The latest addition to the Chalmers audio library:
Archive for the ‘Commerce & Christianity’ Category
The Church, in its worldwide missionary enterprise, must be funded. Yet, according to Chalmers, the Church must ultimately fail if it makes its services dependent upon a pre-existing demand. Adam Smith was right to promote free trade in the marketplace, but not in religion. Why? Because the natural man won’t pay for the Gospel. He has no demand for such a supply. Therefore, missionaries must be financed by those who are already Christian, whose hearts have been enlarged by the Gospel that they may patronize its cause. This is what Chalmers calls voluntaryism ab extra. And it is a major part of his argument for the necessity of Church establishments.
In the quote below, Chalmers demonstrates that this has always been the case, from the coming of the Savior to the age of the apostles and beyond.
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“Now let us consider whether this is the footing on which the world ever is; or ever can be, supplied with its Christianity, or rather with its Christian instruction, in the way that is best for the moral interests of our species. It was not so at the first introduction of Christianity, in virtue, not of a movement from earth to heaven, but of a movement from heaven to earth; and the expenses of which, throughout the infancy and boyhood of the Saviour, were certainly not defrayed by those for whose welfare the mission was undertaken. It was not so during the time of His public ministry, when three or four women ministered to Him of their substance, as He travelled from place to place over the land of Judea; and so He was maintained at the cost of the few for the benefit of the many. It was not so in the journeyings of His disciples, two by two among their countrymen—who, when they entered a city, fixed their residence in some particular house, and were supported by the hospitality of one individual for the good of the general population. It was not so when the apostles went forth after the resurrection; and received their maintenance from such as Simon the tanner, or Lydia the seller of purple, or Stephanus and Fortunatus, and Achaicus, and others of those Scripture worthies who harboured and entertained the men of God, while they held out the bread of life, without money and without price, to the multitude at large. It was not so when the last, but not the least of the apostles, provided with his own hand for his own necessities; and the wages of Paul the tentmaker, enabled Paul the apostle, to labour in his sacred vocation without wages. It was not so when he received from other and distinct churches, that, in the church of Corinth, the gospel might not be chargeable to any; and he would suffer no man to strip him of this boasting in the regions of Achaia. And, to come down from the age of the New Testament, it generally could not have been so, that the extension of Christianity was carried forward during the three first centuries. The men who were not yet Christians did not, in those days, send to the apostolic college for men who might give them the lessons of the gospel; but, by a reverse process, teachers went forth among the yet benighted countries of the earth; and their expenses, at least in the first instance, behoved to be borne, not in the shape of a price by those who received the benefit, but in the shape of a bounty by those who dispensed it. In all these instances, contrary to every law or character of pure trade, the expense was borne either totally or partially by one party, and that for the good of another party. It was not as in the ordinary exchanges of commerce. The receivers were not the purchasers; and what they did receive was not a thing by them bought, but a thing to them given. It is an utter misconception that when Constantine set up in his dominions a national establishment of Christianity, he made the first infringement on that system of free trade by which the prosperity of this religion had been heretofore upholden; for, from its very outset, Christianity stood indebted, for almost every footstep of its progress, to a system and a policy directly the opposite of this. When he came forth with his great imperial bounty or benefaction, he only did on the large scale, what thousands of benefactors had previously, and for hundreds of years, done on a small scale before him. When he became the friend and nursing father of the church, he did for the whole territory of which he was the sovereign, what, times and ways without number, the friends of the church had already done, each for the little district in which he himself resided, or for the introduction and the maintenance of Christian worship in some chosen locality of his own. With his great national endowment, he but followed in the tract of those private and particular endowments which, sometimes temporary, and sometimes perpetual, had multiplied beyond all reckoning, during the preceding ages of Christianity; and in virtue of which it was, that churches innumerable were raised, and congregations were formed; but chiefly in the large and flourishing cities of the Roman empire. The peasants, or they who lived in the country and villages, inhabitants of the pagi, and hence called Pagans, were, in the great bulk of them, still unconverted—insomuch that Paganism in those days became synonymous with heathenism; or, in other words, the great majority of the rustics or countrymen of that period, notwithstanding the strenuous and apostolic exertion of many thousands of Christian missionaries for about three centuries together, were still adherents to the old superstition and idolatry of their forefathers. The universal endowment, by which a ministry was provided for every little section of the territory or the whole was broken into parishes, opened a way to the moral fastnesses that were still held and occupied by the countless millions whom all the efforts of by-gone generations had not reached; and so brought a whole host of gospel labourers into contact with the wide and plenteous harvest of the general population.
In the following quote, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) is urging that the Church of Scotland in his day stick to its parish principles, that is, attaching a church to a district, charging its minister to evangelize it, and giving preference to its residents in seating during the services. A church should be a local, or a ‘territorial’ church. It should not operate on the law of supply and demand, thus drawing any and all irrespective of residence. When it does, as Chalmers here points out, it occasions the worst in those who are already religious, fostering a culture of religious fastidiousness – and church-hopping.
Without a territorial arrangement, the “population” of the parish “might still abide in a state of unmoved heathenism; and the chapel congregation, instead of being formed or recruited out of their families, will be drawn very much at the expense of previous congregations, from that class of the community whose habits of church-going are not only already established, but may be said to have been refined into fastidiousness; to whom change is luxury, and who, ever agog on the impulse of novelty, are, in fact, the deadliest adversaries of that territorial system, wherein the great strength of our establishment lies” (Collected Works 16:184).
Again, Chalmers exposes the commercialization of religion that has only grown from embryo to full monster.
This week, countless devout Christians throughout the world will celebrate the birth of the Savior. Believers of every stripe revel in that great redemptive moment of the incarnation. It marked the entrance of God into our sin-blighted world. The Only-Begotten Son then began His saving errand by the gateway of the virgin’s womb.
It grieves these sincere believers when Jesus, ‘the reason for the season,’ is elbowed out by the crass materialism and secularism of the age. When Jesus is absent, the celebration just rings hollow. Gone is the manger. Gone the shepherds watching their sheep. Gone the chorus of angelic hosts, announcing the good news of the Christ-child. When the ark is taken, Israel sighs.
And yet, as a Christian, I have a deeper grief yet. My grief arises precisely in the fact that modern Christmas is just old paganism taking off its disguise. Or, the rooster returning to the roost, if you will.
Anyone who has read even a little of the origins of Christmas will know that its origins were anything but Christian. It represents a compromise in mission – an emasculation of mission, really. When Europe was first being evangelized, the Church failed to insist that the pagans break off all ties with their ancient ways. To throw them a bone, the Church baptized their winter solstice holiday, devoted to idols, and called it Christian. But calling it Christian did not make it Christian. And at the end of the day, paganism cannot be domesticated. It must be converted, and all bridges burnt (Acts 19:18, 19, 1 Thess. 1:9).
With my Christian brothers and sisters, I join them in glorying in the incarnation. With them, I grieve over the religious decline and the syncretism of the day. But I would appeal to them to rethink Christmas. And for that matter, rethink mission.
Posted in Commerce & Christianity, Finance & the Maintenance of Ministry, Gathered Church Ecclesiology, Parish in American Context, Parish Theory & Practice, Thomas Chalmers on September 7, 2010| Leave a Comment »
Few in confessional Reformed circles would question the ‘McDonaldization’ of the Church thesis. So much of evangelical Christianity in America has caved in to consumerism. But historically, I have to ask whether we’re at the end of a long journey begun by 19th century Voluntaries? Or was it perhaps commenced inadvertently by the 17th century devotees of “gathered churches?” The following quote from William Smith (a la Chalmers) at least raises the question, given that his central critique of Voluntaryism is its commericialization of the Church:
“But the radical and fatal defect of the Voluntary system lies in this, that from its very nature it tends to occupy and engross itself with the fat places of the land, leaving the lean neglected and uncared for—that it absorbs and isolates into self-supporting confederations the very portion of the population that ought to be caring for the perishing souls of others less happily conditioned—that the more successful it is in any field, the more neglectful must it be of those persons connected with that field who most require the ministrations of the Gospel —and that its besetting and generally irresistible temptation is to make the grace and ordinances of religion a matter of mere competitive shopkeeping on the one hand, and of ready-money purchase on the other” (William Smith, Endowed Territorial Work, 100-1).
Yet, I fear that Smith’s critique of consumerism cuts both ways.
Smith wrote at a time when the integrity of evangelicalism had not been radically vitiated. Many (most?) Voluntaries were Calvinist. Smith really was criticizing all Voluntaryism, Calvinist or not, because it tended to make the faith once delivered gravitate to where the money is. Voluntaryism of whatever stripe simply had no internal mechanism to ensure that everyone in the land, including the working classes, were provided the pure ordinances. The old Kirk, with its principle of endowed territorialism, did.
Reformed churches in North America are de facto if not de jure gathered churches. And while many of us have been kept from the abyss of crass McDonaldization (so far), yet we tend to exist only where we can be financed. Does this explain not only the temptation to dilute our confessionalism, but also why there are so few confessionally Reformed churches in urban America?
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.
As I was on the road a couple nights ago, NPR’s All Things Considered was broadcasting a piece educating Joe the Plumbers like me concerning a major, yet overlooked catalyst contributing to the present economic crisis. That villain is called the ‘Credit Default Swap.’ Very briefly, what was once a sober mode of obtaining a form of investment insurance degenerated into what professionals concede was nothing less than gambling. For the full text and/or to listen to the piece, go to How Credit Default Swaps Spread the Financial Rot.
Interestingly, I just came across an insightful quote that bears directly, I think, on this whole financial debacle from an biblical perspective:
We believe that in this speculating world, amid all these risks and ventures which perhaps must be entered into to make business prosperous and to keep pace with the age, it is only a very strong religious spirit, a practical exercise of religion, that can make anyone judge accurately between legitimate and reckless commercial speculation. . . . From the danger we are all in of taking our moral standard from the tone of the common morality of society, we are apt to forget the higher standard of the law of Christ. [But] we are every now and then recalled to a sense of the difference of these two standards by some tremendous commercial failure; in which we see that speculation has been carried so far into the region of uncertainty and risk, that trust and confidence has been abused, and the ruin of one man has invovled in it that of hundreds, who trusted in him. Now we only see this by reason of the failure of speculation, not from the speculation itself: had that proved successful instead of disastrous, many would not have seen the immorality at all (Anonymous review in The Ecclesiastic and Theologian, vol. XXII, 1860: 261-64).