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).

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed reading this. We do need to recapture his enthusiasm born of sincere love for God and indiscriminate love for human beings.