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.

1 comment: