Chalmers and the New City

When Thomas Chalmers undertook the management of the parish of St John's in Glasgow, the poor of the parish cost the city £1400 per year.  In four years the city’s poverty expenditure was reduced to £280 per year!  How did that happen?

Chalmers was a Scottish minister, professor of theology, and political economist.  In September 1819, he became minister of the church and parish of St John.   The parish was comprised of 2000 families.  More than 800 of those had no direct connection with his church or any other.  That did not decelerate Chalmers’ work.

He began by providing schools for the children. Two school-houses with four endowed teachers were established, where 700 children were taught, at moderate fees. Between 40 and 50 local Sunday schools  were opened, where more than 1000 children were taught.


Next, the parish was divided into ”visitable villages” of  “500 souls” each. Chalmers taught evening meetings five days each week.  Deacons were assigned to each visitable village and regularly visited the homes to meet with the citizens.  The people were known to say, “Those people are for me. They are my advocates!”

Critics replied to Chalmers that his approach was impossible in large cities. Chalmers countered with a moral argument and conviction: Private charity could and should outweigh public expenditure in relieving poverty.

In 1823, accepted the chair of moral philosophy at St. Andrews University. He became “increasingly troubled by the individualistic self-interest promoted by economists and politicians.”  According to Chalmers, the only remedy for the evils of industrialization—and its attendant poverty, rootlessness, illiteracy, and threat of revolution—was a parish system, where the lives of the struggling poor could be ministered to effectively.

Ironically enough, Chalmers was what me might call a “Renaissance Man.”  More accurately, his moral philosophy defied stereotypes. He believed that personal beliefs were not meant to be private beliefs, but were meant to go public in order to benefit all in the city.  He believed, as N.T. Wright, the former bishop of Durham, challenges:

“The injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won…If Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world – news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts.  The resurrection means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things – and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all.”  

Is this happening in Nashville today?  Could we defy stereotypes and stand for all the citizens of this city because of our personal moral philosophy?  If so, we are working and planning in a way that confirms that healing, justice and love have won.