Guthrie the ‘Apostle’ of Temperance

Tackling the problem of homeless and children caught up in crime was never enough for Guthrie; he wanted to deal with the cause as well as the symptoms. It was a natural progression that he should expand his campaigning from prevention and cure of crime and homelessness amongst the young, to the drunkenness that was the cause of most of the problems in Scottish society. As Guthrie often said; “an ounce of prevention is worth of a ton of cure”. In his role as a social reformer, along with others such as William Wilberforce and General Booth, Guthrie saw himself as stemming the tide of intemperance. He writes; “the position of social reformers resembles that of the priests who went down into the Jordan bearing the ark of God, and, leaving the waters that had already passed to pursue their course and find a grave in the Dead Sea, arrested the descending current. We have tried to accomplish something like this” (Thomas Guthrie, Early Piety, London, 1868).

Interestingly enough Guthrie himself did not become a total abstainer until the age of 38. While he was always against drunkenness it was an experience while over in Ireland that turned him away from drink altogether. While travelling with a ministerial friend in 1841 they stopped at a small county inn on a terrible cold night. Seeking some warmth and comfort they ordered some ‘toddies’ (whiskey and hot water). Out of kindness they called in their driver and offered him the same hospitality. Guthrie was stunned when this staunch, but uneducated and uncultured, Roman Catholic explained that he was a teetotaller and would not touch a drop of alcohol. From that day forward Guthrie resolved to abstain from alcohol and became one of the leaders of the temperance movement.

The determination with which Guthrie pursued the temperance cause was all the more remarkable when we understand how unusual this position was in the first half of the 19th century.  In his autobiography, Guthrie reckoned that there was not a single student in Edinburgh University who was an abstainer. Perhaps even more remarkably Guthrie was unaware of any minister in the Church of Scotland who was a teetotaller. Undeterred by this, Guthrie established the Free Church Temperance Society along with Horatius Bonar and William Chalmers Burns. When the ‘Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness’ was formed in 1850 they turned to Guthrie to write their first booklet entitled ‘A Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness’. Other booklets followed and Guthrie was instrumental in bringing about the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1853 or the ‘Forbes Mackenzie Act’, as it is better known. This Act forced public houses to close at 10.00 pm on weekdays and all day on Sundays. Even today it is still illegal to buy alcohol after 10.00 pm in shops, although sadly this is not so in a Public Houses.

Guthrie’s work on total abstinence reached its climax with preaching a series of sermons on Luke 19 v 41 and their publication under the title The City, Its Sins and Sorrows’ in 1857. The stories of the impact that these sermons had around the world are many and varied but space allows us to mention only one of them. One of Guthrie’s later biographers, Oliphant Smeaton, recounts meeting a wealthy Scot while visiting Australia. This man, while resident in Scotland, had lived a dissolute lifestyle but one day found himself wandering in to St John’s Free Church. Listening to the powerful oratory of Guthrie as he preached on Christ weeping over Jerusalem, the man left affected but unchanged. All week he tried to kill his conscience through plunging headlong into drunkenness.

The following Sunday he was drawn back to hear Guthrie again despite being under the influence of drink. The great orator did not disappoint. Toward the end of his sermon he leaned his huge frame over the pulpit and said with great feeling: There are few families among us so happy as not to have had some one near and dear to them either in imminent peril hanging over the precipice, or the slave of intemperance altogether sold under sin.’ The hearer could contain his emotions no longer and left a broken man. The following day he sought out Dr Guthrie and was dealt with ‘fatherly kindness.’ He continues; “…when he had knelt with me at the throne of grace , and offered up a prayer, the like of which I never heard before or since, he bade me farewell, inviting me to return and see him: but I never did so (Oliphant Smeaton, Thomas Guthrie, Edinburgh, 1900, p 98-99). Within weeks the man was on a ship to Australia where he became a wealthy businessman and generous contributor to charity work.

Guthrie’s influence was so great that he helped to shape and influence the future life of society in Scotland. The Free Church at that time boasted some of the greatest men to grace Scottish Church history, among them Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Millar, William Cunningham, Robert Candlish, Andrew Bonar and James Begg. While Chalmers stood out among them for oratory and statesmanship, Guthrie came close to him in effect and influence. Guthrie’s statue records that he was a ‘friend of the poor and the oppressed’ but his over-all influence was so remarkable that he defied all categories. The old Greek word ‘polymath’ is rarely used today but for men like Guthrie and Chalmers, it comes close to describing the vast array of areas they century. In his autobiography he reckons that when he was at Edinburgh were involved in – theology, education, politics, science, writing and campaigning. They were as much at home among the poor as mixing with the richest and most influential people of the 19th century. Guthrie’s writings, particularly as editor of the Sunday Magazine from 1865-1873 could range from theology to social policy and from nature to politics.

Guthrie’s appeal for temperance was articulated in ‘The City it Sins and Sorrows’.  There is an e-book version downloadable here. The four sermons in this volume teach us much about the man. Guthrie preaches like the Saviour he loved. His words are full of love, pity and pathos. His heart had been broken by the sights he had seen in his pastoral visitation and this is reflected in his sermons. As Christ wept over the state of the people of Jerusalem, Guthrie was broken over the drunkenness he saw ruining lives and destroying families across Scotland.  Guthrie should act as a challenge to all of us as we seek to once again win cities for Christ.

‘Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work. Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours. Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose”

(Guthrie ,The City, Its Sins and Sorrows, 1857, Edinburgh p 111).