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Thomas Guthrie: Preacher and Philanthropist

Category Articles
Date July 26, 2013

Thomas Guthrie’s statue in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh epitomises what many of us involved in Christian social action are seeking to achieve; with a Bible in one hand and the other resting protectively on a ‘ragged child’ Guthrie’s life combined the two great priorities of the church — truth and love.

It is a mystery why such a significant figure has fallen into such obscurity. Not one of Guthrie’s books is currently available apart from in rather unattractive ‘print-to-order’ formats. Such books as Seedtime and Harvest of Ragged Schools and The City: its Sins and Sorrows are incredible exhortations to biblical community engagement and yet they are only to be found online or in second-hand bookshops. Guthrie’s Autobiography and Memoirs, written by him and completed by his sons, is without doubt the most exciting, moving, humorous and stimulating book I have ever read, but to my knowledge it has never seen a modern reprint. We have much to learn from this great man, particularly on the subject of biblical community engagement. There was never a time when we needed this more, and Guthrie has much to teach us.

Early life and upbringing

Standing at over six feet tall Guthrie was an imposing figure. Born in July 1803 in the town of Brechin, 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, their surviving ten children being made up of three daughters and seven sons. It is interesting for us as we look back through nearly two hundred 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 the Guthrie 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 Isaac 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, horror of horrors for a young boy, a kiss! Sixty years later the elderly Guthrie writes: ‘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.’ This, it would appear, is one of the many influences on Guthrie that led him to have such an empathy with the marginalised.

Early schooling

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 Church of Scotland 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.’ 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.’

Guthrie went on to study at Edinburgh University at the tender age of 12. As he himself comments in his autobiography ‘beyond the departments of fun and fighting I was in no way distinguished at college.’ After four years of philosophy and literature and then a further four of theology, Guthrie undertook a further two years in which he studied chemistry, anatomy, and natural history. It was during this time that Guthrie attended the lectures of the famous Dr Knox who was connected to the Burke and Hare murders.

Hope postponed

Despite clear ability, Guthrie had to wait a frustrating five years for a charge. These years were not wasted. Guthrie enrolled in the Sorbonne in Paris to study during the winter of 1826–7. He certainly saw another side to life in Paris and summed 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 he worked in his father’s bank — The Dundee Union Banking Company — for several years before finally receiving a call 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 his regular preaching he became involved in the Apocrypha controversy which raged fiercely in Brechin.

His first charge

Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and his common touch made him radical (and successful) in both his social reform and his evangelistic endeavours. ‘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.’ He went on to prove this in his first charge in Arbirlot, Angus (1830–37) by abolishing 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 reported in his autobiography: ‘None of the services and ecclesiastical machinery at work did so much good, perhaps, as this class.’

Preaching style

This ‘knowledge of the world’ infused Guthrie’s preaching. He combined solid reformed theology with a simple, accessible (if somewhat flowery) style.

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 which the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry disquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abounded in metaphors, figures and illustrations. I turned to the Gospels, and found that He who knew what was in man, what could best illuminate a subject, win the attention, and move the heart, used parables and illustrations, stories, comparisons, drawn from the scenes of nature and familiar life.

His great desire was to communicate the redeeming power of the gospel to those who were often shut out of the church in nineteenth-century Scotland because of pew rents. Like Thomas Chalmers, Guthrie followed the parochial system of systematic visitation in defined districts and the biblical use of the offices of elders and deacons. His evangelism was relational, systematic, and always with a long-term vision for the transformation of the whole community.

A fine field of operation

Called to Edinburgh in 1837 Guthrie became an associate minister at Old Greyfriars alongside John Sym. The city in which Guthrie arrived was growing rapidly in the midst of the industrial revolution; poverty, drunkenness, vice and all manner of degradation were never far from view. There is a famous story told in Guthrie’s book Out of Harness that describes how Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh not long after arriving in Edinburgh. Looking down on his new parish of the Cowgate, he described ‘a living stream of humanity in motion beneath his feet.’ A hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned around to find the great preacher and social reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers. Guthrie recalls:

Hopeful of success, he 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.’

The beginnings of a movement

Guthrie was appalled by what he saw around him on the streets of Edinburgh. Writing in 1872 he recalled:

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.

Inspired by a cobbler from Portsmouth called John Pounds who saved 500 ‘ragged children’ from a life of neglect and delinquency, Guthrie was to become the Scottish ‘Apostle’ of the Ragged School movement. There was already an Industrial Feeding School in Aberdeen pioneered by a Sherriff Watson in 1841, but the key difference was that Guthrie’s Ragged Schools were always attended by choice rather than by coercion or as an alternative to custody. Inspired by the Aberdeen school, and a similar school established in Dundee in 1842, Guthrie began to gather those of like mind to rescue thousands of children who, as he said of one poor boy, were ‘launched on a sea of human passions and exposed to a thousand temptations . . . left by society, more criminal than he, to become a criminal, and then punished for his fate, not his fault.’

A unique curriculum

The original Ragged School brought together different responses to the needs of these desperate children: education, regular meals, clothes, ‘industrial training’, and Christian instruction. All this was done in an environment of discipline and structure, although there was 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.’

Most of the ragged children who attended the schools did not remain overnight but were in school for twelve hours in the summer and eleven hours in the winter. The day started at 8.00 am with the rather painful sounding ‘ablutions’, and the children were dismissed at 7:15 pm after supper. Guthrie described 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.

What were the results? The statistics speak for themselves. The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the operation of Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under-14s (5% of the prison population). By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%).

The manse fund

Thomas Guthrie’s name will forever be connected with the Free Church of Scotland ‘Manse Fund’. After the Disruption of 1843 there was severe suffering as ministers and their families departed their churches and manses over the issue of state interference in the spiritual decision-making of the national church. The issue at stake was the headship of Christ over the church, an issue that dates back to covenanting times in Scotland. It is a powerful testimony to the strength of feeling of these men that loss of hearth and home was no deterrent to following their principles. Guthrie was a prominent leader within the Disruption and must have been heartbroken to leave his recently built St John’s Church in Edinburgh.

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 he had toured thirteen Synods and fifty-eight Presbyteries in less than a year, he was able to announce to the General Assembly of June 1846 that £116,370 had been raised. Along with his Ragged School, the Manse Fund was one of Gurthrie’s greatest legacies. 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 greatly exceed its original target. Numerous ministers and their families owed a huge debt of gratitude for the provision of resources to build manses so that the gospel could continue to prosper, not just in the Highlands, but across the whole of Scotland.

A brand plucked from the burning

Guthrie died in the early hours of Monday, 24 February, 1873, with his faithful Highland nurse and his family at his bedside. It is said that with the exception of Dr Thomas Chalmers and Sir James Simpson, Edinburgh had not seen a funeral like it in a generation. It was reported that 230 children from the original Ragged School attended and sang a hymn at the grave. One little girl was overheard saying, ‘He was all the father I ever knew.’ Amongst Guthrie’s last words he was heard 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.

A lasting legacy

No short article can do justice to a life such as Guthrie’s. Time does not allow us to detail his involvement in the Temperance Movement and his fight against the drunkenness and ‘dram shops’ which ruined the lives of thousands. He was also involved in the fight for Sabbath Observance. He spoke prominently against slavery, was a strong supporter of Jewish Missions, and was used under God in the Kilsyth Revival of 1839. Along with Chalmers, Guthrie was hugely influential in Scottish church and civic life, and his legacy lives on.

Perhaps Guthrie’s greatest legacy to us today is one of biblical community engagement. If there was ever a time in the church’s history when we needed to know how to do this, then it is surely today. Guthrie faced a huge challenge when he came to Edinburgh in 1837. His parish was poor, overcrowded, and soaked in drunkenness; immorality was rampant and unchecked, and perhaps no more than 5% of the population darkened the door of a church. Does this sound familiar? As Guthrie visited homes he witnessed cases of starvation and wrestled with what was an overwhelming range of social problems. We face similar challenges today and we can learn so much from Guthrie’s response.

Guthrie didn’t despair, or retreat, or create a little Free Church enclave within the city. He planned, he organised, he visited, he preached, and the effect was significant and lasting. 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 explained:

to change the face of a district required, in his opinion, a more extensive and efficient system of cultivation — a school for children; a church with its door open to the poorest of the inhabitants; and a large staff of zealous men and women — each with their own section of families to visit, and all working in harmony, like bees in a hive, under the direction of the minister, their captain, bishop or superintendent.

Surely this is what we need again. We need a team around our ministers who can reach out to a local area and care for body and soul. We also need to think once again about schools with a Christian ethos which reach out to the inter-generational family problems in our towns and cities.

The great social issues of our age are surely family breakdown, debt, isolation, addiction, and poverty. As Guthrie argued time and again, the gospel is the answer. But this does not abdicate the church from responding with practical expressions of love in seeking to reach out to the broken and marginalised in our society. In order to do this we need to work together to build God’s kingdom. As Guthrie said:

‘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.’

Andrew Murray is North of Scotland Manager for Bethany Christian Trust and the author of a blog on Thomas Guthrie, which can be found here. This article appeared in The Banner of Truth, No. 597 (June 2013), pp. 20-28. The footnotes with the original have not been included for this web posting.
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