Sandy Finlayson on Thomas Chalmers

Today, Nathan Nocchi is in conversation with Sandy Finlayson discussing Finlayson’s upcoming biography of Thomas Chalmers. Sandy Finlayson is library director and professor of theological bibliography at Westminster Theological Seminary. Sandy holds degrees from the University of Toronto (MLS) and Tyndale Theological Seminary in Canada (MTS), where he was also library director for eleven years. Mr. Finlayson served as an elder in the Toronto congregation of the Free Church of Scotland for ten years.

Nathan Nocchi: Perhaps we would do well to begin by exploring Thomas Chalmers and his context. Thomas Chalmers is perhaps one of the most important Scottish Christian intellectuals of the nineteenth century. How did he become such an influential figure? Who was the man? Where did he hail from? And to what extent do you think his early context informed his subsequent development as a Christian intellectual?

Sandy Finlayson: Thomas Chalmers was born on March 17, 1780. He was born in Anstruther in Scotland. Anstruther is south of St. Andrews. His father owned a small business that included the management of the local thread and dye works. He grew up in a pious Christian home, his parents being members of the local Church of Scotland parish. His parents were devout and taught their children the Bible and the Shorter Catechism. Thomas’s father had a large library of devotional books, which Thomas and his siblings were encouraged to read. While he grew up in a faithful Christian environment, it would not be until later in his life that he embraced the faith for himself. 
Thomas’s early education was at the local school, where he was known more for his physical strength, and warm heartedness. He entered St. Andrews University in 1791 when he was only aged eleven! Even by the standards of his day, where children went to university early in their lives, this was an early enrollment. He wasn’t a spectacular student, regretting later in life that he hadn’t worked harder, but nonetheless he did well enough, particularly in mathematics.  In 1795 he began divinity studies, not so much because he felt a particular call to gospel ministry, but because he believed that being a minister would provide him with comfortable employment. 

Nathan Nocchi: Chalmers’ activity as a minister in the ‘Kirk’ is quite impressive. His initiatives ensuring parish members had a church in Glasgow in which they might worship are characteristic of his ardent desire for the social welfare of the people of Scotland. Tell us about these efforts, especially those seen in 1819.

Sandy Finlayson: Chalmers was in active parish ministry for twenty years, from 1803-1823. The longest he was in any one parish was in Kilmany, where he served from 1803-1815. This period of his life can be subdivided into two sections, the period before his evangelical conversion, which took place in the winter of 1810, and the period after before he moved to Glasgow. The first period he performed his duties somewhat perfunctorily. He also worked to find secular teaching posts as he didn’t think he needed to devote all of his time to the work of the church. It was only after his conversion that he began to use his considerable energy and intellectual powers for the benefit of the church. It is at this point that we can begin to see the effectiveness of his preaching and he began to develop a considerable reputation for his sermons. He also invested considerable energy in parish visitation and also undertook the creation of the Kilmany Bible Society. He had come to believe that it was through the application of the message of the Bible, the sharing of the gospel, that the world would be impacted for Christ. 

When he moved to Glasgow in 1815, he was installed as the Minister of the Tron Parish Church. Here he began a series of new initiatives that would have a real impact on his parish and on the wider church. The Tron church was supposed to serve a large portion of the population, but the reality was the building only held about 1,300 people and was actually located outside of the actual parish boundary. What Chalmers quickly recognized was that there was a large percentage of the parish’s poor who couldn’t afford to go to church and even if they had wanted to there wasn’t room for them. As he looked at the parish he came to see that he couldn’t do all the work himself so he recruited men to serve as elders and deacons and with them in place he began sending them out to look for those in need both physically and spiritually. He also recognized that inadequate education for the poor of the parish would condemn them to living in perpetual poverty. So, he began an aggressive campaign to establish Sabbath schools, which would teach basic Christianity and other subjects. 

In 1819 he was appointed to be the Minister of St John’s parish. Here he sought to take the model that he had started to develop in his first rural parish and then refined at the Tron and apply it in a new setting. While there were considerable successes, he was never able to fully achieve all of his goals. This is partly because the rural parish model never quite worked in the city and also his lack of patience with people and unwillingness to accept constructive criticism.

Nathan Nocchi: A few years after his impressive parochial efforts, Chalmers was appointed to the chair of moral philosophy at St. Andrews. Could you tell us about his work there, his notable students, and whether or not this precipitated his appointment at the Royal Society?

Sandy Finlayson: Chalmers moved to St Andrews University in 1823 to take up the position of Professor of Moral Philosophy. He went there largely so that he could teach students who were training for ministry, although he also impacted the lives or many who would take up other areas of Christian service. In addition to his teaching, he was responsible for reviving the Student Missionary Society which inspired some of his students to devote their lives to foreign missions. One notable example of this was Alexander Duff who subsequently went to India and was responsible there for the creation of schools. One of Duff’s goals in doing this was to try to teach people that the cast system was antithetical to the gospel. 

Nathan Nocchi: When Chalmers was elected leader of the Church of Scotland, he found himself representing the non-intrusionist movement. Could you tell us about this movement and what transpired in the mid-1840s?

Sandy Finlayson: One of the major controversies of Chalmers’ day focused on the issue of who had the right to appoint parish ministers. There had been growing calls for individual members of congregations to have a greater say in this, rather than Ministers simply being appointed by the patron of the parish. The British government had sought to resolve this issue on several occasions and there had also been several acts past by the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly. By the early 1840’s it was clear that there wasn’t going to be a successful resolution of the issues and it was this that led to the creation of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843, when evangelicals broke away from the Church of Scotland so that they would have freedom to plant new churches and parishes would have the clear right to call their own Ministers. This immensely complicated controversy is summarized at greater length in my book.

Nathan Nocchi: Thomas Chalmers was clearly not a myopically focused scholar. He wrote on a number of topics ranging from moral philosophy, civil law reform, and natural theology. Tell us more about this work, and the unique contributions it makes.

Sandy Finlayson: Chalmers, was a polymath, who wrote on a wide range of topics. He wrote on economics, politics, education and the sciences along with philosophy and theology. Many of his sermons were published and he also wrote devotional material for Christians. His works sold really well and he used some of the proceeds from his writing to support his own parish ministries. He was also was involved in the establishment of the William Collins publishing house, who were his original publishers in the United Kingdom.

Nathan Nocchi: Having explained the man, his life and works, tell us why Christians in the present day should read Chalmers.

Sandy Finlayson: Chalmers's most accessible works are his sermons and Daily and Sabbath Scripture Readings, which were guided devotional readings on various parts of the Bible. His other works, are a helpful reminder to us that Christians should have enquiring minds that aren’t afraid to read, write and think about all areas of life. 

Nathan Nocchi: Finally, what contributions does your new book make? What new insights did you gain in writing this biography?

Sandy Finlayson: I hope that my book, in telling the story of Thomas Chalmers will open people’s eyes to the life of someone who has been mostly forgotten in our day. There was a reason that he was called “The Chief Scottish Man of his time”. He was someone who had a real impact on the society in which he lived. He had an optimistic belief that the Gospel would change lives. This message of hope is something we really need to hear! As I mentioned in answer to your previous question, he also was interested in many areas of life. He didn’t just stick to theology and spiritual things. His was a very public theology! 

He also is an example of how to show real concern for the poor. His parish work sought to help people with physical as well as spiritual needs. His was a gospel that had a social as well as spiritual component. He believed that the church should show her concern for the poor and not just talk about it. He also was willing to call on government to do its share when the problems became too big.

I also think that it’s important to remember that he was deeply committed to the local church. While he had a wide public ministry, he was first and foremost concerned for the local church. His church work was only possible because he believed in an active eldership and diaconate.  He also strongly believed in a mobilized laity to carry the good news of the gospel to the world.

Sandy Finlayson's text on Thomas Chalmers will be available for purchase March 31, 2021.

Sandy Finlayson, Chief Scottish Man: The life & ministry of Thomas Chalmers. Evangelical Press, 2021. 176pp.

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