Saturday, 21 December 2013

The City: its Sins and Sorrows

I have just finished a new foreword for Thomas Guthrie's seminal book The City: its Sins and Sorrows.  I am so grateful to Michael Pate from GLH Publishing for offering to make this available as an e-book.  They have also made Guthrie's Early Piety available and you can download it here
Tackling the problem of homelessness and children caught up in crime was never enough for Guthrie; he wanted to deal with the cause as well as the symptoms.  It was a natural progression that he should expand his campaigning from prevention and cure of crime and homelessness amongst the young, to the drunkenness that was the cause of most of the problems in Scottish society.  As Guthrie often said; “an ounce of prevention is worth of a ton of cure”.    In his role as a social reformer, along with others such as Thomas Chalmers and James Begg, Guthrie saw himself as stemming the tide of intemperance.  He writes; “the position of social reformers resembles that of the priests who went down into the Jordan bearing the ark of God, and, leaving the waters that had already passed to pursue their course and find a grave in the Dead Sea, arrested the descending current.  We have tried to accomplish something like this” (Thomas Guthrie, Early Piety, London, 1868). 
Interestingly enough Guthrie himself did not become a total abstainer until the age of 38.  While he was always against drunkenness it was an experience while over in Ireland that turned him away from drink altogether.  While travelling with a ministerial friend in 1841 they stopped at a small county inn on a terrible cold night. Seeking some warmth and comfort they ordered some ‘toddies’ (whiskey and hot water).  Out of kindness they called in their driver and offered him the same hospitality.  Guthrie was stunned when this staunch, but uneducated and uncultured, Roman Catholic explained that he was a teetotaller and would not touch a drop of alcohol.  From that day forward Guthrie resolved to abstain from alcohol and became one of the leaders of the temperance movement.
The determination with which Guthrie pursued the temperance cause was all the more remarkable when we understand how unusual this position was in the first half of  the 19th century.  In his autobiography he reckons that when he was at Edinburgh University there was not a single student who was an abstainer.  Perhaps even more remarkably Guthrie was unaware of any minister in the Church of Scotland who was a teetotaller.  Undeterred by this, after the Disruption, Guthrie established the Free Church Temperance Society along with Horatius Bonar and William Chalmers Burns.  When the ‘Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness’ was formed in 1850 they turned to Guthrie to write their first booklet entitled ‘A Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness’.  Other booklets followed and Guthrie was instrumental in bringing about the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1853 or the ‘Forbes Mackenzie Act’, as it is better known.  This Act forced public houses to close at 10.00 pm on weekdays and all day on Sundays.  Even today it is still illegal to buy alcohol after 10.00 pm in shops, although sadly this is not so in a Public Houses.  
Guthrie’s work on total abstinence reached its climax with preaching a series of sermons  on Luke 19 v 41 and their publication under the title, The City, Its Sins and Sorrows’ in 1857.  The impact that these sermons had around the world were huge but space allows us to mention only one of them.  One of Guthrie’s later biographers, Oliphant Smeaton, recounts meeting a wealthy Scot while visiting Australia.  This man, while resident in Scotland, had lived a dissolute lifestyle but one day found himself wandering in to St John’s Free Church.  Listening to the powerful oratory of Guthrie as he preached on Christ weeping over Jerusalem, the man left affected but unchanged.  All week he tried to kill his conscience through plunging headlong into drunkenness. 
The following Sunday he was drawn back to hear Guthrie again despite being under the influence of drink.  The great orator did not disappoint.  Toward the end of his sermon he leaned his huge frame over the pulpit and said with great feeling: "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."  The hearer could contain his emotions no longer and left a broken man.  The following day he sought out Dr Guthrie and was dealt with "fatherly kindness."  He continues: "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” (Oliphant Smeaton, Thomas Guthrie,  Edinburgh, 1900, p 98-99).  Within weeks the man was on a ship to Australia where he became a wealthy businessman and generous contributor to charity work.
Guthrie’s influence was so great that he helped to shape and influence the future life of society in Scotland.  The Free Church at that time boasted some of the greatest men to grace Scottish Church history, among them Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Miller, William Cunningham, Robert Candlish, Andrew Bonar  and James Begg.  While Chalmers stood out among them for oratory and statesmanship, Guthrie came close to him in effect and influence.  Guthrie’s statue records that he was a ‘friend of the poor and the oppressed’ but his over-all influence was so remarkable that he defied all categories.  The old Greek word ‘polymath’ is rarely used today but for men like Guthrie and Chalmers, it comes close to describing the vast array of areas they were involved in - theology, education, politics, science, writing and campaigning.  They were as much at home among the poor as mixing with the richest and most influential people of the 19th century.  Guthrie’s writings, particularly as editor of the Sunday Magazine from 1865-1873 could range from theology to social policy and from nature to politics. 
As you will discover when you read The City its Sins and Sorrows, the sermons have much to teach us much about the man. Guthrie preaches like the Saviour he loved. His words are full of love, pity and pathos.  His heart had been broken by the sights he had seen in his pastoral visits and this is reflected in his sermons.  As Christ wept over the state of the people of Jerusalem, Guthrie was broken over the drunkenness he saw ruining lives and destroying families across Scotland but particularly in Edinburgh.  We need to rediscover Guthrie's love for cities.  We need to weep over them, work in them and mend the many broken lives devastated through addiction.  As Guthrie says in his final sermon; "Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work.  Let us thus embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, - although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours" (Thomas Guthrie, The City: its Sins and Sorrows, Edinburgh, 1857).

Friday, 13 December 2013

Guthrie and the Silver Teapot

I spent a very enjoyable hour at the Edinburgh Museum, 142 Canongate last week. After a few months of negotiation I finally managed to get to handle the silver teapot presented to Dr Guthrie and his wife when he retired in 1864 on the grounds of ill health. A Committee was established to ensure that Dr Guthrie was supported in his retirement and that his incredible work was marked appropriately. The committee included the Earls of Dalhousie, Shaftesbury, Carlisle, Kintore and Southesk, the Lord Bishops of London and St David's, the Right Hon W.E. Gladstone as well as clerks and tradesmen. 
We learn in Guthrie's Memoirs that he found out about the testimonial prior to the presentation.  In classic Guthrie humility he wrote to Mr J.R. Dymock in Lochlee; "Some may fancy that this may blow me up.  I have no feelings of the kind, not because I am above the ordinary feelings of our nature, or have not a great deal more corruption than I should have; but such a thing sends a man back to think of his own unworthiness before God, and, if at all right-minded, humbles rather than puffs up; leading him, when he looks at himself and the many blessings he enjoys  than others not less unworthy and perhaps more deserving, to say 'What am I?'"  Despite all his achievements, and even at the end of his long and fruitful ministerial career Guthrie could only see himself as an unprofitable servant.  Some of our ministers could learn a few lessons from Dr Guthrie.
On February 20th 1865 at the Royal Hotel, Edinburgh the 'Testimonial of Admiration and Esteem' was handed over to Dr Guthrie which consisted of £5000 and a 'silver tea and coffee service'. Guthrie responded; "...I do not despise the money; I never did despise money.  Many a day have I wished I had a great deal more money, for I would have found a great deal more happiness in doing good to others, as it were not needed in any other way;...but, next to the approbation of God, of my blessed Master, and of my own conscience, there is nothing on which I set so high a value as the assurance this testimonial warrants me to entertain, that I have won a place in the hearts of other Christians besides those of my own denomination." 
Unbelievably this beautiful piece of history remains in the archives and is not on display. Perhaps with the exception of a mention in the tiny Old Greyfriars Kirk exhibition there is no official museum which tells the incredible story of Guthrie and the way the Lord used him to rescue thousands from a life of poverty and abuse.  Wouldn't it be great to see this story told and to see these amazing pieces of history on display for everyone to see?  Perhaps one day we will see a Guthrie Museum in Edinburgh - wouldn't that be great?
Guthrie reminds us of Proverbs 10 v 7 'The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked shall rot.'  What kind of legacy are we leaving?  If Guthrie was alive today he would invite you to come to the Saviour who he preached and followed.  It is not religion that we all need it is the Lord Jesus Christ.  I'll leave the last word to Dr Guthrie; 'Never mistake the dead robes for the living body of religion. Never forget that "to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before God," is what the Lord requires of thee; that faith without works is dead; that form without spirit is dead; and that, the highest piety being ever associated with the deepest humility, true religion is like the sweetest of all singing-birds, the skylark, which with the lowest nest but highest wing dwells in the ground, and yet soars to the skies' (The Pharisee and Publican, The Parables, 1874).


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Good quote

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

A Few Days in London

I do love a wee trip to London.  Most people faint when they hear I was born in Wembley when my father was working for the Banner of Truth in 1972.  Despite leaving at the tender age of 1 (I apparently has a cockney gurgle) I do love going back.  Most of my Englishness has vanished except a love for West Ham United and an interest in Oliver Cromwell.
Along with my colleague David McAdam from Caring for Ex Offenders Scotland we were down on Thursday and Friday last week to see round the London City Mission and attend the Prison Ministry Conference at HTB.  A fellow Scot and London City Mission Director, Duncan Cuthhill, very kindly set up some visits for us.
We stayed in the London City Mission Hostel in Tower Bridge Road along with some of the students taking a gap year to work around London in evangelism.  We ate both evenings at a restaurant looking out on to the HMS Belfast which after the Imperial War Museum is probably my favourite destination in London.
Captain Murray at the helm
On Thursday morning we started off our day by visiting the LCM Webber Street Day Centre.  We were taken down to the basement where they serve breakfast to around 80 people per day.  It was great to see a quote from Proverbs 12 v 25 on the blackboard 'weariness in the heart of man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad.'  It was a good summary of what we witnessed for the next 3 hours.  Watching the staff show love to so many people who the world had forgotten was a real inspiration.


One of the volunteers, David, who has been volunteering for 11 years and Tim Fielder the 'Floor Coordinator'
Around 9am the doors opened and around 80 men and a few women came in.  The centre seeks to offer spiritual and practical help to homeless and vulnerable people in London and amazingly serves around 15000 breakfasts per year! 

All the staff and volunteers were incredibly warm and hospitable and after tea and coffee we listened to a short talk from Matthew 16 'Who do men say that I am?'  Everyone listened with great respect.  Anyone who doesn't want to listen to the talk is allowed in after the talk is finished. 
Before I could lift my eyes from the short prayer about 50 of the guys had sprinted to the kitchen hatch to queue up for a hearty breakfast of beans, fish fingers, toast and croquets!  The two guys I was sitting with were from (where else?) Glasgow.  One of them spoke about being evicted from homeless accommodation for not paying his service charge.  He is currently rough sleeping just of Fleet Street.  It was great to hear that Webber Street were not only feeding him but helping him find alternative accommodation.
After breakfast the guys can hang around and read papers, play chess or chat to staff.  For those who had booked a shower (up to 15 per day) their number was called and they went up to the next floor.  As well as getting a shower those who had booked a shower could choose some new clothes at the clothing store.

As well as clothes and showers, those visiting Webber Street can request to see an NHS Nurse.  There are also agencies that come in offering support with mental health issues and addiction.

The centre is open 5 days per week.  Fridays are for 1 to 1 sessions to try and help people find accommodation or get support for addiction.  On Saturdays a church come in and serve food which is a great example of Christian organisations and churches working together.
Leaving Webber Street we made our way East to Tower Hamlets and the Isle of Dogs.  Travelling on the Docklands Light Railway you see incredible wealth side by side with poverty.  We were travelling to Café Forever run by the London City Mission.  During the week it is a normal café with internet access and lovely food (personally sampled). 
At weekends there is a church that meets led by City Missionary Tom Carpenter (see picture below).  It was great to chat to Tom about the work he is engaged in.  There is a huge Muslim population around the centre with 7-8000 attending the local mosque every weekend.  Like most church planters Tom spoke of the long term nature of the work and that fruit only comes through building trust with individuals and the wider community.

As well as Café Forever, Tom Carpenter and his team have been instrumental in turning a local park (St John's) into a space where the community can gather.  The Café Forever team run a variety of events for young people and families in a place which was know for crime and anti social behaviour.  They also run the little café in the middle of the park during the summer which brings the community together and allows for relationships to be formed between the City Mission team and the local community.

On Friday David I attended the Prison Ministry Conference at Kensington.  I attended this conference last year and found it inspirational and great for meeting people.  The testimony from Shane Taylor was incredible and proves the incredible power of the gospel.  Other speakers included Paul Cowley, Nick Gumbel and Paul Williams (Bishop of Kensington).  It is great to hear the amazing stories from around the country about how churches are mentoring offenders as they come out of prison.  Even better that we now have Caring for Ex Offenders in Scotland!
Our little trip to London ended with a monsoon shower as we came out of HTB.  We were utterly soaked as we ran to Kensington Tube Station only to find it shut due to a police incident!  There was a mad run and taxi journey to get to Kings Cross for the train back to Edinburgh.
What did I learn?  It was great to see in Webber Street that Christian love and professional care services can be combined.  Homelessness is never caused by one issue and the response needs to be comprehensive and person centred.  As well as responding to the crisis of homelessness, Webber Street helps people to take control and move on.  Most of all, the centre provides a safe community and some hope for those who find themselves in the desperate situation of homelessness.
It was great to see the work in Tower Hamlets.  As Keller once said, church planting needs to be low key, relational and long term.  Tom Carpenter and his team live this out on a daily basis.  Transformation doesn't happen overnight and often it takes years before we see any results.  People see through gimmicks.  It is authentic, consistent Christian living combined with patient discipleship in a community that will bear long term fruit.
What always strikes me about so many of the projects I visit is the incredible commitment of so many volunteers.  Without these incredible individuals so many projects just wouldn't run.  It reminds me of that great Thomas Guthrie quotes which we would all do well to remember; 'If the world is ever conquered for our Lord, it is not by ministers, nor by office-bearers, nor by the great, and noble and mighty, but by every member of Christ's body being a working member; doing his work; filling his own sphere; holding his own post; and saying to Jesus, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?"
Learn more about the London City Mission here.





Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Spark amongst Combustibles - Guthrie publishes 'A Plea for Ragged Schools'

St John's Parish Church, Victoria Street , Edinburgh where Guthrie ministered from 1840-43

Dr Thomas Guthrie is famous for his 'Ragged Schools'.  The schools went on to become a huge movement that saved thousands of children from a life of crime and abuse.  But as with every great movement it had humble beginnings at Guthrie's church plant in Victoria Street in 1840.  They had a huge room in the basement and the elders initially agreed to set up a ragged industrial feeding school for '20-30 waifs'.  As time drew near for the launch the elders took fright and the project was abandoned.  While Guthrie was cast down, and felt like a man who has 'launched a good sturdy boat, sees her before she has taken ten strokes from the shore seized by a mighty billow, flung back, and dashed to pieces on the strand.' 
It was this disappointment that led Guthrie to launch a considerably bolder project and he wrote his first 'Plea for Ragged Schools'.  He hoped to stir up the wider Christian public beyond his congregation.  Little did he know what effect this little booklet would have. Writing to a Mr Carment 18 months after he published his booklet Guthrie recounts some of his misgivings and anxiety around the publication; 'I published my Plea with fear and trembling, and but that I was, with yourself, a very vehement advocate of Ragged Schools, I would never have ventured on such a walk.  If a man's fire is kindled and passion up, he'll run along the narrow ledge of a precipice, where, in his cooler, calmer moments, he would not venture to creep'.  This was Guthrie's first publication but it was the start of a long and fruitful career in writing and editing.  When he eventually retired from Free St John's, Edinburgh because of ill health in May 1864, Guthrie was invited to become the editor of the Sunday Magazine which at its height had a circulation of 100,000.  I have written a separate article on the Sunday Magazine here.  Many of Guthrie's serialised articles were republished and made Guthrie a well know author in the second half of the 19th Century.
Every great author has to start somewhere but Guthrie had no idea what was to come from this little publication.  Returning home after leaving his manuscript at the printers, Guthrie says; 'Well, what a fool I have made of myself!'  Dr Guthrie had no idea that his little publication was to become the start of a great movement that would impact the lives of thousands of children not just in the United Kingdom but right across the world.  Soon Guthrie's mailbag was full with letters from far and near.  He says; 'I was astonished at the result of my first Plea for Ragged Schools.  It fell as a spark amongst combustibles; it was like a shot fired from the Castle, and it brought me more volunteers to man my boat than she could well carry.' 
Like so many authors, Guthrie was astonished at the power of the printed page.  He went on to write a further two 'Plea's' which were eventually published in one book entitled 'Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools'.  This was reviewed by The Times in September 1860 and rightly confirmed Guthrie as the 'Apostle of the Ragged School Movement'.  Guthrie's little booklet was the spark that set off a fire.  His legacy continues even today through our universal education system and welfare system.  Were it not for Christian philanthropists like Guthrie Scotland would be a very different place today. 

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Legacy of Mercy

Until last week it was nearly 3 months since I last did a blog post.  My interest in Thomas Guthrie hasn't waned but I have been really busy with work.  I hope to get down to serious writing over the winter.  However, I haven't been completely idle over the last few months;
  • I wrote a summary article on Thomas Guthrie in the June Banner of Truth.
  • Some of you will have seen the series entitled 'Ragged Theology' in the Free Church Record.  There will be articles in the (2013) September, October, November and a follow up in the December Record.  There has been a lot of good feedback and let's hope that it will lead to a greater interest in Guthrie as a preacher and his views of biblical community engagement.
  • I was delighted to be contacted by a publisher from America who wants to make 'The City its Sins and Sorrows' by Thomas Guthrie available as an e-book.  The publisher has asked me to write a preface which will be a huge privilege.  The book should be out by Christmas.  We have also had some discussions about 'Seed Time and Harvest - A Plea for Ragged Schools' and Thomas Guthrie's 'Autobiography and Memoirs'.  If this blog achieved little else than to get these books back in the public domain I would be a very happy man.
  • It was great to speak about Thomas Guthrie in Govan a few weeks ago. Norman and Alison Mackay asked me to speak to a delegation of Americans who were visiting Scotland.  It was very exciting to hear about Norman's vision for Govan and there were so many parallels with Guthrie's work in 19th century Edinburgh.  If we are to have any hope in Scotland we need to see more church planters like Norman.  I've blogged about it here.
  • I have met with a publisher who has shown an interest in seeing a modern biography of Guthrie published.  I feel that I have gathered a lot of material together and would love to get the time to pull together a short biography on Guthrie for a modern readership.  
  • I have made contact with one of Guthrie's relatives and hope to meet up over the next few months. 
Last week was a great week for Guthrie research.  I managed to get a day off and spend it in the Edinburgh University Library (Special Collections), the National Library and the National Archives.  For a Guthrie fan, it was very special to be able to hold and read the letters of such a huge figure in Scottish history.  By far the best collection of Guthrie's writings is in the National Library.  There are dozens of letters between Guthrie and the Duchess of Argyll.  Guthrie's handwriting is practically unintelligible (a bit like mine) so it was great to see the letters had been deciphered and typed out.  Perhaps the best resource in the National Library was to see a speech by Guthrie on Ragged Schools.

My last visit of the day was to the National Archives where I managed to look through the Kirk Session Minutes of Guthrie's first charge in Arbirlot, Angus.  He was minister in Arbirlot from 1830 - 1837. 

One of the things that struck me was that each month the minutes had lists of names with small amounts of money beside them.  On closer inspection it became clear that every month the Arbirlot Kirk Session were giving around 20 of the poorest people in the parish small amounts of money.  As we look back nearly 200 years we see that this church and these elders loved the poor and provided for them in a very practical way.  They didn't delegate compassion to some cranky committee.  Mercy was simply part of the churches DNA.  It wasn't something they just did at Harvest or Christmas.  It was planned, intentional and regular help for the poor.  It was also very relational mercy as Guthrie knew everyone in his parish of 1000 souls.  He knew the drinkers and criminals well and never sanctioned financial help (in Arbirlot or Edinburgh) that would fund greater vice.  This giving to the poor was, along with the savings bank and library that Guthrie set up, part of Guthrie's theology.  This theology saw truth and love as two sides of the gospel coin.  As with his Saviour, Guthrie saw his fundamental mission to 'preach glad tidings to the poor and bind up the broken hearted.'

Thomas Guthrie was a faithful, loving pastor who both in Arbirlot and Edinburgh was daily in and out of the homes of his parish.  Even during a cholera epidemic in 1832 and typhus fever in 1834 Guthrie faithfully visited his parish in a systematic way.  He embodied the concept of servant leadership and never used his great status to 'lord it over' his parishioners.  In talking about his library and bank in His Memoirs, Guthrie says; 'These and other labours which I undertook showed the people that I was seeking to live for them, not for myself - that I came not to lord it over God's heritage, not to be their master, but their minister, in the original sense of the word; and to the man who wants to establish himself in the heart of his people, wean them from vice and the world, turn them to virtue and Christ, I may venture to say, let him go and do likewise' Memoirs and Autobiography, 1896, page 114.  As Tim Keller says; 'a life poured out in doing justice and mercy for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith'.  Thomas Guthrie and his Kirk Session at Arbirlot leave a legacy of mercy for all of us to follow.

Monday, 30 September 2013

New Life in Govan

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow.  Rev Norman Mackay asked me to speak a little on Thomas Guthrie and his pioneering work in the 1840's in Edinburgh.  It was a real privilege to relate some of what Guthrie did and hear about Norman's exciting vision for Govan.  We were speaking to a group who had come over from America and it was great to see their enthusiasm for Thomas Guthrie and his great legacy in Scotland.  Other speakers included Shirley Berry from the Findlay Family Network and Hugh McKenna from Chanan (Glasgow).  Both of these individuals are pioneering work amongst the most broken and vulnerable people in Glasgow.

The Pearce Institute, Govan, Glasgow

Driving around Govan and other inner city areas of Scotland it's hard not to feel sad and overwhelmed at the lack of hope that seems to permeate every aspect of life.  I was reminded of Guthrie when he came to Edinburgh in September 1837.  As Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge and stared down on the Cowgate these were his reflections;

The streets were a puddle; the heavy air, loaded with smoke, was thick and murky; right below lay the narrow street of dingy tenements, whose toppling chimneys and patched and battered roofs were apt emblems of the fortunes of most of its tenants.  Of these, some were lying over the sills of windows innocent of glass, or stuffed with old hats and old rags; others, course looking women with squalled children in their arms or at their feet stood in groups at the close-mouths - here with empty laughter chaffing any passing acquaintance - there screaming each other down in a drunken brawl, or standing sullen and silent, with hunger and ill-usage in their saddened looks.  A brewers cart, threatening to crush beneath its ponderous wheels the ragged urchins who had no other playground, rumbled over the causeway - drowning the quavering voice of one whose drooping head and scanty dress were ill in harmony with song, but not drowning the shrill pipe of an Irish girl who thumped the back of an unlucky donkey and cried her herrings at 'three-a-penny' (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie, p 126).

Guthrie talks about Thomas Chalmers coming up behind him;

Hopeful of success, he surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into "dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody."  Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, "A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation" (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie, p 130).

Like many Victorian writers Guthrie could be a little 'flowery' in his writing but it is still an incredible story.  Chalmers and Guthrie contended against huge social problems but saw incredible success by the saving power of the gospel.  The same God who transformed Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1840's can transform Scotland again.

Below is a short article by Norman.  Please pray for him and Alison as they take up this great work.  We need more church planters like Norman if we are to see Scotland won for Christ. 

Living for Eternity
Our family consists of myself (Norman) Alison my wife and two teenage boys Nathan (16) and Peter (14).

As a family we are heading up to what is known as the Govan G51 Church Plant. This is the name given to the latest church planting initiative taken by the Free Church of Scotland in response to the spiritual needs of Scotland’s housing estates. 

I was born in Govan and my family roots in Govan go back 3 generations. Two years ago God began to speak to me and gave me a burden to return to my old housing scheme with the gospel and so began the long process of testing this call by taking it through the courts of the Church all the way to the General Assembly of 2013.

As a result of the General Assembly’s embracing of this vision I stepped down from Falkirk Free Church in June 2013 to relocate in the Govan area of Glasgow and commence this new venture. 

When growing up in Govan I had no church connection at all and contributed nothing to the community I was raised in except the corroding influence of anti-social values. 

Returning with the Gospel will hopefully reverse so much of that.

Inspired By the Past
In the light of these plans I am quite thrilled to discover and read Andy’s Blog Ragged Theology for the simple reason I wholeheartedly agree with his passion for inspiring the church in the present by reigniting her awareness of the glories of her past.

The Senate Room located in the Free Church College building in Edinburgh is a fascinating place, because in that room there is a goldmine of information concerning the history and heritage of the Scottish church. 

Two years ago I was sitting in this room reading through old magazines produced during the formative years of the Free Church of Scotland and all the godly founders such as Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie and Alexander Duff. 

What was astonishing to me was the extent to which reaching out to the world beyond the church was the heartbeat of the church.  During the 1840's, 50's and 60's the Free Church planted thousands of churches around Scotland.  They were also involved in mission work around the globe and the establishment of schools across Scotland.

Indeed as early as 1850 the statement could be made concerning the Free Church of Scotland:

“Our church as a church is carrying out more fully than perhaps any other church on earth, all the schemes which are fitted to promote the edification of the body of Christ and the evangelisation of the world at home and abroad.”

 In his book “The Puritan Hope” Iain Murray writes:

“The next year [1843] came the historic Disruption of the Church of Scotland……451 ministers seceded to form the Free Church of Scotland with Thomas Chalmers as the first Moderator.  For the next few decades there can be little question that this body became the most missionary minded denomination in Britain”.

As I read through the lives and influences of Guthrie and Chalmers there was born within me a passionate desire to see God work in our day as he did during the era of these great men.

Looking to the past but living for the future 
It seems to me that the way forward for the Free Church of Scotland is to rediscover the glories of our past. This is suggested not with a view to living in the past, but rather with a view to emulating such passionate and missional vision in the present.

This should not seem particularly novel or radical, but rather faithful to our godly heritage.  

In the words of Thomas Chalmers:

“Those who love the honour of the Saviour will long that his kingdom will be extended till all the nations of the earth are brought under his one grand and universal monarchy.”

The procedures adopted by the Free Church of Scotland are codified in a document known as “The Blue Book”. Included therein is a list of questions put to ministers at their ordination. Among these is the following:

“Are not zeal for the honour of God, love to Jesus Christ and the desire of saving souls your great motives and chief inducements to enter into the function of the holy ministry?”
My prayer is to see many souls won in Govan.

New life in Govan
Our plans are to relocate in or around the Govan area, commence Christianity Explored Courses, utilise the Internet, launch a local mini-tabloid newspaper and engage in other forms of evangelism.

Networking with other groups such as Bethany Christian Trust is also an important part of our thinking.

Do pray that God will bless our endeavours to be part of a renewed witness of the Free Church in the Govan area and that our Lord Jesus will be glorified through all our endeavours as a family.

Each of us has only one life to live and it is often shorter that we imagine it will be. In a day of social climbing, material affluence, comfort zones it is healthy to allow spiritual giants of the past such as Guthrie and Chalmers to challenge the spiritual mediocrity of today.

You can keep up with our developments via the Free Church of Scotland Website where news is regularly posted and updated.

In Christ,

Norman, Alison, Nathan and Peter


Thursday, 11 July 2013

Why Remember Dr Guthrie?

On 28th February 1873, Thomas Guthrie died.  One of my great goals over the last 5 years is to introduce his incredible legacy to a new generation 144 years after his death.  

Guthrie was one of the greatest preachers and social philanthropists of 19th Century Scotland.  He published numerous books, edited the Sunday Magazine (with a circulation of 100,000), was courted by some of the most powerful and richest people in the country and yet spent his life championing the cause of widows and orphans.  His statue in Princes Street Gardens stands as a memorial to this great man and yet hardly anyone, even in Christian circles, knows anything about him.  His books remain out of print and his incredible social philanthropy remains largely forgotten.  A little less than 1 year ago I set up this blog to try and re-establish Guthrie's reputation and share a little of his incredible life.  There are lots of articles on the blog about Guthrie's life and ministry like here.  As with most of these projects it has been me that has been most helped as I have spent hours researching and reading about one of Scotland's greatest leaders.  But why remember Guthrie today? Guthrie was (and still is) an inspiration, an example and a treasure of Christian wisdom.  Here are a few reasons why he should not be forgotten.

Firstly, Guthrie leaves us a legacy of biblical community engagement.  When Guthrie arrived in Edinburgh in 1837, the city 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 in Edinburgh 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 social reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers.  Guthrie recalls; Hopeful of success, he surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into "dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody." Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, "A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation" Thomas Guthrie, Out of Harness, (Edinburgh, 1883, p 130).  This was the field in which Guthrie was to labour for the rest of his ministry.
Guthrie went on to conduct afternoon services in the Magdalen Chapel (made famous as a mortuary for the Covenanters) where he connected with the poor and marginalised in the 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. This involved the unreserved and free offer of the gospel which his sons underline in his Memoirs; “...he emphatically disapproved any attempt to square Scripture with the supposed requirements of a doctrinal system; "John," to quote a sentence from one of his discourses, "uses a very broad expression, 'Jesus Christ,' he says, ' the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.' 'The whole world' - 'ah!' some would say, 'that is dangerous language.' It is God's language: John speaking as he was moved by the Holy Ghost. It throws a zone of mercy around the world. Perish the hand that would narrow it by a hair's breadth!" Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs, (London, 1896, p 510).  It was this theology and love for the poor that infused Guthrie’s preaching and evangelism and fuelled an irrepressible belief that the most unlikely candidate could be saved.  It was said of Thomas Chalmers that his Parochial System was a glorious enterprise of Christian aggression upon the regions of popular ignorance.  This similar approach was adopted by Guthrie who had a Christian vision for Scotland and believed that the Church should reach rich and poor alike.

Secondly, Guthrie leaves us an example of measured and balanced Christianity.  He was a man of deep convictions and spoke out against error and all forms of oppression but he was never sectarian or nasty in his contentions.  He went to great lengths to work with other Christians, particularly with regard to Ragged Schools.  When Guthrie was given a 'Testimonial' in February 1865 by the a committee made up Earls, Lords and even the Rt Hon Gladstone himself, he said; next to the approbation of God, of my blessed Master, and of my own conscience, there is nothing on which I set so high a value as the assurance this testimonial warrants me to entertain, that I have won a place in the hearts of other Christians besides those of my own denomination. 

Guthrie made time for family and it was his pattern to keep every evening free for his children.  As he says; On coming to Edinburgh, I resolved to give my evenings to my family; to spend them, not in my study, as many ministers did but in the parlour amongst my children Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs, (London, 1896, p 614). Guthrie loved his 6 sons and 4 daughters and once said I am rich in nothing but children. He loved reading fiction like Shakespeare’s plays and Walter Scott’s novels.  He was never happier, in later life, than with a fly rod in his hand at his favourite Highland retreat in Lochlee.  For 23 years Guthrie returned to this spot every summer and was given a cottage rent-free by Lord Dalhousie.  The Highland retreat allowed Guthrie to relax in the great outdoors and indulge his great passion for fishing.  Guthrie was a man of great passions but had a balance, a tenderness, a quick sense of humour and common touch that left such an enduring legacy in everyone he met.

Thirdly, Guthrie leaves a legacy of full church involvement.  As he says in his autobiography If the world is ever conquered for our Lord, it is not by ministers, nor by office-bearers, nor by the great, and noble and mighty, but by every member of Christ's body being a working member; doing his work; filling his own sphere; holding his own post; and saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?'  He had no time for one man ministries and pioneered what many today would call ‘team ministries’.  The difference with Guthrie was that he did this through the biblical system of elders, deacons and church members.  If there is ever a time in the churches history when we need to organise ourselves to effectively engage with the communities around our churches, it is surely today.

Fourthly, Guthrie leaves us a legacy in Christian boldness.  He was not a man who was afraid of speaking out against oppression and injustice.  His campaign for Temperance led him to campaign against the dram shops that were the ruin of thousands.  In a letter to his daughter in 1870 he says I preach everywhere that nothing will arrest, far less cure, the evil, but locking up every drinking shop in the land.  Guthrie also spoke out against the evil of slavery, even declining an invitation to go to America in 1859.  He says in his autobiography I have the highest opinion of the United States; and it is because I love them, that I wish this foul blot (slavery) removed from their escutcheon.  If that were done, it would be a happy day for the world...I will tell you plainly and publically why I will not go.  If I went I could not keep my temper! Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs, (London, 1896, p 666).  I have already written about his work with the Ragged Schools and how he tirelessly spoke up for those who had no voice.  Guthrie spoke eloquently with a range of Parliamentary Committees about their unwillingness to fully fund such a critical work.  He was also a frequent speaker on Sabbath Observance and on a whole range of other critical subjects.  Guthrie is an example to us of the need to be bold in the day in which the Lord has placed us.  The issues may have changed but the need to be faithful has not.

Finally, Guthrie leaves us a legacy of a Christ-centred life.  If anyone shows us what can be achieved for Christ, with vision and determination, it is Thomas Guthrie.  He lived for Christ, he preached Christ with tenderness and affection, and much like his Saviour he reached out to the broken and marginalised in word and deed.  Guthrie’s writings and sermons are full of love for his Saviour.  In a letter to a friend about the scientist Edward Forbes, Guthrie says What science is so noble as the knowledge of Jesus Christ?  What honours anywhere in the Temple of Fame like ‘the honour that cometh from God’ Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs, (London, 1896, p 646). 

As we look at Guthrie’s statue on Princes Street, with his hand around a little ragged child and a bible in his other hand, we see in Guthrie a man infused with love for Christ.  Following his Saviour Guthrie embodied love and truth and leaves us an enduring legacy which we would do well to learn from and emulate today.  Let me finish this article with a quote from one of Guthrie's sermons which beautifully sums up his theology and work; Never mistake the dead robes for the living body of religion.  Never forget that "to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before God," is what the Lord requires of thee; that faith without works is dead; that form without spirit is dead; and that, the highest piety being ever associated with the deepest humility, true religion is like the sweetest of all singing-birds, the skylark, which with the lowest nest but highest wing dwells in the ground, and yet soars to the skies - (Thomas Guthrie, The Pharisee and Publican, The Parables, 1874).

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Guthrie and the Sunday Magazine

When Thomas Guthrie (1803 - 1873) eventually had to leave his congregation of St John's, Edinburgh due to ill health in May 1864, it seemed that his ministry was at an end.  In God's providence, a new field opened up to him in the writing and editing of a weekly periodical the Sunday Magazine.  With the exception of a Plea for Ragged Schools first published in 1847, Guthrie's other publications, until 1864, were mainly published sermons; the Gospel in Ezekiel in 1855, The City its Sins and Sorrows in 1857, Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints in 1858 followed by The Way to Life and Speaking to the Heart.  We might wonder what would have happened if Guthrie had been given such an opportunity earlier in his ministry.  As Dr Tweedie said of Guthrie; 'I wonder [if] Dr Guthrie did not discover his literary faculty twenty years before he did, if he had, his usefulness would have been trebled' (quoted by Oliphant Smeaton in Thomas Guthrie, Famous Scots Series).

Many of Guthrie's later books were first serialised in the Sunday Magazine which he co-edited with Dr Blaikie.  Guthrie was involved in editing and writing the magazine from 1864 and was editing The Lepers Lesson 10 days before his death in February 1873.  The magazine continued after his death and was published until 1905.  It is incredible to think that even with a credible and widely read Christian magazine called Good Words (published by Dr Macleod) the Sunday Magazine still had a circulation in the early days of over 100,000!


The magazine was pitched at ordinary people and was designed to be read on the Lords Day.  Sold weekly for sixpence, the Sunday Magazine was printed on good quality paper with attractive illustrations from wood engravings drawn by several different artists including George John Pinwell.  The magazine embodied much of Guthrie's deeply held principles; the uniting of the classes, social philanthropy, evangelical ecumenicalism, education of the poor and solid, accessible doctrine.  Guthrie outlines the purpose of the magazine as follows;

to make the Sunday a more pleasant as well as a more profitable day to thousands; to make our magazine plain to common people without being vulgar, interesting to cultivated minds without being unintelligible to men of ordinary education; to make good our entry into cottages as well as drawing rooms; to be read by people of all Christian denominations; to be of no class, of no sect, of no party, but belonging to all, and profitable to all... 

By todays standards Guthrie's writing style would be described as 'flowery'.  His illustrations can be full of vivid imagery from nature and  foreign lands but often last for pages which can be weary to the modern reader.  Despite this, it is remarkable that Guthrie, with all his other commitments was able to write so much, so often and to such a high quality.

Many of Guthrie's articles were eventually published; Man and the Gospel (1865), The Angels Song (1865), The Parables (1866), Our Fathers Business (1867), Out of Harness (1867), Early Piety (1868), Studies of Character (1868 and 1870) and Sundays Abroad (1871).  The sheer volume of writing is staggering when one considers that Guthrie was writing weekly.  As well as articles, Guthrie was flooded with letters from all over Britain offering articles for the magazine.  Often he found it difficult to say no and a few articles appeared in the Sunday Magazine that were not in complete accord with the title and objects of the magazine.

In God's providence, when Guthrie was shut out from the pulpit, God opened a far greater field of service where he could influence an audience a hundred times that of St Johns.  In a letter he wrote to one of his sons in 1870 after crossing the Channel, he described how he met a Scottish engineer on the boat.  The man, from Berwick-on-Tweed, approached Guthrie and told him that despite living for many years in St Petersburg, he was a regular reader of the Sunday Magazine.  As Oliphant Smeaton says 'the Sunday Magazine proved a blessing to many in the highest and best sense of the word, and from 1865 to 1873 Thomas Guthrie's personality was impressed on every page of it.'

One of the greatest tragedies is that none of Guthrie's books remain in print today.  One of my greatest hopes is that Ragged Theology might be the means of stirring up some interest in Guthrie again so that some of his works can be republished.  In the meantime, much of the Sunday Magazine is available online and can be viewed here.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Building hope in Glasgow

One of the many privileges of my job with Bethany Christian Trust is to see some of the amazing things God is doing around Scotland.  Yesterday I was through in Glasgow visiting Stuart Patterson who planted a church in Easterhouse over 2 years ago.  I met Stuart when he was sharing his testimony at a prison bible study 2 weeks ago.  He shared how he had been drawn into the gang and drug culture of Easterhouse on the 1980's but was wonderfully saved.  After a period in Teen Challenge Stuart has returned to Easterhouse to set up a church in an old bingo hall in the Shandwick Shopping Centre.

Like so many large housing schemes people immediately associate Easterhouse with poverty, gang violence, unemployment and addiction.  Built in the 1960's Easterhouse, at its peak, housed 60,000 people.  It's hard to believe but the older residents testify to the fact that the scheme was built in the 1960's without shops, schools, leisure centres or any other amenities.  By the 1960's and 70's there was territorial battles and the scheme was made famous by the intervention of Frankie Vaughan.
Easterhouse had a strong gang culture in the ‘60’s and 70’s, mainly amongst the boys but in some sections of the girls as well…You learnt how to do three things. You learnt how to fight, make people laugh or how to run really fast! I was known as Artillery because I stood at the back and threw bricks, and when things turned sour, I ran.             2000 Glasgow Lives interview with A McSherry

Today the population of Easterhouse is around 26,000 with many of the same social problems as it had 40 years ago.  Adult male unemployment is running at 60% with high levels of addiction, poor health indicators and high levels of deprivation.

Stuart has found a fantastic location for Easterhouse Community Church.  Situated right in the heart of the community in the Shandwick Shopping Centre its great to see an old bingo hall being used as a place of worship.  The church has a job club running on a Tuesday and Thursday and is trying to reach out to some of the people that even some of the core funded job agencies won't touch.  Stuart spends a lot of time talking to shoppers in the shopping centre and all like all successful church planters realises the importance of relationships and a long term commitment.

Stuart took me to see some of his old battlefields from the 1980's and it was good to see that peace had broken out!  There is still some of the old territorial battles going on but it has reduced from what it was even 20 years ago.  Stuart is keen to harness this fierce local identity as he seeks to create different worship locations around Easterhouse.
It was also good to see the offices of Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse after hearing so much about them over many years.  Bob Holman has always been one of my heroes in social work and deserves a huge amount of credit for what he has done with FARE.  Well done to Duncan Bannatyne for investing some of his wealth in the work of FARE.
After a hearty fry up with Stuart it was time to head off to see Shirley Berry at the Findlay Family Network.  Started 7 years ago the FFN are doing some great work around Maryhill and Possilpark.  Working in partnership with Findlay Memorial Church and Clay Community Church the FFN are supporting different levels of community support.   Their focus is on families and are doing a great work with some of the most vulnerable families in North West Glasgow.  They are respected partners with both social work and education who see them as competent providers of excellent family work.  It was humbling to visit The Grove in Possilpark and hear from staff and volunteers about the various community projects that were running.  The Grove is a partnership between FFN and Clay Community Church and they use shop front on Saracen Street.  It is great to see the church right in the heart of the community.

A great day in a very warm Glasgow!  God is doing some great things though some amazing people.  The church in many parts of the country is reengaging with the community and making an increasingly significant impact.  I was reading yesterday from Joshua chapters 1 and 2 about the children of Israel being commanded to go across the Jordan in to the promised land.  There was anxiety about going in to a new place where there would be new challenges. Three times in chapter 1 the Lord says 'Be strong and of good courage' (ch 1 v 6, 7 and 9).  We need a similar courage to engage with some of the most hard to reach communities in Scotland today.  We need to pray for pastors like Stuart Patterson who are willing to plant a church in an area with huge social issues. 
While there are many challenges, there are also many promises is the bible that if we reach out to the poor, God will bless.  In Isaiah 58 v 10 God says; 'If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom as the noonday.'  We need to put aside the denominational divisions that are hampering so much of the work in Scotland today.  Out of the 26,000 people who live in Easterhouse Stuart estimates that there only 300 who attend church.  The need is huge and our great priority needs to be the gospel of redeeming grace.  As Thomas Guthrie once said 'Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work. Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours. Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose' (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie, 1857, p 111).