Article By Rev. John Ker D.D.
(From "Disruption Worthies" 1843)
THOMAS GUTHRIE, D.D.
THOMAS GUTHRIE, to be known as Dr Guthrie the preacher and philanthropist,
was born in Brechin on the 12th of July 1803,
and died at St Leonard's, Hastings, 4th February 1873, having all but completed
his three- score years and ten. His father, David Guthrie, a burgher of some
note in the town, was a man of strong sense and Christian principle; his
mother, Clemintina Cay, had force of character and deep piety. The ancestors on
both sides were farmers of the hill country of Angus. Thomas, the twelfth child
and sixth son, had his lot early cast for the ministry. His College course
commenced in Edinburgh in 1815, and he was licenced to preach the gospel in
1825. Lay patronage, as then exercised in the Church of Scotland, delayed his
settlement, and only in 1830 did he obtain a charge. With the energy that
afterwards marked him, he gave part of that interval to scientific and medical
studies in Edinburgh and Paris, and part to the management of the paternal bank
in Brechin, preaching and public speaking not being intermitted, and the
knowledge he gained of men and of practical business bestowing a second
training for his life-work. In 1830 he was ordained to Arbirlot, a
country parish near Arbroath, and the same year married to Anne, the eldest
daughter of the Rev. James Burns of Brechin. Here he entered with great
earnestness on the chief lines of action to which he devoted himself through
life, preaching to his congregation of farmers and labourers with all the
clearness, warmth, and power of illustration which shone out afterwards,
visiting from house to house, organising prayer meetings, Sabbath schools, a
library and savings bank, and taking share in the movement against Patronage
which was then stirring the heart of Scotland. His power and originality as a
preacher, and his effectiveness as a platform speaker, brought him rapidly to
the front, and with a sore wrench to himself and his people (" they were a
greetin " is the account given by one of them), he was, in 1837,
transferred to Old Greyfriars , Edinburgh, the
historic church of the covenant and the martyrs. Here began that wonderful
popularity which continued to grow for years, and attended him while he could
ascend a pulpit. It was a very busy period with him, occupied with constant
pastoral work, his hands full of the benevolent and religious movements of the
time, and with a large share in the Church discussions which were shaking the
country ever more widely and deeply. In 1840 he entered the new church of St
John's, a parish formed from Old Greyfriars , to carry out the territorial
principle -one of the chief reasons which had forced him from Arbirlot, and a
favourite conception of Chalmers. He laboured at
this with incessant vigour till the Disruption
came in 1843, to change his position and the condition and prospects of the
Church of Christ in Scotland.
The movement which ended in this event had been progressing in the "ten years conflict"; a battle waged over the breadth of the land, in country homes and hamlets as well as in church courts, in remote islands as keenly as in the great towns, by lecture and debate, through book, newspaper, and pamphlet, and every agency of speech and pen by which the heart of the people could be reached. It was one of the periodical uprisings that have made the nation what it is. "Scotland," wrote Lord Palmerston, "is in a flame about the Church question," and men who imagined the ages of faith gone, and materialism lord of the future, were surprised to see the same unquenched spirit that leapt into being at the voice of Knox, and signed the covenant amid tears of enthusiasm on the tombstone in Greyfriars churchyard.
In the surging eddies of the fight Thomas Guthrie was often seen, and his winged words, with the pen of Hugh Miller, were powerful co-efficients in bringing out the response which the heart of the people gave to the - self-sacrifice of the ministers, and in securing, under God, the success of the Free Church from the first day of its existence. He was in the band that burst from the doors of St Andrew's, Edinburgh, on the 18th May 1843, and which, beginning with 474 ministers, has grown to 900 churches, three Divinity Halls, and a yearly free-will revenue of half a million sterling. He formed one of a deputation that visited the chief towns of England and Ireland, to explain the principles of the Church, and not long after commenced his operations for the Manse Scheme, which ended with his reporting £16,370 for this one object, as the result of a year's labour. The journeys, speeches, and business work compressed into this effort might have been spread through an ordinary life, and shook a frame of unusual strength. From homeless ministers his exertions turned to what had long been in his heart, houseless children, and in 1847 came out the "Plea for Ragged Schools."
Its effect was electric, for the Christian conscience was ready; and he became identified with the movement personally in his own city, and, in name and influence, throughout the country. One plea followed another; hundreds of "life-boats," to take his own favourite figure, were launched, and he was called on to advocate the cause with the people, and to watch the part taken in it by Parliament. To the close of his life it held the place nearest to his heart of all public questions; not as a piece of politics, or branch of social improvement, but as a chief part of the religion of Christ. His numerous speeches, and his fervent pleadings through the press, have entered deeply into the general zeal for the education and elevation of the people which is one of the best features of our time. In the midst of these multiplied efforts his health broke down, and a silence of two years from pulpit work made many fear that his public course was finished.
But it had half its way to run. In 1850 the happy settlement of Dr Hanna, the son-in-law and accomplished biographer of Dr Chalmers, as co-pastor in St John's, divided his pulpit labour, and doubled his power and opportunity. His name as a preacher had been growing like sunlight; it was now at its zenith, and audiences representing all classes of rank and culture, mixed with strangers from - every part of the world, were drawn to listen to the same gospel preached - with a clearness and force, a vividness and human interest, that satisfied a common need. Another field opened in the use of his pen. It is seldom that eloquence of speech can flow through the press without losing a large portion of its colour and vitality, and accordingly his first "Plea for Ragged Schools" took many by surprise, and was the revelation to himself of a latent power. His heart had been touched in what lay nearest to it, and the string of his tongue was loosed to speak on other matters.
In 1855 his first volume, "The Gospel in Ezekiel," appeared, - and at this date it has reached its fortieth thousand. "The City: its Sins and Sorrows," rose to fifty thousand, with others corresponding, too long here to mention. His books cannot represent him to those who never heard him, as he was in his mastery over an audience, not merely by gesture, and voice, and look, but by the mysterious soul magnetism which some speakers possess; nevertheless it is remarkable how much of his heart and life he was able to transmit through the conducting rod of the pen. It is proof of the great store of impressive power with which his spiritual nature was charged, and also of an instinctive literary skill, for though his style in both was the same, there was a change of and proportion of which few orators are capable. To thousands who never saw him, he was familiar as the editor of the "Sunday Magazine, known as "Dr Guthrie's Magazine," which reached a great circulation in his hands, and where he gave to the world not only many of his sermons, - but his view of things civil and sacred, his observations on men and as, in later years, he extended his journeys at home and abroad and breadth of handling made his papers always racy while there was felt through them the discrimination of the best tone "A good understanding have all they that do his oddments." To number up the subjects in which he took the interest,not of a man who is an editor, but of an editor who is a man, nd proved it also by speech and action, would be to give a list of the great concerns that touch the welfare of mankind: Anti-slavery, total abstinence, the purity and morality of national law, the improvement of condition of the army, sanitary reformation, better homes for the people, working-men's clubs, continental missions, with a peculiar love for the old Church of the Valleys, the union of the Presbyterian denominations, are some of the questions that occupied him. His fugitive papers have an interest, in shewing the comprehensiveness of his nature its intensity, the curious pleasure he took in peering into,whatever belongs to genuine human nature, and helps it on. Differing, as he and the late Dr Norman Macleod did in Church polity and some other things, these two distinguished men had the same ground of a true and broad humanity in them, playful in its rippling creeks, sadly earnest in its depths, with the sure breadth, a sympathy that moistened into humour and melted never far off, the endeavour to make a wider, nobler, human nature, of which Christ is the alone possible centre.
Some of his later papers were entitled, "Out of Harness," but this condition he never reached till he lay down to die. a winter's preaching in Rome, and a visit to America, to work his way across the States to California, where he had a son, were among his last plans, an extraordinary proof of courageous energy on the verge of his seventieth- year;and with his heart still pressing forwar, his strength failed. His end was by the border of the sea which had been making its music within him for many years, and he looked out on it, as Bunyan describes his pilgrims by the brink of the river they had to cross, exchanging messages with friends near and far, rehearsing memories and expressing hopes with an affection and faith and humility that were very touching; and at the close of Sabbath the 23d February, he entered into his rest, or should we not say of him, began his new work ? He was laid in the Grange - Cemetery, Edinburgh, beside numbers of his old companions, eminent ministers and faithful elders, with many a tribute of love and sorrow from the vast multitude that gathered to his burial, but with none felt so deeply as the song of the children of his own Ragged Schools, a requiem very fitting, and also the echo of welcome, "Inasmuch ye have done it unto one of the least of these little ones."
While his life-work went beyond the Disruption, we cannot estimate his character without going back to it. Whatever view may be taken of the claims involved in that event, no thoughtful man can help seeing that it contained immense quickening influences. It was an epoch in Scotland, moving and magnetising it as perhaps nothing has done since the Reformation, and those who were most hostile to its principLes have not been able to escape its impulse.? We should be blind and ungrateful did we not acknowledge the obligation which the entire Christianity of this land, and of others, owes it for its noble testimony to the power of conscience, for the spirit of self-sacrifice and generosity, of free-giving and zealous working, that have flowed from it into many channels, as from a swelling river. If it was a mistake, the world could stand a few more such errors; abnegation is not such a common thing even in the Christian Church that we can afford to want this instance of it; our history would have been poorer, and out life lower at this day without it, and this is its best practical justification.
But, doubtless, it told most on those who were directly engaged in it, and brought out whatever was in them of heart and capacity an Ithuriel's spear, with a better result in its touch. Under the frown of Government, and with the door of Parliament shut in their face, they carried their appeal to the people, put the rights and resources of the Church, under its Head, in their hands, and the reply inspired a confidence which made them strong for Christian work everywhere. After Chalmers was so soon withdrawn, there was no one perhaps - the survivors who felt so much this quick beat of the heart for fresh enterprise as Dr Thomas Guthrie. The Disruption, like every other great providential movement, had its men made for it;we omit the living - each fitted to his place; the central fire and upheaving force of Chalmers; Cunningham the Ajax of debate, with his colossal blows; -the sinewy ;strength and marshalling skill of Candlish ; the calm sagacious statesmanship of Robert Buchanan; the pen of Hugh Miller, dipped in poetry and feathered with history and philosophy.
But Dr Guthrie represented its sense of new- found power not only to maintain itself, but to give out energy as never before; its obedience to the command, "to launch out into the deep and cast the net on the right side;" its interest in the children of the poor, in the home heathen, in the continent of Europe, in the world. It was mainly this spirit which determined hence forth his ecclesiastical outlook, and turned it not back, but forward. From the first he went for the entire abolition of Patronage, when Patronage only was in question. When the independence of the Church in her spiritual domain was invaded in the course of the struggle, he was forced, with many more to give up connection with the State; but when once that tie was broken, new feelings and considerations came in, and grew with the new experience. A different kind of life brought its own pleasures, in its sense of freedom?, its activities, its struggles, its very sacrifices, its growth of affection to objects for which, and friends with whom, these sacrifices had been made - the joy of life in life itself - and it became a question not difficult to answer, whether all this should be forsaken for the former position, even if it lay open. It is the ancient parable of putting the new wine into the old bottles, with the fact, that the bottles had given way before. Dr Guthrie felt, as he expressed it "when he got rid of the crutch and found his limbs," no desire to go back to that kind of help, and the fear that, if he did, he should lose what he had gained. And, after all, this is what will determine the form of Church reconstruction in Scotland, not the lines drawn across the water by statesmen, but the deep currents below - the necessities and cravings of spiritual life in the Christian people. Statesmanship has often had to recognise that there are things done in the world by its mistakes which it cannot undo. The abolition of the tea tax would not have reclaimed America when independence was declared; and when Israel was once across the sea, in the freedom of the wilderness, with its divine provisions, and Canaan before, not the land of Goshen and a constitution, under a repentant Pharaoh, could have brought them back, though some would fain have tried.
In describing a man, it is the custom to begin with his appearance, and the likeness which this sketch is to accompany invites its continuance. He was tall beyond the ordinary stature, with a strength of frame that would have made him a shepherd of the people in olden time, as his other gifts made him in the movements of ours. The face was not regular, but had much expression, first in the eyes, keen and gray, and then in the mouth, which spoke by its lines, as well as its words; a face that was the farthest from being a cover to the feelings, but let them through in their quick changes, flitting up in sympathy and mirth, and honest anger and righteous scorn. The photographer cannot give this, the reader's imagination must help. The complexion was swarthy, especially in youth, with long dark hair, which retreated as age advanced, and waved in a cloud-like white about his temples, the general remark being that he grew comelier as he grew older.
His intellectual nature was not of the abstract or contemplative order, but strongly concrete and objective, thinking in analogies and speaking in figures, as old Homer used them, with picture-like fulness that would have been dangerous to the sustained interest but for the glow and movement that made them one with the subject. It recalled the eddy of a Highland pool in love with the overhanging birch and rowan, but still part of the stream. His knowledge was drawn from nature more than science, and from men more than books, gathering all his life from every one he met, and having his library of fact and incident and observation ready at hand. The amount and variety of these, and the power of putting them in easy dramatic form with naturalness and geniality, were the charm of his conversation.
Those whose conception of Scottish divines is represented by the dried mummies that fill the vaulted niches of the Capucin Monastery at Rome would have had their ideal disturbed; and yet the type to which he belonged has great antiquity, as any one may see who will study the character of John Knox himself in his - "History of the Reformation." Connected with this was a stock of prompt common sense in reaching instinctive judgments about men and things, much of what is thought to be the natural peculiarity of shrewdness, that is, penetration for cases of entanglement, and much also of what is thought to be not so national, tact, the perception of things delicate. But the centre of his natural character was his power of emotion - commonly called heart - a great breadth of human nature, inflammable all round, crackling in playful flames, burning also with steady worklike purpose, and capable of deepening to a still white heat. This made him the preacher and philanthropist he was - a preacher who - needed to fill his study in thought with his congregation, and kindle himself thereby to fire them in turn ; and a philanthropist, not of the Benthamite school, but with a perscnal friendship for waifs and strays, a romantic interest in them, and a human naturalist's study of the curious shell under which he hoped to find his pearl. In little things it was seen, in the ready confidences he made up with children, and the good understanding he was on with dogs; for humane is only human widened out. - And humanity lay at the root of his theology.
Not but that he was sound to the core; his Christian and Calvinistic faith, that "all things are of God," and drew it from God's book. But there are different ways of realising it, as there are different roads leading up to Christ though He is the one only door. One way of theology is by reasoning the matter down, as is done in systems; another is by thinking it up ; and this last was according to his bent. Given man, his sin and unhappiness, and how can he be cured and raised? Is not the gospel the only possible solution of this? Is not its fitness for humanity the seal of its divinity, and is not the centre of its power, as well as its mystery God - manifest in the flesh? It was in this way, we believe, that he reached it for his own comfort; and it was in the presentation of the gospel as the great human need, in the application of it to the circumstances and wants and sorrows and sins of men, as he had learned to know them, that the power of his preaching lay. He had truthful realism, and vivid fancy, and passionate force ; but natural as these were in him, they were successful, under God, from their having something in their midst more deeply human, because divine, the presence of Jesus Christ brought close to the heart, as the only Satisfier of its yearnings and Healer of its wounds. He did much for his own church, but more for the Church of Christ; and though it may seem a narrower thing to close with, it needs to be said, he did much to represent the best parts of the Scottish character - deep feeling, with a tenderness that seeks to hide itself under humour; sagacity of the head with warmth of the heart; shrewdness with self- devotion; outbursts, resolute to obstinacy, against human authority when it crosses the path of the fear of God; a nature very jealous of its rights, and very fervid for what it believes to be the cause of freedom and truth. History has written down this character of the people for three centuries or more; and it will put the name of Thomas Guthrie among those who in different ways have helped to keep up, and hand forward, the old renown.
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