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Steam power and poverty

James Watt, Thomas Chalmers, and 'The Expulsive Power of a New Affection'

Steam power and poverty

James Watt (FalkensteinFoto/Alamy)

James Watt died 200 years ago this summer, but his face now graces the Bank of England’s 50-pound bills, each worth about $56. A sentence below his picture explains why Watt had a Eureka! moment on the Glasgow Green that led to his invention of steam engine improvements that revolutionized commerce: “I can think of nothing else but this machine.”

Several weeks after Watt’s death on Aug. 25, 1819, Thomas Chalmers preached his last Sunday sermon at Glasgow’s Tron Church, located near the city gate. He also preached on weekdays and, by one account, “literally closed down the coffee rooms and business section of the city as merchants flocked to hear” him. Pamphlets of Chalmers’ sermons sold as well as Walter Scott’s popular fiction, and William Wilberforce wrote in his diary, “All the world is wild about Chalmers.”

Chalmers is now largely forgotten in Scotland. Pigeons anoint his statue in Edinburgh. At the William Wallace “Braveheart” memorial near Stirling, a plaque mentions Chalmers’ stature. The Tron Church is now the Tron Theatre, which this spring featured the Scottish premiere of The Mistress Contract, in which a man for 30 years gives a woman a home and income in return for her becoming his sexual property. The drama applauds that arrangement because it sets out “clear-cut rules of engagement between the sexes.”

Scotland this year is celebrating steam, with numerous events honoring Watt, but it has a clear-cut rule for engagement with religion: Thou Shalt Not. Only about 1 in 50 Scots goes to church in the land John Knox successfully evangelized more than four centuries ago. The cultural battles of the United States are in minor key here, since mainstream culture patronizes evangelicals somewhat as most Americans treat the cute Amish.

Why do most Scots see Christianity as irrelevant? The title of Chalmers’ most popular sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” suggests an answer. Chalmers argued that people would not give up their attachment to worldly vanity merely by hearing it denounced: Only a new affection for Christ would replace it. Later, many Scots did not give up their affection for Christ merely because atheists attacked the Bible. Many fell in love with steam power and all that it could produce: steamboats, steam-engine trains, steam-driven industrialization—and the production of more 50-pound notes.

THE SCOTTISH CASTLES to which tourists flock—particularly Stirling Castle 27 miles northeast of Glasgow—are lovely. Most Scots, though, in James Watt’s time and for centuries before, lived in dark huts and led lives like those England’s Thomas Hobbes called “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I’ve left out the first word in his famous phrase, solitary, because many of those poor residents were not all alone: They had big families, close neighbors, and most of all one constant presence, Jesus.

James Watt, born in 1736, grew up like that on the Firth of Clyde, an inlet 35 miles southwest of Glasgow. Watt’s parents were both fervent Presbyterians, but when he was 18 his mother died and his father faltered physically and financially. Watt studied for a year in London and at age 20 became a Glasgow repairman of instruments like scales, telescopes, and barometers. The Glasgow Guild of Hammermen, a union for all artisans who used a hammer, wouldn’t admit him because Watt hadn’t served a seven-year apprenticeship, but some University of Glasgow professors had pity on Watt and found a 20-square-foot room in which he could tinker on scientific instruments.

Watt at age 27 began tinkering with a Newcomen steam engine that the university owned. Those engines were not used much because they were inefficient: One cylinder had to be both heated and cooled. Watt became obsessed with the idea of making an improved steam engine that would enable the development of more mills and factories. One day on the Glasgow Green he realized that creation of a separate condenser would quintuple the engine’s effectiveness.

That’s easier said than done, and it took Watt six years, until 1769, to develop a working model and patent it. This year’s Watt celebrations emphasize that 250th anniversary, but he didn’t stop: In 1781, as British troops surrendered at Yorktown, Watt developed an engine for cotton mill use that became both blessing and curse. Soon, on the east bank of the Clyde River just upstream from the Tron Church, mills with steam-powered looms weaved cloth. Skilled workers were no longer necessary, so children sometimes worked the looms during an average working day of 13 hours. Some, weary, suffered severe injuries.

The number of cotton mills within a 25-mile radius of Glasgow jumped from 19 in 1787 to 134 in 1834. As mills and factories drew workers from rural areas and Ireland, Glasgow became one of the most densely populated European cities. A Glasgow police official said the houses of the poor were filthy, miserable, and “altogether unfit for human beings. … In many of the houses there is scarcely any ventilation.”

CHRISTIANS WANTED TO HELP. Glasgow public works superintendent James Cleland in 1814 counted more than 100 “friendly societies”—organizations like the Magdalene Asylum and the Provident Bank—existing to help widows, the unemployed, and others among the poor. But coverage gaps and overlaps were common.

Thomas Chalmers, born in 1780, disliked chaos. As a child he was so bright and organized that he entered the University of St. Andrews at 12, the second-youngest student. At 22 he was a pastor in Kilmany, 11 miles north of St. Andrews and close enough for him to take part in intellectual life there. Chalmers wanted to write and publish essays: In 1805 he wrote one that described how a pastor should complete all his duties in two days and spend the rest of his time in literary pursuits or recreation.

Ten years later he accepted a call to the wealthy Tron Church: One of its backers told Chalmers he could accomplish his pastoral work in two hours a day. But next to the Tron neighborhood was the poorest parish in Glasgow, St. John’s, and while building his national reputation with weekday talks to the swells, Chalmers found himself drawn to the plight of the poor. Their number was growing because of steam-led industrialization and a recession that followed the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo in 1815, followed by a typhus epidemic that lasted until 1818.

The post-Waterloo impulse in 1815 was similar to the post–World War II impulse in 1945: Ex-soldiers thanked the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill for their wartime leadership, but they supported socialist movements that demanded material improvement for those who had fought and bled. One year after Waterloo, a Glasgow mob broke windows at cotton mills. That year tens of thousands joined a protest meeting on Glasgow Green and eventually went on strike. Radicals planned an armed insurrection but failed, and 20,000 Scots in 1820 watched the beheading of a leader, James Wilson, who first remarked to the executioner, “Did you ever see such a crowd?”


Thomas Chalmers (Chronicle/Alamy)

Chalmers saw many poor Scots drawn to such power-seeking agitation, and many among the rich heedlessly pursuing their own pleasures. Sermons that merely denounced such tendencies were inadequate. In his “Expulsive Power of a New Affection” sermon, Chalmers said of worldly enticements, “It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the [world’s] charm by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. … The love of God and the love of the world are two affections not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity.” 

Chalmers internally felt that enmity. His love of God expressed itself both in writing and in caring for the poor, but the first came easily and the second was hard. A diary Chalmers kept indicates the tension. He wrote on Nov. 24, 1815, “God give me wisdom, and save me from being enraged at the annoyances of the poor.” On March 5, 1818, he wrote, “Got impatient with a man who called on me.” 

That year, 1818, the Church of Scotland issued a report on poor relief: Its General Assembly emphasized church-led charity that “cherishes habits of humanity and benevolence in one class while it imparts relief to another [and] confers the most valuable good upon society by binding its different ranks together through reciprocal feelings of kindness and good will.” Chalmers personally pushed such binding: In 1819 he gave up the pastorate of Tron Church to be pastor in a new church building for which he had raised funds, located in impoverished St. John’s.

Watt was single-minded, and Chalmers tried to have the same attitude toward the poor. He resolved to devote every afternoon to visiting the poor families in their homes. He divided his new parish into 25 districts, putting a deacon in charge of each and charging them “to discriminate and beneficially assist the really necessitous and deserving poor.” But deacons were also busy in their occupations, and many parishioners wanted to talk directly with their pastor.

Chalmers had what today we would call burnout. His diary regularly included sentences such as this one in February 1822: “Begin to feel again the fatigue and the sore vexation of Glasgow. O my God, may I be still and do Thy work as Thy servant.” A sympathetic biographer in 1896, W. Garden Blaikie, noted that Chalmers’ “labours had grown to such multiplicity and variety as to demand an expenditure of bodily and mental energy that could not be continued.”

Chalmers was effective in his counseling because he understood that it is “impossible … for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one.” The new one Chalmers emphasized was “salvation by free grace—salvation not of works, but according to the mercy of God. … Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel, and we raise a topic of distrust between man and God.”

‘It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the [world’s] charm by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. … The love of God and the love of the world are two affections not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity.’ —Thomas Chalmers

Not only worldviews but callings contained expulsive power. In 1823, when Chalmers’ alma mater St. Andrews offered a professorial chair, he found the prospect “very congenial.” He realized, or rationalized, that “through the press, the prospect had opened of impregnating not Glasgow only, but the whole empire with his views.” He turned his work in St. John’s over to others, but without him it faltered. 

In 1843 Chalmers led the majority of Church of Scotland pastors out of that denomination because it was allowing wealthy patrons rather than churches to appoint pastors. Chalmers died in 1847 soon after offering one of his last prayers: “Oh that I were enabled to pull down the strongholds of sin and of Satan.”

JAMES WATT, with a public relations sense, created the word horsepower to show the world what steam rather than a team of horses could do. In 1882 the British Association for the Advancement of Science expressed its gratitude by adopting the word watt for a unit of power. A chalmers did not become part of the English language, but Covenant College on Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga now has the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. It works to help local churches transform the lives of low-income people without creating dependency.

Sadly, although Chalmers churned out book after book, by 1898—the year a People’s Palace opened on Glasgow Green—those works were moldering on library shelves. The palace now has a “People’s Visions” exhibit on class conflict that features artwork it advertises in this way: “Presents a powerful vision of Socialism as a solution to the suffering created by Capitalism.” The exhibit claims that “alcoholism, poverty, and disease will be alleviated by Socialism”—not by Christ and His followers. WORLD’s next two issues will feature attempts by Christian Scots to alleviate those problems.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.