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. 

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