Friday, 29 March 2013

Thomas Chalmers and 'A Very Fine Field of Operation'

Having turned the ripe old age of 41 recently I received 'Out of Harness' by Thomas Guthrie.  Published in 1883 (10 years after Guthrie's death) it is a collection of auto-biographical essays.  Of the 20 essays 7 are devoted to his ministry in the Cowgate in Edinburgh and are entitled Sketches of the Cowgate.  Other chapters include The Original Ragged School, New Brighton, A Winter Gale, The Streets of Paris, Sunday in Paris and French Protestantism and several others. 

There are some great quotes in the book particularly about Thomas Chalmers.  Allow me one example; Courted by the great, Chalmers' sympathies lay with the masses. Their oppression roused him like a lion; their neglect stirred his indignation; their sufferings touched his soul with such tender pity that the horrors of the Irish and Highland famines were like to break his heart. He loved mankind. His aspirations were not to drag the upper classes down to the level of the lower, but to improve the economic, educational, moral and religious condition of the lowest stratum of society; and so, as when the base of the pyramid is raised, to raise all the courses of the superstructure up to the royalty - sitting high on the throne (Out of Harness, Dr Thomas Guthrie, p 127).
Thomas Chalmers
Dr Thomas Chalmers
One of the main reasons I wanted to get this book was because of the famous conversation between Dr Chalmers and Dr Guthrie in 1837 which is described in the book.  It is often mentioned in Free Church circles and I've always wanted to read it for myself.
Thomas Guthrie was called from the sleepy parish of Arbirlot, Angus in 1837 to the bustling city of Edinburgh.  His charge was Old Greyfriars so the Cowgate became his parish.  Guthrie describes his field of service;

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).
The narrative continues that as Guthrie stared down on the scene of utter degradation Dr Chalmers came 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).
We may think that these scenes from 170 years ago have little relevance to us today.  But how would we respond to such a scene?  Would we be heartbroken and stirred to action like Chalmers and Guthrie?  Are some of the housing schemes of Scotland any less chaotic and dysfunctional than the 19th century Cowgate? 
When Guthrie came to Edinburgh he came to a city gripped with industrial and social upheaval.  Overcrowding, poverty, alcoholism and abuse were rife.  The main reason for ragged schools was because children were being thrown out on the streets by drunken parents to beg and steal.  In his Autobiography he estimates that less than 5 in 150 attended church.  But he didn't despair.  He developed a Biblical vision for his parish and especially for the poor.  He visited systematically, he worked tirelessly, served sacrificially and loved indiscriminately. 

Most importantly Chalmers and Guthrie had a strategy and structure to win a geographical area for Christ.  As Guthrie said of Chalmers and his 'parochial system'; to change the face of a district required, in his opinion, a more extensive and efficient system of cultivation - a school for children; a church with its door open to the poorest of the inhabitants; and a large staff of zealous men and women - each with their own section of families to visit, and all working in harmony, like bees in a hive, under the direction of the minister, their captain, bishop or superintendent (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie, p 128).  Surely this is what we need again.  We need a team around our ministers who can reach out to a local area caring for body and soul.  The great issues of our age are family breakdown, debt, isolation, addiction and poverty.  As Guthrie argues time and again, the gospel is the answer but this does not abdicate the church from responding with practical expressions of love in seeking to reach out to the broken and marginalised in our society. 

But what about schools?  The church needs to reassert its influence in education after decades of secular humanism pushing religious instruction to the margins. The Free Church in particular has a proud history of building schools and lifting thousands out of ignorance.  It is interesting to note that the great priority of the Free Church in 1843 was for schools and mission (by 1844-45 £50,000 had been raised for the School Building Fund). It was not until 1845 that the Manse Fund was established and Guthrie took on his role as the 'great beggar man' as he was called by Rev Wallace Duncan of Peebles. 

Guthrie (in many ways prophetically) said in his evidence to the parliamentary committee of 1853 'I do not wish the government to supersede our efforts; what I wish the State to do is, to supplement them' (Memoirs, p 468).  He was, of course, referring to his beloved Ragged Schools, but the point was well made.  The state has long since superseded the efforts of those with a personal or charitable interest in education and the 'one size fits all' state system struggles to respond to the complex (and often tragic) issues facing many children today. Children from poorer backgrounds in particular are suffering in schools where poverty and generational family breakdown are rife. Many churches are providing breakfast clubs where kids often testify that it is their only meal of the day.  The schools do their best but so much more is needed.  Could this be the time for a re-look at Ragged Schools? This Guthrie fan certainly thinks so.  In the meantime we have 'a very fine field of operation' across Scotland.  The challenges are huge but let's recapture the spirit of Chalmers as we seek to tackle them. 




  1. Thanks for this inspiring but challenging message Andy. Faith and vision within a calling from God will bring the needed resources. We need to pray for all three today!

  2. Great blog. I hope to come back now and then, as it appears we have very similar interests, historically and practically.

    You might enjoy this quote from Chalmers -

    1. Nice to hear from you Michael - your blog looks really interesting. How about a little sharing of articles? Are you on twitter/facebook?

  3. That's worth looking into. I'm not on Twitter or Facebook at present. I'd like to dialog more - could you drop me an e-mail? mjives dot refparish at gmail dot com.