THOMAS Chalmers was a famous Presbyterian minister, theologian, author and social reformer.

In 1815 he became minister of Glasgow's Tron Church, and from 1819 to 1823 he was minister of St John's Parish Church, east of Glasgow Cross. A crowded area of the city, it was blighted by extreme poverty and social deprivation.

In a sermon of 1808, he had spoken of the demoralising potential of any charity. He argued that if not strictly supervised, charity had the potential to destroy a nation by producing "sloth and beggary and corruption".

Glasgow Times:

The poor law system in Scotland had been in place since the 16th century. Responsibility for the poor was shared by the kirk sessions and the landowners of each parish of the Church of Scotland.

They collected money in various ways, including church collections, fees for various services and breaches in behaviour, including Sabbath-breaking, scandalous behaviour (usually fornication), and charitable donations.

Parishes could also collect rates for the poor fund, but this was unpopular so it was rarely used.

The kirk session decided who were the neediest within the parish and distributed money to them as a small weekly allowance, or payment in kind, such as for food or fuel.

The situation in Glasgow was more complicated. There were a number of parishes in Glasgow, and they organised among themselves as the General Session. In 1731 the General Session turned to the town for help in dealing with the poor.

The town council responded by building the Town’s Hospital, which opened in 1733, on Great Clyde Street. Its purpose was to help make the poor fund go further, to assist the poor but also to deter people for applying for relief.

Glasgow Times:

On becoming minister at St John’s, the largest and also the poorest parish, Chalmers addressed himself to the problems of poverty.

Chalmers believed in reviving and strengthening the role of the parish church in caring for the physical as well as the pastoral needs of the poor of the parish.

There were problems around trade depressions which cause unemployment in industrial areas putting further strains on the poor relief system.

The town council itself decided something would have to be done for the relief of the industrious poor or of those individuals of the labouring classes of the community.

A growing tension between the General Session and the hospital provided the opportunity, with the latter refusing all further financial aid to the session.

This led to the surrender by the session of any control on the poor relief management of the city on October 7, 1819.

Glasgow Times:

Chalmers argued that any increase in relief for the poor would result over time in an increase in their numbers, absorbing the increase in relief in an increase in poverty.

He started experimenting with the organisational structure of the parish, work that continued after September 1819 when he became minister of the church and parish of St John, also in Glasgow.

He thought almost any kind of help was a disincentive to finding work and using one's own resources and strongly dissuaded the poor in his parish to rely on the official poor relief organised by the council.

Money from church collections was distributed by elders who were responsible for assessing need and judging how "deserving" the recipients were.

He was convinced that local solidarity and mutual support in the neighbourhoods were significantly more effective than the alms given by government bodies.

He organised his deacons, elders and Sunday school teachers to form missionary teams, visiting parishioners, setting up schools and encouraging "moral" habits.

One of his successes was the organisation of decent primary education and weekend schools where children received an extra portion of education, both secular and religious.

In terms of poor relief, the experiment was met with limited success. The area's problems were too deep-rooted and widespread for the parish to cope alone. He did, however, inspire a generation of evangelicals with a missionary zeal to tackle poverty.

Eventually in 1842 the Government ordered an inquiry into the poor law system and the law was changed in 1845.