Archive for September, 2008


Chalmers on Church Establishments, Part 4
Some Closing Observations & Questions

Now that we have completed an overview of Chalmers’ Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches (1838), I’d like to make a number of observations and raise some questions. I’ll start with general ones and then cover some specifics by subject.

So first, some observations and questions on the whole.

One cannot read through Chalmers long without figuring out that he was a practical thinker. He had goals to which varies strategies and experiments were subservient. Strategies, further, are only as good as they work efficiently. Chalmers argued for religious establishments because they were, in his judgment, very useful and proven expedients.

And the goal? In a word, ‘Christianization.’ Or, more specifically, ‘the Christian good of Scotland.’ His vision was the infiltration of the Gospel throughout his home country and its anticipated leavening effects socially. He dreamed of realizing within the darkness of industrialized Britain the old Christian communal ideal of his childhood memories. So really, we should say that Chalmers was a practitioner second and a visionary first.

It is also clear that Chalmers was a large-hearted philanthropist. He was concerned with the well being of the poorest of Scotland. They needed an endowed establishment because they did not have the financial wherewithal to support the ministry. And, more often than not, they lacked not only money to support the ministry, but even the religious impulse to go and seek after the good of their souls. Should they be left to themselves, sitting in the sink of their moral, economic, and especially spiritual squalor?

This dovetails into Chalmers’ view of government, which manifests itself in these lectures as thoroughly paternalistic. Frequently, he appeals for national establishments on the principle that parents should “lay up for the children” (2 Cor. 12:14). “What is true of the smaller family of a household, holds true of the greater family in an empire. If both the parent in the one case, and the governor in the other, be chargeable with a guilty indifference who should suffer their respective families to remain unschooled – there is guilt of a deeper die, if, by the indifference or neglect of either, they are suffered to remain unchristianized” (92). If a Christian father is duty-bound to provide Christian instruction to his children at home, ought not the ‘city fathers,’ as it were, patron-ize a religious establishment to school their citizens in the teachings of Jesus?

The last general observation is that it seems the tone of his lectures fail to reflect a strong evangelical concern for personal salvation. He does speak about the civilizing influence of Christianity (167) and urges the endowment of a national Church as reflecting a “true and enlightened patriotism” (170). This, of course, does not show that Chalmers lacked a passionate zeal for the personal salvation of those who would benefit from a robust establishment. He most certainly did. But if I am at all putting my finger on something here, my guess is that this subdued evangelicalism reveals a broader audience, even those influenced by the Moderatism of his time (from which his evangelical conversion had freed him!). The Moderates were all for education, all for civilization, and even for Christianity insofar as it furthered man’s intellectual, moral, and social condition. If they could stand with him in this cause, then so be it. In short, I think it is important for us to read these lectures, not as seminary addresses on Missiology for churchmen, much less as a series of sermons to rally the troops back at church. But we should read them with the sensitivity that they were delivered and published for many, not the least of whom were MPs sitting on the fence of a pressing, political question.

Now, some specific observations and questions; and first, on the particular establishment theory of Chalmers. His arguments strike me as distinctively post-Enlightenment. For him, a national establishment means the endowment of a national Church in an environment of political tolerance. His Scotland was a “land of perfect toleration” (182). And so his establishment is one that encourages and promotes, but doesn’t discourage, much less impose sanctions on the Kirk’s enemies. There is no sword here to back up the Church, and it is here where I sense a break with the original establishmentarianism of the 16th century magisterial Reformers and their 17th century heirs. One searches in vain to find language in the Lectures that comes anywhere near the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith on this point, that it is the duty of magistrates to ensure that “all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed” (WCF 23.3).

However, while I do perceive a break here, there does seem to be strong continuity between the magisterial Reformers and Chalmers in a shared paternalistic view of government. Chalmers followed in well-worn paths when arguing that magistrates should be “nursing fathers and mothers” to the Church (Isa. 49:23). There is also continuity in his argument against indifferentism on religion in the affairs of the state; and so he here appears to be in open conflict with the Enlightenment trajectory. “It is reckoned to be in the magistrate the very perfection of enlightened patriotism on this subject, when like Gallio he cares for none of these things” (92). Such make a distinction between “Christian governors and a Christian government” (94). But Chalmers will have none of it, much as his spiritual forbearers.

By way of humble criticism, it appears as though Chalmers’ arguments against the Voluntaries are too simplistic. He puts the onus back on them to demonstrate why they should hold aloof from the established Kirk, when the differences that separate them from her are so minor. But what of confessional subscription? And even if the Voluntaries had wanted to return, would the Kirk have been as willing as Chalmers to re-welcome them into the fold?

I am also unsettled as to Chalmers’ arguments for the basis on which the government should select one Protestant denomination over another. He argues that it is a purely practical one. Which denomination is best for the goal in view, that is, the Christian education of the people? Here again, the highly practical character of Chalmers comes through. But what is meant by ‘best?’ Does this mean the most efficient organ for teaching the people? If so, then this is a question of teaching performance, not of teaching content. If this is the basis, couldn’t the government occasionally test the performance of the established Church, and finding it unsatisfactory, experiment with the performance of, say, the Methodists? He does argue that doctrine counts in the selection process when the choice is between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but does it count for nothing after that choice is resolved? What place, then, do the Westminster Standards hold in this matter?

The second specific observation is on his treatment of free trade and Christianity. I find this section absolutely fascinating and do not know of anyone before or since who has dealt with it as capably as he. It is spot-on! Chalmers seems to have put his finger on the beginnings of a market-oriented paradigm in the evangelical world long before it flowered [or degenerated] into the seeker-sensitive paradigm of today. And I think he has defined the issues in clearer philosophical terms than I have come across even in modern critics of that movement. One could say that Willow Creek is a natural consequence of importing the principles of liberal economics – the free, uninhibited exchange of goods and services by the operation of the law of supply and demand – into the work and witness of the Church.

A related observation needs to be made here. Chalmers presumes a Calvinistic anthropology in his arguments against free trade in Christianity. Man is totally depraved. “Nature does not go forth in search of Christianity; but Christianity must go forth in search of nature” (53). That is why it is profoundly flawed to subject Christianity to Adam Smith’s economic principles. But this rejection of laizzeis faire religion, so to say, only makes sense within the Calvinistic orbit in which Chalmers then moved. Could he have envisioned the ascendancy of evangelical Arminianism in Great Britain and America, with its somewhat more optimistic anthropology, he might have been able to predict Willow Creek. That is, he might have forecasted the adaptation of Christianity to the unsaved man. Make the supply of Christianity more attractive, and the demand in the spiritually ‘sick’ will be teased out. There were really two enemies at work, then. Free trade, the commodity, and evangelical Arminianism, the willing buyer.

Last, some observations on what I call Chalmers’ secondary strategies in Christianization. The primary strategy is the funding – for which an establishment exists. The secondary strategies are territorialism and education. (I’m not totally comfortable with ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ strategies, since he contends that the great strength of establishments lies in its usefulness to implement territorialism.)

I’ve written elsewhere on Chalmers’ advocacy of the locality principle, or territorialism. But before simply passing on, a couple of comments are in order.

The first is that Chalmers has explained for me something that I think I hadn’t understood – or fully understood. The language of a ministerial ‘charge’ has been a longstanding part of Reformed ecclesiastical jargon. A minister is installed into a pastoral ‘charge.’ He therefore has a responsibility placed upon him by God and superintended by his colleagues. Is he faithful or unfaithful in his charge? I think, however, that contemporary Reformed Christianity has lost a significant element of what Chalmers, following in the steps of the Reformation forefathers, understood in a ‘charge.’ A charge for them was more than a defined congregational responsibility. It was that, but it also included the assigning of a district to a minister for evangelistic efforts. The congregation and the parish, related but distinct, were his twofold charge. Ideally, the meetinghouse would be located within the assigned geographical district to evangelize that the minister could more easily and efficiently perform both duties in his charge. Incidentally, I suspect that the same flattening of meaning occurs today with the language of presbyterial ‘bounds.’ But that rabbit trail will have to wait for another day!

I would also like to raise a question about a somewhat peripheral matter on territorial visitation. Chalmers responds to those who suggest that district visitation is idealistic by saying that warmth and appreciation should be the natural response among those visited (156). And that was, he says, his and others’ experience. However, one might ask whether the people whom Chalmers and others visited responded with such warmth in large part because they enjoyed fond memories of ministerial visitation in their past. Those who lived in these large, industrialized urban centers in the 19th century were largely former country-dwellers of rural Scotland. And so they (and if not they, then their parents) probably would have had exposure to a regular parochial ministry that would have included house-to-house visitation. If that is the case, then one should not necessarily expect such a warmth for clerical visitation in a place where this had never really been the practice, such as the United States. This is not an argument against the territorial principle, of course. I am fully behind a modern-day application of it. But I think that people will be tend to react with more coldness to such visitations in part because it was never a cherished memory. And then, of course, there is the pesky problem of the Russellites.

The other ‘secondary’ strategy that Chalmers touches on is education. This has had a long history as a tool in the Kirk’s handbag for the Christianization of Scotland, going back to the magisterial Reformation under John Knox. It is not surprising then for Chalmers to place a bulk of his hopes for the success of the territorial plan on the work of the parish schools.

Our best hopes, we confess, are associated with the coming up of another generation; and under a right treatment of the ductile and susceptible young, congregated in parish-schools, and trained from earliest boyhood to a punctual attendance on the ministrations of the parish clergyman. He [a territorial minister], if put in possession of a complete parochial economy, is on mighty vantage ground . . . Over and above the juvenile influence, which, through the medium of their youth, he transplants into the bosom of families, these schools become the direct nurseries of the church, – the feeders, as it were, of that grand reservoir, which, in return becomes the center and the fountain-head of a rich moral dispensation, to the neighborhood around it; and so more prolific blessings every year, as it rises onwards from its first slender beginnings – till filled to an overflow, even before the expiry of the present, or commencement of the succeeding age (168).

For Chalmers, both territorialism and education are expedients in the program of the Church’s extension, and expedients in the life and witness of the Church are not ipso facto wrong. But I question whether education ought to come under the direct auspices of the Church, like an agency within an organization. There are two reasons I raise this doubt. The first is biblical, the second more theological.

In terms of the biblical objection (and I raise it very hesitantly, before such a revered figure as Thomas Chalmers), education – vocational or literary education, that is – is more of a distinct institution. And as an institution, it does not appear to have been placed by Christ under the direct government of the Church. The ascended Christ has lavished officers upon His Church and has committed to them the keys of the kingdom of heaven. They preach, teach, administer the sacraments and exercise discipline. But vocational/literary education of the young doesn’t factor here. This would seem to come under the auspices of parents, who are to provide for their children (2 Cor. 12:14 – and maybe this argument can be used to justify the state’s purview in education, if the government is an assembly of civic fathers). Territorialism, on the other hand, does not appear to me as a distinct institution, but is nothing other than a wise deployment of the Church’s officers and ordinances in the interests of its unity and propagation. It doesn’t ask for a place among the institutions or ordinances of the Church, but simply says, please use them wisely and efficiently! Don’t get me wrong. I am a firm believer in Christian education. And the Church certainly has an interest in the education of the young. But its influence must be indirect.

I could misunderstand Chalmers and his Scottish predecessors on this point. Perhaps they did see education, not as an affair of the Kirk, but of parents, whether immediate, civic, or both. If the Church, in the interests of future generations both in the Church and in the community that it seeks to Christianize, exercises an indirect influence, then I am content. Or, if by ‘Church,’ we distinguish its ‘lay’ element from the ‘clergy,’ I suppose we could say that the Church can directly play a role in the education of its young and the young of the community as a tool in the greater cause of Christianization. But I don’t think that’s how Chalmers conceived it. I could be wrong, however.

My second hesitant objection is more theological. When I was first introduced to Reformed thinking, I was introduced to Covenant Theology. God has throughout human history dealt with man on a federal, representative basis. This also applies to the Gospel, which is the Covenant of Grace. ‘To you and your seed!’ That is the Gospel, both in its essence and in its administration. And so we baptize our entire household as an outworking of that Covenant. If the Gospel is covenantal, essentially and administratively, then evangel-ism must also be covenantal. “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). The aim of preaching is then in the first place to win the parents, and only secondarily, through the parents, to win the children. Peter came to Cornelius and Cornelius summoned his house.

But education as a distinct and direct tool in the hands of the Church aims to win the young, and through the young, to win the parents. Chalmers doesn’t shy away from owning this, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable following him. It seems un-covenantal in its administration.

It is on this basis that I’ve long been uneasy about Sunday Schools or Vacation Bible Schools as a method of evangelism. It is not that I don’t want children evangelized. But it seems the natural and biblical way of doing that is getting the parents converted and having them exert their God-given influence to direct their children to Jesus – and to His Church. I would make a distinction, however, between modern day Sunday Schools and those of the 19th century. The latter were first and foremost an expression of philanthropy. The children of those Sunday Schools had no education whatsoever. The large-hearted advocates of Sunday Schools then, like Chalmers, saw masses of children sunken in poverty and having no hope to escape the slums without education. Generosity compelled them. I think evangelism was a happy byproduct, in a sense. But still, I am uneasy about having education as an official tool in the Church’s program, especially if it aims to side step the covenantal approach to households. And this federal approach, I might add, does seem to be compatible with territorialism. When its ministers knock at the door, they are asking first, ‘are your parents at home?’

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Statue of Emperor Constantine I in York, England

Statue of Emperor Constantine I in York, England

Chalmers on Church Establishments, Part 3
Further Considerations on Establishments

In Lectures 4 through 6 of his Lectures on the Establishment and Extension of National Churches, Chalmers treats some related and pertinent issues. We will continue our survey of these lectures here and close in the final installment with some observations on the whole.

Lecture 4, treating the circumstances that lead up to and justify the state’s selection of a Christian denomination for the instruction of its people in matters of faith and morals, begins with the observation of an ideal. It is ideal when leaders and those who are led are at one and not locked in a struggle of wills, the one against the other. It is ideal when they find themselves in complete harmony and sharing a unity of sentiment. When this actually occurs, we observe “community in its best and happiest mood – when one simultaneous feeling pervades all classes; and, in the pulsations of one mighty heart, the breath of one actuating and reigning spirit, the wealth and efforts of all are consecrated to one common object, and all jealousies are forgotten” (115). Religion has oftentimes been the banner under which governments and the governed have rallied, when the legal and the voluntary principles fused together and acted as one in spiritual concerns. This occurred, of course, in the days of the godly kings of the Old Testament.

But ought religion be the rallying point for national unity between the state and its subjects today in the Christian epoch? The New Testament seems to be quite silent on the matter. So to answer this question, Chalmers turns to the two great instances where this occurred in the Christian era – the first, under Constantine, and the second, at the Protestant Reformation. By examining the circumstances leading up to these establishments of a state Church, it is suggested that the justifications for them will readily appear.

In the first instance, by the time of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christianity had significantly leavened the Roman Empire. Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion was by no means an act of coercion; it had very much become a popular religion. Whatever his motivation for the Edict and his later patronage of the Church – a subject that has continually been disputed – he enshrined this obscure, oriental faith as Rome’s own, without general dissent. The government and the governed had happily come together under the aegis of Christ. Further, it should be noted that the Church did not demur at the offer of patronage. She gladly accepted this as nothing other than a clear blessing from heaven. To justify this action biblically, Chalmers observes, “We read of the earth helping the woman. But we nowhere read, that it is the duty of the woman to refuse this help, or to refrain from the facilities which are opened up to her by the hand of Providence, for the multiplication of her converts” (119).

In the second instance, both people and governments of the Reformation came together around the doctrines of the Gospel as it began to enjoy renewed success after ages of obscurity. And this expressed itself structurally much in the same way as it had under Constantine. The Reformed Church was owned and endowed in nations across Europe, to the rejoicing of all (except within the Vatican!).

This great question, whether the state may join the popular sentiment of the people in matters of religion, was before the Parliament of England at the time of the publication of these lectures. Their decision was first a decision of moral and theological consequence; and second, it was one that had ramifications on the outward, economic well being of the people. It was imperative that these considerations be weighed, says Chalmers, when the cry is not for the joining of the people and the rulers around the Gospel, but for their separation.

But can or should the government really enter into the theological disputes of churchmen? “We are aware of the summary and contemptuous rejection to which this proposition is liable – as it would transform the senate-house into an arena of theological conflict . . . and senators into wrangling polemics” (125). This is an exaggeration, says Chalmers. The greatest questions on the matter of religion are well within the capability and are rightly in the purview of the government. A decently educated man in office, with filial respect for sacred scripture, can and ought to decide between the merits of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He can consequently select one of these two rival faiths for the doctrine to be taught to his people. But even if the exaggerated objection is granted, Chalmers contends that one should be able to select one of these two on purely economic grounds. There is more than enough evidence, he contends, to select Protestantism as that expression of the Christian faith that best tends to the improvement of the outward conditions of a people. And conversely, “all history and experience tell” us that Romanism is of all religions “most fitted to blind and vitiate a population” (132).

Chalmers concludes the lecture by turning to the then contemporary question of the Protestant Establishment of Ireland, appealing for its continued subsidy, then apparently under threat in Parliament. He freely acknowledges that in prior days, it had been filled with less than perfectly diligent laborers and so had warranted some criticism. Interestingly, he critiques many of the ministers of that establishment for having failed to evangelize Roman Catholics within their parishes.

But over and above this, there was a mistaken policy, maintained and avowed even by their best clergymen, in the form of an honest, though still of a grievously mistaken principle – as if they went beyond their legitimate province if they at all meddled with the Catholic population; at which rate the primitive Christians went beyond their legitimate province, when they meddled with the Pagans of the Roman empire. . . In virtue of this false principle, or false delicacy, the cause of truth suffered, even in the hands of conscientious ministers (135).

The parish plan is an efficient one for the extension of the Gospel. But boundary lines were made for man, not man for the boundary lines!

To continue, the failures of the operators, however, ought not to warrant the dispensing of the machine. And its patronage should continue, especially in light of the renewed and revived ministry that had emerged in his day, who stood in need of the support of the state. If however, the powers that be decided to pull the financial plug, that Church would have to toil valiantly as her unendowed predecessors had in the pre-Constantine era.

The hand of power may strip it of its temporalities; but we trust that its indomitable spirit in the cause of a pure and scriptural faith, will not so easily be quelled. Though despoiled of their rights, they will not abandon their duties. Like the Christians before the days of Constantine, they may perhaps have to win the ground over again – when the Church, purified by the discipline of adversity, will again arise in its strength; and repeating the conquest of truth over the errors of a degrading superstition, will add another victory to the triumphs of former generations (137).

This however is no argument, he contends, that statesmen ought to do evil that good may come. Those deliberating on the matter should be very careful, further, not to give over too soon to the vacillating impulses of the shortsighted masses. Let the fathers have the foresight to provide for their children what is best.

In the sixth lecture, Chalmers turns to the consideration of a previously untreated dimension of a religious establishment. We observed in the opening lecture what an establishment is in essence: it is a sure, legal provision for the Christian education of a nation. But there is a distinction to be made. An establishment can be endowed, but not territorial. While an establishment may exist without a territorial plan, it is inefficient until it adopts and enacts one. An establishment is a very helpful stepping stone to what Chalmers was really after – a mechanism for the effective Christianization of a nation.

This naturally raises the question as to the distinction Chalmers is making. What is territorialism? It is certainly more than a stipend for a clergyman to preach in a church. It is, in addition to this, the giving of an assigned “geographical district” in which “he is expected to take an ecclesiastical cognizance of all the families within its limits” (143). He adds,

To perfect this arrangement, [such subsidized, territorial ministers] must stand so related to his church, as to have a right of preference over all extra-parochial families to the occupation of its sittings; and he, on the other hand, should be so related to his parish, as, if not to have a right of entry into all the houses, at least to be bound in point of duty to make a tender to every householder who is willing to receive him, of such ecclesiastical attentions and services as his time will permit to him bestow, and which might be conducive to the Christian good of himself and of his family. In other words, he is bound to superadd, as far as the people will let him, week-day and household to his Sabbath-day and pulpit ministrations. He is the minister not of a congregation only, as far the greater number of our unendowed ministers are; but he is the minister both of a congregation and of a parish (143-44, emphasis mine).

This distinction is key. ‘Church’ and ‘parish’ are not equivalents for Chalmers. They are concentric circles, the one inside the other, but quite distinct from each other. A territorial minister is not just a parish minister (evangelist), nor is he just a congregational minister (pastor). He is both – a pastor-evangelist, if you will – with distinct responsibilities to both circles.

To illustrate it, he instances two religious establishments that were legally endowed but did not operate on a territorial plan – the Protestant Establishment of Ireland and the establishments active during the American colonial era. Ministers and churches were state-funded, but there was no defined, territorial evangelistic responsibility for anyone in particular. These men served their own congregations, but were not obliged to go after any particular group in the surrounding area. Such a minister, says Chalmers, “has to do with his hearers [those who voluntarily, of their own impulse, come to church]; but there is nothing in such an economy, which at all necessitates him to do with those who are not his hearers. They may choose to attend him if they like; but if they do not choose, they may accumulate in any numbers without the sphere of his observation . . . If they do not come to him, there is nothing in this congregational, even though endowed system, which insures that he should go to them” (145).

Territorialism is the great strength of an establishment. In Chalmers’ thinking, establishments are only valuable as means by which territorialism can be most efficiently established and operated. And it is territorialism alone by which “we can recover a people from the moral degeneracy into which they have fallen” (146).

To argue the virtues of the territorial plan, he suggests an experiment. He challenges anyone to go through some poor city neighborhood, including not more than 2000 souls, and perform a house-to-house survey. How many live there? How many regularly attend church? The result, he is confident from past experience, will be quite surprising. Let the voluntary or the free trade principles reign, and human nature that does not ‘seek after God’ will show itself. Few will be found church-attenders. Even if a Voluntary chapel were placed within the vicinity, few if any of the people in that neighborhood would come. Yes, you might have others “from all distances” beyond the area attending, all with “a predisposition for the services of the sanctuary, and a power as well as a willingness to pay for them” (149). But what of the lost next door? Will they come if they are not sought?

To reclaim these people from their irreligion, Chalmers suggests the territorial model:

Now the specific business which we would like to put into the hands of a Christian minister is, not that he should fill his church any how – that he may do by the superior attractiveness of his preaching, at the expense of previous congregations, and without any movement in advance on the practical heathenism of the community: But what we want is, to place his church in the middle of such a territory as we have now specified and to lay upon him a task, for the accomplishment of which we should allow him to the labour and preference of a whole lifetime; not to fill his church any how, but to fill this church out of that district. We should give him the charge over head, of one and all of its families; and tell him, that, instead of seeking hearers from without, he should so shape and regulate his movements, that, as far as possible, his church-room might all be taken up by hearers from within. It is this peculiar relation between his church, and its contiguous households, all placed within certain geographical limits, that distinguishes him from the others as a territorial minister (151).

Now, if this model is one best suited to reclaim the lost on the lesser level, why not on the greater? So “let the whole country be parceled out into such districts and parishes, with an endowed clergyman so assigned to each, and each small enough to be overtaken by the attentions of one clergyman – we should thus, as far as its machinery is concerned, have the perfect example of a territorial establishment.”

But how, practically speaking, would this territorial plan be carried out within the proposed neighborhood? He suggests picking a neighborhood with the lowest likely church attendance – in his days, some slum of one of the sprawling industrial cities of the United Kingdom – and let the minister frequently visit the people throughout the week over the space of many years. The result should be a gradually increasing attendance of the people in that district of the stated services of worship in the church.

One might object, however, that this proposal seems too idealistic, too romantic. But Chalmers rejoins that experience has shown that ministers who have acted on the territorial principle, visiting the people ‘from house to house’ over a period of time, have discovered only reciprocal warmth and respect. And it is only natural for such a response when men are visited by a truly genuine, caring individual who has taken a concern for their spiritual, physical, moral, and economic well being. Sincere benevolence is naturally drawing. And so he assures his readers that if such an honest Christian philanthropist will but “go forth on such a territory as we have ventured to chalk out for him; and more especially, if he reside within or upon its confines – there is not a month will elapse, before that by his presence and his labours, he will light a moral sunshine throughout nearly all the habitations” (160).

Now, one must retain a measure of sobriety. This plan requires time and diligence for its right operation. “We know it to be a work of slowness and difficulty” (161). It could also be that the older generation will prove past such influences. They may be too hardened in their ways. But it may be that the next generation will be favorably influenced by this “parochial economy,” particularly through the parish schools under the superintendence of the church. This being said, Chalmers wouldn’t give up on the likely effects of a regular, territorial visitation of the older, sin-hardened folk. The following words of encouragement are apt for those weary in well doing:

The most reckless, the most resolute in their moral hardihood, are not beyond the operation of these. Even let them carry it so far, as to barricade their houses, even as their hearts are barricaded, against the first approaches of this apostolic clergyman; and he need not yet give them up in despair. He has only to watch his opportunity and Providence will work for him. The hand of death may at length open a door for him – even to the worst habitation of aliens in the parish. Let him be ever ready with his services; and, in the house of family disaster or family bereavement, the most sullen and else impracticable of these outlaws from all the decencies and humanities whether of Christian or civilized life, may at last give way (168).

In due season we shall reap, if we faint not!

And of course, all of this is of no avail if unspiritual men are set to operate this territorial establishment. Hirelings will only squander the subsidies and leave the territory uncultivated. But these real facts should not dissuade us from eschewing the “random economy” and embracing the endowed, territorial plan as the most expedient way for the seeking and saving of the lost.

The last lecture turns to the thorny question as to how a government can justify the selection of one particular denomination of Christianity for its religious establishment, to the exclusion of others equally legitimate. The very simple answer is that the alternative is highly impractical. The government “will not find it so convenient, if, attempting to be even-handed with all sects, and at the same time to provide a Christian education for all the people, it shall make the further attempt of arranging” the assortment of evangelical denominations “into parishes” (171). There is a twofold problem here. First, the people “cannot thus be made over, at the arbitrary will either of civil or ecclesiastical superiors … in sections of contiguous households, to this one or that other denomination, just according to the locality in which they happen to reside” (171-72). Second, the government cannot effectively provide Christian education to its people without “the medium of one correspondence, and . . . the simplicity of one management” (174).

So on what principle shall the selection be made? We have already seen that statesmen, if they are thoughtful Christians, should be able to decide in favor of Protestantism. But of which variety? And how shall this choice be made without eliciting the outcry of injustice to those left standing in the rain?

Chalmers reminds statesmen that they ought not retreat from their duty, the provision of a Christian education for their people, because of the complexities and even the delicacies involved. Someone will complain; someone will be offended. But “the moral well being of the nation is not to stand at abeyance, till an adjustment shall have been made among controversies not yet determined, and perhaps interminable” (178). Government, further, in choosing one denomination over another for the religious establishment, should not fear accusations of favoritism. She contracts with one that suits her for the greater good envisaged, the national good, and with a clear conscience leaves the others to their own business.

Turning from defense to offence, Chalmers asks the objectors whether or not the minor differences that separate them should hinder the upholding of a common faith and a common cause, the spiritual well being of mankind? And if the objectors outside the establishment demand to know why they are kept out for such minor differences, he retorts that they should answer as to why they stay out for such minor differences? Then with a frank bluntness, he observes that it is only “through the very wantonness of freedom in this land of perfect toleration” that men “have chosen to besport themselves, and so [have] broken forth into their party-coloured varieties; each having a creed, or rather, I would say (for substantially speaking nine-tenths of the people in Britain have all the same creed), each having a costume and a designation of their own” (182-83).

To close, Chalmers calls for unity. Not unity for unity’s sake, however; unity for the sake of the cause! It is our conviction, he writes, that “only by an undivided church, only by the ministers of one denomination, can a community be out and out pervaded, or a territory be filled up and thoroughly overtaken with the lessons of the gospel. Tell, whether it is of greater consequence that minor differences be upholden, or that the universal Christian education of our families shall be provided for? But, in truth, these minor differences may co-exist with the operations of an effective establishment” (188).

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Map of Scotland, 1641-1892 (from mackenziefamilytree.com)

Map of Scotland, 1641-1892 (from mackenziefamilytree.com)



Chalmers on Church Establishments, Part 2
The Foundations of Church Establishments

[Note. For those interested in reading this work firsthand, an edition can be found online on GoogleBooks here.]

Turning now to the lectures themselves, we begin with an overview of the first three of six, which lay the foundation work of Chalmers’ thought on the warrant and function of a religious establishment. In Lecture 1, he defines an establishment and removes some typical prejudices that in his day prevented some from giving it serious consideration. In Lectures 2 and 3, he counters and refutes the two 19th century rivals of establishmentarianism, namely, the liberal ‘free trade’ economists and the Voluntaries, and in so doing vindicates the questioned institution. With this roadmap before us, we turn our attention to Lecture 1.

Chalmers recognizes at the outset that there is a “felt indisposition” on the part of many to religious establishments (9). It seems as though this reliance upon the “machinery” of an establishment betrays a mistrust of simple dependence upon heaven for spiritual blessings. But this over-pious mindset fails to appreciate the harmony between divine activity and human responsibility. One only has to observe the analogy between human cultivation of the soil and the churchly cultivation of the soul. If in the former sphere, there is nothing inappropriate with intelligent, vigorous endeavors to improve the land and a trust in the God who alone controls the weather and the elements, then there is nothing inappropriate with “spiritual husbandry” (11).

The part which God takes in the operation, does not abrogate the part which man ought to take in it. They are the overflowings of the Nile which have given rise to the irrigations of an artificial husbandry in Egypt, for the distribution of its waters. And there is positively nothing in the doctrine of a sanctifying or fertilizing grace from heaven above, which should discharge us – but the contrary – from what may be termed the irrigations of a spiritual husbandry in the world beneath. It is not enough that there be a descent; there must be a distribution also, or ducts of conveyance, which, by places of worship and through parishes, might carry the blessings of this divine nourishment to all the houses and families of a land (12-13).

This being said, he certainly does concede that such an economy of spiritual distribution cannot save in and of itself. If you build it, they will not necessarily come. “Its channels of distribution, however skillfully drawn, will, if dry and deserted of Heaven, convey nothing for human souls; and the goodly apparatus of a strong and thick-set Establishment in the land will neither prevent nor alleviate the curse of its spiritual barrenness” (14). Yet, it is a firm principle of Scripture that God employs humble means to usher in His salvation to this world of sinners. He uses the reading and the preaching of the Word. He uses men, ordained and sent by the Church. “God gives the increase,” to be sure. But He also does so by the “planting” and “watering” of Paul and Apollos, whom He calls as His “fellow laborers” (1 Cor. 3:5-10).

With this in the back of our minds, the question that next confronts us, says Chalmers, is what is the best expedient, the most efficient economy of distribution for ensuring that the blessings of the Gospel will be conveyed to every creature under heaven (Mk. 16:15)? He will be contending in the following lectures that it is a religious establishment that suits the purpose.

Now, what is a religious establishment? In short, it is “a sure legal provision for the expense of [the] ministrations” of the Church within a nation (17). There may be other nonessential elements that are frequently considered in establishments; but this is the core, the essential nature of an establishment according to Chalmers.

This sure legal provision for the maintenance of the established Church does not imply, however, any further connection. The Church, when patronized by the state, is independent from the state in all things spiritual. “For their food and their raiment, and their sacred or even private edifices, they may be indebted to the state; but their creed, and their discipline, and their ritual, and their articles of faith, and their formularies, whether of doctrine or of devotion, may be altogether their own” (20). Chalmers is heading an objection off at the pass here. Those who oppose religious establishments contend that the Church, by receiving state endowment, thus becomes enslaved to an earthly master, and so morphs into mere department within Caesar’s bureaucracy. The Church is then domesticated and enslaved to the ‘hand that feeds her.’ Yet, says Chalmers, this is not necessarily the case. When, for example, a merchant chooses to hire and support a missionary in his West India plantation, the missionary does not necessarily become a spiritual vassal of his financier. His stipend is from men, but His orders are not. This missionary takes the endowment as a blessing from heaven and labors to bring the good news to that district where the hand of Providence has led and provided. If this little model on a small plantation in the West Indies is acceptable, why may it not on a far greater scale?

Ah, but there is the testimony of history. Didn’t Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion mark the spiritual downfall of the Church? Is it not here that Mystery Babylon had its birth? Chalmers responds that the causes of the spiritual downgrade had begun before Constantine. The misfortune of the Edict of Milan lay in “the ascendancy wherewith the [pre-existing] superstition and ignorance both of princes and people had vested the ecclesiastical power, of which it most unworthily availed itself, to its own enormous aggrandizement in things temporal – at once supplanting the rightful authority of God in His Scriptures; and substituting both a doctrine and discipline of its own, by which to blind the souls of men and subjugate them to its sway” (24).

And if the opponents of the establishment, he writes, want to enlist history, what of the Reformers? They, as their heirs in the 19th century, yearned for the Christianization of Scotland. John Knox cried to heaven, ‘Give me Scotland, or I die!’ Now, did this mean for Knox and company demolishing the old machine, with its universities and parishes, handed to them by Medieval Christendom? No. “They did not, with blind and headlong zeal, demolish the old apparatus of distribution. They substituted the true gospel for a false one; and sent forth its now amended and purified lessons along the old pathways of conveyance” (26). In short, they distinguished between a good expedient, tried and proven, and its bad operators. For the Reformers, they kept the business intact, but changed the management – and with good effect, we might add.

And so, Christians ought not to be so hasty to scrap the means that could be effectively employed for Christianizing the masses merely because it has been misused. “Were the water of London to take on a deleterious tinge from the accession of some impurity – the way surely is to purge it of this, or, if possible, to bar the ingress of it, rather than make insensate attacks on the subterranean machinery, by which distribution is made of it through the streets of the city and into the houses of the citizens” (34).

Having thus dealt with removing initial prejudices to the question, Chalmers turns to the positive argument for religious establishments in Lectures 2 and 3.

To appreciate the warrants for a religious establishment, one must see how it stands opposed to the system of free trade in commerce. The liberal economists of the 19th century, following Adam Smith’s doctrine laid down in his Wealth of Nations, argued that the greatest good would accrue to society by the free and uninhibited trade of goods and services, by allowing the simple laws of supply and demand to prevail. Government should not intervene, for whatever motives. This will only disrupt things and inhibit the greatest good for all.

Adam Smith himself applied these principles to Christianity as a good in society. It ought to be left unregulated by government interference and “limited to the extent of the market” demand (48). However, says Chalmers, Christianity must necessarily fail as a good in society on this plan.

A free trade in commerce, only seeks to those places where it can make out a gainful trade; but it is sure to avoid or to abandon those places, where, whether from the languor of the demand or the poverty of the inhabitants, it would be exposed to a losing trade. By a free trade in Christianity, let the lessons of the gospel follow the same law of movement; and these lessons will cease to be taught in every place, where there is either not enough of liking for the thing, or not enough of money for the purchase of it: Or that religion, the great and primary characteristic of which was that it should be preached unto the poor, must be withheld from those people, who are unable by poverty to provide maintenance for its teachers (49).

Why, then, does the good of commerce work to the fullest advantage upon society by the unfettered laws of supply and demand, while on the same laws the good of Christianity is retarded? Simply put, man does not naturally perceive and so desire Christianity as a good. “There is no such intensity of desire or of demand for the article of Christian instruction” in the marketplace as there is for material goods and services (51). “There is no natural hungering and thirsting after righteousness; and before man will seek that the want should be supplied, the appetite must first be created.” Adam Smith must reckon with St. Paul, who said, “There is none that seeketh after God.”

This reality accords with the historical facts of the Christian movement prior to its establishment in the Roman Empire. Christianity was not a naturally attractive commodity. Consequently, missionaries went out, thrust forth into a world that had no pre-existing taste for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. And at whose expense did the pagans receive this doctrine of heaven? Who paid (or housed and fed) the laborers who were worthy of their wages? It was not the beneficiaries: at least not initially. Christianity was heavily subsidized in its movement throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond, through a nameless host of private benefactors. And sometimes, the laborers even paid themselves in order to preach without fees (Acts 20:34, 2 Thess. 3:8)!

Non-establishment missionaries in Chalmers’ day certainly acknowledged that Christianity could only be introduced into a new territory by the underwriting of others. Their home and foreign mission societies were proof of this: the pagans would not pay for what they needed most! Now, one could plausibly counter that once missionaries are introduced to a foreign country and find some success that a “native demand will be set agoing” (68), sufficient to maintain the ministry without subsidy. Yet this will not obviate the need to press still further in the cause of the Gospel in that land. And that is precisely the raison d’être of an establishment. It is not the whole that need a physician, as it were, but the sick.

Further, the dissenting chapels of Chalmers’ day, though unendowed by the state, did not strictly operate by the laws of free trade. The plain facts are that these churches had from time to time run into needs that those with deeper pockets, either within their congregations or associations, benevolently supplied. “Unlike to the other articles which are brought into a market, and of which the supply is continued only because of an adequately returning price – unlike to these, the returns for the article of Christian instruction are very often beneath the prime cost incurred in the preparation of it” (66). As long as there are lost souls to be reclaimed in this world, the Christian enterprise will require subsidy.

Yet this does not answer the question as to why it must be the state and not the Christian public that must subsidize the program of Christianizing a land. Chalmers’ response is that, very practically speaking, the operation of free trade in Christianity, as exhibited in the efforts of the Dissenters, had not Christianized the burgeoning, unchurched massed of Scotland. One can feel the pathos of deep evangelical sentiment when Chalmers bemoans the situation of his day:

Let [there] be a church, for distribution amongst [these unevangelized poor] of the bread of life, or for the supply of their moral and religious wants: and its presence in the midst of them, with the weekly invitations of its Sabbath-bell, will fail to attract beyond the veriest handful of the surrounding population to this house of prayer – and, more especially, if the market-price for the accommodation and the service be expected at their hands. It may or it may not be filled to an overflow by hearers from all distances, who have both the wealth and the will to pay for their attendance. But hundreds often are the families in the precincts of this temple of piety, so near that the voice of its psalms may enter their dwellings, yet not awaken them from the insensibility of their spiritual death (72-73).

Let the rules of unregulated commerce apply, and this population will perish for lack of knowledge.

Finally, in a flourish of righteous passion, Chalmers exposes and excoriates the “cold and secular utilitarianism” behind this imposition of free trade on Christianity. To draw a close analogy between articles of commerce in this world with the grand article of salvation, and with all the moral, intellectual, and social blessings that it entails, is crude at best and heartless at worst. What measure is there between profit and human worth and dignity? Between gaining this world and losing the soul? Further, Chalmers states positively, “after all, there is not only false sentiment but even false arithmetic in the views of these gross mercantile calculators. The universal scholarship for which we are contending, would, if carried into effect, be indeed the cheapest defense of our nation – whether its expenses shall be defrayed in the form of a liberality by the hands of private individuals, or from the public treasury in the form of an endowment” (75).

Clearly, there is no ultimate concord between Christianity and commerce. But is there another model to put in its place, other than the old establishment? Consequently, Chalmers turns in his third lecture to deal with the argument of the Voluntaries to confirm his thesis.

To begin, many confuse liberal economic principles as applied to Christianity with the system of Voluntaryism, which is simply the evangelical contention that the Church should have no connection with the state, financial or otherwise. Chalmers distinguishes between the things that differ. There is within Christianity two types of voluntaryism: internal and external. Internal voluntaryism is the willing financing of the ministry by the people directly benefiting from that ministry. Concretely, this could be a local church membership committing to pay its minister entirely from its own resources. No one is coerced, for they are all quite willing. And no money is taken from other sources, much less the state. This is a commendable scheme, and, incidentally, fits quite nicely with the economic dogmas of Adam Smith. The beneficiaries pay for the benefits, and so supply meets demand. External voluntaryism, on the other hand, is the giving or receiving of financing from other quarters due to monetary shortfalls within struggling churches and ministries. In external voluntaryism, benefactors willingly contribute to the Christian instruction not of themselves but of others who either cannot or (in the case of the unconverted) will not pay. Missions, foreign or domestic, operate on this version of voluntaryism.

Here, it becomes clear that the Voluntaries are not free traders, pure and simple. They finance struggling churches and ministers and underwrite the cost of sending missionaries to the pagans. They, therefore, are external voluntaries, and seriously interfere with the free trade of the commodity of Christian instruction. They subsidize it, “repairing the deficiencies of the market price” (85), and so violate liberal economics. Free trade in Christianity and Voluntaryism must not be confused.

To replace the establishment with Voluntaryism, then, throws us back to another question. We are all agreed, says Chalmers, Churchmen and Dissenters alike, that internal voluntaryism is insufficient to extend the Gospel where it cannot or will not be financed. “We presume it to be agreed on both sides, that the outcast millions ought to be reclaimed from the ignorance and irreligion of heathenism. The only difference relates to the party at whose expense this great achievement ought to be perfected – whether by private Christians, under the impulse of religious benevolence; or by an enlightened government, under the impulse of a paternal regard for the highest weal of its subject population” (87, emphasis mine). The Voluntaries obvious argued for the former, Chalmers and company for the latter. “We, the advocates of a National Establishment, hold it the duty and wisdom of every state, thus to undertake for the education of the great family under its charge, and to provide the requisite funds for the fulfillment of the enterprise – and this without prejudice, but the contrary, to the liberality of those individuals, who might choose of their own means to build more churches, and maintain more ministers – thus adding to the amount of Christian instruction in the land” (87).

When the Voluntaries plead that the establishment should be abolished, Chalmers merely raises the question, with what success have they showed to warrant the scrapping of the old engine for Christianizing the masses? Have they prevailed upon the mushrooming numbers of unchurched in Glasgow or Edinburgh? The numbers do not look promising, he observes. The establishment may be an expedient in Chalmers’ mind. But it is a tried and tested one.

It should also be further asked, why the objection to state-funded Christian education (i.e., the teaching and preaching of the Gospel) of the citizens, when state-funded ‘secular’ education is accepted? Why should the fathers of a commonwealth provide temporal education for their children and on principle (!) withhold spiritual education?

And whence this ‘enlightened indifference’ to religious matters in the state? Is it of heaven or of men? Those who vociferously argue against establishments have imbibed an unbiblical philosophy that presumes that government should be “lifeless to all … things sacred” (93). Those in power, “maintaining a calm and philosophic indifference to all the modes and varieties of religious belief, should refuse to entertain the question, in which of these varieties the people ought to be trained” (93). But would God have those in office indifferent to His will and ways, as though their position granted them an ethical immunity? Further, this enlightened detachment about religion doesn’t even agree with the very human character of the state. “The corporation of a state cannot be … denaturalized, or reduced to a sort of caput mortuum, discharged of all soul and sentiment – as if by a process of constitution-making in the crucibles of a laboratory. The cold metaphysical abstraction that is thereby engendered, may exist in the region of the ideal; but it does not exist in the region of the actual, nor even in the region of the possible” (94). Legislators and governors also have feelings for other issues that concern the good of the commonwealth. Can they be altogether detached on that which most affects the good of those under their care? Would they not wish to patronize, even as a matter of policy, the Christian cause, if it yields “an incalculable saving of the wealth, and still more a saving to the happiness of the nation … [by] the prevention of crime rather than its punishment” (97)?

Then, picking up a thread he had left earlier, Chalmers points out how one branch of the Voluntary principle – external voluntaryism – can actually complement the function of an establishment. Private philanthropy can induce public philanthropy. In fact, “we behold in an ecclesiastical provision by the state, an example of external voluntaryism, or a willing public contributing of their wealth to the Christian instruction of the common people, through the medium of a willing government. It only differs from a separate or a personal contribution, by the channel of conveyance through which it passes” (100-101). And this is precisely what Chalmers was doing in his Church Extension campaign in the Church of Scotland – fundraising and building new church facilities for the impoverished, unchurched classes in the hopes that such a demonstration of initiative and benevolence would help loose the purse strings of the government to assist. He saw no inconsistency, but only the greatest harmony of principle “between the legal and the voluntary part of our conjunct operation” (106). At the time of the publication of these essays, he cites 180 buildings that had been funded and built through the free-will offerings of donors throughout the land.

But lest some should entertain the suspicion, the cause that he advocated was emphatically not a self-serving one. The men of the Church Extension campaign did not seek to line their wallets. Rather, their “sacred object is,” he writes, “the moral well-being of that mighty host who swarm and overspread the ground-floor of the fabric of our commonwealth” (110), who had no money and often no interest for the provisions of the Gospel. And so Chalmers wrote as the man from Macedonia, “Come over … and help us” (Acts 16:9).

And so we have the theoretical foundations of religious establishments in the thought of Thomas Chalmers. In the next installment, we will treat the final three lectures on related matters.

[Go to Part 3]

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