Dr Chalmers, the eminent preacher, pays a visit

Thomas Chalmers
Thomas Chalmers

AUGUST 1833. Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Theology at Edinburgh University, is returning from a two-month sight-seeing and preaching tour in England. He visits Beverley and Whitby, spends a few days at Sunderland, and on Wednesday, August 7, takes a conducted tour of Bedlington Ironworks.

His host is Michael Longridge, the managing partner. Looking back on his day, Dr Chalmers recorded that Mr Longridge, ‘delighted me with his various plans for the moral and educational and economical management of his workpeople.’

After visiting the ironworks, he walked to Bedlington church and found it, ‘the most picturesque churchyard I ever saw, with a beautiful assemblage of tombstones, very tastefully laid out.’

Next day: ‘Drove to Morpeth; breakfasted with Mr Brown. Mr Blakey there, author of a good book on Moral Science; had rather a keen controversy with him on taxation.’

Mr Longridge then took him to see Morpeth Castle, and they parted at the rectory where Mr Ekins had Sir Isaac Newton’s manuscripts ready to show him.

Chalmers spent two hours over them, ‘from which I could clearly gather that Newton was an Arian.’ That is, Newton didn’t accept that Jesus Christ was ‘of one substance with the Father’ – and nearly lost his fellowship in Trinity College Cambridge because of it.

He spent Saturday night at Mr Dods’s at Belford, preached there and at Ladykirk in Scotland the next day, and fancied to have ‘speeled along the border on foot, with one leg wherever it was possible in England, and another in Scotland’, but pressing kindnesses prevented him.

Chalmers was interested in everything – natural curiosities, fine churches, industries, and had a lively sense of fun.

Morpeth and Belford were on the road from London to Edinburgh so their residents often had friends drop in on them. This little group, brought together on one such occasion, make a fascinating study.

Dr Chalmers was far the most eminent, but it is difficult to convey just how great he was. He became Minister of Kilmany in Fife when he was only 22, but was more interested in an academic career than in caring for his parishioners, until a serious illness changed everything.

The article on Christianity in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia established his reputation. He then moved to Glasgow, where his sermons on science and religion attracted well-to-do hearers from across the city.

He sought permission to create a new parish, St. John’s, in a poor and densely populated part of Glasgow. There he introduced a revolutionary system of poor relief, and in four years reduced the cost of maintaining the poor in his parish from £1,400p.a. to £280.

He became a figure of increasing distinction, moving easily amongst MPs, bishops, scientists and men of letters. Sir Robert Peel left the Chamber of the House to join him in the strangers’ gallery; he meets Coleridge, dines with the Archbishop of York, and stays with the Gurneys at Norwich.

His eyes, though dull, would light up with kindness or merriment. When he preached, they blazed with passion so that even cool-headed statesmen were deeply moved.

In 1843, over 480 Scottish ministers resigned their livings in protest at Government interference in church affairs.

Setting aside his own preference for the established church, Chalmers became the chief architect and first moderator of the new Free Church of Scotland.

He died in his sleep in 1847, apparently in perfect health, with the report he intended to give the next day beside him.

Chalmers was controversial in his own time, and still is. Despite his towering intellect and talent for organisation, he was essentially a simple countryman.

His Poor Law reforms in St John’s were based on how things were done in rural parishes with a few hundred families.

For instance, he believed that an unmarried mother should not receive relief because this would compel the child’s father to marry her.

Michael Longridge was the manager of Bedlington Iron and Engineering Works.

He was a friend of George and Robert Stephenson, supplying them with rails, boilers and mechanical parts for their locomotives.

In 1837 he began building complete locomotives, more than 150 over the next 16 years.

Two, De Arend and De Snelheid, were the first steam locomotives to run in Holland, and another, Bayard, the first in Italy.

The Rev Matthew Brown was minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cottingwood Lane.

When he left in 1843, the congregation sent him a handsome silver tea service, ‘in testimony of their affectionate remembrance, and of the high sense they entertain of the zeal and fidelity with which he discharged the duties of the pastoral office amongst them’.

He moved to Kincardine O’Neil, near Aberdeen, where he died in 1853.

The Aberdeen Journal recalled him preaching ‘with impressive earnestness, the glad tidings of Christ’s free Salvation, watching over the interests of their souls as one that must give account.’

His portrait hangs in St George’s Church in Morpeth.

Robert Blakey was a furrier and hatter in Bridge Street, near the Black Bull. His house still stands at the bottom of Goosehill.

He had a wide literary acquaintance, especially in Edinburgh, wrote on philosophy, was a radical in politics, and dabbled in economics, hence his dispute with Dr Chalmers over taxation.

Although they became friends, Blakey privately thought little of the doctor as a political philosopher.

In 1841, he went abroad and wrote History of the Philosophy of Mind.

It appeared in 1848, dedicated to Prince Albert, whose discreet patronage enabled him to finish it.

In 1849 he became Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen’s College Belfast, an achievement the more impressive because his scholarship was self-taught.

The Rev Frederick Ekins was Rector of Morpeth. The living was in the gift of the Earl of Carlisle, and Mr Ekins was appointed to it in his early 20s, following his father’s death.

He appreciated fine food and was well versed in the law of tithes, upon which his income largely depended.

Dr Chalmers took note of any zealous clergyman he found, as at Beverley where the vicar was so heavy that he used a velocipede in church and had to be heaved into his pulpit by two strong men shoving him with their backs.

Yet he was ‘so much esteemed that his odd movements in public excite no ridicule.’

He says nothing about Mr Ekins’s reputation for pastoral care.

The Rev Marcus Dods was minister of the Scotch Church at Belford, and editor of the Edinburgh Christian Instructor.

He wrote a favourable review of Robert Blakey’s first book in 1831 and they became good friends.

He also assisted Mr Brown in administering Holy Communion at Morpeth. Presbyterians celebrated communion only infrequently, and extra help was always needed.

In Early Letters of Marcus Dods, his daughter Marcia Dods gives a rich description of their family life at Belford. He died in 1838 aged 51, and is buried in the churchyard of the parish church.

His congregation erected a monument, ‘in memory of their beloved pastor, a man of noble powers, nobly used, in whom memory and judgement, vigour and gentleness, gravity and wit, each singly excellent, were all happily combined.’