The most joyful event of my life
So Dr. Thomas Chalmers describes it in a letter to his friend, Mr. Lennox, of New York City. Explaining, he says, “I have been intent for thirty years on the completion of a territorial experiment, and I have now to bless God for the consummation of it. Our church was opened on the 19th of February…I presided myself, on Sabbath last, over its first sacrament. There were 132 communicants, and 100 of them from the West Port.”
When I was a student in the city of Edinburgh in the mid-80s I occasionally walked through the West Port as I made my way to the Free Church of Scotland College. I recollect it as decent enough, just a little run-down and nondescript. It was very different in the early 1840s. Back then it was one of the worst districts in the city, notorious as the scene of the Burke & Hare murders, and infested with beggars, thieves, and prostitutes. The following will give you a sense for just how bad it was:
“When Mr. Tasker, the minister of the West Port, made his first visits to some of the filthiest closes, it was no uncommon thing for him to find twenty to thirty men, women, and children, huddled together in one putrid dwelling, lying indiscriminately on the floor…Upon one occasion he entered a tenement with from twelve to twenty apartments, where every human being, man and woman, were so drunk they could not hear their own squalid infants crying in vain to them for food…He went once to a funeral, and found the assembled company all so drunk around the corpse, that he had to go and beg some sober neighbours to come and carry the coffin to the grave.”
It was this poor and depraved district that Dr. Chalmers selected for his “territorial experiment”. As the term is his so also will be the explanation: “The very essence of our scheme lies in the thorough operation of what we have called the territorial principle. We limit our attention to a single district or locality, itself split into sub-districts, having each a Christian agent attached to it; so that not a home or family which might not be frequently and habitually visited by one having the charge of not more, if possible, than twenty households.”
Chalmers believed this to be the only effective way of evangelising the degraded and over-crowded districts of major towns and cities, and for years he had been eager to demonstrate what, with the divine blessing, could be achieved. With its 411 families and 2000 inhabitants, its poverty and depravity, the West Port of Edinburgh was an ideal place for the attempt. It was a work, he admitted, “greatly too much for my declining strength” (he was then almost 65). But he threw himself into it heart and soul – and with wonderful results.
The first step was the opening of a school. Almost three-quarters of West Port children were growing up without any education at all. So successful, however, were the district visitors in persuading parents to take advantage of the provision (even though it wasn’t free), that when the school opened on 11th November 1844 there were 64 day students and 57 evening students. In the course of the first year the numbers grew to 250. Most of them were from the West Port.
The school was located in an old tanning-loft. In the same place, on Sunday morning the 22nd of December 1844, public worship was held for the first time. It was a far from attractive location: “The interior was bare and dilapidated; the walls coarse and unplastered, pierced her and there with little, dingy, unsightly windows; the roof low and scantily slated, scarcely affording decent shelter; the floor decayed, uneven, and shaking at every tread.”
Dr Chalmers’ son-in-law and future biographer, William Hanna, was present at the evening service. “When we looked round and saw that the whole fruit of the advices, and requests, and entreaties which for many previous weeks had been brought to bear upon all the families by the visitors, was the presence of about a dozen adults, and those mostly old women, we confess to strong misgivings as to the result.” In April 1845, however, Chalmers secured the help of William Tasker, later the West Port minister, and attendance grew under his ministry.
Dr. Chalmers himself, as health permitted, met with the district visitors once a week for discussion, encouragement, counsel, and prayer. He also habitually attended the Sunday services, sometimes as a preacher, often as a hearer. An eyewitness records that “when he was a hearer only, one would see him near the pulpit, in a crowd of deaf old women, who were meanly clothed, but who followed the services with unflagging attention and interest. His eye was upon every one of them, to anticipate their wishes and difficulties. He would help one old woman to find out the text; he would take hold of the Psalm-book of another, hand to hand, and join her in the song of praise. Any one looking at him could see that he was in a state of supreme enjoyment; he could not be happier out of heaven.”
The West Port was deeply upon his heart. In prayers that only came to light after his death we hear requests like this: “Moving fearlessly onward, may I at length obtain such possession of the West Port, as that the gospel of Jesus Christ shall have the moral ascendancy over a goodly number of its families”. “O that I were enabled to pull down the strongholds of sin and of Satan which are there”. “Do thou plentifully endow him [Mr. Tasker] with the graces and gifts of the Apostle Paul. May he have many souls for his hire”. “O may he not only be himself saved, but may he be the instrument of salvation to many.”
On Friday 19th February 1847, the West Port Church was formally opened by Dr. Chalmers. On the 25th of April, as we noted in the opening paragraph, Chalmers presided at the Lord’s Supper. On the following Monday he wrote to William Tasker: “I have got now the desire of my heart – the church is finished, the schools are flourishing, our ecclesiastical machinery is about complete, and all in good working order. God has indeed heard my prayer, and I could now lay down my head in peace and die.” And thirty-five days later that is exactly what he did.
It was feared that the work would founder with him gone. It did not. Three hundred seats had been let when the church opened and attendance continued to grow steadily. By 1879 the membership was in excess of eleven hundred. By 1896 the number of communicants was upwards of 1300. Also, and almost from the beginning, through the educating of the children, through the efforts of the visitors, and through the public preaching of God’s word, the district itself began to visibly change for the better. It was all a magnificent monument not just to Chalmers’ labours and prayers, but to his faith. He loved the maxim of John Eliot, missionary to Native Americans, that “prayer and pains can do anything”. He used to quote it often. And be believed it.