Napoleon’s Defeat and Thomas Chalmers’ Post-millennial Nationalism

Ridley Scott’s biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte finally has a release date—22 Nov 2023—and the first trailer looks like it will be a signature gritty take from the director on the French ruler who dominated a quarter century of European history. Napoleon’s contemporary friends and his enemies understood that he was an epochal figure. Francisco Goya portrayed the French emperor as grotesque new colossus who devoured innocents. Russian noblemen had no doubt he was the antichrist. Still others—in France, and the United States—saw him a savior of man from the aristocracies and monarchies that had ruled Europe for 1300 years. Andrew Jackson in particular admired Napoleon. The latter’s most implacable and most impassioned foe throughout his reign as first consul and then emperor remained the United Kingdom, and it was in Britain that Protestant divines most clearly understood the battle with Napoleon to be a sort of religious war.

            In 1814 and 1815 during Napoleon’s first exile to Elba the European powers met in Vienna to hammer out the post-Napoleonic European settlement. Napoleon’s escape and attempt to reclaim power in the Spring of 1815 ended definitively with his defeat at Waterloo. By early 1816 Britain stood at the height of its prestige, and clerics noted that a new type of peace emerged in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat. Thomas Chalmers, the Church of Scotland minister of Tron Church, took the opportunity to remind his Scottish listeners that there were “a great many passages in Scripture which warrant the expectation that a time is coming, when war shall be put an end to-when its abominations and its cruelties shall be banished from the face of the earth.” A time was coming, he declared, “when those restless elements of ambition and jealousy which have so long kept the species in a state of unceasing commotion, and are ever and anon sending another and another wave over the field of this world’s politics,” would finally be “hushed into a placid and ever-during calm.” The Christian scriptures, said Chalmers, employed “many and delightful” images…guided by the light of prophecy to carry the church forward “to those millennial days, when the reign of peace shall be established, and the wide charity of the gospel, which is confined by no limits, and owns no distinctions, shall embosom the whole human race within the ample grasp of one harmonious and universal family.”

            Chalmers’ sermon pointed to the necessity of human agents to bring about prophetic truths not in order to fullfill prophecy, but in order to bring about a peaceful world. When Christianity finally gained total ascendency across the globe, argued Chalmers, war would eventually cease. Chalmers’ postmillennialism was not necessarily utopian. Because war was so common, Christians must appreciate any treat any peace as a divine blessing. Every interval of repose was precious, and “every breathing time from the work of violence” was “to be rejoiced in by the friends of humanity.” Christians needed to celebrate

“every agreement among the powers of the earth, by which a temporary respite can be gotten from the calamities of war, is so much reclaimed from the amount of those miseries that afflict the world, and of those crimes, the cry of which ascendeth unto heaven, and bringeth down the judgments of God on this dark and rebellious province of his creation. I trust, that on this day, gratitude to Him who alone can still the tumults of the people, will be the sentiment of every heartand I trust that none who now hear me, will refuse to evince his gratitude to the Author of the New Testament, by their obedience to one of the most distinct and undoubted of its lessons -I mean the lesson of a reverential and submissive loyalty. I cannot pass an impartial eye over this record of God’s will, without perceiving the utter repugnance that there is between the spirit of Christianity, and the factious, turbulent, unquenchable, and ever-meddling spirit of political disaffection.”

That Chalmers ended his admonition regarding peace with a stern reminder to loyalty to the British regime. Chalmers’ saw the British monarchy of the era as worthy not only of support, but of near-unquestioned loyalty.

            Regime loyalty was not an abstraction for Chalmers. His sermon was undoubtedly postmillennial and nationalistic. His government, in his eyes and the eyes of so many of his contemporaries, defeated a godless tyrant. Great Britain upheld true religion—Protestantism—and maintained ordered liberty. It gave Chalmers “pleasure to advance a further testimony in behalf of that government with which it has pleased God, who appointeth to all men the bounds of their habitation, to bless that portion of the globe that we occupy.” He counted it “such a government that I not only owe it the loyalty of my principles-but I also owe it the loyalty of my affections. I could not lightly part with my devotion to that government which the other year opened the door to the Christianization of India.” Chalmers pronounced that he would “never withhold the tribute of my reverence from that government which put an end to the atrocities of the Slave Trade,” and he would “never forget the triumph which in that proudest day of Britain’s glory, the cause of humanity gained within the walls of our enlightened Parliament.”

“Let my right hand forget her cunning, ere I forget that country of my birth, where, in defiance to all the clamours of mercantile alarm, every calculation of interest was given to the wind, and braving every hazard, she nobly resolved to shake off the whole burden of the infamy which lay upon her. I shall never forget, that how to complete the object in behalf of which she has so honourably led the way, she has walked the whole round of civilized society, and knocked at the door of every government in Europe, and lifted her imploring voice for injured Africa, and pled with the mightiest monarchs of the world, the cause of her outraged shores, and her distracted families. I can neither shut my heart nor my eyes to the fact, that at this moment she is stretching forth the protection of her naval and shielding to the uttermost of her vigour, that coast where an inhuman avarice is still plying its guilty devices, and aiming to perpetuate among an unoffending people, a trade of cruelty, with all the horrid train of its terrors and abominations. Were such a government as this to be swept from its base, either by the violence of foreign hostility, or by the hands of her own misled and infatuated children-I should never cease to deplore it as the deadliest interruption which ever had been given to the interests of human virtue, and arm, to the march of human improvement.”


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