Iain J. Shaw, “Thomas Chalmers, David Nasmith, and the Origins of the City Mission Movement”
Shaw, author of the recent work entitled High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City in Manchester and London c. 1810-60 (Oxford University Press, 2003), in this essay turns to a related subject in the field of 19th century British Calvinism. He focuses here upon two other figures to portray Calvinist action, evangelistic and philanthropic, in the cities of the Industrial Age: one more widely known figure, Thomas Chalmers of the Church (and later Free Church) of Scotland, and one that has apparently fallen into greater obscurity, David Nasmith, founder of the British city mission movement.
According to Shaw, the parochial home and foreign mission philosophy that Chalmers advocated and applied in his St. John’s parish, Glasgow, was highly influential on Nasmith. Home visitation had long enjoyed popularity in evangelical Churches, and Chalmers was a firm proponent of the old policy Christianization by visitation. “Nature does not go forth in search of Christianity; but Christianity goes forth to knock at the door of nature and, if possible, awaken her out of her sluggishness. . . . It is the way of it in every missionary enterprise.” Consequently, every minister is duty-bound to keep up “an incessant locomotion among the families” (Chalmers, Christian Economy, I: 108-9, 117, quoted by Shaw, 33). Chalmers modified this old model into a territorial visitation scheme adapted to large, industrialized urban cities. And not content to remain an academic theorizer, Chalmers implemented this program in St. John’s (and later in the West Port, Edinburgh) with profound efficiency, mobilizing, regularly supervising and encouraging great numbers of energetic volunteers. Chalmers’ revised model then involved four indispensable components: (1) defined, localized responsibility, (2) habitual visitation of that locality, (3) lay mobilization, and (4) oversight and encouragement of that mobilized force. While Shaw questions the ultimate effectiveness of Chalmers’ charitable policies – paternalistic and anti-public assistance – in the urban slums of Scotland, yet he concedes that he enjoyed great success in popularizing regular territorial visitation in British evangelical home missions.
It was this modified urban parish outreach model that Nasmith basically took over in the Glasgow City Mission. Nasmith, his heart large for the spiritually and socio-economically degraded city of Glasgow, formed an interdenominational organization that sent agents out into the impoverished areas of the city on regular visitations for the spiritual and practical aid of the people. According to Shaw, “Nasmith set domestic visitation at the heart of the work of the agent. As Chalmers had urged, an acquaintance with every family in the district was to be made” (38). And just as Chalmers personally supervised his lay workers, Nasmith ensured that his agents were accountable in their territorial efforts. One is struck with the thoroughness of the program:
Although in Glasgow the post was formally part time, missionaries were to serve the society for up to five hours a day, with hours selected sometime between 11 am and 9 pm. Saturday was reserved for study. . . [The visiting agents] were required to produce a monthly journal of their visitation work which was inspected by the directors, and a report duly delivered to the committee. Directors of the mission accompanied the agents annually to assess their visitation work. Agents were often reprimanded for inefficient or inadequate performance of their duties: in such cases verdicts such as ‘very lifeless’, or ‘neglectful conduct’ were issued (38).
Now, it should be kept in mind that (many of?) these individuals were according to Shaw ‘on the payroll;’ but the accountability of spiritual workers, nonetheless, is here quite striking.
Further, just as with Chalmers’ program in St. John’s, so it was with the Glasgow City Mission – the lay workers visiting were personally able and obliged to deal with instances of poverty and to arrange assistance accordingly. Their duty was first spiritual, but physical concerns were not far behind.
Chalmers very naturally endorsed the Glasgow City Mission. He himself very well could have said what Nasmith himself urged, “Nothing can be of more importance than to Christianise the inhabitants of our large cities” (Letter of David Nasmith to Thomas Chalmers, 16 September 1827, Chalmers MSS, New College Library, Edinburgh, CHA 4. 82.5, quoted by Shaw, 37).
This essay introduces some questions for me in terms of the theory and practice of domestic mission. Chalmers and Nasmith seem to have made a great push towards the democratization of the Christian ministry. The professional ‘ministers’ were not to do it all; they should be leaders and equippers. The end of the ministry was, after all, “not to perform good works, but to multiply the workers” (T. Chalmers, Works, Vol. 18, 380; quoted by Shaw, 39). Chalmers, though an establishment churchman, clearly had a strong appreciation for voluntary ‘lay’ activity. If he was anything, he was an administrator, a delegator, a mobilizer, and a motivator. He both endorsed and formed many ‘societies’ aimed at spiritual and philanthropic improvement of his fellow man, and Nasmith was in some respects a carbon copy. The following extract well illustrates this paradigm: if laymen could exercise “all that competency which belongs to them of superintending and carrying through the whole work of our religious and other charities . . . how mighty an enlargement the field of Christian beneficence would instantly spread itself” (Hanna, Memoirs, Vol II: 505, quoted by Shaw, 40).
How much of this was (and is) good, and how much not so good? Was this a positive move away from that unhealthy, spiritually aristocratic view of the ministry that assigns all spiritual gifts to the ordained ministry and downplays the role of the gifts of the non-ordained? Or was this the opening of the floodgates of the modern day every-believer-has-a-ministry kind of mentality that denigrates the Ephesians 4 offices, gracious endowment of the ascended Christ? Does the centrality of preaching lose its proper place with the added emphasis on private, interpersonal visitation? Is the minister to be less preacher and more administrator and manager? I think the ideal lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes; and whether Chalmers hit the golden mean is open to debate, I suppose.
I did find the discussion of the workforce of the Glasgow City Mission particularly interesting. Nasmith in the work of the Mission took over Chalmers’ strong emphasis on “lay agency in domestic visitation” (41). Those who were recruited for the work had to be men of blameless Christian character and capable to meet the spiritual and physical needs of those in the field of labor. What is of special note is that this role of the lay agent in the Glasgow City Mission frequently became a stepping stone for the Christian ministry. “Thomas Chalmers,” writes Shaw, “had enlisted ranks of elders, deacons, Sunday School and day school teachers as non-commissioned officers spearheading his assault on the urban parish. The Glasgow City Mission recruited a similar workforce, but they were NCO’s working towards a commission” (42). Whichever approach one takes, whether employing for the effort elders and deacons or lay persons training for the Christian ministry, it is clear both men viewed the parish as the field of labor for more than just the minister. For Chalmers, it was for the lay-officers; for Nasmith, the officers-in-preparation.
I am quite sympathetic with both variants of the model. In terms of Nasmith’s variant, an ecclesiastical office that is both congregational and parochial requires first a testing and an approving of men who are fit for this two-fold ministry. “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (1 Tim. 3:10). One who aspires to the office should demonstrate his capabilities, including his aptitude for teaching (1 Tim. 3:2) those within and those without. To that end, it is the Church’s responsibility to train thoroughly her future leaders. And so Nasmith pleads, “The Church must think of, nurse, and TRAIN her young men before she can answer the ends for which she exists” (quoted by Shaw, 42). Let the ‘probationers’ be busy not only in preaching, but also visiting the Lord’s people and those in the district that the church has adopted for its territorial, evangelistic expansion.
In terms of Chalmers’ variant, those who hold the office of elder and deacon should not be excluded from parochial ministry any more than from congregational ministry. So let them be deployed throughout ‘elder districts’ (which is historical point of interest for another time).
But I’m not sure I agree with the notion that the use of elders, as with Chalmers, is the utilization of the ‘laity.’ Doesn’t this suppose a view of the ministry that presumes teaching elders represent presbytery and ruling elders the congregation? That ‘elders’ are members not of presbytery, but of the congregation. If so, I am not in agreement. That the ‘laity’ should be used in evangelistic efforts I don’t deny. But the notion that mobilizing elders is mobilizing the laity strikes me as a manifestation of functional episcopacy. Since the age of the apostles has passed, I am leery of the deputation of elders from a presumed superior command.
And I wonder at the same time whether I can be perfectly at ease with Nasmith’s variant. The workforce of the Glasgow City Mission was strictly confined to the laity (43). It is as though the laity was viewed as consummate tool for territorial witness and not the ordained ministry. The ecclesiastical ministry never intersected with this model except, as Shaw notes, inasmuch as probationers and divinity students used it as a stepping-stone to clerical careers. What of the Church, though? What of the ordained gifts of the ascended Lord? Are not preachers ordained and sent especially for the work of conversion (Rom. 10:14, 15; Acts 13:1-5)? Are not “pastors and teachers” given “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12)? So why not graduate the efficient lay workers, who have first been trained, tested, and approved, to the ordained office? Why hold them in the sphere of followers if they have competently demonstrated themselves to be leaders? Or, why bid them adieu to the Church from the ‘society’ when they have shown themselves so faithful? Perhaps the fault lies in the ‘societal’ or para-ecclesiastical paradigm of Nasmith. The Mission worked in tandem with the Church, but was not itself a church. As sympathetic as I am with Nasmith’s large-hearted ecumenicity and evangelistic priority (again, following Chalmers), I think there was a better way, one that appreciates and involves the laity and yet does not at the same time seem to depreciate the Church and her ordained ministry.