Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by J. H. Millar
Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847)
 
[Thomas Chalmers was born at Anstruther in 1780, and was educated at the University of St. Andrews. He entered the ministry of the Church of Scotland, and was ordained minister of Kilmany, in East Fife, in 1803. During the winters of 1804 and 1805 he delivered private courses of lectures on mathematics and chemistry at St. Andrews with great applause and success, visiting his parish from Saturday to Monday. In a few years, however, his views assumed a strict Evangelical complexion; pluralism became a sin; and no man exposed its iniquities more searchingly in the Church Courts than he. In 1815 he was chosen by the Town Council of Glasgow to be minister of the Tron Church in that city, where he delivered his celebrated Astronomical Discourses (1817), and attained unequalled popularity and influence. Translated in 1819 to the newly-erected parish of St. John’s, he was enabled to put in practice his long-cherished design for the superintendence and relief of the poor, which but for the subsequent unhappy dissensions in the Church might have been carried to a triumphant issue all over Scotland, and upon the mere inception of which depends his strongest claim to the gratitude and veneration of posterity. In 1823 he was transferred to the chair of Moral Philosophy at St. Andrews, which he exchanged five years later for that of Theology in Edinburgh. In 1832 he was appointed Moderator of the General Assembly, and during the next ten years flung himself with characteristic ardour into the work of church extension as well as into the Non-intrusion controversy, which first became serious with the passing of the Veto Act in 1834, and finally culminated in the great secession of 1843. Of the Free Church movement Chalmers was, indeed, the supreme and unquestioned leader; he, more than any other, kindled and sustained the enthusiasm of those who “went out”; and upon his shoulders lay the chief burden of organising and endowing the new religious community. He died in 1847. His works extend to some thirty-four volumes, and, in addition to innumerable sermons, many of them delivered on occasions of considerable public moment, include an Inquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources (1808), a pamphlet On the Use and Abuse of Literary and Ecclesiastical Endowments (1827), a treatise, composed for the Duke of Bridgewater’s trustees, On the Adaptation of External Nature lo the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833), lectures On the Establishment and Extension of National Churches (1838), and Institutes of Theology (posthumous).]  1
 
THE EXTRAORDINARY power of Dr. Chalmers as a preacher, duly attested as it is by no less cool and competent an authority than Lockhart, has long been merely a tradition, and the spell exercised by his very name is in process of dissolution by the hand of time. The detection of his literary shortcomings has, therefore, become no difficult matter. Most of his compositions were cast in a rhetorical mould, and betray at times all the faults peculiar to that form of writing. Pomposity, verbiage, bombast, and rodomontade are there to be discovered in abundance. Often, again, he employs a phraseology and a mode of expression which are unintelligible, when they are not repellent, to our generation. The “scowling infidel” and the “pigmy philosopher” play by much too prominent a part in his apologetic writings, while the favourite and well-worn image of the storm-tossed sailor-boy and his weeping mother seems no longer capable of exciting the desired emotion. Nor does this seem a very happy flourish: “A gleam of malignant joy shot athwart the archangel, as he conceived his project for hemming our unfortunate species within the bound of an irrecoverable dilemma.” A straining for effect—a lack of the sense of proportion—are but too manifest in his most admired pieces; as, for example, when he denounces with the most lavish profusion of invective that most familiar of conventions—the result, it seems, of “a barbarous combination against the principles and prospects of the lower orders”—which consists in denying one’s self to a visitor by means of the words “not at home,” when one is, in reality, instead of being away from home, “secretly lurking in one of the most secure and intimate of its receptacles.” He is by no means more satisfactory in handling the principles of ethics than in casuistry; and his contributions to moral philosophy deservedly exercised very little influence on the thought of his own generation, and exercised none on the thought of this.  2
  But, when ample allowance has been made for such palpable and serious defects, there remains no inconsiderable mass of truly admirable writing. It is not merely that we find vigour, impetuosity, and earnestness, though these qualities are present in a very high degree. But we find, when he is at his best, a copious, dignified, and aptly employed, if not exactly elegant, vocabulary, a rare felicity of illustration and metaphor, a swelling rotundity of diction, and a complete mastery of a certain species of rhythm and balance. In his appreciation of the value of a long and imposing word we probably detect the workings of an extremely valuable, though often abused, convention; but the gift of compendious illustration was all his own; nor did he acquire from any one the arrangement of his words, the structure of his periods, or the characteristic harmony of his cadences. Scarcely a sentence or a paragraph came from his pen which was not brought to some carefully prepared and usually effective conclusion. Of his literary, as of his speculative, influence at the present day it is impossible to discover any important traces; but those who are ambitious enough to aspire to a lofty type of the ecclesiastical, or, indeed, of any, sort of eloquence, will find in Chalmers an eminently noble and inspiring, though, at the same time, a highly dangerous, model.  3
 
 
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