REVEREND DOCTOR PETER CHALMERS, 1790-1870
by Dr. Jean Barclay
Peter Chalmers, minister of the Church of Scotland and local historian, was born in Glasgow on September 19th 1790 the only son of Alexander Chalmers, cloth merchant, and his wife Marion Bald. At the age of sixteen, having done well at school, he went to the University of Glasgow, gaining an MA (or AM) in 1808 and decided to enter the ministry. He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Glasgow in September 1814 and became assistant to the well-known evangelist Rev. Thomas Chalmers (no relation) at St. George`s (Tron) Church. In July 1817 Peter Chalmers was ordained to the Second Charge (or ministry) at Dunfermline Abbey. He arrived just before the removal of the ruins of the old monastic church and the erection of the New Abbey Church on its site in 1818-21 and gave the last sermon in the Auld Kirk in the nave and the first in the New Church. In 1836, on the death of the Rev. Allan MacLean, Chalmers was promoted to the First Charge of the Abbey.
On his promotion, Rev. Chalmers and his growing family moved to the manse below the Abbey. Chalmers was married twice. In October 1822 he married Marion Hay, daughter to James Hay, of Edinburgh, Writer to the Signet, and his wife Marion Inglis. Between 1823 and 1839 the couple had a large family of seven daughters and three sons, but two sons and a daughter died in infancy, while three daughters died as teenagers. In February 1857 Marion Chalmers died and in December 1862, at the age of 72, Chalmers married Louisa Maria Anderson, of Burntisland, a spinster aged 38, daughter of John David Anderson, gentleman, and his wife Elizabeth Louisa Ogilvie (1).
Rev. Chalmers did a great deal for his adopted town. He was one of the founders of the Mechanics Institution in 1825 and became one of its two vice-presidents. He was a trustee of the Rev. Allan MacLean`s trust fund of £2000 and helped establish MacLean School and a fever hospital attached to the Poorshouse. Chalmers took a keen interest in the other churches in the town, whatever their denomination, and in 1840 preached the first sermon at the opening of North Parish Church in Golfdrum Street. During his ministry Dunfermline hit some very hard times and Rev. Chalmers and his wife, who were noted for their kindly ways and the interest they took in their neighbours and members of their congregation, were quick to offer relief to the poor and hungry.
The Disruption in the Church of Scotland in 1843 – on the questions of lay patronage and State interference in church affairs – put Chalmers in a quandary. A prime mover in the Disruption was the Rev. Thomas Chalmers, his early mentor, and in May 1843 Peter Chalmers decided to join the 450 or so dissenting ministers (of a total 1200) in their new Free Church of Scotland. He had got as far as opening a new place of worship with some of his Abbey congregation when he changed his mind and was received back into the Established Church. Chalmers lost considerable face and a large part of his congregation at this time, but gradually recovered both during the long years of his ministry.
In addition to his ministerial work, Peter Chalmers found time for pursuits beyond the pulpit. He was a scholarly man with broad interests. As a young man he followed keenly the excavations associated with the building of the New Church and gifted several items, including stained glass fragments of ancient windows, to the Society of Antiquaries. Above all, he devoted time to his writing – moral, evangelical, scientific and historical Included in his output were, in 1822, `Two discourses on the sin, danger and remedy of duelling` which were delivered as sermons in the Abbey Church (2), in 1835, `Strictures on some recent sayings and doings of the Dunfermline Voluntaries, in reference particularly to ecclesiastical statistics` (3) and `A parting word to the Rev. Mr. Law, suggested by his late catechism` (4), and, in 1847, `Divine revelation and sceptical objections considered`. In 1856 he published `Notice of a stone coffin found in the pavement of the Abbey Church Dunfermline in 1849` (5). Chalmers` scientific bent is apparent in his prize essay a `Minerological and geological report on the Dunfermline Coalfield` of 1841 which formed part of his contribution to the New Statistical Account for Scotland, 1845 (6).
Most useful of all, as far as the people of Dunfermline were concerned, were his two volumes of An Historical and Statistical Account of the Town and Parish of Dunfermline, published separately in Edinburgh in 1844 and 1857. These volumes contain a wealth of detail about Dunfermline in the past and in Chalmers` time and are an invaluable source for local and family historians and those who just want to know more about the town in days gone by.
Peter Chalmers` dedication and scholarly work contributed to his being admitted as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh in 1844 and to his receiving the title of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Glasgow in February 1855.
Peter Chalmers died at the manse on April 11th 1870 in the 80th year of his age and the 52nd of his ministry. He was survived by his wife, Louisa, and only two of the daughters of his first marriage, Annabella Craig Chalmers and Marion Mitchell. His widow had a window containing his portrait erected on the south side of the Old Abbey Church, a fitting memorial to a man who had done so much for the church itself and for the town and citizens of Dunfermline.
SOURCES AND NOTES.
This biography has been written to accompany the photograph of Rev. Peter Chalmers sent to the Dunfermline Historical Society by John Bennett, of Northamptonshire, whose late wife had a connection to a branch of the Chalmers family.
1) The main sources for family details are Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae (the ecclesiastical `who`s who); `Rev. Dr. Peter Chalmers` in Men of Mark, Vol. VII (available at Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries), E. Henderson, Annals of Dunfermline and Vicinity, 1879,and the Scotlandspeople website.
The babies who died were two sons, both named Peter Bald, and a daughter Helen Kidd, while the three older girls were Marion Inglis Bald (the firstborn), Lilias and Ellen (or Helen). The youngest child, another Marion, married Alexander Mitchell of the North Parish Church and with him had a large family of 11 children, including Peter Chalmers Mitchell (later Sir), who became a famous zoologist.
2. The discourses against duelling were a response to a recent duel eight miles from Dunfermline between Sir Alexander Boswell and James Stuart of Dunearn.
3. The `voluntaries` were the heritors (local land and property owners) and others who sought a voluntary, rather than a legal, assessment for the relief of the poor. This was a major controversy in Dunfermline from 1815 to 1839, when periods of depression in the linen trade led to an increase in the number of poor seeking relief.
4. The `parting word` to Rev. Mr. Law, Minister of St. Margaret`s Church, Eastport, was also on the subject of voluntary or legal assessments of the poor.
5. In this paper which was published in 1856 in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Chalmers suggested that the two bodies found were sons of King Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret. 6. Published in the Quarterly Journal of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, June 1840. In addition to appearing in the Statistical Account, it also featured in Chalmers` Historical Account of Dunfermline, volume 1, pp. 18-27.