Monday, 31 December 2012

Christian Assurance

In his Memoirs Guthrie talks about one of his parishioners, a weaver named 'James Dundas' who lived on the north-west boundary of the Arbirlot Parish.  Guthrie claims Dundas lived an isolated existence and had no society (beyond his wife) but that of God and nature.  Like others in rural Scotland at that time Dundas was known as a bit of a poet and known for 'lofty thoughts, and a singularly vivid imagination.'  Guthrie relates a story about Dundas and a loss of assurance on a Communion Sabbath;

'He rose, bowed down by a sense of sin, in great distress of mind; he would go to the church that day, but being a man of a very tender conscience, he hesitated about going to the Lords table; deep was answering to deep at the noise of God's waterspouts, and all God's billows and waves were going over him; he was walking in darkness, and had no light.  In this state he proceeded to put himself in order for church, and while washing his hands, one by one, he heard a voice say, "Cannot I, in my blood, as easily wash your soul, as that water wash your hands?" "Now Minister," he said, in telling me this, "I do not say there was a real voice, yet I heard it very distinctly, word for word, as you now hear me.  I felt a load taken off my mind, and went to the Table and sat under Christ's shadow with great delight" (Memoir and Autobiography, 1896, p 115).   

Assurance is a huge subject and one which many Christians struggle with.  We must distinguish between how we experience Christ on a daily basis (which can vary with our moods and emotions) and the ground of our salvation which is free unmerited grace of God which cannot be shaken by our feelings.  Professor John Murray very helpfully says; 'When we speak of the grounds of assurance, we are thinking of the ways in which a believer comes to entertain this assurance, not of the ground on which his assurance rests.  The grounds of salvation are as secure for the person who does not have full assurance as for the person who has (Collected Writings, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth 1980).

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Charles Dickens and The Devils Acre

My good friend Rev Dr John Nicholls, Chief Executive of the London City Mission recently sent me an interesting link to a website entitled 'Cholera and the Thames'.  Within the website and under the section on 'Cholera in Westminster' there is a section entitled 'The Devils Acre'.  I find it slightly amusing that the heart of political power in the 1840's was once an area of '...thieves...and charlatans' (no change there then).  All quotes below are from the website unless otherwise stated.

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The Devils Acre was 'located in what is currently the prestigious heart of Westminster. Yet at the time of the cholera outbreak, the Devil’s Acre was little more than a dismal swamp, home to a community of beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and charlatans. It was said that it was the area most ideal for housing criminals of all types as the police only made rare visits to the area—and when they did the local inhabitants vigorously repelled them. Charles Dickens’s campaigning magazine ‘Household Words’ featured the area in its very first edition in 1850 and helped to popularise the infamous name that had been given to an area that lay between the pillars of state; Westminster Abbey (Church), Buckingham Palace (Crown) and the Houses of Parliament (State). The streets that encompassed The Devil's Acre were Old Pye Street, Great St Anne's Lane (now St Ann Street and the location of Westminster Archives) and Duck Lane (now St Matthew Street) in the parish of Westminster St Margaret and St John.'

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens would have been very familiar with the area as a young parliamentary reporter and summarised it as follows; 'There is no part of the metropolis which presents a more chequered aspect, both physical and moral, than Westminster. The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey.’

The website confirms the incredible effect of the Ragged School Movement which was taken up by Charles Dickens and others such as Anthony Ashley-Cooper (7th Earl of Shaftesbury), Angela Burdett-Coutts and of course in Scotland Thomas Guthrie.  The famous 'One Tun Pub' in Old Pyre Street, London was a training centre for young street kids who were made in to career criminals.  Dickens was inspired after visiting a Ragged School to write his second novel 'Oliver Twist' or 'The Parish Boys Progress' (an allusion to John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress).  The story of the One Tun Pub parallels the story of Oliver Twist very closely except that the One Tun was converted into a Ragged School and many were helped to choose a different direction in life.

Early attempts to respond to the huge needs of the Devils Acre came from the London City Mission which was begun in 1835 by a Scot named David Nasmith;  'The plight of children in the area, many of them street orphans, also shocked those who went into the area to try and help. The City of London Mission felt that the area was so depraved that it had to be re-conquered for Christianity. For the last half of the 19th century its missionaries compiled reports on the area based on door to door visits in the neighbourhood. One report by missionary Andrew Walker described the extent of the depravity. He was shocked to discover that street orphans were taken off of the streets into ‘the School of Fobology’ which was based in the One Tun pub in Old Pye Street. The ‘Fagin like’ master of the school gave them a master class in the art of pick pocketing. This shocked one wealthy philanthropist Adeline Cooper into buying the pub and converting it into a ‘Ragged school’ with the help of the famous social reformer Lord Shaftesbury. Angela Burdett-Coutts was also a prime mover in the ‘Ragged School’ movement, which sought to provide basic education for poor children. Her involvement in education in the area was long term and eventually she helped to build a school for local children, that still bares her name in Rochester Street, SW1.'

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7th Earl of Shaftesbury
Dickens was going to write a pamphlet on the work of Ragged Schools but instead went on to write 'A Christmas Carol.'  Through this and his magazine 'Household Words' Dickens went on to support the work of the Ragged School movement.  Below is a (very lengthy) letter from Charles Dickens to The Daily News in February 1846 after visiting the Field Lane Ragged School.  Towards the end of the letter Dickens seems to suggest some slight reservations about the schools by saying; 'So far as I have any means of judging of what is taught there, I should individually object to it, as not being sufficiently secular, and as presenting too many religious mysteries and difficulties, to minds not sufficiently prepared for their reception.'  Despite these reservations about the Christian nature of the education, Dickens goes on to heartily recommend the project and appeals to Christian philanthropists to commit money to the building of future Ragged Schools.  Below I have pasted most of the letter but the full version can be found here;

'This attempt is being made in certain of the most obscure and squalid parts of the Metropolis, where rooms are opened, at night, for the gratuitous instruction of all comers, children or adults, under the title of RAGGED SCHOOLS. The name implies the purpose. They who are too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place: who could gain admission into no charity school, and who would be driven from any church door; are invited to come in here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them something, and show them some sympathy, and stretch a hand out, which is not the iron hand of Law, for their correction.'

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The letter continues;
'For the instruction, and as a first step in the reformation, of such unhappy beings, the Ragged Schools were founded. I was first attracted to the subject, and indeed was first made conscious of their existence, about two years ago, or more, by seeing an advertisement in the papers dated from West Street, Saffron Hill, stating "That a room had been opened and supported in that wretched neighbourhood for upwards of twelve months, where religious instruction had been imparted to the poor", and explaining in a few words what was meant by Ragged Schools as a generic term, including, then, four or five similar places of instruction. I wrote to the masters of this particular school to make some further inquiries, and went myself soon afterwards.

It was a hot summer night; and the air of Field Lane and Saffron Hill was not improved by such weather, nor were the people in those streets very sober or honest company. Being unacquainted with the exact locality of the school, I was fain to make some inquiries about it. These were very jocosely received in general; but everybody knew where it was, and gave the right direction to it. The prevailing idea among the loungers (the greater part of them the very sweepings of the streets and station houses) seemed to be, that the teachers were quixotic, and the school upon the whole "a lark". But there was certainly a kind of rough respect for the intention, and (as I have said) nobody denied the school or its whereabouts, or refused assistance in directing to it.

It consisted at that time of either two or three--I forget which-miserable rooms, upstairs in a miserable house. In the best of these, the pupils in the female school were being taught to read and write; and though there were among the number, many wretched creatures steeped in degradation to the lips, they were tolerably quiet, and listened with apparent earnestness and patience to their instructors. The appearance of this room was sad and melancholy, of course--how could it be otherwise!--but, on the whole, encouraging.

The close, low chamber at the back, in which the boys were crowded, was so foul and stifling as to be, at first, almost insupportable. But its moral aspect was so far worse than its physical, that this was soon forgotten. Huddled together on a bench about the room, and shown out by some flaring candles stuck against the walls, were a crowd of boys, varying from mere infants to young men; sellers of fruit, herbs, lucifer-matches, flints; sleepers under the dry arches of bridges; young thieves and beggars--with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction; and UNUTTERABLY IGNORANT.

This, Reader, was one room as full as it could hold; but these were only grains in sample of a Multitude that are perpetually sifting through these schools; in sample of a Multitude who had within them once, and perhaps have now, the elements of men as good as you or I, and maybe infinitely better; in sample of a Multitude among whose doomed and sinful ranks (oh, think of this, and think of them!) the child of any man upon this earth, however lofty his degree, must, as by Destiny and Fate, be found, if, at its birth, it were consigned to such an infancy and nurture, as these fallen creatures had!

This was the Class I saw at the Ragged School. They could not be trusted with books; they could only be instructed orally; they were difficult of reduction to anything like attention, obedience, or decent behaviour; their benighted ignorance in reference to the Deity, or to any social duty (how could they guess at any social duty, being so discarded by all social teachers but the gaoler and the hangman!) was terrible to see. Yet, even here, and among these, something had been done already. The Ragged School was of recent date and very poor; but he had inculcated some association with the name of the Almighty, which was not an oath, and had taught them to look forward in a hymn (they sang it) to another life, which would correct the miseries and woes of this.

The new exposition I found in this Ragged School, of the frightful neglect by the State of those whom it punishes so constantly, and whom it might, as easily and less expensively, instruct and save; together with the sight I had seen there, in the heart of London; haunted me, and finally impelled me to an endeavour to bring these Institutions under the notice of the Government; with some faint hope that the vastness of the question would supersede the Theology of the schools, and that the Bench of Bishops might adjust the latter question, after some small grant had been conceded. I made the attempt; and have heard no more of the subject from that hour.

The perusal of an advertisement in yesterday's paper, announcing a lecture on the Ragged Schools last night, has led me into these remarks. I might easily have given them another form; but I address this letter to you, in the hope that some few readers in whom I have awakened an interest, as a writer of fiction, may be, by that means, attracted to the subject, who might otherwise, unintentionally, pass it over.

I have no desire to praise the system pursued in the Ragged Schools; which is necessarily very imperfect, if indeed there be one. So far as I have any means of judging of what is taught there, I should individually object to it, as not being sufficiently secular, and as presenting too many religious mysteries and difficulties, to minds not sufficiently prepared for their reception. But I should very imperfectly discharge in myself the duty I wish to urge and impress on others, if I allowed any such doubt of mine to interfere with my appreciation of the efforts of these teachers, or my true wish to promote them by any slight means in my power. Irritating topics, of all kinds, are equally far removed from my purpose and intention. But, I adjure those excellent persons who aid, munificently, in the building of New Churches, to think of these Ragged Schools; to reflect whether some portion of their rich endowments might not be spared for such a purpose; to contemplate, calmly, the necessity of beginning at the beginning; to consider for themselves where the Christian Religion most needs and most suggests immediate help and illustration; and not to decide on any theory or hearsay, but to go themselves into the Prisons and the Ragged Schools, and form their own conclusions. They will be shocked, pained, and repelled, by much that they learn there; but nothing they can learn will be onethousandth part so shocking, painful, and repulsive, as the continuance for one year more of these things as they have been for too many years already.

Anticipating that some of the more prominent facts connected with the history of the Ragged Schools, may become known to the readers of The Daily News through your account of the lecture in question, I abstain (though in possession of some such information) from pursuing the question further, at this time. But if I should see occasion, I will take leave to return to it.'
First published February 4, 1846, The Daily News

If you look over to the section on 'Ragged Schools' within this blog you will see an interesting obitury to Andrew Walker, London City Missionary who is referred in the website.  Many thanks to John Nicholls and others in the London City Mission for sending me items from their archives. 

Friday, 28 December 2012

Feeding the Homeless at Christmas

Last Sunday night was Livingston FC's first night on the Bethany Christian Trust Winter Care Shelter for rough sleepers.  Our team worked brilliantly together and cooked a very tasty shepherds pie for around 25 men and women.  Many thanks to Alana, Naurice, June, Marion and Janice (all credit to Janice and her great organising and cooking skills!).   The food was all kindly donated from individuals within the church.  Bethany often talks about 'love in action' but it was very evident last Sunday at St Stephens Church, Edinburgh.  Never underestimate the power of ordinary people and their ability to do extraordinary things. 
The A Team
The Winter Care Shelter is now a well oiled machine with a minimum of 3 staff on at all times.  Each year it operates for 5 months during the coldest months of the winter to provide a safe place for some of the most vulnerable men and women in Edinburgh.  It is entirely funded by donations and costs well over £100,000.   Even more remarkably Bethany manages around 500 volunteers from churches all over Edinburgh and the Lothians. 

As always I was very humbled to see the quiet efficiency, humility and compassion of the staff from Bethany.  The remarkable Mike Sherlock (Bethany Care Shelter Team Leader) had been in an ambulance only a few weeks earlier making his peace with God as he struggled for breath with a massive heart attack.  He was saved by the skill of some great doctors and nurses (and the mercy and grace of God) and it was great to see Mike back at the shelter - doing what he does best.

There is something very raw about the shelter.  Myself and 2 off the staff picked the guys up from Waterloo Place; they were a bit loud, some were a bit tipsy, but all were in great need of a safe place and a hot meal. It's hard not to feel some parallel with the work of the Bethany Winter Care Shelter and Guthrie and his fellow social reformers 160 years ago.  It is obviously on a smaller scale and is perhaps a little less radical than what Guthrie proposed to a city that was (or pretended to be) oblivious to the poverty and squalor on their doorstep.  But the parallels are definitely there to be seen.

Firstly Guthrie had a coherent vision for the poor.  This is sadly lacking today with the doctrinal and ecclesiastical fragmentation of the church in Scotland.  Amidst the heated (and important) debates on subjects such as marriage, the authority of scripture and leadership in the church, we have lost the Biblical vision for the marginalised and the poor.  Despite the Bible being laden with teaching on justice for the oppressed and mercy to the poor, it is relegated within many churches to the last item on the Deacons Court Agenda or to some committee of 'the keen and enthusiastic'.  But compassion for the poor (inside and outside the church) can't be an 'added extra'.  It needs to be part of the DNA of the churches work and ministry as Guthrie made it throughout his work in Angus and Edinburgh.  CH Spurgeon the great Baptist preacher said on one occasion; 'Compassion is a great gospel duty, and it must be hearty and practical. When we see a man in distress, we must not pass him by as the Priest and the Levite did, for thus we shall show that our religion is only skin deep, and has never affected our hearts. We must pity, go near and befriend.'  Sometimes this means as Christians being in places and situations that are well out of our comfort zone - but this is where we are called to be. 
Secondly Guthrie brought churches together to work for the same cause.  While Guthrie was certainly not ecumenical in the modern sense of the word, he certainly favoured inter- church co-operation particularly on such projects as the Ragged Schools.  He is quoted in his Memoir by his sons as saying (in 1867) 'let the ministers or representatives of the different denominations within this city - Episcopalian, Baptist, and Independent, United Presbyterian, Free Church, and Established Church - meet, and form themselves into a real working Evangelical Alliance.  Agreeing to regard all old divisions of parishes with an ecclesiastical right over their inhabitants as nowadays a nullity - let them map out the dark and destitute districts of the city, assigning a district to each congregation.  Let each congregation then go to work upon their own part of the field, and giving some five hundred souls to care for, you would thus cover 'the nakedness of the land'' (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 323). 

With this and other projects Guthrie encouraged collaboration from all churches.  This was particularly seen in the Ragged School movement and when controversy flared over 'protestant indoctrination' Guthrie was able to respond by saying 'the religious instruction conveyed at these schools must necessarily be of the most simple and elementary kind, so as to be adapted to the tender years and gross ignorance of the children.  Its entire freedom from all sectarian biasis effectually secured by the superintendence of a committee impartially selected from the various leading religious bodies composing the great bulk of the community.  The only books hitherto used in the school have been the Bible and the First and Second Books of Education, published under the superintendence of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland.  The Committee feel that they cannot hope for a blessing on their schools if religion is not the pervading principle of the instruction given to the children' (Seed-Time and Harvest; or Plea for Ragged Schools, 1859, p 190). 

Hugh Miller was Editor of the Witness newspaper and great supporter of the Ragged Schools.
Lastly, Guthrie's theology produced action.  Guthrie wasn't the first minister to visit the Cowgate.  He wasn't the first minister to pass the thousands of 'ragged children' that filled the streets and prisons of 19th century Scotland.  Yet why was he one of the few to raise his voice and use his considerable influence to bring about the most incredible acts of Christian philanthropy? Although he was not alone with others such as Dr Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Miller (Editor of the Witness) and James Begg also being used to bring about huge social and spiritual change in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, Guthrie was used to stir up a generation to the plight of the poor and marginalised in urban Scotland.  He was able to fuse doctrine and action, theory and practice and words with deeds like few others before or after him.  Many quotes could embody this but let me leave you with this; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, 'these are the pests of our city'.  Call them if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching.  Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and for ever in a Redeemer's crown' (Seed-Time and Harvest; or Plea for Ragged Schools, 1859, p 52).  Guthrie's theology led to an active Christianity that impacted the world around him.  It is a Christianity we desperately need to recover in Scotland today.

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Saturday, 15 December 2012

Guthrie and the Kilsyth Revival of 1839

Thomas Guthrie was connected with two men who were closely associated with revivals in Scotland - William Chalmers Burns and Robert Murray McCheyne. In revival the Church is given larger measures of the Spirit of God. Sometimes it can come unexpectedly.  Revivals are characterised by conviction of sin, a deep sense of our need for salvation and a great love for God.  Areas like Kilsyth have experienced several revivals over the years including 1742-3 under the ministry of James Robe.  Perhaps the most famous revival associated with Kilsyth was in 1839 when the minister of the parish (Rev William Burns 1779 - 1859) invited his son William Chalmers Burns (1815 -1886) to preach at a communion season.  Destined for the mission field, Chalmers Burns was delayed in going to India but eventually went out to China.  His friend Robert Murray McCheyne (1813 - 1843) invited him to preach in Dundee while McCheyne was in Israel. 

Robert Murray McCheyne

Chalmers Burns preached his first sermon in Dundee in April 1839 and for the first four months he felt he made little progress.  He went back to Kilsyth on 16 July to assist his father at his communion season.  Preaching on Psalm 110 v 3 (Thy people shall be willing in a day of thy power) 'there was an immediate reaction: weeping, tears, shouts of joy and praise, falling to the ground as though dead' (David Robertson, Awakening, 2009, p 161).  After staying in Kilsyth for 3 weeks, Burns returned to Dundee. 

St Peters Free Church

News of the revival had spread across Scotland and after his first service back in Dundee Burns spoke of the events in Kilsyth.  He invited those were interested to wait behind and 100 people remained.  Burns records; 'suddenly the power of God seemed to descend, and all were bathed in tears.  The next evening there was a prayer meeting in the church.  There was much melting of hearts and intense desire after the beloved of the sooner was the vestry door opened to admit those who might feel anxious to converse, than a vast number pressed in with awful eagerness.  It was like a pent up flood breaking forth; tears were streaming from the eyes of many, and some fell to the ground groaning and weeping and crying for mercy.'

In their Memoir of their father Thomas Guthrie's sons talk about their fathers involvement in the Kilsyth revival of 1839.  Dr William Burns was actually an uncle of Mrs Guthrie so the connection was more than just ministerial.  Guthrie travelled to Kilsyth by canal boat where there has been 'more religious conversation in these boats for the last six weeks than for six years before.'  Guthrie heard that while many remained untouched by the revival in a spiritual sense, none could deny the effects on the community.  The man travelling in the boat with Guthrie told him of a local farmer 'who used always to get his turnip fields destroyed and pillaged; nothing of the kind this year - religion had guarded them better than an armed force.'

Arriving in Kilsyth Guthrie records in a notebook his impressions; 'We met last night at eight.  After service, which closed about eleven o'clock, two girls under deep and serious impressions, along with some others, were waiting.  I was much struck with this, that none appeared ashamed of religion...the singing was remarkably loud and cordial, and an air of devoutness among the people...ninety young communicants within two months, from the ages of seventy to twelve...of the ninety, almost the whole were under the most solemn and serious impressions.'

Returning to Edinburgh Guthrie preached a series on Matthew 7 v 16 'ye shall know them by their fruits'.  Guthrie goes on to preach; 'The spies went in to the land of Canaan and returned with a bunch of grapes as proof of its fertility.  I have visited the parish of Kilsyth; and while things have been both said and done there which I cannot approve, while impressions have been made on some that will vanish away like the morning mist from their own hills (for God never sowed wheat but the devil sowed tares), yet I am satisfied that a wonderful work has been done there.  I cannot tell you all; but in facts which came under my own observation I can show, as it were, a bunch of the grapes of Eschol.'

Dr Thomas Guthrie

Guthrie goes on to make an interesting point which I think has some relevance today.  There were many accusations towards Kilsyth (and Dundee) of fanaticism with the church being open every day (and at times all night).  This is how Guthrie responds; 'But am I to be told that, were it possible, it would be fanaticism to keep an open church every night?  What is it to keep an open theatre?  What is it to keep open public-houses?  The place which has been proved to many a poor soul the way to hell is to be kept open; but it is 'fanaticism,' is it, to keep open the way to heaven?  The play houses and the public house are to open wide their portals every night; but the house of God is to be nailed up.  Oh, what an outcry is raised if people linger in God's house hearing the love of Christ till midnight is rung from the tower; but let the theatre discharge its votaries at the very same hour, and not one of these voices would be lifted up against it...Men speak with the tongue of the country they come from; the scorner speaks the tongue of the country he goes to.' 

Guthrie was a great admirer of Robert Murray McCheyne and records their tour of Forfarshire for the Church Extension Committee.  After breakfast one day in Errol, Guthrie and McCheyne were in the garden together when McCheyne started to do gymnastics on some parallel bars.  Guthrie explains in his Autobiography that as McCheyne was hanging by his heels 5-6 feet off the ground the pole snapped and he hit the ground with a terrible thud. While there was a recovery Guthrie claims that McCheyne was never the same man again.  Guthrie says of his companion; 'While a most pleasant and delightful companion enjoying nature and all good and innocent things in this life, he had in a rare and singular degree his 'conversation in heaven.' 

After a few years in Canada, Chalmers Burns went out to China in 1847.  He worked for many years with Hudson Taylor who persuaded him to wear Chinese clothing so he would be more accepted by the people he was seeking to reach.  After 20 years of  ministry in China Burns died in 1868.

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William Chalmers Burns

How should we respond to these amazing stories of revival?  A revival is an extraordinary work of God. In revival the Church is given larger measures of the Spirit of God and often it can come unexpectedly. In Kilsyth in 1839 it was a case of a special anointing on one who was not reckoned to be a great preacher. We must long and look for such times again but as Iain Murray says in his biography of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones: 'Christians are not responsible for the extraordinary but they are responsible for for their personal obedience and for such reformation of the church as is required by the Word of God. Faith in the possibility of revival in the future, if it is true faith, will never lead to passivity in the present' (The Fight of Faith, 1990, p 685).  Thomas Guthrie, William Chalmers Burns and Robert Murray McCheyne could never be accused of passivity and they are an inspiration to us today as we seek to reach out to a lost world .

Monday, 10 December 2012

A Mission of Mercy

I had a very enjoyable day off from work today.  After dropping three boys off at school, and after a much needed porridge and coffee at Pret a Manger (a great company who give a lots of money and food to homeless charities), I made my way to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street.  To my shame I can't ever remember visiting before although I'm sure I must have been taken at some point in my childhood.  

After a recent discussion with the fount of all things Free Church, Mr Bill Anderson, I went to look at the two current paintings of Dr Thomas Guthrie hanging in the gallery and ask to look at others in their archives.  The first painting on display was originally entitled 'Dr Guthrie on a Mission of Mercy'.  It is of Guthrie standing at the top of the Lawnmarket with St Giles clearly in the background.  Having just re-read Guthrie's 'Seed Time and Harvest - A Plea for Ragged Schools' the painting doesn't quite capture the harrowing scenes of emaciated children that Guthrie describes.  It does, however capture Guthrie's tenderness for the thousands of 'ragged children' who were victims of the extreme poverty, lack of access to education and general abuse by addicted or absent parents.  Guthrie conservatively estimated the figure of ragged children in Edinburgh to be around 1000 in the mid 1840's although the figure could well have been twice that.

Rev. Thomas Guthrie, 1803 - 1873. Preacher and philanthropist (Exhibited as Dr Guthrie on a Mission of Mercy)

I can't say much about the painter other than what I have picked up on line.  It was a James Edgar (1819 - 1876) who also has a painting of Robert Burns in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  The inscription below the painting gives a very brief overview of Guthrie's life.

The other painting of Guthrie currently hanging in the gallery is a much more domestic scene with Guthrie out fly fishing with his children Patrick and Anne on Lochlee.  

The inscription reads; 'The influential churchman and social reformer Thomas Guthrie was born in Brechin in Angus. He helped found the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Guthrie was also an outspoken supporter of education for all and a passionate opponent of alcohol abuse. Guthrie took up fishing in order to spend time outdoors. Whilst at his Highland retreat at Lochlee, he practised trout fishing and was often found on the loch: 'We are all fishing daft here. My brother Patrick says that between us all together he cannot get a word of rational conversation; nothing but "trouts, baits, hooks, bobs, drags, flies, dressings, hackle and tackle.”' This oil sketch depicts a father at leisure with his children but also alludes to Guthrie’s profession as a 'fisher of men'.'  The painter was Sir George Harvey (1806 - 1876); 'Harvey is best known for his Scottish history painting and contemporary narrative scenes. Many of his subjects, designed to invite an emotional response, appear rather sentimental to modern viewers but were extremely popular when first exhibited.'

Rev. Thomas Guthrie, 1803  -1873. Preacher and philanthropist (With his children, Patrick and Anne, fishing on Lochlee)

There are around 60 other photos or prints of Guthrie in the archives including one of his Kirk Session in Free St John's which I hope to go back and see. 

After a very enjoyable morning I spent some time in the Chalmers Hall of the Free Church College trying to track down the book 'Out of Harness' which Guthrie wrote about various periods of his life.  Prof John Macintosh gave me some help with other Thomas Guthrie sources I hope to look at  over the next few months including Session Minutes from Arbirlot, Old Greyfriars, St John's and Free St John's at the National Archives.  

It was a quick sprint back to Tollcross for a very entertaining Gaelic Pantomime by some very talented actors from Inverness.  A busy but enjoyable day!!

Monday, 26 November 2012

A Friend of the Poor and the Oppressed

Dr Thomas Guthrie’s statue in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh epitomises what many of us involved in Christian social action are seeking to achieve; with a Bible in one hand and his other hand resting protectively on a ‘ragged child’ Guthrie’s life combined the two great priorities of the church; truth and love.  Despite his great achievements, Guthrie is almost unknown today either as a preacher or social reformer.  While there were a number of wonderful books of sermons published in his lifetime none are readily available today except through ‘print to order’.  The lack of knowledge about Guthrie is surely a tragedy and the study of Guthrie’s life and ministry reaps a rich reward for anyone who takes the time and energy to find out more about this great man. 

Early Life and University
Born in July 1803 in the town of Brechin to the son of a local merchant and banker, Thomas Guthrie went on to study at Edinburgh University at the tender age of 12.  As he himself comments in his autobiography ‘beyond the departments of fun and fighting I was in no way distinguished at college’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 40).  After 4 years of philosophy and literature and then a further 4 of theology, Guthrie undertook a further 2 years studying chemistry, anatomy and natural history.  It was during this time that Guthrie attended the lectures of the famous Dr Knox connected to the Burke and Hare murders. 

Hope Postponed
Despite clear ability, Guthrie had to wait 5 years for a charge.  These years were not wasted with Guthrie enrolling in the Sorbonne in France to study during the winter of 1826/7.  He certainly saw another side to life in Paris and sums it up by saying ‘Paris is the best place in the world for pursuing any science, saving those of morality and religion’ (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 243).  Returning to Brechin in March 1828 Guthrie worked in his father’s bank (The Dundee Union Banking Company) for several years before finally being called to Arbirlot, Angus in 1830.  The Manager of the banks head office in Dundee said to Guthrie on one occasion; ‘if you only preach, sir, as well as you have banked, you will be sure to succeed’ (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 258).  During this time he became an accomplished platform speaker and as well as regular preaching, became involved in the Apocrypha controversy which was particularly fierce in Brechin.

Spending nearly 10 years at university and then a further 5 without a church prepared Guthrie in a unique way for the challenges ahead.  His sons comment in their Memoir of their father ‘these five years of hope deferred, however, afforded Mr Guthrie a profitable though peculiar training for the eminent place he was afterwards to fill.  His scientific studies in Edinburgh, his residence abroad, his experience of banking in his father’s banking-house, the leisure he enjoyed for enlarging his stores of general information, had all their influence in making him the many sided man he became’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 225).

Evangelist and Preacher
Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and his common touch made him unconventional (but very successful) in both his approach to social reform and his evangelism.  He says in his autobiography; ‘If ministers were less shut up in their own shells, and had more common sense and knowledge of the world, they would cling less tenaciously to old forms, suitable enough to bygone but not to the present times’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 89).  He went on to prove this in his first charge in Arbirlot (1830-37) by abolishing two Sunday services.  They were replaced by a longer service at noon and an evening Bible Class for young people aged 15-25.  At the ‘Minister’s Class’ Guthrie would work through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, give a shorter, simplified version of the earlier sermon (‘abundantly illustrated by examples and anecdotes’) and test the knowledge of his students.  As Guthrie says in his autobiography; ‘None of the services and ecclesiastical machinery at work did so much good, perhaps, as this class’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 127).

Guthrie’s reputation grew rapidly and after 7 years in Angus he was called to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh and was inducted in September 1837 as assistant to Rev Sym.  Guthrie preached to huge congregations of the middle and upper classes in his new congregation but many of the poor were kept out due to pew rents.  An afternoon service in the Magdalen Chapel was where Guthrie connected with the poor and marginalised in the infamous Cowgate district of Edinburgh.  His great desire was to communicate the redeeming power of the gospel to those who were often shut out of the Scottish Church in 19th century Scotland.  When he eventually planted the new church of St John’s in 1840 he reserved 650 seats for the people of his parish regardless of their ability to pay pew rents. 

Guthrie combined solid reformed theology with a simple, accessible (if somewhat flowery) style.  He says ‘…I used the simplest, plainest terms, avoiding anything vulgar, but always, where possible, employing the Saxon tongue – the mother tongue of my hearers.  I studied the style of the addresses which the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry disquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abounded in metaphors, figures and illustrations.  I turned to the gospels, and found that He who knew what was in man, what could best illuminate a subject, win the attention, and move the heart, used parables and illustrations, stories, comparisons, drawn from the scenes of nature and familiar life…’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 130).  Like Thomas Chalmers Guthrie followed the parochial or territorial system of church planting.  This is defined by his sons in their Memoir of their father as; the church at the door of the poor, the church free to all, a properly equipped school in every parish and elders, deacons and district visitors used to make regular contact with parishioners.  As soon as Guthrie planted St John’s he outlined his vision for 30 elders and 15 deacons to actively pastor a relatively small area of central Edinburgh.  His evangelism was relational, low key but always with a long term vision for the transformation of the local community.

Social Reformer
While Dr Guthrie was one of the finest preachers of the Free Church in the 19th Century, his greatest legacy was surely as a social reformer.  This is summed up on his statue in Edinburgh which declares he was ‘a friend of the poor and the oppressed’.  This started in his first parish in Angus.  Guthrie established a savings bank and library; ‘The success of the bank and the library I attribute very much to this, that I myself managed them.  They were of great service by bringing me into familiar and frequent and kindly contact with my people’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 113).  Guthrie believed that the minister should live and work amongst the people.  Writing while still in Arbirlot he said to a Mr Dunlop; ‘I have discovered from my own experience that the further the people are removed from the manse, the less influence has the minister over them: and if a man won’t live among the scum of the Cowgate I would at once say to him ‘You can’t be my minister’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 309). 

When Guthrie arrived in Edinburgh in 1837 it was growing rapidly with the industrial revolution.   With large scale immigration from Ireland and large scale movement within Scotland from the country to the cities, Guthrie found extreme overcrowding combined with the most heart rending poverty within central Edinburgh.  Drunkenness was a widespread problem with many children being forced out to beg, borrow and steal to feed their parents habit.  There is a famous story told in Guthrie’s book ‘Out of Harness’ that describes how Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge just after he arrived in Edinburgh.  Looking down on his new parish known as the Cowgate he describes ‘a living stream of humanity in motion beneath his feet’.  A hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned around to find the famous preacher and reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers.  Standing in silence for a few moments Chalmers eventually exclaimed ‘a beautiful field sir; a very fine field of operation!’ (Out of Harness, p 126).  This was the field that Guthrie was to labour in for the rest of his active ministry.

Ragged Schools
Guthrie was appalled by what he saw around him on the streets of Edinburgh when he arrived in 1837.   Writing in 1872 Guthrie says; ‘Five-and-thirty years ago, on first coming to this city, I had not spent a month in my daily walks in our Cowgate and Grassmarket without seeing that, with worthless, drunken and abandoned parents for their only guardians, there were thousands of poor innocent children, whose only chance of being saved from a life of ignorance and crime lay in a system of compulsory education’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 438).  Inspired by a cobbler from Portsmouth called John Pounds who saved 500 ‘ragged children’ from a life of neglect and delinquency, Guthrie became the Scottish ‘Apostle’ of the Ragged School movement.  There was already an Industrial Feeding School in Aberdeen pioneered by a Sherriff Watson in 1841 but the key difference was that Guthrie’s Ragged Schools were always attended by choice rather than coercion or as an alternative to custody.  Inspired by the Aberdeen school, and a similar school in Dundee established in 1842, Guthrie began to gather those of like mind to rescue thousands of children who, as he says of one poor boy were; ‘launched on a sea of human passions and exposed to a thousand temptations…left by society, more criminal than he, to become a criminal, and then punished for his fate, not his fault’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 440).

The ‘Ragged School Movement’ was galvanised by the publication of Guthrie’s now famous book ‘Seedtime and Harvest of Ragged Schools’ which was revised and republished three times.  His great skills as a communicator were put to excellent use in this book and Guthrie powerfully put forward the compelling social, economic and spiritual arguments for Ragged Schools.  Guthrie rises to his greatest heights of language in lambasting the money wasted in prisons and the inaction of the general (and particularly the Christian) public; ‘God forbid that I should judge any! Only I cannot comprehend the humanity of the man who stands on a stormy beach with a wreck before him, drowning wretches hanging in its shrouds, their pitiful cries wafted to his ears their imploring hands stretched out to the shore, and who does not regard this dreadful scene otherwise with cold indifference’ (Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, 1860, p 161).  Guthrie argues that the schools harmonised the views of two of Scotland’s preeminent philanthropists; ‘Our scheme furnishes a common walk for both.  They meet in our school room.  Dr Alison [William Alison, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh, who advocated social and economic measures to alleviate poverty] comes in with his bread – Dr Chalmers with his Bible: here is food for the body – there for the soul’ (Quoted in Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 457).   

The Ragged Schools were ingenious in that they didn’t take the children out of their homes but gave them a solid education and structure during the day.  The children attended for 12 hours during the winter and 11 hours during the summer.  The school day started at 8am with ‘ablutions’ followed by work, breakfast and play, calling roll and Bible lesson, work, walking, dinner, education, work or education, work and supper.  Interestingly there was a good balance between work, play and education and Guthrie often stresses how the children needed to be broken with Christian kindness rather than the lash of corporal punishment; ‘punishments are rare.  We work by love and kindness; and, though on entering our school they are as foul as the gutter out of which they had been plucked, unbroken as the wild Arab or wild ass of the desert, ignorant of everything that is good, with rags on their backs and misery in their looks, such change comes over them that better-behaved scholars, sharper intellects, happier faces you will see nowhere (Seed Time of Ragged Schools, 1860, p 165).  The results of the ragged schools were remarkable.  The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under 14’s (5% of the prison population).  By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%) (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 459).  Guthrie and his fellow philanthropists had proved that prevention was indeed better than cure.

Guthrie was an outstanding preacher, a faithful pastor, a winsome evangelist and one of Scotland’s finest social reformers.  Guthrie’s legacy lives on in the provision that there is both in terms of welfare and education for rich and poor alike.  While Guthrie would be saddened at the secularisation there has been in the public school system, he would surely be pleased to see education being offered to every child free of charge.  Few would deny that Guthrie and others like Thomas Chalmers, James Begg and Dr William Alison paved the way for the modern welfare system

Rev Tomas Guthrie died in the early hours of Monday 24th February 1873 with his faithful Highland nurse and his family at his bedside.  It is said that with the exception of Dr Thomas Chalmers and Sir James Simpson, Edinburgh had not seen a funeral like it in a generation.  It was reported that 230 children from the original ragged school attended his funeral and sang a hymn at the grave. One little girl was overheard saying ‘He was all the father I ever knew.’  Amongst Guthrie’s last words he was overheard to say ‘a brand plucked from the burning!’  His legacy was that through his vision and love for his Saviour, the Ragged School movement was established which in turn plucked thousands of little brands from a life of poverty and crime, and brought them to know the ultimate friend of sinners.

Guthrie on Early Intervention

Recently I was asked to speak to some business people on social transformation.  I was only too happy to use Guthrie as an example.

The Lions Clubs International Convention Aberdeen
17th November 2012

It’s a real pleasure to be with you all today.

In his memoirs, Geoffrey Cox who was a Director with ITN for many years talks about his time in the army as an Intelligence Officer and how, during WW2, he gathered all his commanders around him each morning.  Cox says of his commanders; ‘The lives of the men they commanded and, indeed their own would depend on the accuracy of the information I imparted…It developed in me a relish for establishing the truth, which is an end in itself.’ 

We can ever get to the root of an issue we need to establish the truth. 

Why do we need social transformation in Scotland today?

  • In 2011/12 45,322 households presented as homeless to Scottish Local Authorities
  • 17% of adults and 20% of children in Scotland live in poverty
  • 60% of young people leaving care have no formal qualifications
  • The Scottish prison population is expected to rise to 9,500 by 2019
  • Reoffending rates within 2 years of release stand at 47%
  • 222,000 people are unemployed in Scotland with youth unemployment currently at 23.7%.
  • Foodbanks – The Trussell Trust have now established 180 foodbanks across the UK with 18 in Scotland. 
  • Suicide rates amongst young men in Scotland are 80% higher than in England and Wales.
  • Drugs – there are 60,000 people in Scotland with serious drug issues.
Whether we would agree that we live in a ‘Broken Britain’ or not, we are certainly facing some huge challenges. 
So how to we bring about change? 
  • More investment? 
  • More government? 
  • Better systems? 
  • More rights? 
  • Better legislation? 
  • Better leadership?
All these things are critical but the main issue is much more fundamental.

Bethany Christian Trust’s main focus is on homelessness although it is impossible to take this in isolation.  The truth about the reason for homelessness is clear from the statistics that every year show relationship breakdown within marriages, partnerships, friendships and communities is the main cause of people finding themselves without a home.

Services which focus on housing and health and infrastructure, while they will all help, are not going to get to the crux of what is primarily an issue of interpersonal relationships.

We know homelessness is mainly caused by harmful and by broken relationships. What we need in Scotland is a radical improvement in the quality of our relationships with each other and the importance that we place on them; whether they are in marriages, friendships, companies, churches or communities.

We need to purposefully and concertedly work on our relationships if we are to overcome the issues that lead to people becoming homeless in Scotland.

I’ve been asked to speak today on social transformation.  But let me ask another question – what do people need to thrive?  
Let me suggest three things; 
  • we all need people around us who we can love and turn to in a crisis
  • we all need somewhere we can call home
  • we all need a sense of purpose.
How can we achieve these things?
1.       By intervening early
2.       By working together

1.  Early intervention
There is increasing evidence that prevention is better than cure.  We can think of many examples of this.

The Scottish Council Single Homeless estimate that the cost of a failed tenancy is anything from £25-45,000.  The work that Bethany is doing at our Community Projects here in Aberdeen and across Scotland helps people before they get in to crisis to avoid all the human misery and cost that comes through eviction. 

This holds true in almost every area;
  • If we invest in budgeting and financial management we can help young people to avoid debt
  • If we invest early in wellbeing we can cut down the rise in mental health issues
  • If we are trained to recognise the symptoms of somebody contemplating suicide we can intervene and avoid needless deaths.

Similar evidence is available with regard to early intervention with children at risk of abuse and neglect.  It is estimated that for every £1 spent on prevention £20-30 is saved on acute services.

As the report Early Intervention, Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens by Graham Allen MP and Iain Duncan Smith MP says;

Suppose that we help a young mother and a toddler with a £1000 worth of health visiting at the time she and her baby need it most: that makes more sense than waiting 16 years in order to pay £230,000 to incarcerate that baby in a young offenders’ secure unit for a year when he has gone astray.

One of my great heroes pioneered early intervention over 150 years ago.  Thomas Guthrie’s statue looks very lonely in Princess Street Gardens with hardly a soul knowing who he was or what he achieved.  But there is a clue in the statue; Guthrie holds a Bible in one hand and his other arm is protectively wrapped around a little orphan or ‘ragged child’.  The inscription beneath reads ‘a friend of the poor and the oppressed.’ 

Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and preacher.  After a his first Parish in Fife where he established a savings bank and library for his parishioners, Guthrie was called to the rapidly industrialising city of Edinburgh where after three years at Old Greyfriars he built a new church called St Johns in one of the poorest and degraded parts of Edinburgh between the Lawnmarket and the Grassmarket. 

Guthrie saw all around him the need for social transformation.  Children slept rough, begged and stole to exist.  Drunken parents threw them out on the streets and wouldn’t let them back until they had collected enough money to pay for the next round of gin. 

The ragged schools movement, which was started by Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen where they were known as Industrial Feeding Schools, became Guthrie’s life’s work.  Countless 1000’s of children were rescued from a life of abuse and neglect and given love, a place to call home and a sense of purpose. 

The facts speak for themselves;
  • The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under 14’s (315 out of 5743 or 5%).
  • By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%).
Guthrie preached a transformational message.  Just like the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 he saw many younger brothers in the pigsty of life but told them about a God who could offer forgiveness and transformation through grace.  There were many in the Scottish Church in those days who were horrified at what Guthrie was doing.  Even his elders at St John’s were frightened at the prospect of feeding little street urchins in the basement of the church.  They were like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son; proud, angry, superior, condescending and ultimately unable to love the broken and filthy that this world puts before us. 

Guthrie is a great example of the power and effectiveness of early intervention.  As with everything, early intervention has gone full circle and it has become the political flavour of the month.  In his speech to the Local Government Association in 2007 the Prime Minister David Cameron said;
…ask a primary school teacher with a class of 5 year olds, which ones are likely to be in trouble with the law in 5 or 10 years’ time – and chances are, the teacher will be able to tell you with total accuracy. So given this, why do we wait until kids are 10 or 15 before we try to intervene? Why do we wait till the problems have got worse, and the kids are bigger and more angry and more upset?…There is a depressing journey too many of our young people take – a journey of three letter acronyms. From an EBD unit to a PRU. From the PRU to a YOI. And finally to an HMP. Early intervention is the best hope we’ve got to get people off this journey.

As Guthrie showed and as a mountain of research proves early intervention works.

2.  The second way can achieve social transformation is by working together
Four years ago rough sleeping and homelessness in general was a huge issue in Aberdeen.  Over 2008/9 Aberdeen City Council were turning away many people due to lack of suitable temporary accommodation.  While many turned to relatives for accommodation for others the streets became their home.  Begging was very visible along Union Street and around the city centre. 

Over the last four winters Bethany coordinated a Winter Care Shelter for rough sleepers in 10 church venues in Aberdeen city centre with 21 local churches providing a two course hot meal at 9:30pm each night.  Over 250 volunteers worked alongside Bethany staff.  The impact of this project has been incredible as the rough sleeping figures have decreased year on year. With homelessness figures falling, services redesigned towards prevention rather than emergency response and the volume and quality of temporary accommodation having been increased, there are no plans to run a rough sleepers shelter this year.  That’s what I call social transformation.

The Winter Care Shelter is an example of good partnership working between Bethany and Aberdeen City Council.  Most of all it proves the power of community involvement and how 100’s of volunteers were only too willing to give up their time and respond to a huge need in their community. 

Only last week a private company in Aberdeen decorated the flat of a woman who had been run out of one area by anti social behaviour.  About a dozen employees took 2 days out of their work to decorate and furnish a flat for a woman who had nothing in life and nobody to turn to.

Another example is our befriending project.  Six years ago we saw the need for community support for people leaving our services.  Bethany trains up very ordinary people to get along side isolated people.  The results have been staggering.  Over the last few years we have worked with 133 people and only one person has not maintained their tenancy.  This is real social transformation; ordinary people getting alongside other people and helping them to integrate and assimilate into the community. 

Social transformation is complex.  There is no silver bullet, no one size fits all and no easy strategy for every area. 

I have outlined what I believe are some important principles; intervening early, and working in partnership.  But none of this will happen unless we have a long term vision.  Some of our communities almost have to be rebuilt because all sense of community and responsibility has completely broken down. 

As with almost every of life, relationships are key.  Strategy, legislation and government can do so much but it is people who make the difference. 

Imagine if everyone in the conference resolved to do one thing to make a difference.  If everyone here decided to befriend somebody who is isolated, mentor an offender, train a young person regarded as unemployable?  Imagine the impact you could have collectively. 

For those of you have watched the short film on Bethany in Aberdeen available on our website you will have seen and heard an interview with David.  Two years ago David stood on Union Bridge deciding the most effective way to kill himself.  After police intervention and several nights in a Bethany Christian Trust Winter Care Shelter, David got accommodation with Aberdeen City Council and is now settled in a flat.  During the film David says ‘rough sleeping, it’s a misnomer.  You don’t sleep, you doze…if you’re lucky.  Later on in the film David shows us his new flat.  He says ‘After a couple of weeks I stopped saying I was going back to my flat and said I’m going home.’ 

This is the vision that we have in Bethany Christian Trust.  Not just that we see people accommodated but that people find a place where they belong, that they have a sense of purpose and where they can play a full part in their community. 

If we work together, we can create a more caring and compassionate society. 

Thanks for inviting me and enjoy the rest of your conference!