Dr Thomas Guthrie’s statue in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh epitomises what many of us involved in Christian social action are seeking to achieve; with a Bible in one hand and his other hand resting protectively on a ‘ragged child’ Guthrie’s life combined the two great priorities of the church; truth and love. Despite his great achievements, Guthrie is almost unknown today either as a preacher or social reformer. While there were a number of wonderful books of sermons published in his lifetime none are readily available today except through ‘print to order’. The lack of knowledge about Guthrie is surely a tragedy and the study of Guthrie’s life and ministry reaps a rich reward for anyone who takes the time and energy to find out more about this great man.
Early Life and University
Born in July 1803 in the town of Brechin to the son of a local merchant and banker, Thomas 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’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 40). 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.
Despite clear ability, Guthrie had to wait 5 years for a charge. 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’ (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 243). Returning to Brechin in March 1828 Guthrie worked in his father’s bank (The Dundee Union Banking Company) for several years before finally being called to Arbirlot, Angus in 1830. The Manager of the banks 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’ (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 258). During this time he became an accomplished platform speaker and as well as regular preaching, became involved in the Apocrypha controversy which was particularly fierce in Brechin.
Spending nearly 10 years at university and then a further 5 without a church prepared Guthrie in a unique way for the challenges ahead. His sons comment in their Memoir of their father ‘these five years of hope deferred, however, afforded Mr Guthrie a profitable though peculiar training for the eminent place he was afterwards to fill. His scientific studies in Edinburgh, his residence abroad, his experience of banking in his father’s banking-house, the leisure he enjoyed for enlarging his stores of general information, had all their influence in making him the many sided man he became’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 225).
Evangelist and Preacher
Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and his common touch made him unconventional (but very successful) in both his approach to social reform and his evangelism. He says in his autobiography; ‘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’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 89). He went on to prove this in his first charge in Arbirlot (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 says in his autobiography; ‘None of the services and ecclesiastical machinery at work did so much good, perhaps, as this class’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 127).
Guthrie’s reputation grew rapidly and after 7 years in Angus he was called to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh and was inducted in September 1837 as assistant to Rev Sym. Guthrie preached to huge congregations of the middle and upper classes in his new congregation but many of the poor were kept out due to pew rents. An afternoon service in the Magdalen Chapel was where Guthrie connected with the poor and marginalised in the infamous Cowgate district of Edinburgh. His great desire was to communicate the redeeming power of the gospel to those who were often shut out of the Scottish Church in 19th century Scotland. When he eventually planted the new church of St John’s in 1840 he reserved 650 seats for the people of his parish regardless of their ability to pay pew rents.
Guthrie combined solid reformed theology with a simple, accessible (if somewhat flowery) style. He says ‘…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…’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 130). Like Thomas Chalmers Guthrie followed the parochial or territorial system of church planting. This 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 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 relational, low key but always with a long term vision for the transformation of the local community.
While Dr Guthrie was one of the finest preachers of the Free Church in the 19th Century, his greatest legacy was surely as a social reformer. This is summed up on his statue in Edinburgh which declares he was ‘a friend of the poor and the oppressed’. This started in his first parish in Angus. Guthrie established a savings bank and library; ‘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 Memoir, 1896, p 113). Guthrie believed that the minister should live and work amongst the people. Writing while still in Arbirlot he said to a Mr Dunlop; ‘I have discovered from my own experience that the further the people are removed from the manse, the less influence has the minister over them: and if a man won’t live among the scum of the Cowgate I would at once say to him ‘You can’t be my minister’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 309).
When Guthrie arrived in Edinburgh in 1837 it was growing rapidly with the industrial revolution. 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, borrow and steal to feed their parents habit. There is a famous story told in Guthrie’s book ‘Out of Harness’ that describes how Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge just after he arrived in Edinburgh. Looking down on his new parish known as the Cowgate he describes ‘a living stream of humanity in motion beneath his feet’. A hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned around to find the famous preacher and reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers. Standing in silence for a few moments Chalmers eventually exclaimed ‘a beautiful field sir; a very fine field of operation!’ (Out of Harness, p 126). This was the field that Guthrie was to labour in for the rest of his active ministry.
Guthrie was appalled by what he saw around him on the streets of Edinburgh when he arrived in 1837. 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 Memoir, 1896, p 438). Inspired by a cobbler from Portsmouth called John Pounds who saved 500 ‘ragged children’ from a life of neglect and delinquency, Guthrie became 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 coercion or as an alternative to custody. Inspired by the Aberdeen school, and a similar school in Dundee established in 1842, Guthrie began to gather those of like mind to rescue thousands of children who, as he says 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’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 440).
The ‘Ragged School Movement’ was galvanised by the publication of Guthrie’s now famous book ‘Seedtime and Harvest of Ragged Schools’ which was revised and republished three times. His great skills as a communicator were put to excellent use in this book and Guthrie powerfully put forward the compelling social, economic and spiritual arguments for Ragged Schools. Guthrie rises to his greatest heights of language in lambasting the money wasted in prisons and the inaction of the general (and particularly the Christian) public; ‘God forbid that I should judge any! Only I cannot comprehend the humanity of the man who stands on a stormy beach with a wreck before him, drowning wretches hanging in its shrouds, their pitiful cries wafted to his ears their imploring hands stretched out to the shore, and who does not regard this dreadful scene otherwise with cold indifference’ (Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, 1860, p 161). Guthrie argues that the schools harmonised the views of two of Scotland’s preeminent philanthropists; ‘Our scheme furnishes a common walk for both. They meet in our school room. Dr Alison [William Alison, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh, who advocated social and economic measures to alleviate poverty] comes in with his bread – Dr Chalmers with his Bible: here is food for the body – there for the soul’ (Quoted in Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 457).
The Ragged Schools were ingenious in that they didn’t take the children out of their homes but gave them a solid education and structure during the day. The children attended for 12 hours during the winter and 11 hours during the summer. The school day started at 8am with ‘ablutions’ followed by work, breakfast and play, calling roll and Bible lesson, work, walking, dinner, education, work or education, work and supper. Interestingly there was a good balance between work, play and education and Guthrie often stresses how the children needed to be broken with Christian kindness rather than the lash of corporal punishment; ‘punishments are rare. We work by love and kindness; and, though on entering our school they are as foul as the gutter out of which they had been plucked, unbroken as the wild Arab or wild ass of the desert, ignorant of everything that is good, with rags on their backs and misery in their looks, such change comes over them that better-behaved scholars, sharper intellects, happier faces you will see nowhere (Seed Time of Ragged Schools, 1860, p 165). The results of the ragged schools were remarkable. The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under 14’s (5% of the prison population). By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%) (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 459). Guthrie and his fellow philanthropists had proved that prevention was indeed better than cure.
Guthrie was an outstanding preacher, a faithful pastor, a winsome evangelist and one of Scotland’s finest social reformers. Guthrie’s legacy lives on in the provision that there is both in terms of welfare and education for rich and poor alike. While Guthrie would be saddened at the secularisation there has been in the public school system, he would surely be pleased to see education being offered to every child free of charge. Few would deny that Guthrie and others like Thomas Chalmers, James Begg and Dr William Alison paved the way for the modern welfare system
Rev Tomas Guthrie died in the early hours of Monday 24th 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 his funeral 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 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.