The Practical and the Pious – 1
Chalmers the Bridge Builder: Lessons in Translating the Faith
Margot Butt, in her essay entitled “The Chalmers Papers” includes an insightful quote from the daughter of Thomas Chalmers most like him in personality. Grace Chalmers wrote concerning herself, “I’ve always been a kind of outlier between the practical and the pious. I have a liking for both. I can’t get people with both about me so either I have the pious that look down on practicality as a secular thing, or the practical that nauseate the piety” (189). It is obviously from this quote that A. C. Cheyne’s compilation The Practical and the Pious: Essays on Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) draws its name.
And rightly so. Thomas Chalmers was eminently pious, himself kindling many a ‘bright and shining light’ in the 19th century Scottish Kirk. Giants such as Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Alexander Duff, and Andrew Bonar owed a tribute of the greatest respect to him. And at the same time, he was eminently practical. An organizer, a campaigner, a delegator, and a plain, roll-up-your-sleeves doer. Yes, his head was in the clouds; but his hands and feet were quite busy here on the earth.
As I take a step back, having read and processed these fascinating scholarly articles gathered from the Chalmers Bicentenary Conference (1980), three striking features of this great ‘practical pietist’ come into sharper focus for me. In the first of three parts, I’d like to talk about Thomas Chalmers as – to use the metaphor of John McCaffrey – a bridge builder.
First, the idea itself. It’s not very easy to chop and hack up history into nice, convenient segments. We use dates and events to define when once era has begun and another has ended. Yet, it is rather arbitrary. But even if it is arbitrary, we all acknowledge that times change, and we categorize history according to periods. Chalmers stood in a transitional time. Things were rapidly changing: in philosophy, in politics, in religion, and in society. He had a foot in the older age, and one in the new. He began His life in rural Fife, so much a picture the old order, and ended it working in the slums of Edinburgh, the underbelly of the new.
Change is unpleasant. And yet to survive, we must change. Adapt or die! That’s not Darwinism; that’s life.
Chalmers did – or attempted to do – what all must do to survive. And more to the point for us as the Church, he led the Church of his day to adapt and thrive. Not to cut loose from the past, or to change what is unalterably the sum and substance of Christianity. No, Chalmers wasn’t a radical wrecking ball. He was a conservative through and through. But he was not insensitive to the winds of change, and he insisted that the ‘auld Kirk’ must build a bridge from its past to the present. And from there, into the future.
Christianity is not a static fixity. Now, don’t get me wrong. We believe that the central truths of Scripture are timeless and unchanging. But Christianity is more than the timeless body of truths, contained in Sacred Scripture and expressed in well-chiseled creeds. It involves always an adaptation, an application of the timeless truth to the present context. Otherwise, Christianity becomes freeze-dried. It becomes de-incarnated, and so ceases to be true Christianity.
We must build bridges from the text and its timeless truths to our own situation, which is not exactly the way things were when the apostles and prophets first spoke. Yes, sin remains sin in essence today as then. But the uniqueness, the particularity of the sin requires a particularization of God’s Word. The particularity of our personal, family, and social tragedies require a application of God’s superabounding grace.
The same holds true for the history of the Church. We must also learn how the Church in past ages applied that truth in their day for our instruction. Now, we must not go back into the annals of our forefathers and simply transport what they said and did, part for part. This is the idolatry of romanticism – like Israel worshipping the bronze serpent. Our forbearers sought to apply the timeless text to their own day (often hitting the mark, but sometimes missing it). Our day calls not for blind reproduction, but for a modification of what they said and did . . . when they were right. Not because the Word of God is a wax nose, nor because their applications were biblically illegitimate then. But because Christ will have a comprehensive dominion over every particularity of this fallen world, not just those of certain times and places.
This is what Chalmers was – a bridge-builder for Christianity. He was quite self-conscious about it. McCaffrey writes,
… there was his feeling that he stood at the crossing of two worlds, that it was his duty to make his contemporaries aware of the changing nature of their society and readier to accept change in such a way that the human values he himself prized so highly would be preserved intact in an increasingly uncertain world. He saw himself as a bridge-builder. He sensed from a quite early date that his life and actions had to be validated by a wider set of values than the merely contemporary. He took initiatives in public life not from a sense of his own importance (indeed, in his private journal he often deprecated the fame which contemporaries ascribed to him), but because he consistently struggled with all his failing to be true to himself. His analysis of a contemporary issue could, thus, often fail to be sufficiently flexible but this inflexibility came precisely because he approached each different issue, amidst the cares of a busy life, honestly with the weapons he had to hand in his own intellectual powers and his own reading. In a changing world he had only his own judgment and faith to steer by (33).
In what areas, then, did Chalmers act as a bridge-builder for Christianity?
First, he was a bridge builder in the core discipline of the Church – theology. Roxborogh quotes Chalmers, “Although the subject matter of theology is unalterably fixed . . . is there not a constant necessity for accommodating both the vindication . . . and the illustration of this subject matter to the ever-varying spirit and philosophy of the times? . . . In theology, as well as in the other sciences, there is indefinite room for novelties both of thought and expression” (175). Chalmers, the man of his times that he was, approached the study of theology inductively.
In order to appreciate the motivation here, one must realize that Chalmers was a missionary at heart. Theology must not be a discipline chained in the ivory tower. It must be articulated to the modern mind to fulfill the Gospel mandate. How do we translate the timeless Gospel?
Roxborogh notes that, for example, some of Chalmers’ conservative associates, such as William Cunningham, balked at his willingness to call unregenerate men ‘good.’ But he explains, “Cunningham was mainly concerned about the danger of compromising orthodox Calvinism; Chalmers about the necessity of communicating the Gospel. He did not believe he could do this if he ignored people’s own use of language and their best aspirations” (176-77). It is not as though Chalmers was unconcerned about dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s; rather, he wanted to make sure that people could read and understand the i’s and t’s!
Naturally, then, Chalmers was a bridge builder in various intellectual disciplines. In short, he was an apologist for his generation. Already a keen student of mathematics, Chalmers turned his naturalist interests heavenward and composed the popular Astronomical Discourses. The University of St. Andrews then hired him in 1823 to fill the chair of Professor of Moral Philosophy. Later, as Professor of Theology at Edinburgh, Chalmers left this legacy to the ministry of the Kirk. Interestingly, Roxborogh notes that at the end of his career, Chalmers insisted that the New College enable its divinity students critically to engage in the issues of modern science (176).
But without doubt, he sought to bring one discipline in particular under the aegis of Christian truth. At St. Andrews, he turned to “the most voguish of all the new sciences, political economy,” says Boyd Hilton. “The Christian reconciliation of economics became the ‘favourite child of his intellect’, despite the dangers of ‘secular contamination’ involved in such an ‘earthly’ field of inquiry” (141). Chalmers’ major contributions in this field were Commercial discourses (1820), The Christian and civic economy of large towns (1821-6), On political economy in connexion with the moral state and moral prospects of society (1832), and the Bridgewater Treatise of 1833.
Given our present economic crisis in the United States, Hilton’s essay “Chalmers as Political Economist” is especially illuminating. Chalmers, says Hilton, reconciled the profit motive with Christianity. Self-interest, the axiomatic source of common weal in Adam Smith’s universe, may in fact receive God’s imprimatur. He simply posited a natural rate of economic growth. Men, however, must not transgress that natural rate by greed, and so indulge in excessively risky ventures. In brief, there is legitimate enterprise and there is speculation. And God judges speculation in the form of economic crises. God is the one who ‘pops the bubbles.’
In Chalmers’ view, fears of possible economic crises have two God-ordained positive effects on society. First, they serve as a dissuasive of excess. The inevitable “intervals of bankruptcy and alarm” in free markets “were not altogether a matter for dismay . . . for though Chalmers never says so explicitly, he seems to have regarded the threat of bankruptcy (with its harsh concomitant, imprisonment for debt) as a sort of positive check, commensurate with pestilences, working to force businessmen into moderation, to deter them from economic temptation, so that by subduing the sins of the flesh-pots they might find spiritual redemption” (148). Second, the crises have a certain purgative effect. “Impending crises were an essential part of God’s providential plan for regenerating and redeeming individual sinners and hence society as a whole” (145). Very naturally, then, Chalmers was an anti-interventionist like Adam Smith, albeit for evangelical reasons. He “held it essential that government should not thwart the dispensations of Providence by trying to prevent or alleviate business failure, any more than they should dole out alms to the poor” (148). Let God’s rod reclaim the transgressor!
Hilton rejects Chalmers’ distinction between legitimate business and speculation as “absurd” (147). “In practice the only way to decide whether a particular item of business was legitimate was by its outcome; like rebellion, it might be presumed to have had God’s blessing only if it succeeded” (147). To borrow our theme, Hilton thinks that Chalmers’ bridge just isn’t bridging. I would take strong exception to this. At the risk of sounding too much like an old Scotsman, I would say that Chalmers’ view is just plain common sense. Everyone acknowledges a distinction between legitimate, natural desire and greed. We have two distinct terms here, and the one is by definition the illegitimate excess of the former. Moderation means something, even if it isn’t always easy to ascertain.
But regardless, Chalmers’ old school, evangelical turn on Political Economy did not retain whatever popularity it enjoyed. The bridge was built, but increasingly it fell into disuse. By the end of Chalmers’ life, poor law reform was in full swing, dooming the old Scottish system of voluntary, parish-based charity in favor of ‘legally assessed’ – government mandated and funded – social welfare. And shortly after his life, limited liability legislation was passed into law, which “effectively emasculated the retributive mechanism of business failure” (153).
Hilton’s take on the failure of Chalmers’ outlook politically is that there was something deeper in his economic theory that was hostile to the prevailing mood of the age. It was his evangelical Calvinism:
Writers like Chalmers and Thomas Nolan who believed in the fever of speculation as a vital part of the economy of redemption were also men who held to a literal interpretation of the doctrines of Atonement, Eternal Punishment, Vicarious Sacrifice, Substitutionary Punishment, and the like. Defenders of this Evangelical scheme of salvation invariably adopted the Calvinist terminology of likening sin to a debt which was owed to God; God would have to exact his recompense in return but – by analogy with Christ’s atonement – did not care who precisely repaid the debt so long as it was repaid by someone (152).
It is not surprising, then, says Hilton, “when, in the middle decades of the century, fashionable theologians abandoned the doctrine of a literal and endless hell-fire, they too were opting out of the capitalist-spiritual system adumbrated by Chalmers; they were, in fact, limiting the liability of sin” (153). Hmm. Are today’s big government bailouts a direct consequence of a retreat from historic evangelical theology?
Closely allied to this bridge-building effort was Chalmers’ writings and activity in philanthropy or ‘social work.’ The ‘Christian good of Scotland’ was the great, burning desire of his heart. He believed that Christianity should pervade every facet of society and should be realized in acts of charity towards those who are in need. He was distraught to witness the dreadful physical, moral, and especially spiritual conditions of his countrymen, holed up like rats in the tenements of Industrial Age slums. And so when he accepted the call to Tron Church, Glasgow, moving from the quaint rural parish of Kilmany, he was determined to build a bridge. Thus, the ‘St. John’s experiment,’ in which he heroically retooled and re-implemented the parish model first for evangelization and second for diaconal work.
Having emerged from the experiment with (reportedly) great results, all eyes were on St. John’s. Here was living proof that by close, regular, personal interaction of the deacons with the poor of Glasgow, that the old system of voluntary benevolence could work in the new situation. The system appeared to be quite efficient on paper – the cost-benefit analysis blew the government plan out of the water. So why not implement this on a large scale within Scotland? Let the territorial churches take over the task of managing the poor without legal assessment, he argued.
Others in his day, however, roundly criticized Chalmers’ ‘bridge building’ here as unrealistic. Checkland informs us of William Pulteney Alison, a contemporary of Chalmers and a notable physician who also worked with the poor. Alison thought that Chalmers was out of touch with the new and complex order of society by advocating the St. John’s model for national care for the poor. Checkland quotes Alison, “In a complex state of society . . . there is no other way in which the lower ranks can be permanently preserved from an extremity of suffering” than by legal assessment (133). Chalmers rejoined with his famous On the Sufficiency of the Parochial System without a Poor Rate, for the right management of the poor (1841). But the future of poor relief, says Checkland, lay with Alison.
And rightly so, he suggests. “Chalmers took no real account of the fact, palpable to Alison and others, that good workmen were at the mercy of the booms and slumps of the trade cycle. Chalmers neither knew nor understood the evils of unemployment; it is hard to understand how he, living in Glasgow between 1815-1822, could have failed to appreciate so obvious a phenomenon. Chalmers was in effect helpless, locked into Malthusian theory and neo-classical economics. According to his interpretation, if any concession were made the whole fabric would disintegrate” (137).
Thankfully, his essay is not a total kibosh. Some things hadn’t changed and still ought to be recognized and applied. So Checkland concedes,
Chalmers did comprehend important truths about society. He insisted on the importance of the family as the basic social unit, a source of psychic support for its members. He urged that the neighborhood or ‘locality’ should become a focus for community activity; for social coherence to be effective it was necessary to work in terms of units that were manageable and which could command loyalty. He revived John Knox’s ideas of the deacons acting as concerned ‘social workers’; by so doing he was emphasizing the need for a social bond between classes, expressed in commitment. By stressing the need for the gathering of information, together with sustained contact, he presaged the need for professionalism in social work. Though these ideas were in a sense anticipated by Knox, they were of continuing value (137).
Maybe the bridge needs an overhaul, we might say; but there is a decent connection.
Friedhelm Voges, in his essay “Chalmers’ Thinking Habits: Some Lessons from His Theology,” also joins in the critique of his social program. He does acknowledge that Chalmers, “moved by a genuine Christian love especially for the common people” was “looking to restore the Christian Scotland of old [and] wanted to raise the working classes at least in a moral sense” (157). But Chalmers was subject to limitations, he says. “How did Chalmers come, for instance, to regard the assimilation of a town to a country parish as possible – even after his experiment had had to be discontinued” (157)?
He suggests that his limitations lay in certain failures of his theological and philosophical system. Voges, for example, asks how Chalmers could remain so optimistic about his social experiments when he so strongly affirmed total depravity? Shouldn’t Chalmers have been more skeptical about a plan run for sinners by sinners? And shouldn’t Chalmers have distrusted his own senses and sympathies more, rather than blindly following them under the justification of common sense?
His defense of the old Scottish poor laws as applicable in the new context reflects Chalmers’ conviction in the naturalness of God’s inviolable order in the world. By instituting the system of legal assessments, the English have traversed, to quote Chalmers, “the processes of a better mechanism instituted by the wisdom of God” (162). That ‘better mechanism’ is the old, voluntary system embodied in old, rural and parochial Scotland. But Voges argues that there is a serious defect here, in a system that brushes systemic human failure under the carpet.
Last, Voges points out another crack in Chalmers’ bridge. Obviously, Chalmers’ concern for evidence in scientific experiment strongly conditioned the St. John’s ‘experiment,’ both its trial and the publication of its results. As we have seen, Chalmers approached theology inductively, like a scientist; and that carried over to his foray in the (emerging) social sciences. But it is, says, Voges, problematic to approach sociology with the same confidence as a natural scientist. “Being used to the scientific approach, Chalmers probably fell for this temptation quite easily. His readiness to propose easy solutions for social problems, particularly poor relief, may well have its root here” (163).
But like Checkland, Voges leaves a little room for praise. While Chalmers was unduly optimistic and saw things as too easily explained and fixed, yet he writes, “there is also a strength in this approach: where Chalmers moved into immediate action, a greater realist might well have hesitated” (165).
Closely related to the area of philanthropy or social work is the area of evangelism. Here, Chalmers endorsed the same, tried and true vehicles for improving man’s inward condition as he did their outward. He didn’t give up on the old territorial principle and religious establishments, but sought that they should be reapplied in the new contexts.
It must be underscored that when Chalmers advocated the territorial principle, he was doing it to improve the outward condition of the poor in a secondary way. But, as Mary Furgol helpfully observes, this was not his primary reason. “The main purpose behind the plan, however, was still the religious one of bringing the Good News to the poor, and it is vital to understand this when examining his later solution of the problem of poor relief and assessing its impact and success” (128). The St. John’s and West Port experiments are usually – even by evangelicals who write about Chalmers – regarded primarily as philanthropic success stories. If they were successes in this regard, however, it was not this that Chalmers was after primarily. Chalmers was after the good of the soul, then the good of the body. In that order. Territorialism worked for both purposes.
Chalmers’ leadership in the Church Extension campaign of the 1830s, according to Maciver, was a way to implement his evangelistic territorialism of St. John’s on a national level. “He gained national fame through the vehemence with which he urged his vision of reinvigorated ecclesiastical Establishments altered to meet the changing state of 19th-century society” (31).
The evangelistic bridge builder that he was, Chalmers acknowledged the realities of the shifting political and socio-economic scene. Traditionally, it was the landed aristocracy that would be solicited to endow ventures such as the building of new churches. But in the Church Extension campaign, he came to rely heavily on the financial support of the rising middle-class, the merchants and industrialists. Though an establishmentarian, he was clearly not at all coy about employing ‘voluntaristic principles’ (fundraising), and so drawing the scorn of the Dissenters. He even became a de facto Voluntary himself at the Disruption, when the Church of Scotland would not budge on the patronage question. The Free Church later benefited from Chalmers’ experience that he obtained in leading the Church Extension campaign, and charted a course for a profoundly successful new denomination. Through all these vicissitudes, Chalmers remained what he always was; but given changing circumstances, he adapted.
It is interesting to note, in passing, how very practical Chalmers was when it came to issues of Church organization. Roxborogh writes,
For Chalmers the organization of the Church, like the organisation of theology, was subservient to the task of proclaiming the Gospel. On reading a sermon which argued that the Church was free in different times and circumstances to alter its government, worship, and discipline, since its ‘institutions stand not on the strength of statute, but in that of their fitness to fulfill the great objects of her mission’, Chalmers felt moved to write to the author agreeing that it was ‘competent on mere human discretion to decide on questions of ecclesiastical regulations and polity’ (180).
I cannot help but wonder, however, how well this mentality went over with his conservative colleagues. Surely this outlook does not represent standard jus divinum Presbyterianism.
McCaffrey further illumines Chalmers’ evangelistic, bridge-building priorities within the Church organization. Bridges must be built to the common man, and to that end, certain things were prominent in his thinking. “Whether the question concerned pluralities, veto, or church extension, one idea was common to all and in publicizing he made his reputation. Two things were essential to it: character and locality. The quality of the population would be assured by an effective teaching Church. The appointment of ministers to parishes and popular assent to these appointments had to be reconciled to ensure orderly progress. The common man and his attitudes were the key” (43).
Having examined a few areas in which Chalmers sought to bridge the gap of Christian truth – biblically and historically – to the contemporary age, it will be helpful reemphasize why.
Why was Chalmers a bridge builder? Roxborogh is most helpful on this point. Again, it was because he was interested in ‘Christianization.’ He longed for the gracious dominion of Christ to find expression in every age, among every people, in every facet and dimension of human life, from the private individual to the structures and institutions of civilization. For Chalmers, Christianity ought to be applied to the whole of society. “Every part and every function of a commonwealth should be leavened with Christianity” (181). Christ must rule in the natural sciences, in mathematics, in economics, and in social issues of the day, especially welfare. “The kingdoms of the earth,” says Chalmers, “may become the kingdom of God and his Christ with the external framework of these present governments . . . . There must therefore be a way in which Christianity can accommodate itself to this framework – a mode by which it can animate all the parts and all the members of it” (181).
There can be no doubt that Chalmers was a bridge-builder and why he was one. But was he effective?
Part of the answer depends on our values. In her essay, Mary Furgol emphasizes the fact that Chalmers sought to convert first and clothe second. The greater question, then, is whether Chalmers’ preaching and pastoring was effective in the conversion of the poor and whether his influence on other ministers and missionaries brought in a gleaning worthy of their calling. I think the question about Chalmers’ ultimate success is similar to asking, was Jesus successful? Well, it depends on what index you’re using. By the measurements of the Jewish religious establishment, he was a resounding failure. “He saved others; himself he cannot save” (Matt. 24:42). But to his followers, and in the judgment of many successive generations, the verdict is far otherwise. The servant must be content to be as his Master and to endure the critique of those who judge with a human judgment.
Further, much depends on whether one presumes that bridge building is a good thing to begin with in the first place. There are two alternatives to biblical bridge building. There is retreatism and isolationism on the one hand and syncretistic absorption in the culture on the other. It’s not always easy to define either extreme, I admit. But if you’re a retreatist, building your bunker and waiting for the sweet by and by to come, Chalmers is not your guy. And if you’re such a progressive that the Christian tradition of the past has nothing to say (norma normata), much less the antiquated rule of our faith, the infallible Scriptures (norma normans), then you might as well not be a Christian. To be a Christian means building bridges – not failing to build them, either because you are unwilling to embark from your shore or because you are prepared to bid adieux to it once and for all.
But the question is fair – and one that Chalmers would ask of himself anyway! Assuming that we share Chalmers’ values as well as the Christian ideal of bridge building, the results are mixed. Let’s face it. No one is perfect. Certainly Chalmers didn’t think that he was. Perhaps the lion share of criticisms above is fair.
Yet, his successes must not be underrated. Chalmers has left his indelible imprint upon Reformed and evangelical Christendom in Scotland and beyond – not to mention the field of Sociology, Christian or otherwise.
I would suggest that too few followed Chalmers at the pivotal point of the mid-19th century when the old order was passing. In terms of evangelism, Dissenters wanted to abandon establishments and the territorial model of Christianizing a land. These structures were viewed as outdated and invalid. There was too quick an embrace of a lasseiz faire model of Christianity and a rejection of the ‘planned economy’ of the older order. In terms of poor relief, it seems that the pendulum swung away from the localized, voluntary plan of old, rural Scotland, without resting at a golden mean that might have involved a cooperation between central government and territorial church-based poor relief. But now we have the Welfare State, and Chalmers’ plan remains an interesting historical footnote.
In these and other areas, I fear that too few tried to build bridges. But perhaps Chalmers can inspire us to understand and appreciate the old better and seek to implement in the present day the timeless essence of what made it good – without selling our soul to the culture. A delicate balance indeed. Sort of like being a practical pietist.