Saturday, 15 October 2016

Dr Guthrie the Church Planter

‘I’ll go down to the pit, if you will hold the rope’ 
William Carey, leaving Christian friends to go to India in 1793

By the time Dr Guthrie came to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh in 1837 he was already convinced of the need for church planting particularly amongst the poor although there is little that could have prepared him for his new parish.  He says: I can compare it to nothing else than the change from the green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of the coal pit.  Guthrie was already an advocate of the revived Parochial System: a church at the very doors of the poor, the church free to all without distinction, properly equipped schools, elders, deacons and district visitors to assist the minister in his pastoral work.  

Much to Guthrie’s frustration, the Edinburgh Town Council had a system of pew rents and was no doubt delighted that a ‘big name’ like Dr Guthrie would result in greater income.  This, in reality, meant that the poor were shut out from Old Greyfriars because they couldn’t afford a pew.  This angered Guthrie: I know to my sad experience that while the inhabitants of my parish have been told that they have a church within it, to them, at least, that church is not accessible.’  His vision was for a new kind of church and work began on St John’s in Victoria Street in 1838.

When Dr Guthrie entered his new pulpit on 19th November 1840 he could never have imagined that his tenure would be only 2 short years before the congregation would leave at the Disruption.  But in 1840 St John’s in Victoria Street become a beacon of hope for the poor.  It was to be a new kind of church where the poor were welcome to hear the gospel without money and without price.  Only the balcony continued to be rented out to the wealthier residents of Edinburgh and brought in a healthy income of £280 per year.  Thirty elders and fifteen deacons were allotted districts where they actively sought out non church goers and assisted the poor in practical ways.  Dr Guthrie saw the church like a parish well and said: how often have I wished that the parish church was more like the parish well, a well of salvation where all might draw and drink.  Finally, in St John’s this vision was realised.

While Thomas Chalmers may have been the great pioneer of church planting in the pre-Disruption Church of Scotland, Guthrie was one of his most zealous followers.  Both men were in the vanguard of what Dr Cook of Belfast called a glorious enterprise of Christian aggressions upon the region of popular ignorance.  It is incredible to think that between 1835 and 1841 the Church of Scotland raised a staggering £300,000 and 222 churches were built.  We need a similar love for the lost and vision for church planting across many parts of Scotland where there is no gospel witness.  Many peripheral housing schemes are a wasteland for the gospel.  Men like Guthrie were not ‘hand ringers’ but men of action.  

Let’s take encouragement from the words of Thomas Chalmers at a Church Extension meeting in 1838 where he commended the work that Guthrie was to undertake in St John’s Edinburgh: I know that my friend Dr Guthrie is a house-going minister, and I also know this is the patent way to create a church-going people.  I trust that when this arrangement shall be exemplified in the Cowgate, and multiplied over Edinburgh, it will be found that – what no adjustment of political or civil wisdom has been able to effect – the harmonisation of all classes of society shall be at last effected through the medium of Gospel ministrations, and by the omnipotence of Gospel charity.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

God's Love in the Flames

My good friend Pall Singh recently shared this devotion.  Pall Singh represents Cinnamon Network in Scotland. He works for Bethany Christian Trust in Edinburgh as the coordinator for ‘Passing the Baton’, which supports churches to befriend and engage with people who are socially isolated and lonely in their communities. Since 1997 Pall has worked with CMS as a Mission Partner and East West Trust enabling Churches in Birmingham towards a better understanding of South Asian cultures and working in the diverse communities.

Two years ago I had the privilege of doing some research in India on the life a great Indian Christian, Sadhu Sundar Singh. Like Jesus he spoke to people through parables and real life stories about the amazing love of God. The Sadhu often travelled to the great mountain ranges of Asia and on one his journeys, this is what he experienced:  

“Once, as I travelled through the Himalayas, there was a great forest fire. Everyone was frantically trying to fight the fire, but I noticed a group of men standing and looking up into a tree that was about to go up in flames. When I asked them what they were looking at, they pointed up at a nest full of young birds. Above it, the mother bird was circling wildly in the air and calling out warnings to her young ones. There was nothing she or we could do, and soon the flames started climbing up the branches. As the nest caught fire, we were all amazed to see how the mother bird reacted. Instead of flying away from the flames, she flew down and settled on the nest, covering her little ones with her wings. The next moment, she and her nestlings were burnt to ashes. None of us could believe our eyes. I turned to those standing by and said: “We have witnessed a truly marvellous thing. God created that bird with such love and devotion, that she gave her life trying to protect her young”.

The God that we serve through our work at Bethany Christian Trust reaches down to people and sees their pain and suffering. He did more than that.  He sent Jesus to experience the pain and suffering that we deserved so we could be forgiven and set free from our sin.  God will never turn his back on us nor abandon us. 

May God continue to use us to bring a sense of hope and happiness to individuals and families in our communities.

Remember your work is not in vain but little by little God’s Spirit is in the process of transforming lives in Scotland.

“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them”.
Hebrews 6:10

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Life of Joseph (1) - A Devastated Dreamer

I've recently started the life of Joseph in my local prison.  I thought I would summarise the studies in blog posts.  

Why should we study the life of Joseph?

Well firstly because it is a great story.  Think of some of the great themes: jealousy, rage, attempted murder, betrayal, injustice, false accusations, prison, promotion, power, wealth, deceit and reconciliation. These issues characterise our relationships and cause so many problems in our society.  Joseph's life could easily be the theme of a Hollywood blockbuster. Secondly, studying the life of Joseph helps us to know more about God in the way he deals with Joseph.  We see God's faithfulness, his goodness and his sovereignty.  It also shows us how God keeps his promises even when it looks like he has forgotten us. The Israelite's thought they would be wiped out by famine but God was at work through Joseph.  But lastly Joseph is like Jesus, but different.
    • Both were beloved by their father Gen 37 v 3 and Mark 1 v 11
    • Both were sent to their brothers but rejected and sold for pieces of silver Gen 37 v 28 and Matt 26 v 15
    • Both suffered persecution and temptation Gen 37 v 18-36, 39 v 7-20 and Matt 4 v 1-11. 
    • Both were suffering servants who eventually became saviours.
    • Joseph and Jesus were both eventually vindicated and exalted Gen 37 v 5-11, 41 v 37-45 and Philippians 2 v 9-10
Who was Joseph?

  • Joseph came from a great covenant legacy.  His great grandfather was Abraham, his grandfather was Isaac and his father was Jacob.  As is so often the case we see history repeating itself in Genesis 37. Jacob, Josephs father had deceived his father and brother and he is now deceived by his sons who tell him that Joseph has been killed.  Actually the brothers had tried to kill him but instead sold him in to slavery. 
  • A nomadic lifestyle.  The story of Joseph took place somewhere around 1880-1680 BC.  Along with many tribes, Joseph's family would have lived a nomadic lifestyle.  It is unlikely that Joseph would have seen a house before he was taken to Egypt as a slave.
  • He came from a dysfunctional family.  Why was there such hatred between Joseph and his brothers? It couldn't have helped that the brothers had different mums: Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Isacher and Zebulan), Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin), Bilhah (Dan and Naphtali) and Zilpah's sons (Gad and Asher).  If we think some families today are complex just remember Joseph.  
  • As well as complexity we also see favouritism. We see in Genesis 37 v 3 that Joseph was the favourite son and was given a special brightly coloured coat.  He wasn't the oldest or firstborn son, but his mother was Rachel who died giving birth to his brother Benjamin.  So Joseph had to deal with trauma and grief at a young age. He also embraced the mantel of the favoured son with some degree of pride.  We read in Genesis 37 about two dreams he had that involved his brothers bowing down to him. Unsurprisingly, the simmering resentment was stoked into outright hatred at this arrogance.
  • An unfulfilled promise.  While its easy to be harsh on Joseph I tend to feel that he may have been slightly naive.  He was undoubtedly arrogant but ultimately he would have been excited about having these dreams. Joseph must have known that telling the second dream would have infuriated his brothers yet he was clearly convinced that it was prophetic.  Joseph's dreams are the cornerstone of the next 13 chapters of Genesis as God slowly unfolds his hidden purposes so that Joseph's dreams are fulfilled in a remarkable way.

A Conspiracy to Murder

Joseph's father sends him down to Shechem to see if his brothers were well as they shepherded the flock.  They saw him coming and, far from home, they conspired to kill him. We are not told in the text but it seems clear that the brothers had been fermenting their hatred for some time.  People don't just suddenly decide to murder somebody, not least a brother.  Before the brothers murder Joseph the oldest brother Reuben steps in and pleads with them to throw Joseph down a well meaning to rescue him later.  Reuben had his own issues and back in Genesis 35 had slept with his fathers mistress Bilhah (this must have made for interesting conversation with Dan and Naphtali not to mention his father). Perhaps this noble act would enable him to gain favour with his father or perhaps he genuinely sought to do the right thing.

Human Traffic

As the brothers break for lunch while Joseph languishes in a well, suddenly a human caravan of traders pass by on their way to Egypt. Later the brothers confess that while they ate, their wee brother was pleading with them for his life (Gen 42 v 21).  It is hard to enter into the heartlessness of the brothers at this stage and yet God was in control. Judah suggests that they may as well profit from their brother and get some money for him.  He is sold for 20 shekels and marched down to Egypt.  It is likely that Joseph would have been stripped naked and shackled. His rejection and humiliation was complete.  Alone, he was facing an uncertain future.  It appears that Reuben wasn't around when Joseph was sold and was overcome with grief at what his brother had done.  He knew how his father would react and that he would be held accountable as the first born son.

The Cover Up Begins

The heartlessness of the brothers seems to know no bounds.  Having ignored the pitiless cry of their wee brother, having sold him like an object, they now deceive their father with a concocted story of their brother being ripped to pieces by a wild animal.  It seems almost unbelievable that the brothers went along with the story while their father was inconsolable with grief.  Genesis says tells us 'all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him'. The perpetrators of this terrible crime pretended to comfort their Dad!  We see that one sin leads to another. Jealousy leads to hatred, hatred leads to murder, murder leads to greed and the whole situation is intertwined with deceit. The whole story is a lesson to us to never play with sin.  Its consequences are devastating. 

History Repeats Itself

While Jacob was the victim of a terrible crime, we see history repeating itself.  Just as Jacob had deceived his father and brother in Geneses 27, so he too was now being deceived: ‘Jacob had seen the disasters wrought by parental favouritism in his own life and Esau’s and yet, fool that he was, he openly made much of Joseph.’ Joyce G. Baldwin, The Bible Speaks Today.  We see deception going full circle.  As Galatians 6 v 7-10 says: 'Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, he shall also reap.'  Sin has a price.  While Christ can forgive us, we often have to live with the consequences of our sin in this life.

Seeing Jesus in the Life of Joseph

As we look at Joseph over the next few months, always remember that Joseph is pointing us to a perfect Saviour. In what ways is Jesus like Joseph?  

    • Who conspired to get rid of Joseph and Jesus?
      • Geneses 37
      • Luke 19 v 47
    • Who betrayed Joseph and Jesus?
      • Genesis 37
      • Luke 22 v 4-5
    • What was ripped from Joseph and Jesus?
      • Genesis 37
      • John 19 v 23 – 24

Can you see yourself in the life of Joseph?

How has your family affected you?  Can you relate to Joseph's family?

Can you think of ways in which you have 'reaped what you have sown?'

Why do you think God gives us stories like Joseph in the Bible?

Prayer - Lord, thank you for the story of Joseph.  Thank you that it is real and raw just like so much of life.  Thank you that you are at work when sin is at its worst and ugliest.  We praise you that were sin abounds your grace super abounds.  Thank you that your love goes deeper and further than my sin and you can redeem proud arrogant sinners like Joseph and like me.  Please open my eyes by your grace to see my sin and to see your amazing love, in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Lord speak to me through this story and use me to glorify you today and every day.  In Jesus name, amen

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Dr Guthrie the Pastor

After waiting for a call for 5 years, Dr Guthrie started his ministry in a rural charge in Arbirlot, Angus from 1830-37.  Almost the entire parish of 1000 people attended church and the nearest ‘Ale House’ was in Brechin.  Despite his inevitable visibility in a small village, Guthrie took extra steps to make sure he came into weekly contact with his people through a savings bank and library both set up in the manse.  Far from compromising his ministry with ‘secular’ activity, the library and bank were very much part of Guthrie’s vision for the ministry.  It helped him deepen relationships and enabled him to have a godly influence in a small community.  As Guthrie says: These and other extra labours which I undertook showed the people that I was seeking to live for them, not for myself – that I came not to lord it over God’s heritage, not to be their master, but their minister, in the original sense of the word. 

Moving to the Old Greyfriars Parish Church, Edinburgh in 1837, Guthrie believed strongly in living amongst the people of his parish.  In a letter to a friend who was a politician, prior to his settlement in Edinburgh he said: Now, I should like a clergyman never to step out of his own door but he steps in among his population.  Guthrie remained true to his word and both of the houses he lived in at Argyll Square, Brown Square and Lauriston Lane were minutes from the heart of the Cowgate.

By the time Guthrie came to Edinburgh he was already convinced of Thomas Chalmers vision for church planting and for the parochial system laid out in his Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns. This included having a church open to people without distinction of class or wealth (pew rents were standard practice at that time), properly equipped schools, elders, deacons and district visitors to aid the minister in systematic visitation of the parish and relief of the poor.  The reality of this vision was a huge challenge for Guthrie and as he says of his new parish in comparison to his old one: I can compare it to nothing else than the change from the green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of a coal-pit!  It was always his intention to plant a church in his Edinburgh parish and in 1840 St John’s in Victoria Street was opened.

So what was Guthrie’s pattern as a pastor?  Well, mornings were reserved for study and preparation.  He says: For some years after coming to Edinburgh I rose summer and winter, at five o’clock.  By six, I had got through my dressing and private devotions, had kindled my fire, had prepared and enjoyed a cup of coffee, and was set down at my desk; having, till nine o’clock when we breakfasted, three unbroken hours before me.  This allowed the rest of the day to be given over to systematic visitation of his parish.  He took meticulous notes of all his visits and followed up genuine cases of hardship with practical help.  Despite the huge demands on Dr Guthrie, both from his parish and his wider responsibilities in the Free Church, he always kept evenings free for his families: I resolved, on coming to Edinburgh, to give my evenings to my family; to spend them, not in my study, as many ministers did, but in the parlour among my children.

As Guthrie details in his Autobiography he had daily discouragements as a pastor but as Oliphant Smeaton says of him: He never faltered.  He took as his motto ‘Jehovah-nissi – The Lord my Banner,’ and every disappointment and failure only caused him to redouble his efforts and his prayers.’  

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Voice of God

This was an article published by my father the Rev John J Murray.

There are ultimately only two voices in the world – the voice of truth and the voice of the lie. We can trace the origin of the great divide back to the Garden of Eden. God is the God of truth and  communicated Himself through His Word. The Word created all things, including man in the divine image. Man lived by the Word that proceeds from God. (Deut 8.4). The voice of God was heard in His command to man (Gen 2.16). The voice of the lie was introduced by Satan: 'Yeah, hath God said?' and 'Ye shall not surely die.' (Gen 3.1,4). It was the serpent's word against God's, and our first parents believed the lie of Satan.  The divine image was lost and when the Voice came to them after the Fall they hid themselves, for their foolish acceptance of the lie was exposed. (Gen 3.8).

And so began the age long battle between the truth and the lie. God made known his truth throughout the period of the Old Testament. The Word, who spoke through the prophets (Heb 1.1), became incarnate. 'The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1.14). The incarnate Son of God was tested in His confrontation with Satan, the originator of the lie: 'he is a liar and the father of it' (John 8.44). This battle took place not in a garden but in a wilderness. (Matt 4.1-11). The lie was spoken three times and was countered each time by the written Word and especially by the truth that 'man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'.  What was true for Christ in his human nature is true for the life of everyone who is united to Christ.

1 The voice of God must be heard in our Christian life

Scripture is the living Word of the living God. We are reminded by John Calvin that 'the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard'  (Institutes I, vii, 1). The Word of God radiates with the glory of God..  Abraham Kuyper shows what happens in the the experience of the Christian: 'The veil is gradually pushed aside. The eye turns to the divine light that radiates from the Scripture, and now our inner ego sees the imposing superiority. We see it as one born blind, who being healed, see the beauty of colours, or as one deaf, whose hearing being restored, catches the melodies from the world of sounds and with his whole soul delights in them'. (Quoted in The Mouth of God by Sinclair Ferguson, Banner, 2014, p 52).

The Christian has the complete and final revelation of God in the Bible. This is what conveys the knowledge of God to us and also  what conforms us to the image of God. (2 Copr 3.18). It is what counters the lie of Satan  in our expereincee. Scripture is 'the Spirit's sword'  (Eph 6.17),  a weapon put into the hand of the Christian. We have the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. Sincalir Ferguson writes:  'The Spirit uses the Bible to retake what has been enemy occupied territory  in our lives, and then to sow the seeds of new fruits in our character. Through it he cuts down offending characteristics in  his people and and puts to the sword any remaining remnants of opposition to God's kingdom' (From the Mouth of God, p 153).

2 The voice of God must be heard in our churches

The New Testament Epistles were addressed mainly to churches. The infallible message was conveyed to them through the chosen apostles. The words came directly from God. Further words were addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia in Revelation, chapters 2-3, with an application for all time: 'He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches”. Are we hearing that voice in the Church today? There are factors that appear to mute it.

a) We are losing the Biblical concept of the ministry. The minister is a man called and anointed by God, with an authoritative message. He is 'God's trumpeter'. His primary responsibility is faithfulness to God's Word.  Many denominations are obsessed with gender balance while in others churches, we are seeing a proliferation of ministries -  associate ministers, mission directors, church plant officers, community workers, youth organiser etc. Where is the New Testament order in all this?  A common view today is that you need special training and techniques to speak to different age groups, especially the young. Sermons tend to be topical and the connecting point with the audience could well be a movie, a pop song or a sportsman. The man proclaiming 'Thus saith the Lord' seems to be disappearing.

b) There is too much time given to trying to defend the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Do we need to answer every critic that expresses a view about Scripture? There is too much emphasis on the Word being defended instead of letting it loose. Spurgeon said that we might as well think of defending a roaring lion. 'The Bible', he said, 'has passed through the fire of persecution, literary criticism, philosophical doubt, scientific discovery and has lost nothing.' John Calvin put it like this: 'Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence off its own truth as white and black things do of their colour, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste'. (Institutes I, vii, 2).

c) We have almost lost sight of the concept of truth carrying with it confrontation. When the Church is backsliden and worldly and plagued with error, the man of God is called to expose the falsehood. Satan is bent on silencing such voices. At this time there is an urgent need 'to root out, and to pull down and to destroy' (Jer. 1.10).  Where are the ministries today that are grappling with real ills of the Church?. How can the voice of God be heard when error goes unchallenged and evil is condoned? In regular ministry pastors who do not preach for conviction of sin are fighting against the Holy Spirit, who has come to convict the world of sin (John 16.8-9)). We can talk about and pray for revival, but what about the ongoing disobedience to the Word of God?

3 The voice of God must be heard in our nation

If there is one thing that Satan hates it is the Word of God, because it is the revelation of the Truth.  In propagating the lie, his strategy is to cast doubt upon the Scriptures. Through the subtelity of Satan working inside the  Church, created to be  'the pillar and ground of the truth',  our country has lost its hold of the Bible. (see I H Murray, 'How Scotland Lost Its Hold of the Bible,' Banner of Truth, Aug-Sept 2015). In evidence of divine judgment  there is the prospect of the withdrawal of that blessing. which has been despised. A similar thing happened  to Israel in the days of Amos:  'Behold the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord and shall not find it' (Amos 8.11-12).

In such an event the vacuum does not remain unfilled.  The cults press in eagerly to fill it as we see from the  references in verse 14 of chapter 8 to Samaria, Dan and Beersheba.  The truth of God is our only fence against error. We  are warned of what happens when the fence comes down (Isa 5.5; Psalm 80.12-13) The people who would not hear the Word of God are left to taste the poor fare of man-made religion. We see the aimless helplessness of man without the revealed truth of God to hold him steady and still - 'they shall wander from sea to sea'. Man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. If this food is withdrawn,  there is no other way of satisfaction or security. 'In that day shall the fair virgins and young men faint for thirst' (Amos 8.13) In the famine of the Word of God Amos saw the young as being the sufferers. They are fainting for spiritual food but it was the earlier generation that deprived them of the possibility of finding it. What a thought!

What are we doing with the inspired, infallible, and all-sufficient Word of God?

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Thomas Chalmers and the Recovery of the Parish

This is an excellent overview of Chalmers by Dr George Grant.  It is on the blog of my good friend and brother in Christ Michael Ives who regularly writes on the blog 'West Port Experiment'.

All this effort was not dedicated simply to perpetuating an idea, for Chalmers had a vision of Scotland in which all her people from those of highest to those of lowest rank would know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps the dearest example of the outworking of this vision is seen in the West Port experiment in Edinburgh, “a fourth part of the whole population being pauper and another fourth street beggars, thieves and prostitutes.” The population amounted to upwards of 400 families of whom 300 had no connection with the Church. Of 411 children of school age, 290 were growing up without any education. The plan of Chalmers was to divide the whole territory into twenty districts each containing about twenty families. To each district a discipler was appointed whose duty was to visit each family once a week. A school was provided. By the end of 1845, 250 scholars had attended the school. A library, a savings bank, a wash-house and an industrial school had been provided, and there was a congregation served by a missionary-minister. Chalmers often attended the services there and would take part as a worshipper alongside the people of the district.

You can read the whole article here.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Chalmers and Guthrie on the 'Charity of Kindness'

What is charity?  Is it just the widespread and indiscriminate distribution of money? How effective has this been over the last 50-60 years in our own country?  Is there a connection between poverty and morality?  Well as we saw in a previous article 'Dr Guthrie and the Blind Organist', Guthrie believed that the effect of the gospel which should create self denial, frugality (thriftiness, carefulness) and discipline could have a significant effect on a poor household.  Guthrie believed that there could be exceptions to this rule but generally speaking he held to the principle of Psalm 36 v 25: 'All my life I have not seen the righteous left forsaken, or begging for food.'  As he says: ‘I have made extensive enquiries; and feel perfect confidence in asserting that foresight and frugality would place our people, save in a few exceptional cases, beyond the reach of want or the need of charity.  It is the want of these that makes Poor Laws necessary – if they are necessary.’

Like all great social reformers Guthrie challenged sin as much as encouraging virtue.  He was like William Wilberforce who fought on the one hand against slavery but on the other fought for a reformation of manners.  We have a slightly idealised view of the Victorian era.  The reality was that as Eric Metaxas says in his biography of Wilberforce, Victorian society was particularly 'brutal, decadent, violent and vulgar.'  Like Wilberforce, Guthrie fought on various fronts to see a better society.  The simple provision of mercy was never enough for Guthrie, he sought a complete reformation of society at a moral and spiritual level.  It was a natural progression for Dr Guthrie to go on to become a fighter for temperance because he saw the huge damage that alcohol did among the working classes.  It was a development of his earlier views while still at Arbirlot (1830-37) where he established a savings bank.  As he says in his Memoirs: [this bank] ‘was a great success; training up the young to those habits of foresight, self-denial, and prudence, which are handmaids to virtue, and, though not religion, are nearly allied to it.’  Guthrie maintained that while we should fight the injustice of poverty at every turn, as he did, poverty can be compounded by addiction.

In his Second Plea for Ragged Schools Guthrie addresses himself to those who have, as yet, given nothing to the cause of Ragged Schools.  He quotes the verse in Proverbs 19 v 17: ‘He that lendeth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord, and he will repay.’  He then says: ‘The money which is lavished on sturdy beggars on the wasteful slaves of vice, on the reckless and improvident, you have no right to expect payment of.  These are not the poor.  On the contrary, they plunder the poor, and prey on poverty; and hardening men’s hearts by their frauds, inprovidence, crimes, and detected impostures, against the claims of real poverty, they deserve not charity, by chastisement.’  He continues: ‘It is a scandal and a shame that such devouring locusts are permitted to infest our city, and swarm in its streets.  The vices of a system which the police strangely tolerate, and our charity unwisely maintains, are visible in the blotched and brazened features of those thriving solicitors.  The very breath with which they whine for charity smells of the dram shop.’   To me this is the problem we have today with a faceless and bureaucratic welfare system.  Far from helping many people it traps them in a cycle of poverty where they simply exist rather than being given the help they need to realise their full potential.  While is seems harsh to our 21st Century sensitivities to hear Guthrie saying that a particular group are 'not the poor', he would have been the first to help those addicted to alcohol if they genuinely sought help.  Far from writing them off, Guthrie was seeking to bring them to their senses by not indulging their addiction.

Rev Thomas Chalmers
It was Thomas Chalmers who proved with the revived 'Parochial' or 'Territorial' system that voluntary charity could almost always achieve greater results than state welfare.  This was because it was local, more personal, better tailored to people’s needs and more flexible to changes. When Thomas Chalmers was appointed to St John’s Parish, Glasgow in 1819 he agreed along with the Town Council that all new cases of destitution would be met out of the church funds.  Thomas Chalmers divided the Parish into 25 areas and appointed an elder and deacon to minister to both the spiritual and temporal needs of each area.  The instructions were few but clear:

‘When one applies for admittance through the deacon upon our funds, the first thing to be inquired into is, if there be any kind of work that he can yet do so as either to keep him altogether off, or as to make a partial allowance serve for his necessities; the second, what his relatives are willing to do for him; third whether he is a hearer in any dissenting place of worship, and whether its session will contribute to his relief.’  

Along with the introduction of Sunday Schools and widespread education it is little wonder that the rate of Poor Relief was drastically reduced in the Parish of St John’s. As Rev William Hannah says:

‘The drunken were told to give up their drunkenness, and that until they did so their case would not even be considered; the idle were told to set instantly to work, and if they complained that work could not be gotten, by kindly applications to employers, they were helped to obtain it; a vast number of primary applications melted into nothing under the pressure of a searching investigation.’  

After three years of this experiment, and despite St John’s accepting all the poor who had been on the sessional role of all three parishes that made up St John’s, the whole cost of ‘pauperism’ reduced from £1400 per year to £280.  As Chalmers says in his works: ‘our proposal was not met with an incredulity which was all but universal.’

Dr Guthrie and Rev Chalmers didn’t believe in ‘casual charity’ but in charity that offered hope and transformation.  This is why they both believed so passionately in the parochial or territorial system.  This is why Guthrie so passionately furthered the cause of Ragged Schools.  His aim was not just to relieve the suffering of ragged children but to offer them a new life.  

Psalm 41 commands us to ‘wisely consider the case of the poor’ not simply to franchise our responsibilities to the state.  Poverty is not just caused by a lack of money so our response can never be simplistic.  Poverty involves much more than financial poverty - it involves marginalisation, isolation, stigmatisation and being disenfranchised from others in society.  Chalmers and Guthrie show us that poverty relief must be personal, robust, bespoke, generous, enduring and always with an eye on long term transformation.  As Chalmers said in the General Assembly of 1822: ‘a safe and easy navigation has been ascertained from the charity of law to the charity of kindness; and, therefore, be it now reviled, or be it disregarded as it may, we have no doubt upon our spirits, whether we look to the depraving pauperism or to the burdened agriculture of our land, that the days are soon coming when men, looking for a way of escape from these sore evils, will be glad to our own enterprise, and be fain to follow it.’

Given the rampant poverty that we have today, might this be a moment when we look to experiments like St John's and perhaps think of a better way than the indiscriminate distribution of money? Benefits can be suspended almost on a whim and people are left utterly destitute.  Wouldn't a more personal, compassionate system, delivered in partnership with faith based, Third Sector Charities make for a better system?  Wouldn't it be better to be honest about the challenges people have (such as addiction) and offer them real help rather than ignoring it for years?  Shouldn't we provide the charity of kindness rather than the charity of law?