Thomas Chalmers and His Parish System

The Slums of Glasgow, Scotland. 1870s
The Slums of Glasgow, Scotland. 1870s

With the rise of industrialization (and the subsequent urbanization) of society in the British Isles in the 19th Century, the Christian church was faced with a new set of challenges. Suddenly there was a huge growth in disease, alcoholism, crime, and poverty in large industrial cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.[1] Welfare systems had to be established by the government to care for these paupers. Hospitals had to some how find the means to care for the increasing number of sick and diseased people. How was the church to respond to such a huge social crisis? In the twenty-first century it seems that the common reaction to social justice issues is to have the government pass legislation demanding more equality, more representation, and more money. However, the response of the church in the 19th Century, particularly that of one Scottish Evangelical pastor, Thomas Chalmers, was quite different. Rather than wanting to have the state claim more jurisdiction over areas of society, Chalmers wanted the church to have the sole purpose of dealing with the poor. It was Chalmers’ desire to develop a local parish system whereby the people in each individual parish could care for and support the needs of that particular parish. In this way, a greater sense of Christian community and compassion would be known and hopefully the poor could rise from their poverty, by the instruction and help of the Christian church.

This paper will be interested in examining Chalmers’ work in regard to his parish-system. It will seek not only to investigate what various factors in Chalmers’ life encouraged the development of such a system, but it will also examine how the system worked, and how successful it was.

Parish System

The parish-system was the historic division of the territory in Scotland, ascribing some 950 parishes to the Church of Scotland (the established church).[2] A parish system is a structure that is very important to state churches, as it provides a method of division that allows all the territory to be governed and controlled by the state church. It ensures that every territory of the state has some ecclesiastical structure in it. Thus, every parish in Scotland was assigned its own church building and a residence for the clergy.[3] The idea here was to assign each minister a certain group of people within a specific section of land. The minister would serve in that parish under the higher bodies of the Church of Scotland: the local presbytery, the provincial synod, and the General Assembly.[4]

Conversion to Evangelical Christianity

Thomas Chalmers’ evangelical conversion serves as a very important catalyst in the history of development of his parish system. It was Chalmers’ conversion from a dead academic Christianity to an evangelical and experiential Christianity that prompted him to begin an evangelical mission where he laboured: first at Kilmany and then later in Glasgow. Prior to Chalmers’ conversion he had actually already been an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland in the small country parish of Kilmany.[5] Yet he really had very little interest in the pastoral work at Kilmany and was much more interested in academic, mathematical, and philosophical pursuits. In fact, he condemned the

religious ‘enthusiasts’, who claimed a ‘mystical’ knowledge of God’s will and of the predestined fate of their souls which transcended both reason and Scriptural revelation . . . . For him, the value of Christianity lay in its moral code, through which men might live together in harmony.[6]

Thomas Chalmers, c. 1845
Thomas Chalmers, c. 1845

In 1809 Chalmers fell seriously ill with consumption and though he recovered he had to deal with other numerous personal difficulties during 1809 – 1810. These included the ending of his relationship with an Anne Rankine and the death of his sister, Lucy. These difficulties caused Chalmers to withdraw into solitude and study. It was in his studies that Chalmers read William Wilberforce’s pamphlet Practical View of Preaching Religious System of Professed Christians.[7] In this pamphlet Wilberforce criticized the “mores of fashionable society and called for a commitment to true Christianity.”[8] This tract had a dramatic affect upon Chalmers for “It offered a bulwark against ‘the vortex of earthly passions’, and the prospect of a new life.”[9] Thus, it was upon reading this pamphlet that Chalmers was converted to evangelical Christianity in December 1810.

After his conversion, Chalmers had a tremendous desire to begin a truly evangelical ministry in Kilmany. He took up his ministry in Kilmany with a renewed and reinvigorated passion. He began a rigorous process of visiting the members of his parish to understand their needs.[10] Chalmers began a ministry emphasising the importance of individual conversion with emphasis on the Biblical doctrines of total depravity and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Brown writes that “Chalmers powerfully conveyed his absolute belief in the ‘peculiar doctrines’ of man’s corruption, his duty to obey God’s laws, and his salvation by grace alone.”[11] It was the preaching of these doctrines, with the hope that it would lead to the personal conversion of his hearers, that would also drive Chalmers’ social ideas.

Development of the Parish-Ideal

The story of the development of Chalmers’ parish ideal cannot be separated from his evangelical desire to bring the gospel to the lost. Indeed, Chalmers believed that society could not be reformed apart from Christianity. He “considered Christianity decisive ‘to foster’ the principles implanted in the constitution of man.”[12] In fact, he would state later in his life that,

I assert, with the most unqualified earnestness, that Christianity is the religion of life, and will bear to be carried in the whole extent of her spirit and of her laws throughout all the haunts and varieties of human intercourse. . . that in her strictest and most essential character she may be introduced into the busiest walks of society and there uphold her disciples in the exercise of that simplicity and godly sincerity which she lays upon them.[13]

Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus

Yet, Chalmers was also influenced by philosophy when it came to poverty and the growth of populations. In particular, he was heavily influenced by the social development theories of Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ theory argued that society could not have unlimited growth without devastating consequences such as shortages of food, growth of poverty, and ultimately war. This, he argued, was the recurring cycle of human history.[14] The only hope for society to get out of this vicious cycle was their moral reasoning. Society could limit population growth through moral restraint by practicing birth control (i.e. marrying later in life).[15] The way society could be taught to do this was through education, especially teaching “individuals . . . among the labouring orders, the benefits of supporting smaller families on their incomes and of increasing their wages by decreasing the labour supply. Another, more radical, expedient was to abolish legal poor relief.”[16] Abolishing poor relief was crucial to this system, for it was believed that this would force the poor to adopt moral restraint.

Chalmers developed his own slight twist on this theory. Rather than completely eradicating poor relief, Chalmers began arguing that the state should have no jurisdiction over poor relief. He believed that it was the duty of the church and the family, not the state, to administer poor relief. This is crucial to understanding his parish system. His intent with the parish system was to make its citizens independent of state welfare. The parish citizens would all support each other, by caring for each other. Through the withdrawal of all outside support, people would be forced to look to their families for help.[17] Further, if the church was allowed the task of administering poor relief, they could give it alongside of Christian financial advice. They could administer instruction and education with the money. Thus, to paraphrase Chalmers, they could give money with judgment, time, and attention.[18] Brown summarizes the argument in this way

at the foundation of Chalmers’ argument was the concept of a Christian community, in which a shared missionary ideal strengthened both piety and benevolence. The parish community became united by the spontaneous spirit of charity, which improved the quality of life for all. . . . [Chalmers] then proceeded to contrast this Christian communal ideal to the legal system of poor relief, particularly as it functioned in England. Poor laws, he argued, created an artificial system of contractual relationships, emphasizing a legal right to relief on the part of the poor.[19]

So Chalmers had a great quarrel with benevolence administered by the state. He believed that the state’s function in poor relief resulted in the decline of the morality of the poor, encouraging them “to think more of their rights than of their responsibilities. As a result, they became morally degraded to a condition of ‘pauperism’, or a permanent legal dependence upon the labour or property of others, which compromised their real freedom, as well as making them less industrious.”[20]

The Application of the Parish System in Glasgow

So when Chalmers left Kilmany to take up labours in the Tron parish in Glasgow he did not come there simply to preach (for he was regarded as an exceptional preacher). Rather he came, as James Dodds writes, to “be a parish minister in Glasgow.”[21] His notion of being a parish minister was knowing and visiting the members of his congregation and also all the members of his parish territory (whether they were Dissenters or not). It was through this visitation that he could come to know the individual needs of his congregation, whether financial, spiritual, or both, and he could respond appropriately.

However, visiting each individual house in his parish posed a huge problem. He simply did not have the time to visit every single house and family in his parish and, more importantly, to deal with their problems in an appropriate manner.[22] So Chalmers began enlisting the help of his session. He appointed younger and more vigorous men to the eldership, who would have the strength and the energy to visit the members of their parish.[23] These men tended to be taken from the wealthier classes, as these men would have the time and the resources to help the less fortunate.

It was their job to look after the members of various sections of the parish by visiting them from house to house on a regular basis. In doing this they were to “communicate Christian knowledge and consolation.”[24] They were also to find the poor who truly needed assistance and get to them before they actually applied for poor relief.[25] Of particular interest is that these elders were to use their own private wealth and influence (in finding employment) to help the families in need. Only as a last resort were they to seek the financial help of the church institute.[26]

The notion of abolishing all state welfare was met with a fair amount of resistance from Chalmers’ contemporaries. Many accused him off being inhumane towards the poor in making their suffering all the worse.[27] Many also said that he was simply doing this to give the Church of Scotland more control, influence, and power through the use of its parish system.[28] Thus, they viewed his plan as a direct attack on religious plurality. Finally, he was also considered to be utopian in his vision and thus idealistic, not realistic.[29]

Partly in response to these accusations, Chalmers began petitioning for absolute control over St. John’s parish (a new parish inside of Chalmers’ growing Tron parish). He wanted to stop all state welfare and show how successful such a system of Christian principles, money management, charity, proper church leadership, and poor relief could be. After much controversy and difficulty Chalmers managed to get what he wished in September 1819.[30]

It was at St. John’s that Chalmers began to really use the office of the deaconate, instead of the eldership, to take care of the financial concerns of the parish. Once again, a deacon was assigned to a certain section of the parish. Part of their duty as deacons was to encourage a communal benevolence whereby the richer members of the parish would charitably give to the poor.[31] However, if there was no way for the deacon to relieve a poor member via his own funds or abilities (or that of another individual deacon), then that case would be brought for consideration at the deacons’ court. If the court deemed the situation of that particular pauper to be desperate enough, then they would grant funds from the collections of the church for his relief.[32]

Obviously then, the role of the deacons here was quite significant. They not only had to seek out those who were poor (specifically before they applied for financial help), but also had to judge on a case by case who truly needed monetary help and who needed simply needed good financial advice. Nor did their duties end there, for they were also to “endeavour to close public houses, remove health hazards, strengthen families, and encourage education.”[33] This service even extended to the alcoholics and other members of society considered immoral. Due to the nature of these people, they were not allowed to receive money. However, Chalmers ordered his deacons that they should receive instruction, and brotherly love, shown through good-will, friendly advice, and calmness.[34] Thus, Brown rightly states that the “most important feature of the St. John’s poor-relief system was . . . [the] trained order of deacons.”[35]

The Success of the System

The effectiveness of Chalmers’ parish system is cloaked in a lot of controversy. The number of sessional paupers and those applying for welfare certainly decreased during Chalmers’ time in the St. John’s parish. Indeed, the “other nine Glasgow parishes had sent a total of 353 paupers to the Town Hospital for permanent assessment relief, while St. John’s had sent none.”[36] Yet some of the ways the deacons achieved this are perhaps questionable. Some of the deacons were accused of callousness in not supporting the poor as fellow human beings. The deacons so discouraged and shamed the notion of being poor, that almost nobody applied for relief, even though they were in desperate need.[37]

christianandciv01chalgoog_0008Modern scholars such as R. A. Cage and R. Mitchison see Chalmers’ system as outdated, traditional, and thus, unable to truly meet the needs of the poor in industrialized cities.[38] Yet Betchaku argues that Chalmers’ plan really helped establish a system of public education that would greatly influence society in later years.[39] Indeed, Chalmers influence in this regard seems to be undeniable. He worked hard to spread his views and even published a pamphlet describing his work in St. John’s called, Christian and Civic Economy in Large Towns.[40] This would eventually lead to his help in the work to reform the poor-laws.[41] Brown also seems to agree that Chalmers’ system was ultimately successful when he argues that “Despite the conflicts and failures, his achievements had been significant. He had assimilated his rural parish community ideal to new urban conditions, [and] gained the participation of the considerable body of the Glasgow upper and middle classes in his parish ideal.”[42] So while there may have been some questionable behaviour on the part of the deacons in the implementation of Chalmers’ orders it seems his system was on the whole successful in reducing the number of paupers, educating the poor, creating a more benevolent community, and having a future impact on poor laws.

Therefore, in conclusion, Thomas Chalmers’ successful development of a financially independent parish in a heavily pauperised 19th century industrial city is quite an interesting story that should not be overlooked. Nor should the development of such a system ever be separated from his evangelical conversion. It was his evangelical zeal that really brought him out of an academic Christianity and into a proactive missionary zeal to see the poor educated and given relief from their distress. Chalmers’ parish system was his Christian response to the growing problems of an industrialized and urbanized 19th Century society and on the whole it seems to have been a successful system.


Betchaku, Atsuko. “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment: A Study in Educational Influence in Scotland and Beyond, 1819-c.1850.” in Journal Of Scottish Historical Studies 27, no. 2 (December 2007): 170-190.

Brown, Stewart J. Thomas Chalmers and the godly commonwealth in Scotland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brown, Stewart J.. “Chalmers, Thomas (1780–1847).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. edited by David Cannadine, October 2007.

Dodds, James. Thomas Chalmers: A Biographical Study. Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Co., 1879.

Enright, William G. “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Scotland” in Church History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1978): 400 – 407

Goodlad, Lauren. “‘Making the Working Man Like Me’: Charity, Pastorship, and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain; Thomas Chalmers and Dr. James Phillips Kay.” Victorian Studies 43, no. 4 (Summer, 2001): 591.

Noll, Mark. “Revolution and the Rise of Evangelical Social Influence in North Atlantic Societies” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond 1700 – 1990. Edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Rawlyk. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Philip, Adam. Thomas Chalmers: Apostle of Union. London: James Clarke & Co., Limited, 1929.

Shaw, Ian. “Thomas Chalmers, David Nasmith, and the Origins of the City Mission Movement.” Evangelical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (January, 2004): 31 – 46

Wolffe, John. The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney. Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2007.


[1] William G. Enright, “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Scotland” in Church History, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), 402

[2] Stewart J. Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the godly commonwealth in Scotland. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 43

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 43 – 44

[5] Stewart J. Brown, “Chalmers, Thomas (1780–1847)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. (Oxford, 2004). Edited by David Cannadine, October 2007. ( February, 20, 2017

[6] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 49

[7] Ibid, 55

[8] John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, (Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2007), 55

[9] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 56

[10] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 77

[11] Ibid, 58

[12] Atsuko Betchaku, “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment: A Study in Educational Influence in Scotland and Beyond, 1819-c.1850.” in Journal Of Scottish Historical Studies 27, no. 2 (December 2007), 172

[13] Enright, “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit”, 404

[14] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 117

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid, 117

[17] Betchaku, “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment”, 172

[18] Lauren Goodlad, “’Making the Working Man like Me’: Charity, Pastorship, and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Thomas Chalmers and Dr. James Phillips Kay” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Summer, 2001), 596

[19] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 67

[20] Ibid

[21] Emphasis his. James Dodds, Thomas Chalmers: A Biographical Study. (Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Co., 1879), 139

[22] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 101

[23] Ibid, 101

[24] Ibid, 102

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid, 120

[28] Ibid, 121

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid, 128

[31] Ibid, 132

[32] Ibid, 132

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid, 132 – 133

[35] Ibid, 132

[36] Ibid, 134

[37] Ibid, 135

[38] Betchaku, “Thomas Chalmers, David Stow and the St. John’s Experiment”, 170

[39] Ibid

[40] Brown, Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth, 151

[41] Ibid

[42] Ibid

2 thoughts on “Thomas Chalmers and His Parish System

Add yours

  1. Great post! A man after (a man after) my own heart. I’m presently writing an article on Chalmers’ West Port Experiment. I’ll have to sign up to your blog.

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