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Scotland's Greatest Preacher, Part 1

by Martin Surridge



 Scotland’s Greatest Preacher, Part 1

When Thomas Chalmers began taking college-level classes, he was only 12 years old. He enrolled in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 1792 in order to study theology and become a Christian minister. Ten years later he would achieve his goal and lead a church parish in the Scottish village of Kilmany, where low stone walls surrounded stone cottages in the midst of lush green fields hidden by shrouds of mist and fog. It was the kind of peaceful setting where any pastor could spend the rest of their career, but several years later, Thomas traded in the beauty of the Scottish countryside for the urban squalors of St. John’s parish in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow. 

The smoke-spewing factories of the Industrial Revolution dominated Glasgow, and it was here that Thomas discovered a passion for ministering to the parish’s poor and suffering whose lives had been affected by the horrible conditions in which they worked and lived. While he became noteworthy for visiting many church members in their homes and working tirelessly to provide Christian education for the children of the area, it was ultimately his gift of preaching that resulted in his name being known beyond the borders of Glasgow and even Scotland. One of his most important sermons was on the power of affection, on how a sincere love of Jesus Christ can replace—or as he wrote, “expulse”—any of the other idolatrous loves we have in our lives. This wasn’t a lecture to doodle or sleep through. It was titled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Today one might call such a sermon, “When You Love Jesus, Nothing Else Can Compare” or “The Love of Sin Can’t Be Beat . . . Except Through the Power of Jesus.” 

In the slums of Glasgow, Thomas witnessed how his church members and their families loved their sins. In his sermon, he created generic characters to represent his parishioners and the sinful affections they were holding onto, affections that had replaced the love of Jesus or had left no room for Him in their lives. He singled out the adults in his congregation who allowed a love for their careers to become the driving force in their lives. Thomas remarked that once these workers “retired from business” or “retired from law,”1 the deep affection they held for their jobs disappeared, leaving them empty and unsatisfied, and its replacement was so often absolutely nothing, a vacuum of affection. If Thomas Chalmers was preaching the same sermon today, perhaps to a group of teenagers at a Bible conference or Christian school, he might talk about the dangers of loving academic success more than loving Jesus. 

As he continued, he warned that too many people are like the “victorious general,” who, after winning every battle is left with an impressive collection of medals on the shelf, but not much else. If Thomas were speaking to that crowd of twenty-first century high school students, perhaps his point of reference would instead be the varsity basketball team’s captain and star player, who, despite attending Christian school, found his most passionate love was for sports and not God. 

Thomas called out the “fortunate gamester” and those “who [spend] the hours of every evening at some play,” who discover that the “triumph of a successful contest”2 only lasts for a short time. The great Scottish preacher would certainly be flabbergasted by the amazing technology in modern computing and video games, but he wouldn’t be surprised by the hours wasted in pursuit of completing each level, gaining every achievement, or defeating just one more online opponent. 

The congregation in Glasgow might very well have held their breath as they waited for their minister’s next words after such pointed opening remarks. While it is not clear just how personal his comments really were at the time, it didn’t matter, because it was what he said next that mattered most. Thomas continued his sermon with an explanation of the power of Christ’s love and how, when we return that affection, no sin on earth can destroy us. If we are left empty by the love and pursuit of academic glory, sporting success, electronic entertainment, or any other replacement for the affection for Jesus Christ for which we were created, there is a divine solution at hand. 

The Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers had only just begun the sermon that would make him famous, but early in his address, he told those in attendance that when facing the vacuum there is no greater substitute for the wasted affections of this world than to replace our lowly idols with a lifelong love for our eternal savior Jesus Christ.

In the following three weeks, we will continue our study of Thomas Chalmer’s greatest sermon. We will examine how he taught his congregation to best fill the vacuum in their lives, how instead of leaving the void empty and hollow, we can fill the Jesus-shaped hole with Christ’s infinite love and mercy. We will hear how he instructed his church members to recognize that a love of the world cannot coexist with a love of God, and that the positive message of the gospel is a greater creed to live by than the distrustful worldview that is present without it. 

While his ministry ended hundreds of years ago, the lessons Thomas Chalmers taught us continue to resonate now, still able to touch the heart of any teenager who might have placed Jesus on the shelf. 

1 Chalmers, Thomas. “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” pg. 2. 2 Chalmers, 2.Martin Surridge is an English teacher at Lynden Christian High School in Lynden, Washington. He holds a graduate degree in teaching from Walla Walla University. In his free time, Martin enjoys history, board games, and exploring the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Lauren.

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