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Northern Lights
T. Chalmers, D.D., LL.D>

WITHOUT following Dr. Chalmers in all the windings of his history, from boyhood in Anstruther, to the day when one hundred thousand people crowded windows and streets and every “coign of vantage” to see him *borne from his home in Momingside, Edinburgh, to his honoured grave in the Grange Cemetery, we shall endeavour to form an estimate of his religious character, his intellectual powers, his influence and work. The grace of God imparted to him that aspect of greatness with which we are familiar, but had he been without grace he could not have remained in obscurity. His wonderful energy, his large and impassioned utterance, would have ensured for him a position in Scotland conspicuous as an illumined colossus on the peak of Ben Nevis, even if he had persisted in his antagonism to Evangelical belief. From the green undulations and picturesque homesteads of Kilmany, he would have gone to a University chair or a city pastorate, which would have been the basis of operations affecting great masses of his countrymen. He could not have been kept from the vanguard of ecclesiastical conflict, and had he not been the leader of the Evangelical, it is all but certain he would have been the leader of the Moderate party in the Church of Scotland. Loud and scornful would have been his denunciation of all efforts to awaken in the hearts of the people a desire for experimental religion, and in his hand the weapons of Dr. Robertson and Carlyle of Inveresk would have flashed consternation on ministers and elders struggling for the honour of Christ. His avidity for literary work would not have been more in abeyance if his pen had not been consecrated to the service of his Saviour, and he would have been the exponent of a negative Theology, or have unfolded his genius in scientific and political dissertations. His inborn qualities were such that his life must have assumed great proportions, and his name have been high among the biographic glories of his native land even if he had continued a stranger to the power of godliness.

Happily his soul received a right bias, and all its forces were concentred in the work of the Lord; yet nothing seemed less likely during his University course than that he would become the bold and masterly advocate of the doctrines of grace. The Gospel, as showing the method of a sinner’s reconciliation to God, was not recognised by him as belonging to the system of Divine truth, and he contented himself with the few articles which constitute the creed of the Unitarian. For a year he was almost entranced with ecstatic contemplations of “the magnificence of the Godhead,” but the vision faded, and he found himself on the brink of a tremendous scepticism. The works of Godwin and Baron d’Holbach induced in him a tendency to doubt the first principles of natural and revealed religion, and instead of the splendour which had filled the horizon of his thought, there was darkness in which he was so wretched that he seemed like one deranged. From this state of gloom and disquietude he was rescued by the arguments of Dr. Robison, one of the Edinburgh professors, and he again had confidence in the being of God, and the credibility of Christianity. Still he was without spiritual life, and he took charge of Kilmany in utter destitution of the essential qualifications of the Christian minister. There was no lack of grand thoughts and sonorous periods in the pulpit, but Christ as a Saviour was never presented to the people. But the chastenings of the Almighty came upon him, and affliction softened his heart and prepared him for the reception of the righteousness which is by faith. He saw a beloved brother and sister die in Christian peace and hope, and these bereavements, in connection with severe sickness which thoroughly prostrated him, led him to resolve on a purer and more useful life. He strove hard to obtain the favour of God, but his striving was ineffectual, until reading Wilberforce’s “Practical Christianity,” he discovered that it is not, Do this and live, but “Believe, .... and thou shalt be saved.” Many greater but few more useful books have been written than that by Wilberforce. In addition to the benefits it has conferred on thousands who have lived and died in comparative obscurity, it solaced the mighty yet grief-worn heart of Edmund Burke, kindled in Legh Richmond the fervours which lend a sacred charm to the narrative of the “Dairyman’s Daughter,” and helped the young minister of Kilmany in his way to salvation by faith. Thomas Chalmers found rest in Christ; the truths which he previously repelled afforded him joy and peace, and a new light shone in the manse and the church, and through the village.

The responsibilities of his office pressed upon him, and he prosecuted its duties with undivided energy. When, before his conversion, John Bonthron, one of his parishioners, said to him, that whenever he came to see him he was always busy, but never preparing for the pulpit; his reply was that an hour or two on the Saturday evening was quite enough for that. After his conversion the same friend said to him, “I never come in now, Sir, but I find you aye at your Bible.” “All too little, John; all too little,” was his response. Moral and political essays were laid aside, and his sermons from beginning to end were expressive of evangelical thought and feeling. As he expatiated on the great themes which dilated his soul, and besought his people to be reconciled to God, and to prepare for the solemnities of death and eternity, his pale face became strangely luminous, and his lips fervent, as if touched with Pentecostal flame. Even when his discourse was over, and the Psalm had been sung, and he rose to pronounce the benediction, he would break out in a fresh appeal to his hearers to accept the grace of Christ that very moment.

Henceforth the salvation of men was his chief concern. He did not think that the end of his ministry was answered by crowded churches and enthusiastic admiration of his oratory, but felt that nothing was really gained unless souls were brought into living relationship with the Lord Jesus. Though the people of Glasgow were speaking of his Astronomical Discourses as the most magnificent sweep of intellectual power, they had ever witnessed, and though on the Sabbath he found it necessary to preach the same sermon morning and evening in order to prevent the overcrowding of the Tron Church, he was yet in a state of despondency because he saw no fruit of his labours. In conversation with a friend on the cause of his sadness, he said, “In short, the truth is I have mistaken the way of my duty to God in at all coming to your city. I am doing no good: God has not blessed and is not blessing my ministry here.” On being told that one young man had been saved through his preaching, he replied, “Ah! what blessed, what comforting news you give me; I knew it not; but it strengthens me; for really I was beginning to fail, from an apprehension that I had not been acting according to the will of God in coming to your city.”

Notwithstanding the excitements of public life, Dr. Chalmers was careful to watch over his own spiritual condition. He was not more remarkable for the vigorous discharge of his pastoral duties, than for the fervour and simplicity of his private exercises before God. Secret prayer was to him a refreshing employment, and he delighted far more in being alone in his study confessing his failings and pleading for mercy, than in throwing the blaze of his eloquence over enraptured multitudes. There are entries in his diary which would not have misbecome the pen of a Brainerd or a Fletcher. The following may be a sample of many others of like import:—“O, my God, may I be still and do Thy Work as Thy servant! Admit me into Thy service. Loose my bonds. Give me to strive that I may enter in at the straight gate. O ! for Christ’s sake be merciful to me, and put Thy law in my heart. Bruise Satan under my feet shortly. Give me to be 'patient in tribulation’ and 'rejoicing in hope.’ Introduce me into converse with the spiritual realities of my condition.”

As he advanced in years his religious experience became deeper, his desires after God more ardent, and it was his wish to spend the whole of the later time of his life in sacred rest and quietude. "It is a favourite speculation of mine,” he said, "that if spared to sixty we then enter on the seventh decade of human life; and that this, if possible, should be turned into the Sabbath of our earthly pilgrimage, and spent Sabbatically, as if on the shore of the eternal world, or in the outer courts, as it were, of the temple that is above—the tabernacle in heaven.” It was not his lot to enjoy the peaceful old age he so beautifully pictured, for the Disruption and its sequences called him to gigantic toils. But when contending with Moderates, and asserting with his usual stormy grandeur the spiritual independence of the Church that was so dear to him, or when organising the Sustentation Fund, and making provision for the ministers who at the bidding of conscience had given up their stipends and their pleasant homes, he kept his soul near to God, and we find him at one time recording, “A luminous visitation by the shore,” and at another time breathing the prayer, “O, my God, give me the language and lofty spirit of him who realises eternity and has enthroned Thyself in his heart! ” Sublimity and loveliness belonging more to heaven than to earth were blended in the character of the majestic old man; he was, in the truest sense of the words, ripe for a better world, and he came to his grave “like as a shock of corn cometh in in his season.”

In virtue of his intellect, Dr. Chalmers was entitled to take rank with the leaders and kings of mankind. He was endowed with qualities naturally tending to large exploits and indisputable supremacy. He had no affinity with the narrow and minute, and was happiest in vast generalisations and in movements which needed the eagle glance and the sceptred hand of an imperial mind. We do not get the full measure of his mental stature and breadth in his writings. They are such as only a great man could produce, but they are not uniformly great. Amplification is frequently carried to excess, and even commonplace thoughts are attenuated into a mere collocation of sounding syllables. Small matters are stretched to cover a large space, and a microscopic particle of gold is beaten into a cubit of leaf. The Astronomical and Commercial Discourses do not present so many examples of wordiness as some of the other works of Dr. Chalmers, yet it is scarcely possible to get through the unbroken sweep of huge and gorgeous sentences without a feeling of satiety. The reader sighs for an occasional pause in the rapidity of the argument for a gleam of softer light, and an intermingling of less gigantic imagery. There are palms and amaranths in profusion, but the quiet charms of the daisy and primrose are wanting; panoramic grandeurs of steep mountain and impetuous river, but no soft vales and gentle streams; canopies blazoned with suns and comets, but few calm scenes of household joy. Such discourses, with the accompaniment of the preacher’s clenched hand, glaring eye, foaming lips, and lion-like voice, could not fail to electrify an audience, but the constant succession of bannered pomps somewhat spoils them for perusal. Even the finest passages have not the finish, the perfect beauty, and melody which distinguish many parts of Richard Watson’s Sermons. Through all the swell and magnificence we look in vain for the completeness without redundancy, the splendour without dazzlement, which characterise the glorious outburst beginning, “Go to the heavens which canopy man with grandeur.”

Dr. Chalmers did not always write in his large, diffusive style; but, when not in the full swing of passion and imagination, he was apt to become artificial. The transition from those of his works which were written when his mind was in a state of fiery vehemence, to those written at the dictation of his cooler reason, is like the transition from a South-American coast with its glow of colour and tangled exuberance of vegetation, to a Norwegian hill with its stiff and sombre pines. But Dr. Chalmers’ literary faults were not occasioned by weakness of intellect. He who did so much could have done better if he had tried ; he could have restrained the phraseology that is too luxuriant, and have imparted lustre to that which is lacking in adornment. It is, however, to be remembered that he wrote with a swift pen, and for an immediate end. Beset as he was by so many claims on his time, he could not afford to take Dr. Johnson’s advice, and give his days and nights to Addison. His writings were thrown off with the rapidity of the pamphleteer, rather than elaborated with the care of the man who is conscious that he is addressing future ages. But though in his numerous volumes there are treatises and sermons which do not invite a second perusal, there are others which may always be read with advantage; and the effect of the whole is to leave the impression of a robust and regal genius. He was, and still is, notwithstanding his .blemishes and defects, recognised as a power in literature, yet his books are but a partial manifestation of his riches and strength.

It was his own remark, that if nature had specially fitted him for any one profession above another it was that of a military engineer; and there can be no doubt that with his readiness in device, and his instinctive perception of how and when to act, he would have excelled in the arts by which camps are formed, cities fortified and mines secretly excavated. But his engineering faculties were drawn into another sphere, and with the exception of John Wesley, no man ever showed greater skill in organising schemes for the conservation of the faith and the overthrow of sin. His imagination never interfered with the processes of his reasoning on practical matters. In all his undertakings, from the establishment of a Sabbath-school in a neglected wynd to the scheme of Church extension which issued in the erection of two hundred and twenty churches; from the management of the poor in Glasgow to the constitution of the Free Church, there was evidence of the same masterly common sense and statesmanly grasp of circumstances. Moreover, he had moral and intellectual forces enabling him to mould men to his own will. He seemed to impress his own individuality on those with whom he was brought into contact; and elders and deacons in his Kirk Session, students in the Hall, ministers in the Presbytery, became Chalmerian in energy and determination. His plans were such as to ensure confidence, and he advocated them with contagious enthusiasm.

The religious influence beginning in Kilmany widened until it affected the whole of Scotland. Though Dr. Chalmers was not an itinerating evangelist there was scarcely a town or village in the lowlands, or a cottage perched on a highland crag, which did not feel his power. Whatever might be his centre of action, Glasgow, St. Andrews, or Edinburgh, he was the cause of spiritual vibrations which shook the land to its southern border and its northward cliffs. His specific duties were local, but he was emphatically a national man. It was his ambition to see the whole of his native soil overspread with evangelical agencies, and all its people instructed in tlie doctrines of the everlasting Gospel. It was not enough for him that Scotland was renowned for heroism that was swift to do or die, for religious constancy that had not blenched before the stake and the axe, for genius which made its barest rocks and its wildest moors an inspiration and a glory; it was the passion of his life to throw over every part of it the transfiguring light of truth and holiness.

Under his leadership the evangelical party in the Scottish Church gained such strength and consistency, that it could no longer be repressed by the sarcastic arguments and contemptuous laughter of its opponents, but struck out into a path worthy of the spirit it avowed. The Home-Missionary feeling was aroused, provision was made for the religious wants of thousands who had been hitherto neglected, and evangelistic labours of which no one had previously dreamed were prosecuted with hopefulness and success. Hugh Miller has said, that Presbyterianism cannot lie in State; it has none of the ritualistic adornments that hide the ghastliness of a dead Church. If not dead, when Dr. Chalmers began his career, the Church of Scotland was making an ineffectual attempt to sleep with dignity, but sleep was impossible when he came with his tremendous denunciations of indolence, and his trumpetlike calls to instant activity. Though many of the ministers and people did not coincide with his views of experimental godliness and the necessity for Christian work of an aggressive character, a band of men sufficiently strong to originate the Free Church clave to him.

The possibility and the actual realisation of that Church may properly be regarded as cause for devout thankfulness. It may be thought by some that the questions in dispute were not of a magnitude to justify severance from the Establishment, and that the ministers of the Evangelical party would, by manly persistence, have ultimately gained their end, and have given to the whole Church the features of their own vital Christianity. But if there be any doubts as to the wisdom of the Disruption, there can bo none as to the successful operations of the Free Church. Its multiplication of religious agencies in large towns; its care for the rural population; its educational and other philanthropic institutions; its Foreign Missions, illustrated by such names as DufE and W. C. Burns, and honoured by large success in heathen lands,—all show that even if the Disruption could be proved to have been an evil, it has been overruled by Providence for good. Nor should it be forgotten how the existence of the Free Church has acted favourably on the Establishment, moving it to serviceable rivalry, and so arousing its energies as to enable it not only to fill up many of the gaps left by the Disruption, but also to make considerable increase in some of its departments of operation. As we look on the Free Church, with its splendid liberalities and its expansive instincts, and on the Establishment, with its improved tone and spirit, we see the signal effects of the Divine Grace which laid hold of the young Pastor of Kilmany, and induced him to consecrate his gigantic powers to Christ. There were good men in the Church of Scotland before he came forth to plead so mightily for the cause of God, but they were emboldened by the accession of his energy and genius to their ranks, and it was mainly owing to him that the pulpits and Divinity Halls of Scotland became the centres of a more vigorous life and that so much was done to evangelise the people.

But Dr. Chalmers was not content to bid others act: he was himself a thorough Christian worker, and was never happier than when trying to impart the blessings of religion to the inhabitants of a degraded neighbourhood. After the Disruption he selected the West Port, Edinburgh, as the scene of Home-Missionary effort. This part of Edinburgh consisted principally of filthy closes, the wretched flats of which were occupied by men, women and children who were not only utterly godless, but unmindful of the common decencies of life. Dr. Chalmers got possession of a deserted tannery, and made use of the rough unplastered loft as a preaching-place. He conducted the first service, and frequently preached in that rude sanctuary. He had sat as Moderator of two General Assemblies, the Established and the Free; he had been the guest and the intimate friend of nobles; he had won the homage of bishops and statesmen by lectures delivered in London in defence of a State-supported Church; he had thrilled and delighted thousands by his wonderful discourses; but he never so signally asserted his innate greatness and the grandeur of his calling, as when, lifting his venerable head, he looked on the ragged company gathered in that old loft, and, subduing the pomp of his eloquence, preached in words that the simplest could understand. His interest in the work was deep, and it is affecting to* read in the record of his private devotions:— “It is yet but the day of small things with us, and I in all likelihood shall be taken off ere that much greater progress is made in the advancement of the blessed Gospel throughout our land. But give me the foretaste and the confident foresight of this great Christian and moral triumph ere I die. Let me at least, if it be Thy blessed will, see—though it should be only in one or in a small number of specimens—a people living in some district of aliens, as the West Port, reclaimed at least into willing and obedient hearers, afterwards in Thine own good time to be doers of Thy Word. Give me, O Lord! a token for the larger accomplishment of this good ere I die. The Lord granted his prayer in reference to the West Port. His own labours, aided by those of a Missionary, a school-teacher and a number of Christian friends, so far succeeded that a church was built and he was able to write:—“I have got now the desire of my heart; the church is finished, the schools are flourishing, our ecclesiastical machinery is about complete, and all in good working order. God has indeed heard my prayer, and I could now lay down my head in peace and die.” He preached the first sermon in the church. After the service, a friend remarked to him that thirty-one years previously he had heard him preach before the Lord-Commissioner and a brilliant crowd, at the time of a General Assembly. He replied with great emphasis, “I can assure you, Sir, I value this far more than the other.” The church in the West Port was the crowning achievement of his life; a few months passed away and the Lord took him to Himself.

His last days were not embittered by disease, nor bad his friends to mourn over the decay of his magnificent faculties: be died in the night, suddenly yet serenely, and was found in the morning-with an expression on his face which, according to one who saw its grand repose, seemed to say, “I am gone up.”

When Thomas Taylor, the Methodist preacher, after riding six hundred miles to Glasgow, and giving notice that he would preach on the Green, found a congregation consisting of two bakers’ boys and two old women, and when in the lack of provision for his bodily wants he had to endure many enforced fasts, he little thought that his death would be the theme of verses by so eminent a poet as James Montgomery, or that some of those verses would be quoted as suitable to the death of a man whose name would be an imperishable glory for Scotland and for the Universal Church. But God’s servants are not seldom raised to unexpected honour, and when Dr. Hanna, wishing to give a fitting close to his splendid Memoir of his illustrious father-in-law, Dr. Chalmers, looked into James Montgomery’s poems be found the verses entitled “The Christian Soldier, occasioned by the sudden death of the Rev. T. Taylor,” and copied these lines :—

“Servant of God, well done!
Rest from thy loved employ;
The battle o’er, the victory won,
Enter thy Master’s joy.

“The cry at midnight came,
He started up to hear;
A mortal arrow pierced his frame;
He fell; but felt no fear.

“His spirit at a bound
Left its encumbering clay;
His tent at sunrise on the ground
A darkened ruin lay.”

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