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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

VIII. Religion

48. Thomas Chalmers to William Wilberforce, 18 April 1820

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1Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), a native of Fife and a graduate of St Andrews, was one of the outstanding Scottish Church leaders of the nineteenth century. He began his career as minister of Kilmany, Fife in 1803 while continuing to teach mathematics and chemistry at St Andrews. During his time at Kilmany he published different books including An Inquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources (1808). Chalmers moved to the parish of St John’s in Glasgow in 1820 where he implemented a parish system of relief and a comprehensive system of education. He was an exponent of self-help as the surest remedy against pauperism and was convinced that the poor could be satisfactorily helped by voluntary contributions. Chalmers went back to teaching, first as Professor of Moral Philosophy in the United College of the University of St Andrews in 1823 and then as Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh in 1828. As the leader of the evangelical party within the Church he played a fundamental role in the Disruption of 1843.

  • 5 William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist.

2In the following letter, written to William Wilberforce5 at the time of the Radical War of April 1820, Chalmers demonstrates that he had little sympathy with those who were demanding radical political change.

3Letter written by Thomas Chalmers. W.M. Hanna, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers, vol. 2, Edinburgh: 1850, p. 262-264.

My Dear Sir, As far as I know of our disaffections in this city, I would say that there are perhaps not half a dozen instances of people befriending Radicalism who are possessed of more than £ 200 a year. Its most active instigators appear to be well-paid workmen of cotton mills and other manufactories where there has been little or no decline of wages, though the depression that obtains in the weaving department gives them without doubt the advantage of such materials as encourage them greatly to prosecute the designs of agitators. I ought also to have mentioned that among the weavers themselves, who, speaking generally, are a highly intelligent order of men, there are not a few who act as delegates and leader to the rest, and are well qualified for the whole business of counsel and committeeship. Of these there are certainly some who have acquired their taste and their talent for public management, I think, from the circumstance of being the members of a dissenting congregation, and thus offer the melancholy combination of a fierce restless and dangerous politics, with a regular and respectable habit of attending upon the ordinances. But still this is so far from being generally the case, that the aspect here of radicalism upon the whole is just what it is with you, an aspect of infidelity and irreligion, the great majority of the men of ascendancy among them being of this stamp and verily all, I believe, who have stated their determination to the extent of actual war and bloodshed, having just as little of the profession of Christianity as they have the substance of it.


5 William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist.

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