Reverend Professor Thomas Chalmers – airbrushed from history?
David C Jackson talks about his research quest to discover why a man once described as the ‘chief Scotsman of his age’ seems to have faded from the public’s consciousness:
A good few years ago now, I was searching for a subject for PhD work and curiosity led me to the subject of Reverend Professor Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) who became a theologian, minister and Scottish reformer and is best remembered for his involvement in the Disruption of 1843 which created a new denomination, the Free Church of Scotland.
In Glasgow, Chalmers conducted most of his work from the Tron Church in Argyle Street, from 1815-19 (now known as the Tron Theatre) and his St. John’s experimental church (demolished in 1962) from 1819-23 nearby in MacFarlane Street, Glasgow. At that time, he was more or less the uncrowned leader of the evangelical movement in Scotland and received many honours from several universities, including a public honour from France.
On a churches open day, I took myself down to the Tron Theatre expecting very clear and proud memorabilia about Chalmers. They did indeed have a magnificent historical display going back to about the 15th or 16th centuries but completely nothing about the ‘great’ Thomas Chalmers, for he was very famous indeed throughout Scotland. I asked the young man at reception if he had ever heard of the name of Chalmers and the answer was no. Further enquiries were made but the replies were negative, not even a plaque pinned to the outside wall saying that at one time this was Chalmers’ church.
Airbrushed from history
Chalmers seemed to have been airbrushed out of history, or simply seen as the forgotten man, because very little indeed has been written about him for decades and this was the man who was once described by Thomas Carlyle as the ‘chief Scotsman of his age.’ The only book for me worth consulting was Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth by Professor Stewart J. Brown, published by Oxford University Press in 1982.
I found this chasm of historical literature astonishing and so my curiosity got the better of me and I ended up researching Chalmers for over 4.5 years in the hope of coming up with a credible answer as to why society wanted now to forget about this man’s achievements, or the lack of them, therefore I proceeded to conduct a forensic examination of Chalmers, who was born in Anstruther, Fife.
The only updated book of reliable research was Professor Brown’s and I gathered much from that book but Brown takes a historical perspective, whereas I focus on spiritual and theological matters.
At the end of the day, I found that the truth about Chalmers was that he was a great performer rather than a great reformer. He was indeed a powerful motivational speaker but his ego reached a very unhealthy stage when he described himself as a genius. Couple this together with his kaleidoscopic moods and you have a recipe for a deeply disturbed psychological mindset, which I discuss in my new book.
An intellectual bully?
The book deals with such complications, together with examining the validity of Chalmers' conversion and especially his own written report of the ‘success’ of his St. John’s experiments which were highly questionable. At the age of 23 Chalmers was dismissed from the University of St. Andrews because he failed to teach his students the basic knowledge they required: he talked too much about himself!
Chalmers' approach to reform and other projects was aggressive and bullish, for indeed he was an intellectual bully. My research contrasts with the piously glossed praise (both from post Chalmers' era and the internet) allocated to him but alas time reveals that the messenger had become greater than the message and his thinking streams were realistically unreliable. Realising all this, perhaps this is the reason why history has distanced itself from his memory and works.
David C. Jackson is the author of The Pilgrimage and Conversion of Thomas Chalmers: (following his journey from Anstruther to Glasgow) ISBN 9781 7887 40876 (book) and available on ePDF 9781 7887 40883, ePub 9781 7887 40890 and mobil 9781 7887 40906; released for publishing on 10 January 2018 by Peter Lang Ltd., International Academic Publishers, Oxford.
David C. Jackson, BD. MTh.
University of Glasgow.
(images: Rev Thomas Chalmers by Sir John Steell 1883, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, copyright Stephencdickson; memorial plaque at St Giles, Edinburgh and Chalmers’ birthplace in Anstruther, copyright Kim Traynor)