Childhood and University
The name Guthrie has had a significant role in the history of the Scottish church. While Thomas Guthrie speaks with pride in his Autobiography of James and William Guthrie, who both played their part in the Covenanting movement, he could not verify a direct family tie to these great heroes of the faith. Allegedly Oliver Cromwell described Rev James Guthrie, who was executed in Edinburgh on 1st June 1661, as the short man that would not bow. Whether there was any direct connection between James and Thomas, the same hatred of oppression and unwillingness to bow to injustice lived on in the life and ministry of Thomas Guthrie.
Born in July 1803 in the town of Brechin to the son of a local merchant and banker, Thomas Guthrie was the second youngest of thirteen children. His father (David) and mother (Clementina) lost three children in infancy, with the remaining ten children being three daughters and seven sons. It is interesting for us as we look back through nearly 200 years of history to seek to understand what made Guthrie the remarkable man he became. Guthrie talks very tenderly in his writings of one of his mother’s sisters, Miss Betty Cay, who stayed with them as a family. We read that ‘she was somewhat deformed, but had a beautiful expressive face’. While she ate with the family, she spent most of her time in her own room reading Thomas Boston’s ‘Fourfold State’ and Ambrose’s ‘Looking to Jesus’. On New Year’s Day she would call Thomas and his brother Charles into her room for some wise counsel, a sixpence and a kiss. The elderly Guthrie writes sixty years later: The counsels, I fear we did not mind much; the kiss we disliked; and though we valued the sixpence, our estimation of it was much abated by her instantly resuming it to place it at our credit in the Savings-bank. (Autobiography, p 30). This, it would appear, is one of the many influences on Guthrie that led him to have such an empathy with the marginalised.
At the age of four Guthrie was sent with his older brother to a tutor called Jamie Stewart who was a local weaver. Stewart was part of the Secession Church which broke away from the Establishment in 1733. Members were often known for their seriousness and strictness but Guthrie remarked that he [Stewart] was no ascetic, no sour and unhealthy Christian; but enjoyed and encouraged others to enjoy innocent recreations (Autobiography, p22). Guthrie says at this stage he was a ‘thoughtless boy’ but the prayers of his tutor made a huge impression on him. He would have heard Stewart praying as Guthrie’s mother attended the local Secession Church and took the children with her. In his own inimitable way Guthrie says of his tutor in prayer with a remarkable knowledge of his Bible, and perfect mastery of its language, he so interwove its sublimest passages into his prayers that they seemed like the utterance of a seraph before the Throne. It is clear that while clearly brought up in a strict and loving home, Guthrie could be a high spirited boy and used to love fighting. He talks of being inspired by the Napoleonic Wars and how he loved to play soldiers, with him and his friends throwing rocks at each other in massed battles! Guthrie mentions on several occasions his love of fighting which continued into his university career and, if his autobiography is anything to go by, he seems generally to have won most confrontations!
The Kindness of Providence
It was his mother who seemed to have the biggest influence on Guthrie’s spiritual development. As Guthrie says:
‘It was at my mother’s knees that I first learned to pray; that I learned to form a reverence for the Bible as the inspired Word of God; that I learned to hold the sanctity of the Sabbath; that I learned the peculiarities of the Scottish religion; that I learned to regard the principles of civil and religious liberty, which have made me hate oppression, and whether it be a Pope, or a prelate, or a patron, or an ecclesiastical demagogue, resist the oppressor’ (Autobiography, p 205).
Little did his mother know what far-reaching effects these early lessons on Scottish Church history would have. While Guthrie never really talks of a conversion experience, he does recount moments of spiritual significance in his life. In a letter he wrote in 1871 he looks back over his life and recalls two very dangerous illnesses and three very perilous accidents and recounts the phrase ‘providence is kind to fools and bairns.’ Guthrie recounts one of these incidents when he and his brother Charles were visiting their uncle’s farm at Maisondieu, near Brechin. Finding their uncle’s gun, and not imagining for a moment that it was loaded, the boys began to play at soldiers. To their shock the gun fired and just missed Guthrie with the bullet lodging in the farmhouse wall. In later years when he was visiting his uncle, Guthrie apparently often spoke of the mark in the wall and God’s good providence in preserving him.
Off to University
As with many young boys in the 19th century Guthrie went on to study at Edinburgh University at the tender age of twelve. He laments in later life being sent to university far too young – finishing his first degree at the age most children nowadays would be finishing High School. Guthrie was no academic but enjoyed the sciences with perhaps the exception of logic which he described as a ‘farrago of nonsense’. Far from being shattered at his lack of academic brilliance, Guthrie could see the silver lining and comments ‘this was an evil; and yet, like many other ills in my life, the parent of good in some respects. It saved me from self-conceit; no prizes inflated me with vanity.’
The Brechin Tactics
While Guthrie was not a serial offender, at university he was no stranger to trouble. As he comments in his autobiography: Beyond the departments of fun and fighting I was in no way distinguished at college. During his first year some of the boys from Edinburgh High School made the mistake of making fun of his Brechin accent. Selecting one of the ring leaders as they left their Greek class, Guthrie squared up to the boy: I met him with the Brechin tactics, pouring in a shower of blows, all directed to his face; and, so soon as blood came streaming from nose or mouth, and he held down his head to protect his face, hitting and giving him not time to breathe (Autobiography, p 40). Even as a young man Guthrie was a fighter and someone who would grow to hate oppression in all its many forms.
In the Shadow of Waterloo
One of Guthrie’s most vivid memories during his 1815-16 academic term was of seeing the 42nd Regiment of Highlanders marching in to Edinburgh after the Battle of Waterloo. The battle had a big impact on Guthrie who remembers the celebrations in Brechin the year before he went to university. An effigy of Bonaparte was paraded through the town and burnt in the town square. After four years of philosophy and literature and then a further four of theology, Guthrie undertook a further two years studying chemistry, anatomy and natural history. It was during this time that Guthrie attended the lectures of the famous Dr Knox connected to the Burke and Hare murders. While there was no intention of diversifying into medicine, Guthrie took a lifelong interest in medical issues and during his first charge (Arbirlot, Angus) would prescribe for parishioners who had minor ailments.