From “Freedom” to Bondage?

 

 

Thomas Chalmers by ReformationArt.com

Thomas Chalmers by ReformationArt.com

Considering the recent controversy over ordaining an openly gay minister to a congregation in the Free Church of Scotland (see Iain Campbell’s post at Ref21), I found it interesting that it was on this day, May 18, 1843, that Thomas Chalmers led four hundred ministers out of the established church of Scotland in reaction to its trend toward “liberal formalism” to found the Free Church of Scotland. How ironic that liberalism is now catching up with them.

It was at the end of his life, when his reputation was well established, his contribution to the life of Scotland, England and Ireland fully recognized, and his fame spread around the world that the greatest test came to Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). During the course of his long and storied career the great Scottish Reformer had served as the pastor of three congregations, taught in three colleges, published more than thirty-five best-selling books, and helped to establish more than a hundred charitable relief and missions organizations. He practically reinvented the Scottish parish system as well as the national social welfare structure. He counted such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, King William IV, Thomas Carlyle, William Wilberforce, and Robert Peel as his friends and confidants. Indeed, he was among the most influential and highly regarded men of his day. Even so, he did not hesitate to involve himself in–and ultimately lead–a movement that was to set him in apparent disregard of the authority of the highest civil court in the land.

With the disappearance of Catholic authority in Scotland, Reformers worked hard to replace it with a faithful national church. Their struggle for spiritual independence had been a long and costly one under the leadership of John Knox and Andrew Melville among others. At long last, in 1690, their Reformed Church was legally recognized by the Crown as the established Church of Scotland. The danger of such an establishment was that the state might attempt to manipulate the internal affairs of the church.

That danger was realized when Parliament imposed conformity with the standards of English patronage upon the Scottish church. In reality, patronage was hardly different from the medieval practice of lay investiture–it gave landowners the right to appoint to a parish a minister who might or might not be biblically qualified for the post or acceptable to the elders of the congregation. The patronage conflict came to a head in 1838 when several ministers were forced on congregations opposed to their settlement. Many, including Chalmers, believed that the integrity of the gospel was at stake.

At about the same time, it was decided by Parliament that the church did not have the power to organize new parishes or to give the ministers there the status of clergy of the church. It had no authority to receive again clergy who had left it. And perhaps worst of all, a creeping liberal formalism was slowly smothering the evangelical zeal of the whole land–in large part due to the assumption of pastoral duties by men altoghether unfit for such a solemn vocation.

After a ten-year struggle to regain the soul of the church, the evangelical wing, led by Chalmers, laid a protest on the table of the assembly, and some four hundred ministers left the established Church of Scotland on this day in 1843, to form the Free Church. When the new church was constituted that grave morning, Thomas Chalmers was, of course, called to be its moderator. He was the man whose reputation in the Christian world was the highest; he was also the man whose influence had been greatest in directing the events that led to what would eventually be called the “Disruption.” (George Grant& Gregory Wilbur; The Christian Almanac: A Book of Days Celebrating History’s Most Significant People & Events, page 296; Cumberland House, Nashville, Tennessee–buy it real cheap from Christianbook.com or Amazon.com)

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