Dr Guthrie – the Preacher

There is a famous story about Dr Thomas Guthrie when he was visiting the studio of an artist. An unfinished picture lay on an easel and Guthrie suggested one or two adjustments that might improve the painting. The artist responded: ‘Dr Guthrie, remember you are a preacher and not a painter.’ With his usual rapier wit Guthrie responded: ‘Beg your pardon, my good friend, I am a painter; only I paint in words, while you use brush and colours.’

While Guthrie’s enduring legacy is his work as a social reformer, his highest calling was always preaching. His colleague, Rev Dr Hanna, said of him: ‘No readier speaker ever stepped on a platform.’ Whatever Guthrie may have lacked in fine theology he made up for in passion and imagery. One anonymous writer said: ‘His oratory wanted none of the polish that distinguished Chalmers’ wild whirlwind bursts, or Hall’s grandly ascending periods, but it had qualities entirely of its own. More, perhaps, than any other preacher of his time, he had the power or knack of fixing truths on the memory. He sent them home as if they had been discharged from a battery, and fixed them there by a process peculiar to himself.’

Like many ministers Thomas Guthrie matured into a great preacher over time. Unlike other students, Guthrie had taken extra elocution lessons while studying divinity and realised that the manner as well as the matter was important in preaching: ‘the manner is to the matter as the powder is to the ball. I had heard very indifferent discourses made forcible by a vigorous, and able ones reduced to feebleness by a poor, pith less delivery.’ He was inspired by great orators of the past and mentions Demosthenes, Cicero and Whitfield in his Autobiography as those who inspired him in his desire to be the very best communicator of sacred truth.

Guthrie had to wait five years for a call to his first charge in Arbirlot in 1830. During his ‘wilderness years’ of travelling in France and working in his father’s bank he battled with doubts about his calling. Even once he was settled into his first charge he saw little response from the largely church-going parish of Arbirlot. As one writer says of Guthrie’s early frustration: ‘He had thundered in their ears the terrors of Mount Sinai; he had sounded the Gospel trumpet with a blast loud enough to rouse the dead; he had implored, threatened, and almost scolded them: but nothing seemed to permanently arrest their attention – they went to sleep under his most fervent and heart stirring appeals.’ One day, almost by accident rather than design, the young Guthrie told an anecdote in his sermon. The effect was electric and when he came home he told his wife that he had discovered how to keep his congregation awake. From then on, he wove into his sermons the imagery of nature and history. As Guthrie says in one of his many letters: ‘A thing is easily remembered which is striking, and retained which is striking; and what does not impress your own mind in these ways, and therefore is committed with difficulty, you may be sure won’t tell on the minds of your hearers. An illustration or an example drawn from nature, a Bible story or any history, will, like a nail, often hang a thing with would otherwise fall to the ground. Put such into your passage and you will certainly mend it.’

Guthrie’s pattern of preparation was mainly to study in the early morning. After breakfast he would retire to the vestry where he could be heard rehearsing his sermon. He believed in ‘committing’ his sermon to memory and was scathing of ‘readers’ (those who rigidly read from a script). Like all great preachers, Guthrie spent many hours in preparation and believed ‘that God does not give excellence to men but as the reward of labour.’ Even once his sermons were finished he would revise them: ‘After my discourse was written, I spent hours in correcting it; latterly always for that purpose, keeping a blank page on my manuscript opposite a written one, cutting out dry bits, giving point to dull ones, making clear any obscurity, and narrative parts more graphic, throwing more pathos into appeals, and copying God in His works by adding the ornamental to the useful.’

Despite a deep grasp of truth as can be seen in his published sermons, Guthrie believed in simplicity in his sermons: ‘I used the simplest, plainest terms, avoiding anything vulgar, but always, where possible, employing the Saxon tongue – the mother tongue of my hearers. I studied the style of the addresses with the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry inquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abound in metaphors, figures, and illustrations.’ As with his character, Guthrie blended a perfect mix of truth and love, passion and solemnity. As he says in a letter to Rev Laurie of Tulliallan: ‘The easier your manner, without losing the character of seriousness and solemnity, so much the better. Vigour and birr, without roaring and bellowing, are ever to be aimed at.’

Interestingly and perhaps rather controversially, Guthrie was not a fan of ministers, particularly new ministers, preaching 3-4 times per week and felt that this was an impossible burden to place on men with large congregations. Rather amusingly Guthrie quotes in his Autobiography Robert Hall who was once asked how many sermons a preacher could deliver in a week. Hall replied: ‘If he is a deep thinker and great condenser, he may get up one; if he is an ordinary man two; but if he is an ass, sir, he will produce half a dozen!’ Guthrie dispensed with two services in his first charge at Arbirlot and replaced the evening service with a catechism class. Far from detracting from the centrality of preaching, Guthrie used this class to make sure his hearers had understood what was preached in the morning. Given that it was mainly young people aged 15-25 Guthrie tried, as much as possible to make things as simple as possible: ‘the sermon or lecture, delivered in the forenoon, was gone over head by head, introduction and peroration, the various topics being set forth by illustrations drawn from nature, the world, history, etc., of a kind that greatly interested the people such as would not always have suited the dignity and gravity of the pulpit.’

The Rev George Hay recounts a story of hearing Guthrie pleading with sinners. His vivid description of a shipwreck and the launching of a lifeboat to save those who were perishing was so vivid that a sea Captain in the front seat of the gallery was convinced he was in physical danger and had to be comforted by his mother. Dr Guthrie leaves a wonderful legacy of passionate gospel preaching. He laboured to communicate deep gospel truths in a way that was relevant to the society he lived in. How we desperately need such passionate preaching in Scotland today!