Vision from the Past

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The Reverend Thomas Chalmers was as fulfilled as any parson could be in a peaceful rural community. Kilmany parish, like most villages of 1815 Scotland, was happily a world apart from the belching smokestacks and chaotic clamor of industrializing Glasgow. Here in the routines of perish life, a minister could enjoy a comfortable balance of study, teaching, daily walks along tree-lined lanes, and shepherding a congregation of neighbors. The parish church of Kilmany was the center around which community revolved, the celebrations and concerns of the town being one and the same with those of the church Carparate worship and care far the needy were deeply imbedded community norms. But peaceful Kilmany could not forever escape the ominous changes that the industrial revolution was imposing on the land. Glasgow, now the second city of the Empire, was experiencing unparalleled social upheaval. People by the thousands, peasants and gentry alike, streamed in from the countryside drawn by the allure of a new prosperity. Stable urban neighborhoods were being overrun by hordes of aggressive immigrants who rented up every available room. Strangers with neither skills nor connections scrounged the alleyways for scraps of food and makeshift shelter. In 1815 the tentacles of this turmoil would finally touch the lives of the villagers of Kilmany. This was the year their beloved Reverend Chalmers would be taken from them and reassigned to Glasgow.

The besieged parish of Tron was experiencing the same stress as many other transitional neighborhoods in Glasgow. Chalmers would soon discover that the condition of the church was also in disarray, not only in his Tron parish but throughout the entire city. Affluent church members were exiting established communities en masse as the lower classes moved in. Parish churches, once quite capable of administering "poor relief" to the needy of their neighborhood, now found their budgets declining and their capacity for meeting the growing needs diminishing. To make matters worse, wealthy church-goers were following fashionable preachers and many of those who attended a popular church were not members of that parish at all. Thus weakened, the parish church had relinquished its historic role as the primary dispenser of charity in the local community and settled for a tax supported system of government agency care. By 1815 church support for poor relief in Glasgow had dwindled to only 7%.

Reverend Chalmers was incredulous! In a properly functioning parish the rich would take an interest in the poor as part of their Christian and neighborly duty, and would offer personal, face-to-face assistance and constructive advice. A system of charity built on assessments by impersonal bureaucracies, allowing the rich to escape any contact with the poor, was to the Reverend a clear violation of a fundamental Christian ideal. Handing out money without the moral, spiritual and personal guidance of the church would solve nothing, Chalmers challenged. In fact, he declared, such charity (if indeed it could be called charity!) actually promoted pauperism by undermining habits of industry, thrift and family responsibility.

With rural naivete, the Reverend Chalmers set about to visit personally all 11,000 residents in his new parish, a task that would take him four years. It was an these daily walks that he encountered hundreds of barefoot children who could neither read nor write, and their unemployed parents, demoralized and friendless, wholly untouched by the compassion of the church. And it was an these daily walks that sermons began to take shape in his spirit, impassioned orations to convict and convince a congregation that had relinquished an important part of its birthright. But could an urban church, disempowered by social and economic forces of gigantic proportions, ever recover its historic mandate in society or was the role of the parish church altered forever? "There's no going back," so said the ecclesiastical leadership of Glasgow. The Reverend Thomas Chalmers strongly disagreed.

Mustering every ounce of his considerable persuasive ability, Charmers extracted a waiver from the Glasgow establishment that exempted his church from paying their assessment to the public welfare system. In exchange, his church would assume the full responsibility for the care of all the poor who resided within their parish. Chalmers gathered his elders and reactivated the long-neglected office of deacon, commissioning twenty-five servant-leaders to take responsibility for all the residents within their assigned blocks. Church door collections would be used as needed to meet the health and hunger needs of the poor, but only as a last resort. Deacons were instructed to encourage self-sufficiency by offering advice, assistance in finding jobs, appeals to relatives for support, and out-of-pocket giving as appropriate. The sick should be taken to volunteer physicians in the parish rather than to the central health agency. If these efforts failed and a poor person was found to be truly indigent, deacons could then access church funds. Chalmers contended that this "rural parish" approach would work once again in the city and would bring back the long-lost values of personal care and accountability.

The response was astounding. Not only did his church stir from its lethargy and re-emerge as a powerful influence for good in the community, the poor responded gratefully to the opportunities that the church extended to them. Industry and dignity increased in the community and the need for handouts began to diminish. Church offerings that were no longer needed to buy food were redirected to build schools for children of the working poor. More than 700 children were enrolled at low-cost tuition and for families that could not afford even the minimal costs, the church instituted some 45 Sabbath Schools where children as well as their parents learned to read and write as part of their religious training. According to a chronicler of the day, the remarkable impact of Chalmers' vision "succeeded in almost entirely eradicating [pauperism] from his own parish - one of the poorest in Glasgow."

"For the first time in Scotland, an urban parish, in a city dependent upon a legal assessment for poor relief for over ninety years, had 'voluntarily' abolished the assessment and 'retraced' its past back to the traditional rural parish system of relief based upon church door collections"*

Strange, isn't it, the parallels between nineteenth century industrialized Scotland and twenty-first century "commuterized" America? Urban communities abandoned, a prideless welfare system devoid of personal accountability, Christians with no commitment to parish flocking after popular preachers, churches disconnected from their neighborhoods and from the needy for whom they are mandated to care. And contemporary wisdom tells us, too, that there is no way to return to the days of intact communities where neighbors looked out for each other and the church was the moral and spiritual anchor of the neighborhood. I am not convinced.

*Cleland, Annals of Glasgow, i, 270-3, cited in Brown, S.J., Thomas Chalmers and the Godly Commonwealth in Scotland, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 98.

Bob Lupton

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