distant sphere of work.