Thomas Guthrie - Apostle of Temperance


THE night was cold, wet, and cheerless in the winter of 1841. A tempest had been raging all day, and as evening closed in the storm increased rather than moderated its violence. An Irish car, with two Scottish NonIntrusionist clergymen and an Edinburgh lawyer in it, had been toiling across the wind-swept stretches of County Tyrone, as the road winds along from Omagh to Cookstown. The occupants, as well as the driver - a strong, ruddy-faced Milesian with laughter and good-humour peeping out of every line of his countenance - were soaked with the drenching rain. Half-way, a small roadside inn was reached, into which the clergymen went, ordered whisky and hot water, and made toddy. Out of kindness to the car-driver they called him in and offered him a rummer of the steaming liquor. To their surprise he warmly thanked them, but declined it. "Plaze your riv'rence, I am a teetotaler, and I won't taste a dhrop." He was one of Father Mathew's converts to total abstinence. Lo, what mighty results are obtained from humble causes! One of these clergymen was Thomas Guthrie. The example of the car-driver deeply impressed him. The lesson was never forgotten. Gradually the seed of Conviction germinated, producing the assurance that if a man intends to become a social reformer, he must commence by being an abstainer, inasmuch as the cause of nine-tenths of the destitution and crime in our large cities is - drunkenness!
Before Dr. Guthrie became a philanthropist, therefore, he had been for some years a strong advocate of total abstinence. While no bigot on the question, he ever sturdily maintained that strong drink was the deadliest weapon used by the devil to ruin humanity. "I have four reasons for being an abstainer", said Dr. Guthrie :"my head is clearer, my health is better, my heart is lighter, and my purse is heavier" ; to which may be added this other remark made on another occasion, "I would rather see in the pulpit a man who is a total abstainer from this root of all evil - drink, than a man crammed with all the Hebrew roots in the world."
He gives a very graphic account of his first appearance as an abstainer at a dinner-party given by Mr. Maitland of Dundrennan, at which Lords Jeffrey and Cockburn with their wives, and others of the elite of Edinburgh literary and legal society were present - people who might have heard of teetotalers, but certainly had never seen one before, and some of whom never dreamed of denying themselves any indulgence whatever for the sake of others

"But by my principles I was resolved to stick, cost what it might. So I passed the wine to my neighbour without its paying tax or toll to me often enough to attract our host's attention, who, to satisfy himself I was not sick, called for an explanation. This I gave modestly, but without any shamefacedness. The company could hardly conceal their astonishment. But when Jeffrey, who sat opposite to me, found that in this matter I was living not for myself but others, denying myself the use of luxuries to which I had been accustomed that I might by my example reclaim the vicious and raise the fallen and restore peace and plenty to wretched homes, that generous-hearted, noble-minded man could not conceal his sympathy and admiration. He did not speak, but his look was not to be mistaken, and though kind and courteous before my apology, he was ten times more so after it."

This incident, which occurred in all likelihood in 1845, was the initial act in a profession of total abstinence which lasted nearly as long as life itself. No sooner did he begin his great philanthropic labours on behalf of the Ragged Schools than the opinion, formed as the result of the Church of Christ - an enemy to which all the other his unwearied visiting in the Cowgate, Grassmarket, and West Bow, when pastor of the territorial parish of St. John's, that drunkenness was the prime enemy of vices were auxiliaries and subordinates - became settled conviction.
Against an enemy so omnipresent and so powerful, Dr. Guthrie neither sought nor gave quarter. While never a fanatic or extremist, imposing his views on all alike, and denouncing those who did not agree with him, his testimony to the necessity of temperance principles for young men beginning life was unqualified and unceasing. When you get religion dying, drink is like a fungus growing on the rotten tree; when religion begins to revive, along with it revive temperance and total abstinence societies. To a young man beginning business, to be an abstainer is as good as 100 a year/sterling of additional capital.
He was unwearied in his efforts to induce the legislature to make, and the municipal authorities strictly to enforce, stringent yet fair laws for the regulation of the liquor traffic. He denounced Sunday trading, and contended every licensed house should be closed at the very latest at ten o clock. He protested against the crime of serving drink to young lads, and said the father who sent his children into the public-house to fetch beer ought to be severely punished, as exposing the moral health of his offspring to contamination. How many of the legislative seeds he sowed long years ago have now sprung up and borne golden grain for the reaping of to-day? By deputations to those in authority, either in London or Edinburgh - deputations whereof, in nearly every case, he was chosen the spokesman, - by numerous public meetings, by the institution of temperance and total abstinence societies, he sought to diminish or stamp out this national curse.
Inebriety was, of course, much more prevalent in the days when Dr. Guthrie lived and laboured than now. We are becoming a more sober nation, not made so by legislative enactments, but by the steady diffusion of education, of popular science, and by the cultivation of that saving grace of common-sense which presents the case to a man in this way that, apart from all religious and moral considerations, on the low ground of p. s. d., (money!) sobriety is preferable to indulgence, while total abstinence is better than all. I wish to emphasise the fact that we largely owe what moral and social improvement there now is to the labours of Dr. Guthrie, and such as he, forty or fifty years ago - noble-hearted men who, in a good cause, had the courage to be singular, when such singularity entailed not a few disadvantages, and even a faint soupcon of disapproval.
In the temperance field, as in that of social reform, Dr. Guthrie's works live after him. He was one of the earliest teetotalers in the Free Church, and stood nearly alone: he lived to see the profession of such principles as were implied thereby becoming, if not incumbent on, at least expedient for each minister to adopt. Along with the late Drs. Grey, Burns of Kilsyth, Horatius Bonar, and one or two others, he founded the Free Church Temperance Society, and was spared to see it become one of the strongest of the Church's institutions. He sympathised warmly with the formation, by his dear friend, James Miller, Professor of Surgery, of a Students Temperance Society in connection with the University of Edinburgh. More than once, Dr. Guthrie addressed the members of the association in words of sound practical wisdom; and he frequently invited youths belonging to it, whom he knew to be alone in Edinburgh, to spend an evening at his house. Another group of young people whom he rejoiced to meet were the Normal School students. To them he, in like manner, spoke more than once on the subject so near his heart - appeals instinct with wit and humour, yet withal permeated by that rarest of all virtues in a humorous speech, common-sense.
As I have said, Dr. Guthrie was never a bigot in enforcing his own opinions on others. None more clearly than he recognised the right of each man to hold his own opinions. He was always ready to co-operate with all classes of temperance reformers. Though personally holding firmly by the principle of total abstinence, he joined many leading citizens in founding in 1850 the Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness, in which there was scarcely an abstainer save himself. In order to interest the public in the work of the Society, the members determined to issue a series of short, pithy statements upon the subject in question, and what remedial measures seemed demanded. His two Pleas for Ragged Schools had shown him the unsuspected power he possessed in literary composition. Therefore we find him opening the series - to which, as he says in a letter to the Hon. Fox Maule, Drs. Candlish, Norman Macleod, Begg, Lindsay Alexander, and others, were to contribute succeeding numbers - with a pithy pamphlet, A Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness.
To many the fact may be of interest that, although the Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness has long since passed away, it was able to effect one reform, and that was to contribute in a very large degree to the passing of the legislative measure known as the Forbes- Mackenzie Act, which still forms the basis at least of our present Scots Licensing Laws. In the securing of that excellent Statute, Dr. Guthrie materially assisted by voice, pen, and personal influence, and in the minutes of more than one of the temperance societies of Scotland there still stand expressions of grateful thanks to the great orator who so powerfully aided the efforts of social reformers by his eloquence. His pamphlet appeared in 1850, a few months subsequent to his restoration to health after his severe illness of 1848-49; and he followed it up with three New Year Tracts, New Year s Drinking (1851), A Happy New Year (1852), and The Old Year's Warning (1853).
But this was not all. So impressed was he with the ravages committed by this social cancer, so saddened by the cases coming under his knowledge of wives mourning the moral shipwreck and degradation of husbands, of husbands bewailing their wives, of fathers and mothers bowed to the dust by the ruin of sons and daughters, of sons and daughters lamenting the fall of parents, that he determined to address a series of sermons to the community at large, particularly to that of the great city wherein his lot was cast. In these he aimed at setting forth the duty of parents and guardians in training the rising generation in the principles of total abstinence. The sermons were afterwards published under the title, "The City - Its Sins and Sorrows."
Both when delivered as sermons and in their book form, these discourses exercised a widespread influence. To this I can bear personal testimony. Away in far-distant Australia I chanced to meet a wealthy Scots squatter. In conversation this estimable Christian, whose charities and benefactions were almost princely in their liberality, informed me that when in Edinburgh he had been rushing headlong to ruin through intemperance and other vices. His friends had despaired of him, when by chance he wandered one day into Dr. Guthrie's church when he was preaching that remarkable series. The young man was arrested at once, he listened spellbound, and at the close was greatly impressed. He left the church, and all through the week struggled to drown the voice of conscience by plunging into dissipation. But on Sunday, he could not refrain from again attending Dr. Guthrie's sermon. This time, he confessed, he went much the worse of drink. But as the orator proceeded, every sentence seemed to sting the youth like a fiery dart, until at last, when the great preacher, bending over the pulpit, uttered in tones of exquisite sweetness and pathos these words -" There are few families among us so happy as not to have had some one near and dear to them either in imminent peril hanging over the precipice, or the slave of intemperance altogether sold under sin. "He could endure the torture no longer, and bursting into tears he hurried from the place. Never shall I forget, he said, either the words or the tones of overpowering yearning with which they were pronounced. I could not rest. After the most miserable night I ever spent, I called to see Dr. Guthrie early next day. His fatherly kindness still further broke me down, and when he had knelt with me at the throne of grace, and offered up a prayer, the like of which I never heard before or since, he bade me farewell, inviting me to return and see him; but I never did so. Two weeks after I was on the ocean, on my way to these fair lands under the "Southern Cross," but now you will understand how it was I could not restrain my emotion on hearing you name Dr. Guthrie.
I could cite numerous cases, never yet published, that have come to my knowledge, of men and women arrested either by the sermons or the book, The City - its Sins and Sorrows. One of the most brilliant members of the Canadian legislature, whose eloquence was the admiration of the Dominion, informed a friend of mine, Had it not been for Guthrie's Sins and Sorrows, I should have been lying in all likelihood by this time in a drunkard's grave. Testimonies such as these are assuredly evidence irrefragable of the permanent character of the work achieved in temperance reform by Thomas Guthrie.
I have already said more on this head than I intended. Suffice it to add that, although in his later years able to do less than before and certainly much less than he desired, to aid the cause of temperance, he never ceased to urge on young people, and especially on young ministers, the importance of becoming abstainers. One of the most scholarly of Free Church ministers informs me that, spending an evening at Dr. Guthrie's house about a week after he was licensed, and chancing to mention that he had resolved to become an abstainer from motives of conscience, as thereby he would have greater freedom in impressing the principles of temperance on others, Dr. Guthrie rose, and with much solemnity laying his hand on the young licentiate's head, he said, May the God of our Fathers, the God who has been to me a buckler and a sure defence in every day of trouble, be the same to you, and make you a mighty blessing in extirpating this hideous disease from our land. I felt, said the minister, as though the dying saint - for this was within a few months of his death - were laying on me the work he had done so long. It was a consecration - a setting apart, and from that day to this I have fought the battle of total abstinence wheresoever it raged.
It is seven-and-twenty years since Dr. Guthrie passed to his rest. New temperance apostles have come to the front, but I question if any of them have quite filled the niche occupied by him. In comparison with Gough - who was his contemporary for some time - Dr. Guthrie's temperance speeches appealed to a class over whom Gough had no influence, the educated and refined portion of the population. He might not possess the whirlwind eloquence of the great American orator, but his effective range was infinitely wider. The late Professor Blackie said he had heard Dr. Guthrie deliver speeches on behalf of temperance which, in all the higher characteristics of oratory fell little, if at all, short of Demosthenes. The work he accomplished in the cause of temperance (i) in Society, (2) in the Free Church, (3) in influencing the Town Council of Edinburgh, (4) in placing the Legislature in possession of such a body of facts and statistics of priceless value, as aided them to come to some decision with regard to licensing legislation, is such as to entitle him to one of the highest places in the ranks of temperance apostles.
Meantime his congregational work was ever upon his mind. After his serious illness, and when the verdict of the doctors became known, his congregation determined that a colleague should be appointed to relieve him of a portion of it. Notwithstanding that the Free Church had set its face against collegiate charges, at that epoch of her history at least, the circumstances here were felt to be altogether so exceptional, that the General Assembly at once granted the request of the congregation, and, after some little delay, the Rev. William Hanna, LL.D., son-in-law and biographer of Scotland's greatest ecclesiastic next to Knox - Dr. Chalmers, - was appointed in 1850 as Dr. Guthrie's colleague and successor. For fifteen years they worked together in harness with that brotherly accord and mutual consideration only to be expected from two men of such intellectual gifts and deep spirituality. Dr. Hanna was aware of the precarious nature of his colleague's health, and that a rather alarming opinion had been given regarding it, by Sir Andrew Clark, the Queen's private physician, to Dr. Alexander Guthrie of Brechin.
Beautiful indeed it was to behold how solicitous for his partner's health was Dr. Hanna when the warning contained in Sir Andrew Clark's opinion was made known. Dr. Guthrie on his side was no less affectionately kind, so that when the separation at length came in 1864, on the senior colleague's heart- affection becoming so pronounced as to preclude the discharge of regular pulpit duties, Dr. Hanna could write of him

"It was my happy privilege, counted by me among the greatest I have enjoyed, of being for fifteen years his colleague in the ministry of Free St. John's, Edinburgh. To one coming from a remote country parish, ten years residence in which had moulded tastes originally congenial with its quiet and seclusion, into something like a fixed habit of retreat, the position was a trying one - to occupy such a pulpit every Sunday, side by side with such a preacher. But never can I forget the kindness and tenderness, the constant and delicate consideration, with which Dr. Guthrie ever tried to lessen its difficulties and to soften its trials. Brother could not have treated brother with more affectionate regard. His family was also increasing, and he deeply felt the responsibilities laid on him as a father in view of the temptations of the great city. He was wont to say, when returning from mourning with those that mourned the bereavement of loved ones, that his Heavenly Father had been peculiarly gracious in this respect to him, inasmuch as the angel of death had never folded its wings over his roof. Seven sons and four daughters were born to him and his beloved spouse, twenty-four years elapsing between the births of the eldest, the late Rev. D. K. Guthrie, Liberton Free Church, Edinburgh, and of the youngest, wee Johnnie, who after twenty months abode on earth winged his way back unto the heaven whence he came. This was the only occasion that Dr. Guthrie had to sorrow over any of his offspring predeceasing him. When to him the summons did come to leave those scenes of earth wherein he had played so prominent a part, it was by an unbroken phalanx of stalwart sons that he was borne to his rest, the babe that had passed away in early infancy constituting all that could be called a gap in the circle round his family board. As they grew up to boyhood, youth, and finally to manhood, his anxiety was that they should be good rather than great men. True greatness lies in goodness, he would say, and the greatest man is he who, with all his greatness in the eyes of the world, nevertheless in the presence of his Saviour becomes as one of those little ones of whom it was said, "Of such is the kingdom of heaven."
During that period, 1849-1855, the catholicity of his sympathies caused him to make many friends in every walk of life and in every class of society. With Lord Jeffrey he had enjoyed some delightful intercourse. After the death of the Judge, Dr. Guthrie was asked to conduct the religious services at the funeral. This he did, and it was the only occasion whereon he wrote a prayer and committed it to memory. I was anxious, he said, to avoid the use of one word that could hurt the feelings of the family; on the other hand, I was bound in duty to my Master to say nothing that would encourage scepticism. The prayer was a very impressive one, and was styled by Wordsworth, who was present and heard it, "a sublime postrophe to the Almighty". At this time, also, it was that the intimacy with the family of the Duke of Argyll commenced, which continued unbroken, a treasured privilege on both sides, until the day of his death. With Lord Southesk, the Right Hon. Fox Maule, afterwards Earl of Dalhousie, the Duchess of Sutherland, and others of the nobility he had much pleasant intercourse; while with many of the highest dignitaries in the Church of England, from the Bishop of London, Dr. Tait, afterwards Primate, and Dr. Fraser, Bishop of Manchester, to the Dean of St. Paul's, Dr. Milman, and the Dean of Westminster - the beloved Stanley - he entered upon relations of close friendship only severed by life's last consummation.
Many of England s greatest statesmen were not ashamed to consult him on the subjects to which he had devoted so many years of earnest study - juvenile crime and destitution and their remedy, pauperism and its treatment, temperance and how to legislate for it, etc. From him Lord John Russell, the Duke of Argyll, Mr. Gladstone, John Bright and others, received carefully verified statistics and ideas founded upon the unimpeachable evidence of facts, which they were able to utilise in legislating for the welfare of our great nation. He was never a party politician in the proper sense of the word.

"I am a Conservative in conserving all that is good; I am a Liberal in advocating a wise liberality as regards Government funds towards all institutions that aim to make men better, soberer, and wiser; and I am a red-hot Radical in seeking to uproot everything tending to disgrace the grand old name of Briton." *

In Scotland, after the last lingering echoes of the storm and stress of the Disruption had died away into the infinite azure of the past, he was eager to be on terms of familiarity and friendship with his ministerial brethren of all denominations. Guthrie has room in his heart for all Churches, said the late Dean Ramsay of Edinburgh; while one of the leading members of the Catholic Apostolic Church remarked with regard to his freedom from bigotry, Dr. Guthrie only needs to know that you love the same Saviour that he loves, to care one straw which of the "isms" you belong to, or whether you belong to an "ism" at all.

* Extract from one of his Ragged School speeches.

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