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. 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).
Thomas Guthrie was born on July 12th 1803 in Brechin, Angus. The second youngest of 13 children, Thomas was a lively boy who loved scrapping with his friends. ‘Providence’, as Guthrie used to say, ‘is kind to fools and bairns.’ It was certainly kind to him when he and his brother were playing with their uncle’s gun and it discharged into the wall narrowly missing the young Thomas. By his own admission Guthrie was no great academic. He was sent when he was aged 4 to a Tutor called Jamie Stewart who taught his pupils while he was weaving. The tutor was an elder in the Burgher Church (the Secession Church) and the young schoolboy was greatly impressed by his prayers. While Guthrie never really spoke in any detail of a conversion experience he talks warmly of his mother’s spiritual influence (also a Seceder). Little could she have known the great influence her teaching and prayers were to have on Scotland as Guthrie rose to prominence over the next few years. As was the custom Guthrie was sent to university in Edinburgh at the tender age of 12, to study literature and philosophy, followed by a further degree in theology. Another 2 years were spent studying anatomy and natural history, which started a life-long interest in medicine.
After several ‘wilderness years’ first travelling in Europe and then working in his father’s bank, Guthrie was eventually called to Arbirlot in Angus in 1830. Now settled, and a man of means, Guthrie married Ann Burns the daughter of Rev James Burns of Brechin. A Parish of 1000 people, Arbirlot had almost 100% attendance at the local Parish Church. Despite large attendances Guthrie found his congregation to be spiritually dead: ‘He had thundered in their ears the terrors of Mount Sinai, he had sounded the Gospel trumpet with a blast loud enough to rouse the dead; he had implored, threatened and almost scolded them…but they went to sleep under his most fervent and heart stirring appeals’ (ibid, p 26). One day he tried an anecdote and the effect was electric. This was a turning point in his ministry. His ministry was marked from then on by rich imagery. He cancelled his evening service and substituted for it a catechism class for young people. There were also signs of the emerging social reformer as Guthrie set up a library and savings bank in the manse.
After 7 fruitful years of ministry in Arbirlot, Guthrie was called to Edinburgh where he assisted Rev Sym in the Old Greyfriars Parish Church. Ever the pioneer, Guthrie suggested a church plant in the parish, and St John’s Parish Church in Victoria Street was opened in 1840. The great Thomas Chalmers had a vision to see 200 churches planted in the poorest areas of Scotland and the Cowgate in Edinburgh was an area of almost unimaginable squalor. Guthrie insisted to the Town Council that one third of the seats in St John’s were given to the poor while another third were allocated at a nominal rent. Along with Chalmers, Guthrie applied the Parochial or Territorial system in his new parish: the gospel free to all, the Elders and Deacons visiting systematically and frequently, and a school open to rich and poor alike. After the Disruption of 1843 Guthrie’s congregation built Free St John’s (the current St Columba’s Free Church in Johnston Terrace, Edinburgh). The architect, Thomas Hamilton, designed an ornate pulpit and an attractive sanctuary. As Guthrie said at the opening on 18th April 1845: ‘there is no sin in beauty, and no holiness in ugliness’ (Autobiography and Memoirs of Thomas Guthrie, 1896, Burnet and Isbister, London, p 512).
After the Disruption Guthrie was appointed to head up the Manse Fund. Despite our rather romantic view of the Disruption, there was considerable hardships experienced by the 474 ministers and professors who signed the Deed of Demission. This was particularly true in the Highlands where many a minister reached an early demise due to the sudden hardships and poverty which they faced. Guthrie smashed the target of £100,000 for new manses as he travelled ‘from Cape Wrath to the Border, and from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean’ in the course of a year. Due to the burden placed on Guthrie, his health was badly affected and for the next 25 years he suffered from a weak heart.
Guthrie’s next great venture was his lasting legacy. He published his first pamphlet in 1847 entitled ‘A Plea for Ragged Schools’, which Guthrie says ‘fell like a spark amongst combustibles.’ It was estimated that upward of 1000 children in Edinburgh were living as ‘savages in the midst of civilisation, ignorant in the midst of knowledge and heathens in the midst of Christianity.’ By 1847 the Edinburgh Original Ragged School had been set up on Castle Hill. Many thousands of ‘street Arabs’ were saved from a life of neglect and abuse as Guthrie became the ‘Apostle’ of the Ragged School Movement. This was closely allied to his great campaign against drunkenness and his leadership of the temperance movement.
While Guthrie is remembered as a great preacher and social reformer, he was also a prolific writer. After ‘A Plea for Ragged Schools’ (which actually had 3 editions (1847, 1849 and 1860) and are now available together) Guthrie went on to write: ‘The City its Sins and Sorrows’ (1857), ‘The Gospel in Ezekiel’ (1956 – now back in print), ‘Discourses from Colossions’ (1858), ‘Speaking to the Heart’ (1862), ‘The Way of Life’ (1862), Man and the Gospel (1865), and ‘On the Parables’ (1866). From 1867 he published the Sunday magazine which had, at its height, a circulation of 100,000.
It is very hard to summarise Guthrie’s legacy. He was an evangelist, a preacher, a social reformer. He hated sectarian or party spirit, and loved all who loved Christ. As Dr Candlish said the week after Guthrie’s death: ‘To our own Church he was to the last loyal and loving. No one more so. But he grew, as I would desire to grow, more and more from year to year, in sympathy with all who love Jesus and hold the truth as it is in him. May the Lord, in his own good time, answer his many prayers for the repairing of all breaches in Zion, and send to the divided and distracted Christian family all over the world that peace and loving unity on which his large heart was set’ (ibid, p 126).
For further reading ‘The Autobiography and Memoir of Thomas Guthrie D.D.’ (1875) by his sons David and Charles, is perhaps the richest and most accurate mine of information. The author of this article has also written a short booklet called ‘A Mission of Mercy – the Life and Legacy of Dr Thomas Guthrie’ which is available as an e-book on Amazon or from the author; firstname.lastname@example.org