Village Sermons (2) - Thomas Guthrie at Arbirlot.

This gentleman was then of Arbroth, now President of Princeton College, United States. Dr. McCosh's relations with Mr. Guthrie, always most intimate, were strengthened by his marrying a daughter of Dr. Alexander Guthrie, of Brechin. He has kindly furnished us with some reminiscences of Mr. Guthrie's later Arbirlot life, of which we gratefu]ly avail ourselves
His preaching, writes Dr. McCosh, had already (1885) the characteristics which afterwards made him so marked a man, and made him what I was accustomed to call him, the pictorial preacher of the age. On the Sabbath afternoons he held an exercise for the young, and there he began to let out, at first timidly, his peculiar gifts. The dull eye of the cow-boy and of the servant-girl, who had been toiling all the week among the horses and cows, immediately brightened up as he spoke in this way, and they were sure to go back next Sabbath and take others with them. It should be added that his unsurpassed power of illustration was always employed to set foth the grand old cardinal truths of the Gospel.
His preparation for the pulpit was conscientiously careful. Possessed of a ready power of speech, he could have extemporised a sermon at any time, and thus saved himself much labour. But during all the seven years he was at Arbirlot, I believe ho never entered the pulit without having his dicourse written and committed. Had he acted in any other way, he might have been lift in Arbirlot all his life, greatly esteemed, no doubt, in the district, but without ever occupying the wide sphere which God opened to him. Even in writing, he kept anaudience before his mind's eye, and he prepared not an abstract essay, but an address to be spoken to men and women, to young men and maidens. I often found him on the Saturday night amanding and correcting what he had written, and filling his mind with the subject. His illustrative style made his discourse more easily remebered by himself, as it was more easily remembered by his audience.
He was alreaday the most popular minister by far in the district. In all the surrounding country parishes when he preached at the weekday seervices in connection with the dispensation of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, the whole people rushed to hear him; and, in Arbroath, where he often preached on the Sabbath evenings after officiating at home during the day, the churches were crowded to excess. Some hard men thought that his discourses were not very logical; some finical men and women regarded his Forfarshire pronunciation as very broad and his illustrations rather vivid; but they all went to hear him, because they got their hearts warmed.
And here I am tempted to remark that those critics have committed a great mistake who represent him as having had no other quality than that of being able to move the feelings. Deeper down than even his power of exciting emotion by his pictures, was a foundation of sound common sense with a profound knowledge of human nature, and his pathos was an efflorescence from this root. Some years after this, Sir William Hamilton one day said to me quietly, "Your friend Dr. Guthrie is the best preacher I ever heard." I answered I did not wonder at the opinion, but I was surprised to hear it expressed by so great a logician of one not specially possessed of large logical power. He replied with great emphasis "Sir, he has the best of all logic; there is but one step between his premise and conclusion." I am not sure that the great Edinburgh metaphysician ever uttered a profounder saying than this.
Mr. Guthrie's genius always seemed to me to resemble in some measure that of Robert Burns. In both, there was the same basis of masculine sense and knowledge of human character. Young Walter Scott marked in Burns conversation a singular mixture of pathos and humour. There was the same union in Guthrie's conversation and speeches. The question has often been put, How are those two dissimilar qualities so often combined? I believe the answer is this ; - both qualities imply a sympathy with human nature.
What was said of Burke might have been said of Thomas Guthrie - that a man could not have passed five minutes with him in a shed to which they had been driven by the rain without asking who this man is. This arose from his sympathy with man as man. It was by observation and by conversation with the persons he met that he acquired the greater part of his extensive knowledge. No doubt he was a reader with very marked tastes. He liked picture-books and Shakspeare, and history and travels, and biography and medical works ; - he certainly did not like metaphysical disquisitions. But he was on the alert to get information from the people he met with, and he must have been a very stupid or a very stiff man from whom be could not extract something. He left on every man the impression, that, of all things, he was most interested in that man's favourite pursuit, and he encouraged him to speak of his craft, whether he was a farmer,. a shepherd, a sailor, a soldier, or a tradesman.
I have a vivid recollection of his taking me up on one occasion to a place some half-dozen miles off, to the funeral of a co-presbyter. We travelled in a cart which he liked to do; it reminded him of his boyish days, when he and other children went out to the country. We talked of the departed minister, who was a staunch Moderate; but Mr. Guthrie maintained that he was a sincerely pious man, though brought up in a bad school. The cart was driven by his servant-boy, Sandy Hovells, a halflin - that is, half between man and boy. He talked with Sandy about the things Sandy knew - the farms, and the crops, and the farmers, and the servants; ever and anon giving, without seeming to do so, a good moral or religious reflection. By the time we reached Carmylie I believe he had drawn out of Sandy everything he knew.
He soon became a popular idol;, and the country people had all sorts of stories about him, illustrating his kindness of heart. He had a favourite dog, Bob, black, rough, and ungain]y, much attached to his master, but no way amiable to other men and dogs. This animal at times insisted in going into church while his master was preaching, and the minister, in the midst of his sermon, would open the pulpit door and let him in, evidently to keep him quiet.(see footnote)
He kept his own congregational library, and had it opened every Saturday evening in the manse to give out books. One night I was present, and greatly interested in the scene. He had a pleasant word to everybody. The parish patriarchs came in, not only to return their book, but to have a talk with him. He asked especially for the man's wife, always giving her a name, How is Betty? and got the whole details of the man's family and farm. The shy boy and the blushing maiden approached him with considerable awe, but felt assured when he named them and asked about their parents, and they went away with the ineradicable conviction that their minister loved them. He had too shrewd a knowledge of human nature to think of examining them on the books they took out; but he encouraged them to talk of the contents of the volume, and be noticed what books and parts of books they liked best, and turned the whole to their good and his own good, as helping him to learn how to preach.
His generosity was not of the sentimental but of the genuine character; ho had not only a heart, but his heart was in the right place. At his house the afflicted were welcomed and the poor relieved, and every parishioner went away happy, and with a prepossession in behalf of religion which had been so recommended, and likely to come to the church to hear him preach next Sabbath.
Arbirlot lay two or three miles from Arbroath, into which he came very frequently. My home became his house of call when he or Mrs. Guthrie came into town. And here let me remark that he had, in his wife, one in every way a help-meet for him. She attended most carefully and judiciously to every domestic duty, and he had thus no household care lying upon him. She was ever kind to his people, and greatly increased his usefulness in his parish. Full of equanimity, when he was excited she was calm, and while she appreciated his genius and evidently enjoyed his jokes, she never attempted to copy or rival him in his personal peculiarities.
Whenever I had an idle half-day I walked out to his place, where he always received me with a roar of welcome. In the summer season we went out and rolled on the grass. The cattle in the field would gather round and sniff at us; then he would spring up and delight to see them startled and scampering off. What a lovely eye! so soft and expressive, he would say, the ox has. People think the simile vulgar, but old Homer must have had a fine sense of beauty when he described a goddess as "the ox-eyed." As the lark flew up singing ; That bird rebukes you and me (we had been talking on some anxious subject) ; it has no cares, and it sings. The farmers are apt to look on the birds as pests; but the birds keep down the grubs, and the grubs may limit certain plants, and these plants have their use, though they may require to be restrained: and so, if you were to destroy that bird, you would throw the economy of nature into confusion. (Footnote 2)(That saying of his was brought vividly to my mind when I found them bringing sparrows from Britain to keep down the insects in New York and Philadelphia.) Or we would go down a mile to the shore of the German Ocean, and watch for hours the sea anemones in the rocky pools; and as he described to me their habits, which he had carefully noted, he would drop a little stone into their cavity, and make me mark how they rejected it, while they clasped and digested their appropriate food. He was sure there was a good and intelligent Being guiding that creature, he could not tell how. And then he would tell me a funny story of some Brechin character. "One of the vainest men I ever knew was Willy - . On one occasion he paid a visit to Edinburgh, dressed in high boots with yellow tops. He came back in the same steamboat with the hangman, who was about to execute a woman in Montrose. Several hundred people had gathered on the quay at Arbroath to give the hangman a warm reception. The hangman, seeing them, got on shore early, and addressing one of the leaders of the mob, pointed to Willy as the hangman, and then walked quietly on. Willy had his vanity considerably wounded when he found men, women, and boys bespattering him with mud, tearing his clothes, and threatening to tear his body in pieces!" Then we talked seriously about the wisest way of helping on the cause of the reformation of the Church of Scotland.

Footnote Another informant remembers seeing this actually occur. "Bob" lay quietly at his master's feet till the close of the service; when, the blessing having been pronounced, the people were vastly amused to see his fore-paws laid on the book-board, the great black head appearing above it, as he gravely surveyed the departing congregation.
Footnote 2 Dr. Guthrie used to tell that frequent inquiries were made for "Adam's Private Thoughts," a devotional book written by an English clergyman of that name in the last century. One Saturday evening Mr. Guthrie thought he would find out from a decent man what made him so anxious to have that particular volume, "Oh, sir," said he, "I just wondered how they could mak oot what the first man's private thoughts would be aboot!"

Home | Links | Sermons | Literature | Biography | Photos