Chalmers of New Guinea
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 boy’s 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 boy’s 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 Scotland’s sons for the prominent place they have taken in the work of the world, and Mr. M’Arthur, 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 prize lists.
But perhaps it was in the frolic and adventure of the hours when he was beyond the dominie’s jurisdiction that James Chalmers gave promise of the talents which were to win him an honourable position among the world’s 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 called."
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 lad’s 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 mother’s 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 1859—60 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 before—so 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 Glasgow—his district comprising the west side of the High Street—he 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. Turner’s 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 giant’s 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 mother’s knee, and to preach as though he were sure of the message he had then to deliver."
For a man of Chalmers’s 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 preaching—on one occasion courageously addressing a crowd of gin-drinking holiday-makers at the famous Rye House—as 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 days—when he had become a veritable son of Anak—will 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 Society’s 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.