Guthrie in Arbirlot
Despite clear ability, Guthrie had to wait five years for a pastoral charge. There were moments of self doubt during this period but generally Guthrie remained convinced that the Lord had set him apart for the ministry. These years were not wasted with Guthrie enrolling in the Sorbonne in France to study during the winter of 1826/7. He certainly saw another side to life in Paris and sums it up by saying: Paris is the best place in the world for pursuing any science, saving those of morality and religion. Returning to Brechin in March 1828 after the death of his brother, Guthrie worked in his father’s bank (The Dundee Union Banking Company) for several years before finally being called to Arbirlot, Angus in 1830. The manager of the bank’s head office in Dundee said to Guthrie on one occasion: If you only preach, sir, as well as you have banked, you will be sure to succeed. During this time he became an accomplished platform speaker and as well as regular preaching, became involved in the Apocrypha controversy which was particularly fierce in Brechin.
Prepared for the Work Ahead
Spending nearly ten years at university, and then a further five without a congregation, prepared Guthrie in a unique way for the challenges ahead. His sons comment in the Memoir of their father: These five years of hope deferred, however, afforded Mr Guthrie a profitable though peculiar training for the eminent place he was afterwards to fill. His scientific studies in Edinburgh, his residence abroad, his experience of banking in his father’s banking-house, the leisure he enjoyed for enlarging his stores of general information, had all their influence in making him the many-sided man he became (Autobiography p 225). Guthrie’s common touch was forged in five years of frustration, but in God’s providence nothing is wasted.
A Rural Parish
Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and his common touch made him radical (and successful) in his evangelism. He says in his autobiography: If ministers were less shut up in their own shells, and had more common sense and knowledge of the world, they would cling less tenaciously to old forms, suitable enough to bygone but not to the present times. (Autobiography, p 89). He went on to prove this in his first charge in Arbirlot, Angus (1830-37) by abolishing the tradition of two Sunday services. They were replaced by a longer service at noon and an evening Bible Class for young people aged 15-25. At the ‘Minister’s Class’ Guthrie would work through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, give a shorter, simplified version of the earlier sermon (‘abundantly illustrated by examples and anecdotes’) and test the knowledge of his students. As Guthrie says in his autobiography: None of the services and ecclesiastical machinery at work did so much good, perhaps, as this class. While we must never lose the biblical imperative of preaching, surely Guthrie has something to teach us about the effectiveness of discipleship. We are living in a day of unparalleled doctrinal ignorance and something of the type of Guthrie’s ‘Minister’s Class’ is surely worth consideration.
An Innovative Pastor
Throughout forty years of ministry Guthrie prioritised people and was a loving and faithful pastor. During his time in Arbirlot, Guthrie established a savings bank and library to bring him in to regular contact with the people of his parish. As he says: The success of the bank and the library I attribute very much to this, that I myself managed them. They were of great service by bringing me into familiar and frequent and kindly contact with my people. (Autobiography, p 113). His work in Arbirlot was a foretaste of Guthrie’s more developed philanthropy when he was called to Edinburgh. The savings bank sought to train up the young in the habits of foresight, self-denial and prudence, which are the handmaids to virtue, and, though not religion, are nearly allied to it (Autobiography, p 88). The idea of a faceless, loveless welfare system that does nothing to get to the root of poverty and suffering was never in Guthrie’s vision for the poor. Guthrie loved and served with no strings attached but he never lost sight of his great hope that every practical scheme would move people closer to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Guthrie believed that the minister should live and work amongst the people. Writing while still in Arbirlot he said to a Mr Dunlop: I have discovered from my own experience that the further the people are removed from the manse, the less influence has the minister over them: and if a man won’t live among the scum of the Cowgate I would at once say to him You can’t be my minister. (Autobiography, p 309). Guthrie loved his people through the week as well as on Sundays.