Thomas Chalmers and ‘The St John’s Experiment’

Chalmers was an inspiration to his own generation and those that followed, imparting a fresh vision for outreach that led to significant gospel progress at that time.

Chalmers is remembered for many things, not least his role in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in the so-called ‘Disruption’ of 1843 and his subsequent appointment as Principal of New College Edinburgh – a position he held until his death in 1847. But out of all his many achievements, the two that perhaps stand out most vividly, and that have left his most enduring legacy, relate to his involvement in two socially deprived areas of Glasgow and Edinburgh. 

 

For those familiar with Thomas Chalmers, his name immediately conjures up a plethora of thoughts regarding his stature as a Christian leader and also his gifts and achievements in the work of the church. He was a man of exceptional ability, but he was also profoundly concerned for the needs of ordinary people.

Chalmers is remembered for many things, not least his role in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in the so-called ‘Disruption’ of 1843 and his subsequent appointment as Principal of New College Edinburgh – a position he held until his death in 1847. But out of all his many achievements, the two that perhaps stand out most vividly, and that have left his most enduring legacy, relate to his involvement in two socially deprived areas of Glasgow and Edinburgh. One of these, which came to be known as the ‘St John’s Experiment’ is well worth revisiting almost 200 years since its inception.

Its value lies in the kind of model it provides for Reformed church ministry. For many churches today, not least those shaped by Reformed convictions, their approach to ministry often leads to congregations being gathered from narrow social and ethnic spectrums. But that is not the kind of church we see in the New Testament. Nor is it what we see exemplified in some of the finest expressions of Reformed Christianity: Calvin’s church in Geneva being a major case in point. The church was never intended to be a homogeneous unit.

Thomas Chalmers embarked upon this ‘experiment’ in what became his third charge in the Christian ministry. Having previously served in the parishes of Kilmany in Fife and Tron in Glasgow, in 1819 he was appointed to the newly established parish of St John’s, Glasgow as a daughter work of the Tron.

This new parish was located in an area of major social deprivation in a city which at that time was struggling with economic recession and all its related consequences. Church attendance was pitifully low with people having little or no concern for their spiritual needs. So the formation of this new parish was a conscious and practical attempt to respond to this situation.

The parish boundaries were smaller than was typical for that time, catering for some 10,000 souls in the locality. It was further sub-divided into 25 smaller units each of which was placed under the care of an elder and a deacon from the newly formed church. An arrangement that was deliberately aimed at catering for the practical as well as spiritual needs of parishioners. Although the initial response to the systematic visitation of homes in the parish was often negative, as these pairs of office bearers persisted, it led to a remarkable response. This in turn led to church attendance in the parish growing through people from every sector of the community being drawn in and brought to faith.

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