I recently gave a lecture (sermon?) on the fascinating and inspiring story of Thomas Chalmers’ West Port Experiment in the slums of Industrial Edinburgh, from 1844-1847. You can listen to it here. Ad urbem!
“Who cares about the Free Church, compared with the Christian good of the people of Scotland? Who cares about any Church, but as an instrument of Christian good? for, be assured that the moral and religious well-being of the population is of infinitely higher importance than the advancement of any sect.”
-Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)
In this quote, we see that while Chalmers’ was deeply concerned to alleviate poverty, yet there is a benevolence that is higher still!
“Does it never occur to you, that in a few years this favourite will die—that he will go to the place where neither cold nor hunger will reach him, but that a mighty interest remains, of which, both of us may know the certainty, though neither you nor I can calculate the extent. Your benevolence is too short—it does not shoot far enough a-head—it is like regaling a child with a sweetmeat or a toy, and then abandoning the happy unreflecting infant to exposure. You make the poor old man happy with your crumbs and your fragments, but he is an infant on the mighty range of infinite duration; and will you leave the soul, which has this infinity to go through, to its chance? How comes it that the grave should throw so impenetrable a shroud over the realities of eternity? How comes it that heaven, and hell, and judgment, should be treated as so many nonentities; and that there should be as little real and operative sympathy felt for the soul, which lives for ever, as for the body after it is dead, or for the dust into which it moulders? Eternity is longer than time; the arithmetic, my brethren, is all on our side upon this question; and the wisdom which calculates, and guides itself by calculation, gives its weighty and respectable support to what may be called the benevolence of faith.”
Here is a sermon Thomas Chalmers preached to a benevolent society that sets forth his principles for Christian benevolence. He advocates at once a very practical, thorough-going humanitarianism, steering a course between the pitfalls of merely throwing cash at poverty on the one hand and a this-worldly focus on outward needs (anticipating the Social Gospel?). He was a stalwart evangelical, both ‘practical and pious.’
Again, remember that Chalmers’ sermons are nowhere near as generally accessible as other 19th century preachers such as Spurgeon and Ryle. If you haven’t read or listened to a Chalmers sermon, you may want to read my short intro under the ‘Audio’ tab. But while going through Chalmers can be hard work, it is work well spent!
The following poem comes from a 19th century Edinburgh periodical, Tait’s Magazine. It was written during the middle of a controversy over ‘seat rents,’ a traditional way used to finance the ministry and infrastructure of the church. The author of the poem expresses the sentiments of churchmen like Thomas Chalmers who were mortified at the increasingly bald commercialism of the system, which effectively made church attendance for the poor cost-prohibitive. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland had always been a church of the people, for the people. And the poor, above all, ought to have the Gospel preached to them. Has not God bypassed so many of the monied and of noble blood, in preference for the despised poor?
While the times and circumstances were considerably different from our own, one can certainly discern the thread of religion for profit. And that evil is as old as the hills. And is it not the case that the poor are largely left to shift for themselves when it comes to Reformed outreach and church planting (when done at all)? How un-Presbyterian we Presbyterians can sometimes be!
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THE POOR CHRISTIAN AND THE CHURCH
“How glorious Zion’s courts appear,”
The pious poor man cries:
“Stand back, you knave, you’re in arrears,”
The manager replies.
“The genius of the Christian code
Is charity, humility;”
MANAGER, (In a rage.)
“I’ve let your pew to ladies, Sir,
Of high respectability.”
“And am I then debarred the house
Where erst my father pray’d?
Excluded from the hallowed fane
Where my loved mother’s laid?”
“Their seat-rent, Sir, was never due;
The matter to enhance,
As duly as the term came round,
They paid it in advance.”
“The temple of the living God
Should have an open door,
And Christ’s ambassadors should preach
The Gospel to the poor.”
“We cannot, Sir, accommodate
The poor in their devotions;
Besides we cordially detest
Such antiquated notions.
“We build our fanes, we deck our pews
For men of wealth and station;
(Yet for a time the thing has proved
A losing speculation.)
“Then table down your cash anon
Ere you come here to pray;
Else you may wander where you will,
And worship where you may.”
“Then I shall worship in that fane
By God to mankind given;
Whose lamps are the meridian sun,
And all the stars of heaven;
“Whose walls are the cerulean sky,
Whose floor the earth so fair,
Whose dome is vast immensity :—
All nature worships there.”