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.