Free Church Fathers and their Heritage for Us (2)

Illustration: painting by David Octavius Hill
of the Disruption of 1843
Photo credit: see below

Free Church Fathers and their Heritage for Us (2)

2. Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847): The foremost Scotsman of his age

Often described as the greatest Scotsman of his age, Thomas Chalmers was something of a polymath. He became a colossus for evangelical historic Calvinism in Scotland in his day and arguably the most influential instrument used by the Lord in His Church in Scotland since John Knox. It wasn’t like that initially though, for although obviously a young man of unusual ability, he went in to the ministry of the Church of Scotland at Kilmany, Fife, in 1803 in an unconverted state. The ministry was a sinecure which gave him, as he saw it, ample opportunity for more pleasurable pursuits, pleasures and recreations. He could spend a few hours on a Saturday working up a sermon and that was fine. Otherwise he would be pretty well away from the congregation much of the time. He was your typical moderate minister. But all that changed in 1810-11 when he experienced an evangelical conversion. He was a transformed man. As a result, in God’s grace, this was the catalyst for a seismic change not only in his own life and ministry, but also in the course of evangelical religion north of the border. How anyone could cram so many varied achievements into one life seems incredible to us today. Consider:

1815 – Became minister of the prestigious Tron Church in Glasgow

1819 – Moved to St John’s, also in Glasgow

1823 – Appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University

1828 – Appointed Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh

1843 – Leader in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland at the Disruption.

First Professor of Divinity at New College (till his lamented passing in 1847).

Chalmers emerged as leader of the evangelicals in the Church of Scotland. He encouraged the development of extension parish churches and became involved as leader of those who resisted the State interference in the appointment of ministers in congregations over the heads of the people in the years leading up to the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843. Chalmers was a man of apparently limitless energy, an excellent mathematician and a philosopher with an interest in contemporary sciences. He was an outstanding preacher and an inspiring lecturer whose influence in the Edinburgh Divinity faculty was to have a profound effect in that generation in raising evangelical preachers and Calvinists in the ministry of the Kirk.

Chalmers was a prolific speaker and writer. His writings on all sorts of subject but all related to a Biblical frame of reference amounted to 25 volumes of Collected Writings produced in his lifetime and 10 further volumes of Posthumous Works. In many respects he seemingly led a counter attack on the sceptical principles of the French Revolution. So much could be said of him but we have not time. Chalmers’ statue is to be found in the intersection of Castle Street and George Street in Edinburgh. It is an imposing statue. The sad thing is that very few passers-by will have the slightest idea who he was. Scotland has moved very far from the Calvinist vision of this great man of God.

Here is a taste of Chalmers the entreating gospel preacher in a sermon on Isaiah 7:3-5: “Surely when I am busy at my delegated employment of holding out the language of entreaty, and of sounding in your ears the tidings of gladness, and of inviting you to enter into the vineyard of God – surely at the time when the messenger of the gospel is thus executing the commission wherewith he is charged and warranted, he may well say – that there is no fury in God. Surely at the time when the Son of God is inviting you to kiss Him and to enter into reconciliation, there is neither the feeling nor the exercise of fury. It is only if you refuse, and if you persist in refusing, and if you suffer all these calls and entreaties to be lost upon you – it is only then that God will execute His fury, and put forth the power of His anger. And therefore He says to us, ‘Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little’.”

3. Rev John Duncan (1796-1870) – Hebraist and profound spiritual force

John Duncan is not associated with the cut and thrust of ecclesiastical debates. He was a man of academic brilliance, notable eccentricities and, after he was converted to Christ through an encounter with César Malan in 1826, a man of spiritual depth and piety. After a few years (1836-1841) as pastor of Milton Chapel of the Church of Scotland in Glasgow, Duncan was sent out by the Church as missionary to the Jews in Hungary (Budapest). His bent for eastern languages including Hebrew made him ideal for that work and perhaps inevitably led to the use of ‘Rabbi’ in his name whenever he was mentioned. At the Disruption (1843) he adhered to the Free Church and from that year was appointed Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at the New Free Church College (in the New College Building after 1851). In a way his reputation was somewhat anecdotal as he produced next to nothing by way of theological writings and he was reputedly not a great teacher. However several biographies were written of him after his passing in 1870, including ‘Memorials’ of extracts of sermons and other writings.

He was thoroughly committed to the historic Calvinism which was the mark of the early Free Church, and held to a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. By reputation he was not a great teacher and sadly his assistant and successor at New College, A.B. Davidson was a man of a different stamp who subtly introduced the tenets of German Higher Criticism into Scottish Church circles. Many of Duncan’s ‘sayings’ were recorded for posterity. Here are a few memorable quips:

“Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house.”

“Is man active or passive in regeneration? He is both; he is active about it, and passive in it.”

“Christ has a three-fold work; a work for us, a work in us, and a work by us.”

“There is nothing but Christ between us and hell; and, thanks be to God, we need nothing else.”

“Beware of a religion without God. Many are satisfied with a religion without God in the present day; but that only which comes from God will lead to God.”

Alexander Moody Stuart’s Recollections of the Late John Duncan, LL.D., produced in recent times by the Banner of Truth, is a precious volume about ‘Rabbi’ Duncan and the period in which he lived.

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Photo credit:
Painting by David Octavius Hill of the Disruption of 1843 which formed the Free Church of Scotland
By Dave Souza at en.wikipedia.org [Public domain],
from Wikimedia Commons