Thomas Guthrie


AT last the object of Thomas Guthrie's ambition was to be realised after five years of waiting. He was to be placed as minister over a parish for whose moral and spiritual welfare he would be responsible. In the early months of 1830 the Crown appointed him to the Forfarshire parish of Arbirlot, on the recommendation of the Hon. William Maule. The presentee having preached before the congregation to their manifest satisfaction, the call was signed, and on the 13th May the new minister was inducted into his charge.
Arbirlot - AberElliot, the place at the mouth of the Elliot - is a beautiful country parish on the eastern coast of Scotland, situate about three miles from Arbroath and sixty from Edinburgh. The geographical position of the parish causes it to combine in itself the somewhat diverse natural charms of rich landscape and bold seascape. From several points in the district one can command views of either kind, unrivalled on the eastern seaboard of Scotland for peaceful beauty and impressive grandeur. It had the advantage of being easy of access, and was, moreover, within twenty miles of Brechin, so that he was not cut off from intercourse with his kindred. The parish was neither very large nor very populous. In 1824 it had been returned as numbering 1077 souls, while by 1830 it had only reached 1086, showing that the ratio of increase was not rapid. (After a time his mother came to reside in Arbirlot to be near her son.)
To Mr. Guthrie this was an advantage, and from the first he regarded it as such. How many promising young ministers are dwarfed and stunted, both intellectually and spiritually, by being placed at the outset in onerous charges where the work is beyond their strength! Robert Hall's remark about the ratio of sermon-production should be laid to heart by every young preacher. From the outset Mr. Guthrie's preaching was acceptable to his people. Of this fact there are many proofs extant, chiefly the testimony of those who had heard the older residents speak of it. Among others, that of the saintly David Key, one of his elders, and given at length in the Memoir, is the most remarkable. And yet, from existing specimens of his sermons in those early days of his Arbirlot ministry we can detect few traces of those qualities of figurative diction, picturesque illustration, and striking apostrophes and appeals so familiar in the discourses of later years. The style is severely simple and all chaste, while ornament is rare.
No sooner was Mr. Guthrie fairly settled down in his sphere of work than he began to evince that tireless activity in the service of his Master characteristic of him all his days. He threw himself into parochial work with an energy and concentration of purpose that astonished and delighted all. For five years he had been eating his heart out in enforced idleness. The stock of restrained activity, kept in check all that time, now had free course to flow out from him in a mighty tide of far-reaching achievement. Probably that weary delay was the Creator's mode of fitting His instrument for the glorious work before him. Had he stepped into the ministry fresh from college, he might never have learned that great lesson of "patience till God opens the way" which was not the least of his virtues. Disappointment is oftentimes the greatest of teachers, and so it proved to Thomas Guthrie. His parochial schemes and enterprises were both varied and numerous. Five months after his induction into Arbirlot he took unto himself an helpmate, who, in the highest and noblest sense of that word, proved herself his coadjutrix. For some years he had been engaged to Anne, the eldest daughter of the Rev. James Burns of Brechin; and on 6th October 1830 they were married by the bride's father.
Though Arbirlot was, morally speaking, an earthly paradise into which the darker and more revolting sins of our great cities scarcely entered, the spiritual state of the parish was decidedly dead. His predecessor had held the living for the lengthened period of fifty- nine years, occupying the pulpit in person until he was eighty-seven. Though at first a sound Evangelical preacher, the advent of age brought listlessness and torpor, so that vital religion and warm spirituality burned low in consequence. To suffer such a state of things for any length of time would not have been in keeping with the splendid activity of Mr. Guthrie's nature. He immediately set to work to remedy it. In the first place he established a weekly prayer-meeting. One of these was held at Arbirlot, but he had two or three other cottage- meetings throughout the parish for those living at a distance. These were superintended by his elders, and to each of them he paid a visit once a month. Though successful in Arbirlot, the cottage-meetings elsewhere scarcely came up to his expectations, largely owing to the diffidence and modesty of the elders conducting them.
Another means of reaching his people, and thus promoting their intellectual as well as their spiritual amelioration, was through the congregational library, which he instituted and, in conjunction with Mrs. Guthrie, personally superintended. The books were given out on Saturday evenings, and were retained a week. When the parishioners returned them they found their pastor or his lady always ready to discuss the volumes with them and to elicit even from the shyest - but without seeming to do so - their opinions on what they had read. The parish library was one of the most successful of Mr. Guthrie's means for raising the status of intellectual culture among his people.
But while their spiritual and mental improvement was thus carefully considered, he felt that the lessons inculcated regarding thrift and economy would be shorn of half their value if there were not at hand some agency whereby the savings of the people might be looked after for them. Hitherto the time-honoured bank of the Scottish peasantry - the stocking or the old teapot - had prevailed in Arbirlot as elsewhere. But such a system had its evils. The money was always at hand, and the pedlars packs were oftentimes pitfalls, leading the industrious country-folk into extravagances they afterwards regretted. A parish savings-bank was therefore initiated and proved a conspicuous success, the minister's banking experiences now standing him in good stead in suggesting the best means of organising and carrying on such an institution.
Nor were the young children neglected. Several Sabbath-schools, conducted by the elders in various parts of the parish, were started and proved successful. To- day the Sabbath-school is the invariable adjunct and feeder of every congregation. Then, however, they were few and far between, the opinion being too often entertained that such classes destroyed parental responsibility for the religious education of their children. At Arbirlot the schools were so arranged that they did not interfere with family catechising where such existed, but rather acted as valuable aids to such domestic instruction.
Nor was the social welfare of his parish beyond the limits of his personal oversight. Though not yet a total abstainer, he was a strong advocate of temperance,, and impressed its necessity upon his people. Not that the vice of drunkenness was very prevalent in Arbirlot. When Mr. Guthrie went there he found only two public-houses in the district. One of these, after a fatal accident to an inebriate had roused the community, he succeeded in getting closed. The remaining one being at the extreme end of the parish, offered little temptation to the Arbirlot people.
While Mr. Guthrie was attaching his parishioners to him by the closest ties of mutual love and respect, his relations with his brethren of the Presbytery of Arbroath were of the most friendly character. He likewise interested himself in the business of the Synod of Angus and the Mearns, and was a Commissioner to the General Assembly in 1832, a position he also filled in the years 1834 and 1835. Among his important speeches in the Presbytery was one he delivered in January 1834, when he moved the notable resolution that the Presbytery should petition Parliament to repeal the Act relating to Church Patronage. His speech on that occasion was a cogent and con vincing one, and he carried his motion by three votes, notwithstanding all the efforts of the Moderate party in the Presbytery.
This Anti- Patronage resolution brings us at last to the time when the first soughings became audible of that mighty storm which was first to shake, but in the end to rend Scotland, in a social as well as an ecclesiastical sense, to her foundations. In 1830, when Mr. Guthrie began his ministry at Arbirlot, there were in reality two questions adopted by the Evangelicals of the day as their rallying cries against the dominant Moderatism - No Patronage and - No Intrusion. Though logically separable and, as was proved, capable of attracting each its distinctive class of supporters, yet the two topics were virtually the obverse and the reverse of the same great problem - Was the Church of Scotland "Erastian" or "free" ? - in other words, was it the thrall of the State, or had it inalienable rights - rights that might indeed have remained dormant for many long decades, yet rights that had never been legally abrogated? Moderatism maintained the right of the State to intervene in the purely spiritual affairs of the Church, while the Evangelicals claimed that Christ's Headship over the nations and His Church left the spiritual jurisdiction of the latter independent of the Civil Power, save what was implied in formal recognition, protection, and maintenance.
Mr. Guthrie was not only an Evangelical in a party sense, he was one by conviction, temperament, and bitter experience of the evils inflicted alike on the doctrine and polity of the Church by Moderatism and its methods. Not because Dr. Nicoll and his followers had long debarred him from exercising the office of the ministry did he now put forth all his efforts to destroy the influence of the party. His motives were not dictated by such personal considerations. As he says in a letter written a little later, - my aim all through this bitter but monotonous struggle has been solely to vindicate the Headship of my Saviour over His Church and people, to lead men to see that no one, not even the State, has a right to come between Christ and His Redeemed. Mr. Guthrie accordingly threw himself into the struggle with the enthusiasm of a youthful warrior, conscious of the justice of his cause. Never minister educated his people better in the principles at stake. Though with that lofty reverence he always manifested for the sanctity of the pulpit, he never introduced controversial topics into the Sabbath services, he was assiduous on week-nights in lecturing to his parishioners on the subjects then bulking so largely on the public attention. He also held meetings in the district, at which his friends were brought from far and near to speak, and he proposed motions both in Presbytery and Synod on the Abolition of Patronage.
As yet the Auchterarder and Strathbogie cases had not made the question of Non-Intrusion so prominent and crucial as afterwards it became. To an Anti-Patronage crusade, therefore, rather than a Non-Intrusion one, his efforts were at this stage devoted.
Several of the addresses he delivered on such occasions are still extant. They are characterised by thorough knowledge of the subject, sound logical reasoning, vigorous thought, stirring personal appeals, pithy apophthegms, almost proverbial in their epigrammatic conciseness, while the whole is seasoned with the Attic salt of his wit and humour. No wonder opponents even were constrainied to admit the force of his arguments.
This, however, was not the only controversial campaign wherein he was then engaged. Voluntaryism and the State Church principle were being subjected to keen discussion and comparative analysis. Into what is known as the Voluntary Controversy Mr. Guthrie threw himself with as much gusto as spirit, involving as it did the defence of what, at this stage of his career, he believed to be absolutely indispensable to the spiritual welfare of the country - the national maintenance of religion. In the war of words characterising the assertion by either party of its distinctive principles, Mr. Guthrie took a prominent part, and crossed swords with the redoubtable Ajax of Voluntaryism himself, - "Potterrow John," otherwise Dr. John Ritchie of Edinburgh.
The efforts made by Dr. Chalmers and his friends to promote the cause of Church Extension in many districts in Scotland had filled the Secession churches with dismay. At this time there may be said to have been four separate denominations coming under the generic designation - "Seceders" : the United Associate Secession Church, formed by the re-union, after seventy-three years of disruption over the terms of the Burgess oath, of the General Associate or Anti-Burgher Church, and the Associate or Burgher Church; the Associate Synod of Original Seceders, the Original - Burgher Associate Synod, and the Relief Synod. The raison d être of these bodies, apart altogether from the high-handed oppression shown towards the original founders of the Secession churches, had largely been the inertia and abuses, along with the lack of spirituality, peculiar to the State Church under the reign of Moderatism.
There can be no doubt, as an unprejudiced study of contemporary facts will demonstrate, that in many districts the Church of Scotland was either most inadequately represented, or not represented at all. In some instances, incumbents who came under the designation of Slothful Shepherds, alienated the mass of the piously inclined people from the Church while in the case of others who ostensibly did their duty, the icy apathy of Moderatism to all higher spiritual interests, with the Socinianism and Rationalism preached from the pulpits, drove from the parish kirk to the Secession meeting-house those who felt that to remain under State Church ordinances would be to allow an Arctic winter of religious indifference to settle down upon their souls.
To counteract in some measure these patent evils, Dr. Chalmers had initiated his great Church Extension movement. His aim was to infuse life into the whole organism by commencing aggressive religious effort in certain parts of it; and by begetting a spirit of emulation among the clergy, to induce the sluggards from mere shame, if from no higher motive, to bestir themselves in their respective spheres. But the Secession ministers, in place of welcoming such evidence of the coming spring in the State Church, looked upon the Anti-Patronage and Church Extension crusades as threatening their existence. If the State Church were reformed, where would be the logical vindication of the continuance of Dissent? Hitherto none of these Secession Churches had definitely pronounced against the principle of State Aid. But with the ripening reformation of the Church of Scotland before them, with the steady decay of Moderatism and the consequent predominance of Evangelicalisrn, after the turning-point of the passing of the Veto Act in 1834, the Seceders felt that they must have some more positive and definitive foundation for their existence than mere negative dissent to certain abuses in the State Church.
Thus came into being what is known as - the Voluntary principle, which, be it admitted or not, forms the chief stone in the foundation of every Dissenting Church's standards. Mr. Guthrie, albeit in after years he was to hold, proudly and tenaciously, the Voluntary principle, in most, if not all, of its ramifications, considered his duty meantime to lead him, as parish minister of Arbirlot, to a vehement opposition to the doctrine. Yet he did so in no spirit of bigotry. Though a State churchman, he was a liberal- minded Christian, and only resisted what he esteemed an unwarrantable aggression. He would not have been the honest and honourable man he was, in fact, if, holding the sentiments he did, he had not rushed, when the battle-bugle sounded, with all the enthusiasm of his nature, into the thickest of the fight. But Mr. Guthrie, however busy with Church politics, never permitted the interests of his congregation to suffer. He might do battle with - Potterrow John to-day, and with the Moderates of Presbytery and Synod to-morrow; Church Extension meetings might occupy one part of the week, and schemes for the social and moral improvement of the parish the other; but when the Sabbath came round he entered his pulpit as carefully prepared as though he had done nothing else all week than write his sermon.
We have already noted with what honesty he worked when a student at College, and also when removed from every beneficial home and social influence during his stay on the Continent. To him, as to Carlyle, albeit their spiritual and ethical standpoints were so diverse, the Gospel of Work-a-day Duty presented its moral Categorical Imperative so forcibly as to require no external authority to induce him to be instant in industry. He loved work for its own sake. With regard to the exercise of his powers, until he went to Arbirlot his character was still tinged with much of the impulsiveness and prodigality of youth. His chief anxiety was to do a thing well, without giving much consideration to the expenditure of time, talents, and energy on the undertaking. He was too apt to take a Nasmyth hammer to crack a nut, in place of apportioning the degree of effort to the importance of the end. He did not, as yet, understand that the subtle laws of the Conservation of Energy hold as potently in the mental as in the physical economy. When placed in charge of a parish, however, and when he realised that he, and he alone, was responsible for its progress, both in a religious and a moral sense, his character underwent a rapid change. To the irresponsibility of youth - and of such a youth as his had been, engirt with pious home influences, and where the strictness of the family regtme had precluded any member being left open to the assaults of early temptations - had succeeded a sense of personal obligation and liability, with a realisation of all the duties the position of pastor and teacher implied. Only a few months were to pass, ere those who had known him in pre-Arbirlot days, scarce recognised in the sagacious, far-seeing clergyman, the volatile youth, brimming over with laughter and humour, and ready for all kinds of innocent amusement. The laughter and the humour remained as the salt and savour of his gracious yet dignified personality. But into the laughter had crept a new note as of one who had looked upon the mystery of the world's misery and sin and had been awed by the sight; while the humour, if less piquant, was more human, having lost somewhat of its careless abandon, as though the possessor had learned to regard all humanity as his brethren, because bound to him in the universal - Brotherhood of Christ.
Meantime, the light of a man so prominent as Mr. Guthrie was becoming, both in a spiritual and intellectual sense, could not longer be hid under the bushel of a country charge. Already the eyes of many of the leaders of the Evangelical party in Edinburgh were turning towards Arbirlot, anxious to devise means whereby a minister of such gifts and controversial ability might be secured for the metropolitan pulpit and the central councils of the party. More than one deputation went to the beautiful seaboard parish from the capital, to hear the young preacher. To such deputations as appealed to himself, Mr. Guthrie gave no encouragement. He was happy at Arbirlot. He believed God was blessing his labours. His Ebenezer or sign that hitherto the Lord had helped him - was raised in those numerous fruits of his ministry that had come under his personal knowledge. His stipend was sufficient for the simple needs of his family: - "not a royal revenue would tempt me to leave," he wrote to a friend in Edinburgh, - "were mere social position and increased remuneration the sole inducements held out."
Therefore, when the new and fashionable parish church of Greenside was built, and negotiations were opened with him to see if he would accept the pastorship, his reply was an unconditional negative. He could not discern the Master's leading therein. When he was sounded with regard to Old Greyfriars Collegiate Church, however, the matter presented itself in a different light. Though at the outset he discouraged the proposed transfer, yet when he was informed that the charge was about to be uncollegiated, and that his work would really lie in that field where he had always desired to labour - the slums of the Cowgate - he felt that the Lord's voice was present in the invitation to "come over to the Macedonia of sin, suffering, and sorrow, and help us."
But another reason, and one of a more secret and personal character, decided his acceptance of the call to Old Greyfriars. During the fatal winter of 1836-1837, when the epidemic of influenza passed like a scourge over the land, he had been brought within view of the dusky shores of death. For months he had lain helpless as a babe. Restored at length to life and labour in response to earnest prayers, he felt that, in return, notwithstanding his love for Arbirlot and its rural peace, that life with all its splendid possibilities must in future be consecrated to higher, nobler, and wider issues. Peaceful and pleasant beyond most though his pastorate had been, the irresistible call had come for the young labourer to proceed to that new sphere, to carry the good news of the Gospel, with all the force of his burning eloquence, to that submerged tenth in our population that had fallen away from the means of grace.
On the conditions named, therefore, Mr. Guthrie accepted the call to Old Greyfriars, and amid the regret of his Forfarshire parishioners he took leave of them in September 1837, after, as he says, - seven busy, happy, and - I have reason to know and bless God for it - not unprofitable years spent amongst them. The radiance of those golden days of his early ministry followed him on into life - nay, was never dimmed until the great end came. During those years in Bonnie Arbirlot he had realised the mission of his manhood. There first he had learned the secret of true eloquence - viz, to touch the heart in such a way as to tell on the life; there first he had known the holy joy of leading a sin-stricken soul to the divine Sin-bearer; there first he had adequately understood the possibilities as well as responsibilities of the pastor's office; there first he had come to see that not by might of intellect or of eloquence, not by power of will, but by the working of the Spirit of the living God - was the world to be won for Christ. And in ever-deepening dependence on that divine source of all success, he set up the banner of the Cross and marched forward into the unknown future, to achieve fresh conquests for his King.

From "Thomas Guthrie" by O.Smeaton. (Famous Scotsmen series)

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