Before the union of Presbyterian Churches in 1865, there were three divisions of the denomination in Adelaide, as in Scotland. Church buildings were erected in the city for the United Secession Church (Gouger Street), Church of Scotland (Grenfell Street) and the Free Church (the present Scots or Chalmers Church). These divisions occurred after the great Scottish disruption of 1843, when the Church of Scotland became identified with the dislocation of crofters and other Highland folk by influential lairds. The desire for reform within the church intensified in 1846 in South Australia with the reaction to the provision of “State Aid”.
There was discontent in the church over what some saw as the dissolution of the voluntary principle on which the colony’s religious freedoms had been founded. This was one of the factors that led to the Free Church being established in Adelaide.
This movement, which struck a blow in Scotland for spiritual freedom, caused great excitement in South Australia, along with the struggle over State Aid. In 1849, several leading citizens asked the Free Church of Scotland to send a minister to form the Free Church in South Australia. John Gardner, of the Glasgow presbytery, accepted the position and arrived in the colony in March 1850.
Gardner had little trouble galvanising those who sympathised with the Free Church in Scotland and those who were opposed to State Aid in South Australia.
On May 16, 1850, a congregational meeting considered estimates for building a church with a tower to accommodate 490, to cost £1800. In June tenders for work amounting to £1120 were accepted. The contractors were Thomas English and Henry Brown. Reverend Gardner laid the foundation stone on September 3, 1850. The congregation decided to complete the tower later for reasons of economy.
The following year, Chalmers Church was opened for public worship.
As reported in the South Australian Register, the Reverend Gardner stated in opening the building “that the natives of Scotland residing in Adelaide, and all others who may unite with them, may have the liberty of worshipping God according to the dictates of His own word ... Free from secular interference and control in spiritual matters, this Church has been erected by private subscriptions, and has received the name of Chalmers Church as a faint memorial of the late Reverend Dr Chalmers, Moderator of the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.”
The South Australian Register of July 5, 1851, was not entirely complimentary about the building’s austerity: “The erection of this Church displays considerable spirit on the part of the body of Christians who have reared it ... but considering its design to exhibit architectural taste, our criticism is less favourable. The outside is, by general consent, admitted to have an unsightly appearance, arising from an incongruity or want of proportion among the parts. Instead of forming a harmonious whole, they exhibit a most striking discord. The roof is much too high, and being placed on walls of small elevation, give the whole the appearance of an immense hut. The tower, when completed, will be a beautiful object, but we can say the same of nothing around; it has no suitable accompaniment, much effect is lost by the absence of the intended spire, many of the details have been ill carried out ... It is essentially a country church placed in town, where it makes but an indifferent appearance. Had it been placed in the country on a rising ground among trees, it might have proved an agreeable and appropriate object in the landscape, and some of its greatest defects for a town building might have been converted into beauties; but where it stands it will always look unsightly and out of place and will certainly not enhance the claims of Adelaide to architectural beauty.”
English and Brown reacted strongly to this criticism in the newspaper of July 12, 1851, but obviously suffered little from it as the firm became one of the city’s most important builders. They added the church’s spire in 1856, thus completing the design. It was 120 feet high and topped by a tall and elegant spire, “one of the greatest improvements Adelaide has had to boast of for a long time past”.
In 1863-64 the building was re-roofed in galvanised iron, and the parapet walls finished in stucco. At this time English and Brown also built schoolrooms and a presbytery behind the church nave. This part of the building, in bluestone dressed with profiled brick, continued the idiom of the original building. A “dwarf wall” on the street frontages with a cast-iron railing was added in 1868.