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Letters of Thomas Chalmers – A Review by H M Cartwright

Author ,
Category Book Reviews
Date October 28, 2008

The Banner of Truth has reprinted the Letters of Thomas Chalmers, edited by William Hanna, with an introduction by Iain H Murray.1 Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) preached and practised the graceless and Christless morality of the Moderates until his conversion after several years in the ministry. He later became the acknowledged leader of the Evangelical party in the Church of Scotland. As minister, theological professor and ecclesiastic, he was a prominent instrument of God in the increase in the number of theological students, and subsequently of parish ministers, professing Evangelical principles. This had a marked effect upon the Church of Scotland, and was central to preparation for the Disruption of 1843 and the further organisation of the Free Church of Scotland thereafter.

This is not the place to discuss Chalmers’ method in systematic theology or his views on such important matters as the creation, the basis on which the gospel is preached freely to all and the nature of faith. John Macleod thought that his natural bent to the study of the sciences ‘helped to colour and determine the course of his thinking’. John Duncan found fault with his definition of faith, though, after a discussion on the subject, Duncan said to his wife: ‘My doctrine about faith was better than his – but he went to prayer, and his faith was better than mine’. This, however, is not to be taken as discounting the importance and influence of proper views of biblical truth.

All but 16 of the 410 letters in this volume are from Chalmers to a variety of correspondents on various subjects, spiritual and practical. Some background information regarding the correspondents would have added to the interest and understanding of some of the letters. Readers with access to the four volumes of Hanna’s Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers D.D. LL.D. can do some research into those to whom the letters were addressed, but those who only have this volume lack that advantage. An index to the main subjects dealt with in the letters would also be useful for those who wish to dip into the volume rather than read it through. However, these disadvantages do not alter the fact that there is much here of historical and biographical interest and spiritual value. This typically well-produced Banner book contains a biographical table listing the main public events in Chalmers’ life and a useful introduction by Rev I H Murray, abridged from his A Scottish Christian Heritage.

The letters give an insight into Chalmers’ spirituality and personal character which one might not so readily derive from acquaintance with the major facts in his public life or his various theological and other writings. In dealing with the different circumstances and concerns of his correspondents, Chalmers manifests spiritual discernment and common sense. Free from affectation and down to earth in their expressions, these letters indicate the soul of a busy and public man longing after God and desirous to bring the principles of heaven to bear upon every aspect of life below. There are letters to family members, friends, ministerial colleagues old and young, aristocrats and butchers, children, and persons anxious about their souls and their sins. There are comments on domestic situations, personal travels, church matters, social problems, spiritual concerns and the practicalities of Christian living. There are expressions – frank though characterised by fairly typical Scottish reserve – of his own spiritual experiences and aspirations, and helpful responses to those who consulted him on theirs.

Readers will find much of value in these letters. Two partial specimens may conclude this review. To an anxious inquirer he wrote:

You complain that you have not such deep views of sin as experienced Christians speak of; but how did they acquire them? They are the fruits of their experience in Christ, and not of their experience out of Christ. They had them not before their union with the Saviour. It was on more slender conceptions of the evil of sin than they now have that they went to Christ, that they closed with him, and that they received from his sanctifying hand a more contrite spirit than before – a more tender conscience than before. Do as they did; wait not till you have gotten their deep sensibilities till you go to the Saviour. Go to him now; go to him with your present insensibility; bring it to him as part of your disease, and he, the Physician of souls, will minister to this and all other diseases.

Two months before his death he wrote to a lady concerned lest her strong assurance was an illusion. Chalmers first reminded her that ‘the ultimate and decisive test is Scripture’ and referred to Samuel Rutherford’s prison experience of ‘a most remarkable season of spiritual refreshment and illumination’ and to Rutherford’s certainty that these sensible comforts would not last and that he would then have to ‘believe in the dark’. Chalmers then comments:

It is quite competent to believe even in the duller and darker frames of the mind; for belief does not look inwardly upon the frames, but stays itself by looking outwardly upon the Word; see Isaiah 50:10. Nevertheless, such manifestations are mightily to be prized and longed after, as the most precious cordials on our future way; and the recollections of those which are past are confirmatory and comforting to the soul.

Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, October 2008.

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