Reassessing a hero

Much like parents shouldn’t have a favourite child, I was once told that someone working in a museum shouldn’t have a favourite historical character.

But I do.

Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers, Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, ID ALB-1-81


Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was a church minister, social reformer, scientist, philosopher and economist; stubborn as a mule, proud as a peacock, often unwilling to admit his mistakes, visionary and go-get-‘em. He had hair like a bird’s nest and an accent once described as bruisingly barbarous, yet his preaching attracted huge crowds in a Victorian version of Beatlemania.  A stained-glass window dedicated to him will be on display at the Wardlaw Museum; a colourful commemoration of a colourful character.

Memorial window dedicated to Thomas Chalmers, Wardlaw Museum        © University of St Andrews

He studied at St Andrews, then infuriated the University by teaching rival classes in mathematics before returning as professor of Moral Philosophy in 1823, but he’s most famous for leading a third of the ministers of the Church of Scotland out of that denomination to form a new one, the Free Church of Scotland, in 1843.

On the surface, this event, called the “Disruption”, was about the courts overturning a congregation’s choice of minister in favour of the landowner’s candidate. Chalmers and his friends saw it as something deeper, the need for freedom from the secular law that was overreaching into God’s kingdom.

I admire Chalmers’ faith, his hard work in bringing education to the slums of Edinburgh and his efforts, though not always successful, to better support the poor of Glasgow.


In the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer it was brought to my attention that soon after its foundation the Free Church accepted £3000 from US churches frequented by slave owners. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas, himself formerly enslaved, argued that the denomination was benefitting from slavery and campaigned for the Free Church to “send the money back”.

The Free Church refused, and tied itself in knots in justifying its position, arguing that someone who inherited slaves was a not a slave-owner, but a “slave-holder”, and stating that having slaves did not make someone a bad master.

On digging further I found that in 1826, while professor of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews, Chalmers himself wrote a treaty arguing for the abolition of slavery. All well and good, until reading on and finding Chalmers’ unsavoury solution.

In order to achieve abolition, Chalmers argued, slaves should be given a day off each week, during which they should work to earn money to buy their own freedom a day at a time, being fully free within seven or eight years. Then the enslaved person could proceed to buy the freedom of his family. “But,” Chalmers wrote, “the slave who idled away his free time, whether in sleep or amusement, would of course make no further progress towards a state of freedom.”

Chalmers’ suggestion makes us baulk; we see underlying racism, an evident lack of compassion and a failure to recognise both the urgency of freedom and the injustice of continued slavery, even while he argued for abolition. There’s also hypocrisy – quick to champion the church’s freedom from secular law, slow to achieve man’s freedom from slavery.

Reassessing a hero

So what do we do with this?

Do we wholeheartedly condemn Chalmers and the Free Church? Morality doesn’t change; slavery and racism are wrong now and they were wrong then.

Do we excuse them as a product of their age? Chalmers and the Free Church sought abolition, but their own attitudes remained ingrained with the prejudices of the time, when slavery was deeply embedded in wider economies and societies.

This being the nature of that society, do we argue that they were being practical? The Free Church in using money that came from slavery to fund good work that bettered the lives of others, and Chalmers in trying to find a practical, if deeply flawed, way of bringing enslavement to an end.

Do we judge not lest we be judged? Do we hold back from criticism of the past for fear of future generations judging us for our failure to tackle injustices today, be it modern slaves making our cheap clothes or the climate crisis?

Do we let this issue hide the excellent work done by Chalmers and the Free Church elsewhere? The Free Church did much to tackle poverty and inequality; indeed, it was another Free Church minister and St Andrews professor of Moral Philosophy, William Knight, who was key to bringing university-level education to women through St Andrews’ Lady Literate in Arts scheme.

Or do we accept that life is complicated and respond with a mixture of the above?

I continue to wrestle with these questions and don’t know the right answers. Discussions with others, like our regular Critical Conversations series, help us find the right path. But I have learnt that even our heroes have deep faults. My own reaction is to admire the good, speak out against the bad and learn from both.

Written by Matt Sheard, Learning and Access Curator, University of St Andrews Museums