Not the Kind of Anniversary We Usually Note
2015 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of a change of pastorate for the Rev. Thomas Chalmers. On Sunday 9th July 1815, after a ministry of twelve years, Chalmers preached a farewell sermon to his congregation in Kilmany (Kilmany is a village in the Fife region of Scotland). Later that month he was inducted to the pastorate of the Tron Church in the city of Glasgow. He was to remain in Glasgow for eight years, leaving in 1823 to teach in the University of St Andrews.
As the title of this article indicates, this is not the kind of anniversary we usually note. Usually we commemorate a person’s birth or death. Why then the leaving of a pastoral charge? The answer lies in something Chalmers wrote and published a couple of months later. The (rather long) title is as follows: The duty of giving an immediate diligence to the business of the Christian life: an address to the inhabitants of the parish of Kilmany.
James Stalker, in his The Preacher and his Models, writes, ‘I question if in the whole history of the pulpit there is a document more worthy of the attention of preachers than the address which Dr. Chalmers sent to the people of his first charge at Kilmany, when he was leaving it for Glasgow’ (page 258). Reading those words a few weeks back prompted me both to re-read Chalmers’ Address and to pen this short article.
First of all, some background. When Chalmers was ordained to the parish of Kilmany in 1803 he was not only unconverted but hostile to evangelical religion. ‘Christ’, he confesses in the Address, ‘through whose blood the sinner, who by nature stands afar off, is brought near to the heavenly Lawgiver, whom he has offended, was scarcely ever spoken of, or spoken of in such a way as stripped Him of all the importance of His character and His offices’.
So what did he preach? For the greater part of his time in Kilmany his emphasis was on ‘the meanness of dishonesty, on the villainy of falsehood, on the despicable arts of calumny; in a word, upon all those deformities of character which awaken the natural indignation of the human heart against the pests and the disturbers of human society.’
Furthermore, had his preaching achieved its object he would have been perfectly content: ‘I should have felt all the repose’, he says, ‘of one who had gotten his ultimate object. It never occurred to me that all this might have been done, and yet the soul of every hearer have remained in full alienation from God…as completely unturned to God and as totally unpossessed by a principle of love to Him as before.’
The striking thing, however, is that during the whole of this period his object remained unrealized: ‘I never once heard of any such reformations having been effected amongst them. If there was anything at all brought about in this way, it was more than I ever got any account of. I am not sensible that all the vehemence with which I urged the virtues and the proprieties of social life had the weight of a feather on the moral habits of my parishioners.’
Chalmers did at last witness a change in his parishioners’ lives. Very tellingly, though, ‘it was not till reconciliation to God became the distinct and the prominent object of my ministerial exertion; it was not till I took the Scriptural way of laying the method of reconciliation before them; it was not till the free offer of forgiveness through the blood of Christ was urged upon their acceptance… that I ever heard of any of those subordinate reformations which I aforetime made the earnest and the zealous, but, I am afraid, at the same time the ultimate object of my earlier ministrations.’
And this brings him to the heart of the matter: ‘You have at least taught me that to preach Christ is the only effective way of preaching morality in all its branches; and out of your humble cottages have I gathered a lesson, which I pray God I may be enabled to carry in all its simplicity into a wider theatre, and to bring with all the power of its subduing efficacy upon the vices of a more crowded population.’
The changed behavior that Chalmers was so eager to see we would love to see ourselves. All across America. Many of our fellow citizens would love to see it too – including many of our church leaders and politicians. But the great question is, how is such a transformation to be brought about? The answer of Chalmers’ experience and Address is – not apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is here that so many professing Christians (including ministers) make the same mistake as Chalmers did. They lament the vices that are prevalent in our society. They appeal for the moral uprightness of a former day. They preach the neighbor love commanded in the Bible. Missing, however, is the gospel of which Chalmers, in his unconverted days, was so shamefully an enemy. Not until that changes can we expect to see the reformation that is desired.
Take it as an encouragement to faithfulness as we begin another year of gospel witness. Despised as it may be, it is the preaching of Christ that will alone make people what they should be. And you know why that is. It is the preaching of Christ that will alone put people right with their Maker. It is the preaching of Christ that will alone change people’s hearts.
- The Trust publishes Letters of Thomas Chalmers, which contains a selection of his correspondence, edited by his son-in-law and biographer, William Hanna. These letters breathe the warmth of Chalmer’s devotion to Christ and reveal his true soul.
Introduction by Iain H. Murray
2015 marked the two-hundredth anniversary of a change of pastorate for the Rev. Thomas Chalmers. On Sunday 9th July 1815, after a ministry of twelve years, Chalmers preached a farewell sermon to his congregation in Kilmany (Kilmany is a village in the Fife region of Scotland). Later that month he was inducted to the pastorate […]
David Campbell is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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