What can we learn from Dr Guthrie in 21st Century Scotland?
This is a talk given by Andrew Murray at Cumbernauld Free Church on 11th March 2016
I was born 100 years after Guthrie died but I was born into a very different Scotland. It is one where the church has very little influence, indeed we can say with a certain degree of confidence the church is seen largely as an irrelevance. Why is that?
Well I believe it is because we have abandoned the truth and abandoned our responsibility towards the poor and the oppressed. Large sections of the church are preaching a content-less gospel where there is no sin, no saviour, no judgement, no hell and society has quite rightly concluded the church has no point, and who could blame them?
Much of the church that has retained the truth has entered into a bunker mentality. It is fractured, defensive, suspicious and, on the whole, talking to itself. It rises up when it thinks it is being threatened and lashes out at those in authority like a wounded lion who is losing its power and authority. In particular, the church has ceased to have any concern for the marginalised which has always been a hallmark of the church at its best. Many churches have almost no connection with the communities they are based. If the church shut down, the community would hardly notice.
Why did Thomas Guthrie have such a significant impact on Scotland in the 19th Century?
What can we learn from him today?
Let’s initially look at who he was and then look at what he can teach us.
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 13 children.
His father (David) and mother (Clementina) lost 3 children in infancy with the remaining 10 children being 3 daughters and 7 sons.
Guthrie spoke of his paternal grandfather remembering the 1745 rebellion. His grandparents were married for an astonishing 66 years.
Nothing in my thoughtless boyhood ever impressed me so much as the reverence with which he approached God, even in saying grace at meals. What a contrast his devout manner to the brief, hurried, mumbling “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful,” or some such curt expression, I have so often heard at the table in England, and from the lips even of her clergy! When all had taken their seats, and were waiting in solemn silence, he slowly uncovered his hoary locks of the cap he wore in the house; and slightly throwing back his head, with his open eyes raised to heaven, he implored a blessing on the meal – his voice and uplifted eyes tremulous with age, and his countenance wearing an expression of profound devotion. Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs, (London, 1896, p 10).
Guthrie’s grandmother was also a women of great devotion:
This, however is pretty plain – that to this remarkable woman, we Guthrie’s largely owe the decision of character and determination of purpose, of which, unless other people are mistaken, we have a more ordinary share; a valuable inheritance certainly, especially when controlled and guided by the grace of God (Autobiography and Memoirs p 12).
It is interesting for us as we look back through nearly 200 years of history and 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 60 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 and Memoirs page 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 age 4 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” Thomas Guthrie and Sons, (Autobiography and Memoirs p22). Guthrie says at this stage he was a ‘thoughtless boy’ but the prayers of his tutor made a huge impression on him.
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 and Memoirs p 205).
Little did his mother know what far reaching effects these early lessons would have on Scottish church history.
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 12. 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… (Autobiography and Memoirs p 42).
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 ringleaders as they left their Greek class, Guthrie squared up to the boy: I met him with the Brechin tactics, pouring in 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 and Memoir 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 4 years of philosophy and literature and then a further 4 of theology, Guthrie undertook a further 2 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 in to medicine, Guthrie took a lifelong interest in medical issues and while at Arbirlot would prescribe for parishioners who had minor ailments.
Despite clear ability, Guthrie had to wait 5 years for a 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.
An Innovative Rural Pastor (1830-37)
Throughout 40 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 and Memoirs p 113).
As Oliphant Smeaton says in his biography of Guthrie;
Cast iron routine is the curse of vital congregational religious life. There are some churches where the people are, in a spiritual sense, as dead as a fossil. And what is the reason? Because the minister does his work like a prisoner on a treadmill, without the introduction of a jot of variety to break the deadly reign of routine. Where there is sluggishness in the pulpit there is somnolence in the pew, and routine is the nursing mother of dullness. Against such practices Dr Guthrie, from the earliest days of his ministry, set his face. ‘I don’t care about being the minister of a large church,’ he said on one occasion, ‘but I do wish to be the minister of a live church.’
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 and Memoirs, p 88).
A Call to Edinburgh
Guthrie’s reputation grew rapidly and after 7 years in Angus he was called to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh where he was inducted in September 1837 as assistant to Rev Sym. With large scale immigration from Ireland and large scale movement within Scotland from the country to the cities, Guthrie found extreme overcrowding combined with the most heart rending poverty within central Edinburgh. Drunkenness was a widespread problem with many children being forced out to beg and steal to feed their parents’ habit.
The Kilsyth Revival
In their Memoir of their father Thomas Guthrie’s sons talk about their father’s involvement in the Kilsyth revival of 1839. Dr William Burns was actually an uncle of Mrs Guthrie so the connection was more than just ministerial. Guthrie travelled to Kilsyth by canal boat where there has been more religious conversation in these boats for the last six weeks than for six years before. Guthrie heard that while many remained untouched by the revival in a spiritual sense, none could deny the effects on the community. The man travelling in the boat with Guthrie told him of a local farmer who used always to get his turnip fields destroyed and pillaged; nothing of the kind this year – religion had guarded them better than an armed force.
Arriving in Kilsyth Guthrie records in a notebook his impressions; We met last night at eight. After service, which closed about eleven o’clock, two girls under deep and serious impressions, along with some others, were waiting. I was much struck with this, that none appeared ashamed of religion…the singing was remarkably loud and cordial, and an air of devoutness among the people…ninety young communicants within two months, from the ages of seventy to twelve…of the ninety, almost the whole were under the most solemn and serious impressions.
The Parochial System in Action
In 1840 Guthrie planted a new church in Victoria Street called ‘St John’s’. Like Thomas Chalmers, Guthrie followed the ‘Parochial’ or ‘Territorial’ system of church planting. Interestingly Guthrie’s new church was within 5 minutes’ walk of Old Greyfriars and yet Guthrie believed that the most effective method of outreach was for the church to be on the very doorstep of the community it was seeking to reach. The Parochial System is defined by his sons in their Memoir of their father as; the church at the door of the poor, the church free to all, a properly equipped school in every parish and elders, deacons and district visitors used to make regular contact with parishioners.
As with others involved in the Disruption, Guthrie had no reservations in petitioning the government to support or ‘endow’ this work (the Establishment Principle). As Guthrie said on one occasion;
Divide me the large towns into small manageable parishes, provide me with a free church, add to it an endowed school, and with a staff of zealous and active and Christian elders, I don’t despair, with God’s blessing of restoring the waste places, making the wilderness rejoice and the desert glad; but that you can’t get without an endowment. (Autobiography and Memoirs p 320).
As soon as Guthrie planted St John’s he outlined his vision for 30 elders and 15 deacons to actively pastor a relatively small area of central Edinburgh. His evangelism was community focussed, relational, practical, warm and very well organised. Guthrie’s great motto was something for everyone to do, and every one engaged upon something. Just like Chalmers, Guthrie believed in the power of small elements all working together to achieve great things:
Separate the atoms that form a hammer, and in that state of minute division they would fall on a stone with no more effect than snowflakes. Weld them into a solid mass, and swung round by the quarryman’s brawny arm, they descend on the rock like a thunderbolt Thomas Guthrie, Seed-Time and Harvest (Edinburgh, 1860, p 117).
Guthrie epitomised the Victorian philanthropist who was gathering momentum for a great and noble cause. Everyone had a part to play and Guthrie became the figurehead of a church which had a passion for community outreach.
A Desperate Need
The vision for a school in every parish was desperately needed in many parts of Edinburgh. But even more, the street children of Edinburgh needed a very different kind of school.
Writing in 1872 Guthrie says;
Five-and-thirty years ago, on first coming to this city, I had not spent a month in my daily walks in our Cowgate and Grassmarket without seeing that, with worthless, drunken and abandoned parents for their only guardians, there were thousands of poor innocent children, whose only chance of being saved from a life of ignorance and crime lay in a system of compulsory education (Autobiography and Memoirs, p 438).
In early 19th century Scotland, many children caught up in crime, no matter how petty, were languishing in prison. Others were flogged or hanged without mercy. Writing in 1845, the Governor of the Edinburgh jail, Mr Smith, stated in a letter that 740 children under 14 (245 of which were under 10) had been committed to prison in the previous 3 years. Guthrie says in a speech to the Evangelical Alliance in Geneva that when the Ragged Schools were started in 1847, 5 out of every 100 prisoners were under 14 years of age. He says:
Have you ever been in a prison? Walk along its silent corridors; stop at a cell door; put your eyes to the eyelet by which you can see a lonely tenant within, though he cannot see you; and there, within four cold bare stone walls, see a little girl or boy pinning away in weary solitude! That child should have been smiling; singing; playing on the green; seated on the form at the busy school; or by a mothers’ bright fireside.
Guthrie was withering in his criticism of the church and their inaction. During the same speech he said:
Take the case of a boy whose father is a beehive maker. The child was in the old time neglected. His father sent him out to the market to steal straw to make hives with, and if he did not bring a sufficient quantity of straw home, the father would beat him within an inch of death. If he brought a sufficient quantity of straw the father made hives, and got money, and went to the dram shop, and made himself a brute; and beat his boy when he was a brute. Whether the father was sober or drunk the boy’s life was one of wretchedness and misery. Well, what was the old way of dealing with the boy? They allowed the evil to go on. Ladies and gentlemen – ladies in silks and gentlemen in good broad cloth – some with Bibles and some with prayer books in their hands, went to church and prayer meetings; held Bible and Missionary meetings, and left that poor wretch there in the gutter, crying, ‘save me I perish’. There was no such answer to his appeal as our Lord gave to Simon’s when he was sinking in the Sea of Galilee. They passed on, I had almost said ‘passed by on the other side’ saying ‘they are a pest these children an intolerable nuisance’ and so they went to prayer or preaching – calling that religion! Why, I call it religion to stop on my way to church or prayer meeting and pluck the perishing one from ruin. That is what God calls religion.
A New Approach Gains Momentum
The need for a different response was gaining momentum by the early 1840’s but the movement needed a figure-head and someone who could articulate the cause eloquently. They found this in Thomas Guthrie who took up the campaign for Ragged Schools with great relish. Guthrie’s campaign for Ragged Schools was on many different levels; financial, spiritual and moral. He was appalled at the money being wasted on prisons and often stated that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The development of the Ragged Schools was to prevent the apprentice criminal making criminality a career choice.
A Cobbler from Portsmouth
The first or ‘original’ Ragged School in Edinburgh was established in 1847 in a small room on the Castle Hill. The main building that was eventually used is now part of Camera Obscura and the open bible can still be seen above the door with the words Search the Scriptures (John 5 v 39) engraved on it. Guthrie says that the inspiration for the Ragged School Movement was from John Pounds of Portsmouth (1766-1839). Pounds was a dockyard worker who at the age of 15 fell into a dry dock and was crippled for life. As he recovered he taught himself to read and write and became a cobbler. Pounds started to teach local children to read and write free of charge. He also taught them carpentry, how to cook and how to repair shoes while offering them food and shelter at the same time. The Scottish inspiration for ragged or industrial feeding schools was Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen who started a school in 1841. If Guthrie did not start the movement, no one else did more to further the work as it spread around the whole country.
A Unique Curriculum
The original Ragged School had a very unique curriculum; education, regular meals, clothes, ‘industrial training’ and Christian instruction. Most of the ragged children who attended the school/s did not remain overnight but were in school for 12 hours in the summer and 11 hours in the winter. The day started at 8am with the rather painful sounding ‘ablutions’ and the children were dismissed at 7:15pm after supper. Guthrie describes the daily routine;
in the morning they are to break their fast on a diet of the plainest fare, – then march from their meal to their books; in the afternoon they are again to be provided with a dinner of the cheapest kind, – then back again to school; from which after supper, they return not to the walls of an hospital, but to their own homes. There, carrying with them a holy lesson, they may prove Christian missionaries to those dwellings of darkness and sin Thomas Guthrie, Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, (Edinburgh, 1860, page 25).
8 – 8:30am Ablutions 30 mins
8:30 – 9:30 All working 1 hour
9:30 – 10:15 Breakfast and play 45mins
10:15 – 11 Calling roll and Bible lesson 45 mins
11 – 1pm Half working and half in school room 1 hour 1 hour
1 – 2 pm All walking 1 hour
2 – 2:30pm Dinner 30 mins
2 – 3pm School 30 mins
3 – 5pm Half working and half in school room 1 hour 1 hour
5 – 6:30pm All working 1:30 mins
6:30 – 7:15pm Supper and closing 45 mins
The Omnipotent Power of Christian Kindness
The unique curriculum of Ragged Schools was done in an environment of discipline and structure although there is never a sense that the schools were harsh or austere. Guthrie was no great fan of corporal punishment and instead encouraged staff to win over children with kindness: these Arabs of the city are wild as those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, – those of discipline, learning and industry, not to speak of cleanliness. To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness. Hard words and harder blows are thrown away here. With these alas they are too familiar at home, and have learned to be as indifferent to them as the smith’s dog to the shower of sparks Thomas Guthrie, Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, (Edinburgh, 1860, page 25).
The Committee of Management of the Original Ragged School was deliberately inter-denominational with Episcopalians, Church of Scotland, United Presbyterians and the Free Church all being represented. While Guthrie’s management of the Ragged Schools was never sectarian or denominational he never compromised on Christian education. During the controversy (stirred up by an anonymous writer in a newspaper) that the Ragged Schools were sectarian and discriminating against Catholic children, Guthrie masterfully showed that the schools provided a non denominational Christian education.
Whatever else could be discussed and debated, he argued long and hard that the Bible needed to remain central to the curriculum off the schools:
We held that in a Ragged School, whatever might be the case in other schools, the object aimed at could not be accomplished without the pure milk of God’s Word for those babes, and that the principle – although some good men seemed to have lost sight of it in the dust of battle – was the irreconcilable and eternal difference between Protestantism and Popery: the principle that God has addressed his Word to all the human family. Thomas Guthrie, Out of Harness, (Edinburgh, 1883, p 15).
Guthrie the Family Man
Guthrie made time for family and it was his pattern to keep every evening free for his children. As he says;
On coming to Edinburgh, I resolved to give my evenings to my family; to spend them, not in my study, as many ministers did but in the parlour amongst my children (Autobiography and Memoirs, p 614).
Guthrie loved his 6 sons and 4 daughters and once said I am rich in nothing but children. Guthrie experienced the loss of one of his children – ‘Little Johnnie’ who died in 1855 at the tender age of 20 months. Apparently Thomas Chalmers visited Guthrie around 1845 and said I have been a family man now, sir, for forty years, and we have never had a breach. Guthrie could almost have said the same were it not for his youngest child. Only three days later Johnnie had died. Guthrie wrote to his son James; Our dear child is in glory. This morning they came to tell me he was worse, and I had better not come in, for there were slight convulsions. However, I went to the cradle; and, dear lamb, it was but some gentle gasping, the last feeble billows breaking on life’s shore, before they subsided into everlasting rest. We have felt it deeply – not bitterly, no certainly not; but it wrung my heart some minutes ago to lock the door of his lonely room (Letter to James Guthrie, 9th August 1855). Before the year was over Guthrie has also lost his youngest sister Clementina.
He loved reading fiction like Shakespeare’s plays and Walter Scott’s novels. He was never happier, in later life, than with a fly rod in his hand at his favourite Highland retreat in Lochlee. For 23 years Guthrie returned to this spot every summer and was given a cottage rent-free by Lord Dalhousie. The Highland retreat allowed Guthrie to relax in the great outdoors and indulge his great passion for fishing. Guthrie was a man of great passions but had a balance, a tenderness, a quick sense of humour and common touch that left such an enduring legacy in everyone he met.
The Manse Fund
In 1843, after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland which created the Free Church of Scotland, 100’s of ministers were without manses. It was decided to start the ‘Manse Fund’ and they looked to one of the highest profile ministers and effective communicators to lead the charge. Guthrie expressed serious concern that the Manse Fund would stretch the generosity of Free Church people to the limit but he needn’t have worried. After Guthrie had toured 13 Synods and 58 Presbyteries in less than a year, he was able to announce to the General Assembly of June 1846 that £116,370 had been raised.
It is unlikely that anyone else could have achieved what he did in such a short space of time. His energy and oratory enabled the Manse Fund to smash its original target. Numerous ministers and their families owed a huge debt of gratitude to Guthrie for providing the resources to build manses so that the gospel could continue to prosper not just in the Highlands but across the whole of Scotland. Along with his Ragged Schools, the Manse Fund was one of Guthrie’s greatest legacies. With the one he showed mercy to helpless children, and with the other he fought oppression by raising funds for manses. This Biblical example of showing mercy and fighting oppression is surely one which we need to follow today.
The End of the Journey
In August 1872 Guthrie preached his last sermon during a trip to his beloved Highland retreat – Lochlee. Amongst the shepherds and simple folk of the parish, Guthrie preached to H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh and the Lord Chancellor from Hebrews 10 v 38 The just shall live by faith. As Guthrie descended the steps of the pulpit he closed the door on a 40 year ministry. By September he suffered an attack of congestion of the lungs. He dreaded the night when the combination of sedatives and a sinking sensation made him fear sleep. His family took it in turns to read and sing psalms and hymns with his favourite being ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.’
Such was Guthrie’s fame that the daily press covered his illness and updates were fixed to the gate of his house to inform the many enquirers. When Dr Thomas Guthrie was buried in the Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh on 28th February 1873 there had not been a funeral since that of Sir James Y Simpson, the Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University, who had died a few years earlier. The sun shone down on that black day as Scotland said farewell to one of its best and most noble sons. A procession stretched for nearly a mile to Guthrie’s house in Salisbury Road and it is estimated that around 30,000 lined the streets. The ecclesiastical and civic world were united in grief. The loss was felt across the known world at the time such was Guthrie’s influence as a preacher, writer and social reformer. It was reported that 230 children from the original Ragged School attended his funeral and sang a hymn at the grave. One little girl was overheard saying “He was all the father I ever knew.”
The following Sunday Dr Candlish preached a sermon from Hebrews 9 v 27, 28 and spoke tenderly of his great friend of 35 years: Friend and brother, comrade in the fight, companion in tribulation, farewell! But not forever. May my soul, when my time comes, be with thine! A great man truly in Israel has fallen. Men of talents, men of abilities, men of learning, are not uncommon. Men powerful in thought are often raised up; but genius, real poetic genius, like Guthrie’s come but once in many generations. We shall not look upon his like soon, if ever. Nor was it genius alone that distinguished him. The warm heart and the ready hand; the heart to feel, and the hand to work. No sentimental dreamer or mooning idealist was he. His pity was ever active (The Life of Rev Thomas Guthrie, 1875, John S Marr and Sons, Glasgow, p 124, 125).
What can the Church in 21st Century Scotland Learn from Dr Thomas Guthrie?
I have called Guthrie’s theology ‘Ragged Theology’ which is also the name of my blog. I believe Guthrie embodied four things that we in the 21st century Scottish can learn from.
Guthrie had incredible vision. He literally, by God’s grace, changed Scotland. His vision was not shaped by the challenges of 19th Century Scotland but rather shaped by the greatness of the God he served and infused by the love of his Saviour. He believed that the Christian gospel could save anyone and transform any community. While many Christians saw homeless and ragged children as burdens or a nuisance, Guthrie saw in these street children the potential for moral and spiritual change. As he says:
bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on the earth, and hereafter and forever in a Redeemer’s crown (Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, Thomas Guthrie).
It was said of Thomas Chalmers that his Parochial System was a glorious enterprise of Christian aggression upon the regions of popular ignorance. This similar approach was adopted by Guthrie who had a Christian vision for Scotland and believed that the Church should reach rich and poor alike. He was appalled by pew rents when he arrived at Old Greyfriars in 1837 with the back pews designated as the ‘pauper’s pews’ to further stigmatise those in poverty. When he opened St John’s Parish Church in 1840 the poor of the parish were welcomed in without payment.
By the time of his death Guthrie had, along with many other social reformers, changed childhood. Rather than children being seen as commodities, towards the end of the 19th Century, children were seen as those in need of protection and nurture. Partly as a result of lobbying from social reformers like Guthrie legislation was passed protecting children from working long hours in often dangerous situations.
On issues such as the Manse Fund, Guthrie showed incredible vision. The odds against the new Free Church in 1843 were huge but the new movement had a big vision for 700 manses. Turning to Guthrie who eventually earned the nickname of the ‘big beggar man’, he completed a tour of 13 Synods and 58 Presbyteries in less than a year, and smashed the target of £100, 000. Thanks to Guthrie, 100’s of Free Church ministers were able move into manses and continue their ministries.
Guthrie leaves us a legacy of full church involvement. As he says in his autobiography;
If the world is ever conquered for our Lord, it is not by ministers, nor by office-bearers, nor by the great, and noble and mighty, but by every member of Christ’s body being a working member; doing his work; filling his own sphere; holding his own post; and saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?
He had no time for one man ministries and pioneered what many today would call ‘team ministries’. The difference with Guthrie was that he did this through the biblical system of elders, deacons and church members. If there is ever a time in the churches history when we need to organise ourselves to effectively engage with the communities around our churches, it is surely today. We need to stop seeing our churches as gathered temples where our exclusive brand of truth is dispensed to our ‘tribe’ and start having a vision for our local parishes where our churches are like hospitals for broken sinners.
The DNA of men like Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers is that they had a big vision. It wasn’t a congregational vision or even a Free Church vision but a national vision. Through church extension, the Manse Fund, education and his incredible work with Ragged Schools, Guthrie gave us a great example of the need for a coherent Christian vision for Scotland.
Like so many Christians who get involved in social action, Guthrie never lost his moorings when he became a social reformer. It is clear from his writings that he adhered to the Bible as the word of God and remained confessionally Reformed throughout his ministry. Guthrie never pretended he was a theologian like Chalmers or Candilish. His books are profound and even quaint but he never pretended he was a deep theologian. As he said of himself, in the controversies of the church he was oftener found at the guns than at the wheel.
He believed in the supremacy and centrality of preaching as the main method that God uses to save sinners. There is no evidence that he ever watered down his preaching or softened his stance on any major Christian doctrine as he became the figurehead for social reform in 19th Century Scotland. Here he is in full flow on the dangers of ‘soft peddling’ the truth:
Yet, shall I conceal God’s verity, and ruin men’s souls to spare their feelings? Shall I sacrifice truth at the shrine of a false politeness? To hide what Jesus revealed were not to be more tender, but only less faithful than He. If the taste of these days were so degenerate as to frown down the honest preacher who should pronounce that awful word “Hell,” and leave him to vacant pews, it were better, far better, that he should be as “one crying in the wilderness,” and getting no response but the echo of empty walls, than that he should fail in proclaiming the “whole counsel of God. (The Gospel in Ezekiel).
He was not a man who was afraid of speaking out against oppression and injustice. His campaign for Temperance led him to campaign against the dram shops that were the ruin of thousands. In a letter to his daughter in 1870 he says;
I preach everywhere that nothing will arrest, far less cure, the evil, but locking up every drinking shop in the land.
Guthrie preached the whole counsel of God with love and tenderness but never compromised on doctrine.
His books reveal his incredibly practical theology;
The Gospel in Ezekiel (1855) now back in print.
Studies of Character from the Old Testament (1869)
Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints (1858) studies in Colossians 1.
Out of Harness – a collection of articles from the Sunday Magazine published in 1883.
Man and the Gospel – (1883) studies in James and other texts.
The Parables (1874)
Loving the poor and fighting against injustice does mean we dispense with the truth or dilute the gospel. Guthrie was always calling men and women away from their sin and degradation and towards Christ who along could save them.
As a minister of the Gospel, Guthrie embodied love. We are told in James that Pure religion and undefiled before God, even the Father, is this, to visit the fatherless, and widows in their adversity, and to keep himself unspotted from the world James 1 v 27. The fruit of true Christianity is always love for the poor and the oppressed. Many people regard practical love for the poor as a deviation from the gospel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Guthrie’s work with ragged children enhanced his message and gave his Christianity a reality and authenticity that made the gospel attractive to sinners. It was once said of Thomas Guthrie by 2 men drinking in a bar in Glasgow; he’s different from all the other preachers altogether. He practises more than he preaches. Guthrie’s love for sinners wasn’t a show for Sundays. His love was on display throughout the week as he visited some of the worst closes and stairs in the Cowgate, Edinburgh. He was regularly broken by the sights that he saw. Love was the great motivation of his ministry.
Guthrie leaves us a legacy of Biblical community engagement. Guthrie faced a huge challenge when he came to Edinburgh in 1837. His parish was poor, overcrowded, soaked in drunkenness, immorality was everywhere and perhaps no more than 5% darkened the door of a church. Guthrie didn’t despair or retreat or create a little Highland enclave in the city. He planned, he organised, he visited, he preached and the effect was significant and lasting.
Of all the great causes he was involved in Guthrie saw the Ragged Schools as his most enduring legacy;
I never engaged in a cause, as a man and a Christian minister that I believe on my death-bed I will look back on with more pleasure or gratitude to God, than that he led me to work for Ragged Schools. I have the satisfaction, when I lay my head upon my pillow, of always finding one soft part of it: and that is, that God has made me an instrument in His hand of saving many a poor creature from a life of misery and crime (Autobiography and Memoirs p 496).
Guthrie’s legacy of Ragged Schools did more than almost any social philanthropist in history to change the nation of Scotland. Amongst Guthrie’s last words he was overheard to say a brand plucked from the burning! His legacy was that through his vision and love for his Saviour, the Ragged School movement was established which in turn plucked thousands of little brands from a life of poverty and crime, and brought them to know the ultimate friend of sinners.
Guthrie’s influence as a Philanthropist was staggering. He was Manager of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and visited it at least monthly, he was a director of the Blind Asylum, he served as a committee member or director on the ‘Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick’, the ‘Edinburgh Benevolent and Strangers’ Friend Society’, the ‘House of Refuge and Night Refuge’ (Queensberry House), the ‘Society for the Relief of Indigent Old Men’ and both he and his wife took a keen interest in the ‘Home for Fallen Women’ at Alnwick Hill.
Somebody once asked Guthrie;
I’m sure you must be often swindled and deceived with regard to a lot of these cases you are so constantly relieving,’ said a cynical Philistine to him one day with a sneer on his lips. ‘Perhaps so, my friend, notwithstanding all the precautions we take,’ said the Doctor quietly; but I would rather be among the Good Samaritans who relieve suffering even at the risk of being sometimes deceived, than be among the Priests and Levites, who talk, and criticise, and sneer, but take care to pass by on the other side (Thomas Guthrie by Oliphant Smeaton).
His love also extended to other Christians. He was devoid of any sectarian spirit. As Oliphant Smeaton says: Dr Guthrie rejoiced to hear of any church extending its boundaries. Give God the glory, he would say; Christ and His cross are preached, and whether the human instrument be Presbyterian, Baptist, Wesleyan, or Episcopalian, it is quite a secondary consideration.
It was this combination of truth and love that gave Guthrie such hope for the communities he worked in and for the individuals he sought to reach. The gospel, when preached in all its fullness and freeness, should fill every sinner with a sense of hope that Christ died to reconcile them to a holy God. The church has gone though many periods when this message has been lost or when she has lost confidence in the power of this gospel to reach the darkest and most hopeless parts of our communities. Guthrie (among others) gave the Free Church the belief that the gospel, accompanied by education for the poor and the practical outworking of love through the local church could redeem the darkest and most hopeless communities. There is a famous story about Dr Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers standing on George IV Bridge looking down on to the Cowgate. Guthrie tells us;
Hopeful of success, he [Chalmers] surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into “dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody.” Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, “A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation. (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie).
Thomas Guthrie brought hope to thousands through his preaching, his pastoral care and his practical Christianity. Nobody was beyond redemption for Guthrie. He preached a gospel that was free for the worst sinner and believed that nobody was a hopeless case:
It is a dreadful thing to close the door against any man’s or woman’s reformation. Religion calls us to hold it open to the worst, even as God holds it open to us who can – knowing more ill of ourselves than we can know of others – and ought to say with Paul, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Thomas Guthrie, Out of Harness
If anyone shows us what can be achieved for Christ, with vision and determination, it is Thomas Guthrie. He lived for Christ, he preached Christ with tenderness and affection, and much like his Saviour he reached out to the broken and marginalised in word and deed. As we look at Guthrie’s statue on Princes Street, with his hand around a little ragged child and a bible in his other hand, we see in Guthrie a man infused with love for Christ. Following his Saviour Guthrie embodied love and truth and leaves us an enduring legacy which we would do well to learn from and emulate.