Chalmers on Church Establishments, Part 1:
The Value of Discussing the Merits of Church Establishments Today
In 1838, the Church of Scotland was in the midst of a major effort to win the support of the government for the public financing of a ‘church extension scheme.’ The population of Scotland had mushroomed, and there had been major demographic shifts due to the industrial revolution. Up until that time, the Church had been more or less able, through its endowed parochial system, to meet the spiritual needs of the people. This is what Knox and his successors had sought and, by the blessing of God, had obtained: a reformed Kirk sanctioned and subsidized by the powers that be, enabled to furnish the entire nation with pure Christian instruction in every hamlet, village, town and city. But the winds of change had blown, and the Church of Scotland was treading water. Vast districts and slums of the major cities were teeming with unchurched and unreached sinners. To meet this need, the Church leaders of the day petitioned the state for public funds to supplement voluntary contributions, in order that new church facilities might be built in newly drawn parishes throughout the land. Knox’s program of Christianization should not languish for lack of support!
But in the 19the century, there were voices that combined to threaten the vision. First, there were the Voluntaries, those otherwise orthodox evangelicals, many of whom were staunch Calvinists no less, who opposed all connections of the Church with the State. Second, there were the economists, the followers of Adam Smith, who asserted that religion ought to stand economically on its own two feet, and that it would succeed without the help of Parliament.
It is in this milieu that Thomas Chalmers, then the undisputed leader of the evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland, delivered and published his Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches (Glasgow, 1838). It presents a very thoughtful and compelling argument to Christian people and to magistrates alike the merits of the institution in question. And I would argue that it, together with much of Chalmers’ other writings, should be unearthed and brought again into the thoughtful consideration of the reformed and evangelical world. To that end, I would like to provide an overview and commentary on the Lectures in a series of installments.
Before that, however, it will probably be asked, why in the world we should we study a work on Church establishments? First, aren’t establishments defunct relics of pre-enlightenment Christianity? If so, this would be a study in matters of mere historical interest. And second, aren’t they just plain wrong? Don’t they enshrine and patronize one denomination over other legitimate Christian bodies? And aren’t we enlightened enough today to contend that there ought to be a perfect tolerance of all religious faiths within a nation? Even to contemplate the virtues of establishments would probably strike most Christians today like endorsing the Salem witch trials. We abandoned that sinking ship long ago; so let’s let the thing lie where it should on the ocean floor!
But there are several reasons why Chalmers’ Lectures should be read and discussed again.
First, we should not dismiss the case at the outset without giving it a thoughtful ear. As Nicodemus rightly put it, “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth” (Jn. 7:51)? And those who argued for Church establishments were not wide-eyed fanatics; they were our venerated fathers in the faith. I think that this should especially resonate with modern-day Reformed folk. This was the position of Luther, of Calvin, and of Knox. This was the position of the divines at Dordt and at Westminster. This was the position of the New England Puritans, who sought to set the Americas as a ‘city on a hill.’ We may not, after having read the arguments, embrace them. But should we prejudge a matter in which our forbearers have lent the weight of their united testimony?
Second, we should have a distinct vision, informed by revelation. And I think that means we should want civil magistrates to be not just adherents, but patrons of Christianity. What is it to pray ‘thy kingdom come?’ Does that kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ exclude any sphere? Is Christ to be sovereign over our hearts, our bodies, our families, but not our businesses, our centers of learning, our courts and legislatures? Is that what we envision and long for? Is that the aspiration that Holy Scripture incluclates? That Jesus should be Lord of all, except within the beltway? My vision, my longing, is that in every sphere, including the government, men of every rank will do homage to King Jesus – privately and publicly. So I will go out on a limb here. I think that the Constitution is fallible and not of equal authority with the Bible (gasp!). If the First Amendment means that Christ may have no official, recognized honor done Him by our nation, then I say, let us pray for a day when it shall be amended by the universal demand of a spiritually awakened citizenry.
Third, if we are reformed and sincere evangelicals desiring the conversion of our fellow countrymen, I think we should want to understand how our forbearers went about that business in their day. We should sit not only at the feet of their doctrine, but also learn from their sanctified wisdom. It is true that even if we adopt the ‘establishment principle,’ it is impossible to seek a total application of it to the present day. But at the same time, I am convinced that it is a rash mistake to think that everything bound up under the heading of Church establishments is automatically inapplicable today. Establishments work on the territorial principle, for example. That principle, as Chalmers here and elsewhere contends, is simply that evangelism is most efficient when it is focused on a definable community, a ‘parish,’ if you will. And as territorial churches eschew competition and cooperate for the greater good, each habitually cultivating its own charge, the end result of their work in the aggregate will be the Christianization of the commonwealth. This principle does not require an establishment for its operation. True, establishments are conducive to the settling of the territorial system. But establishments are not absolutely necessary for it; and this point Chalmers demonstrated in his territorial efforts in the West Port of Edinburgh after he led Disruption from the Church of Scotland. Without an establishment backing him, he adopted and spiritually renewed the worst slum in Edinburgh.
Fourth, our Lord predicted the eventual triumph of His Gospel Kingdom among men (Matt. 13:31-33). Christ is building His Church, and we may be assured that even the mighty gates of Hell shall not withstand its progress (Matt. 16:18). And of course, this is not totally new; the Old Testament prophets unite in their vision of a Messiah-conquered world, when all men shall submit to Him (Psa. 2:8, Isa. 2:1-4, Dan. 2:31-45). If all this is the case, then we should have a ‘postwar’ reconstruction plan. If God pours out His Spirit today, as He has done in times past, we will be in the same position that the Christians were under Constantine or the Protestants during the Reformation in Europe. Entire nations – people and princes – have been overcome by the persuasive force of the Christian message. What shall we do when it happens again? Shall we or shall we not accept the hand of a converted government to endorse and even endow the Church of Christ? Shall we or shall we not advise them on how to be godly rulers under their Lord Christ if they solicit us? Ought we, citing the First Amendment, politely to opt out of a seat in their cabinet meetings to shape public policy? Or, if it does not happen in our nation, how shall we respond to our Christian brothers, say, in China, if and when they tell us that officials in Beijing have called upon them to be their spiritual guides? What advice shall we offer?
With these reasons in mind, I would hope that Chalmers’ Lectures might be perused once again.