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.
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.
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 .