Thomas Chalmers and ‘The St John’s Experiment’

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.

The striking thing about this initiative and the way it led to the congregation’s growth was that it was so out of step with the norms in many city churches of that time. A man with preaching gifts like Chalmers could very easily have filled a church by attracting Christians from all over the city; but, in so doing, would have made little impact on the surrounding community. So, the fact that he was willing to face the challenge of reaching out to the mission field on his doorstep was a remarkable statement in itself.

The response to the success of this venture from other clergy and churches was surprisingly negative at first, with many arguing that this model of ministry could not work elsewhere. But, after the Free Church came into being and Chalmers had moved to Edinburgh, he embarked upon a similar venture, this time in the area of West Port in the city. In many ways this was an even greater challenge than the one he had faced in Glasgow in that it was not a ‘parish’ in the recognised sense of that time and, worse than that, it was one of the most notorious parts of the city. It was a community of some 2,000 souls, most of whom were poor, beggars or prostitutes.

Chalmers approach this time was to send out ‘visitors’ in pairs under the oversight of a missioner, but with aim of establishing a new congregation. The success of this venture served to strengthen wider interest in this model of ministry and influenced not only the evangelistic efforts of churches in Scotland, but also the formation of City Missions in many of the major conurbations throughout Britain at that time.

Much has been written on this distinctive approach to ministry since the time of Chalmer’s death, trying to analyse its basis and the factors that made it so effective under God. Several observations are worth highlighting.

The one that stands out most obviously is the personal convictions that shaped this man’s ministry. A.C. Cheyne summarised them like this,

For Chalmers, the essential tasks of the church were to propagate its message concerning the saving significance of the death of Jesus Christ and to seek to influence society in all its aspects by the inculcating of Christian values and morals[1]

He came to this dual-conviction partly in reaction against the prevailing Liberal belief of that time in the universal Fatherhood of God, but also through the influence of the Puritans with their view of ministry.

He also saw the value of the concept of ‘parish’ in what he sought to achieve. Historically this was embedded in the Scottish Kirk, especially through John Knox’s vision from the time of the Reformation. Even though Chalmers made full use of the formal parish system in St John’s, he followed its underlying principle in the Edinburgh work. Community matters and local churches need to see its place in the communities to which they belong.

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. And he should continue to provide a stimulus to the church today in the way we think through our goals and strategies for ministry. We are not called merely to be preaching stations; but God’s community within local communities.

[1] Cheyne, A.C., The Practical and the Pious (St. Andrews Press; Edinburgh) 1985 p.174


Mark Johnston