Saturday, 21 December 2013

The City: its Sins and Sorrows

I have just finished a new foreword for Thomas Guthrie's seminal book The City: its Sins and Sorrows.  I am so grateful to Michael Pate from GLH Publishing for offering to make this available as an e-book.  They have also made Guthrie's Early Piety available and you can download it here
Tackling the problem of homelessness and children caught up in crime was never enough for Guthrie; he wanted to deal with the cause as well as the symptoms.  It was a natural progression that he should expand his campaigning from prevention and cure of crime and homelessness amongst the young, to the drunkenness that was the cause of most of the problems in Scottish society.  As Guthrie often said; “an ounce of prevention is worth of a ton of cure”.    In his role as a social reformer, along with others such as Thomas Chalmers and James Begg, Guthrie saw himself as stemming the tide of intemperance.  He writes; “the position of social reformers resembles that of the priests who went down into the Jordan bearing the ark of God, and, leaving the waters that had already passed to pursue their course and find a grave in the Dead Sea, arrested the descending current.  We have tried to accomplish something like this” (Thomas Guthrie, Early Piety, London, 1868). 
Interestingly enough Guthrie himself did not become a total abstainer until the age of 38.  While he was always against drunkenness it was an experience while over in Ireland that turned him away from drink altogether.  While travelling with a ministerial friend in 1841 they stopped at a small county inn on a terrible cold night. Seeking some warmth and comfort they ordered some ‘toddies’ (whiskey and hot water).  Out of kindness they called in their driver and offered him the same hospitality.  Guthrie was stunned when this staunch, but uneducated and uncultured, Roman Catholic explained that he was a teetotaller and would not touch a drop of alcohol.  From that day forward Guthrie resolved to abstain from alcohol and became one of the leaders of the temperance movement.
The determination with which Guthrie pursued the temperance cause was all the more remarkable when we understand how unusual this position was in the first half of  the 19th century.  In his autobiography he reckons that when he was at Edinburgh University there was not a single student who was an abstainer.  Perhaps even more remarkably Guthrie was unaware of any minister in the Church of Scotland who was a teetotaller.  Undeterred by this, after the Disruption, Guthrie established the Free Church Temperance Society along with Horatius Bonar and William Chalmers Burns.  When the ‘Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness’ was formed in 1850 they turned to Guthrie to write their first booklet entitled ‘A Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness’.  Other booklets followed and Guthrie was instrumental in bringing about the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1853 or the ‘Forbes Mackenzie Act’, as it is better known.  This Act forced public houses to close at 10.00 pm on weekdays and all day on Sundays.  Even today it is still illegal to buy alcohol after 10.00 pm in shops, although sadly this is not so in a Public Houses.  
Guthrie’s work on total abstinence reached its climax with preaching a series of sermons  on Luke 19 v 41 and their publication under the title, The City, Its Sins and Sorrows’ in 1857.  The impact that these sermons had around the world were huge but space allows us to mention only one of them.  One of Guthrie’s later biographers, Oliphant Smeaton, recounts meeting a wealthy Scot while visiting Australia.  This man, while resident in Scotland, had lived a dissolute lifestyle but one day found himself wandering in to St John’s Free Church.  Listening to the powerful oratory of Guthrie as he preached on Christ weeping over Jerusalem, the man left affected but unchanged.  All week he tried to kill his conscience through plunging headlong into drunkenness. 
The following Sunday he was drawn back to hear Guthrie again despite being under the influence of drink.  The great orator did not disappoint.  Toward the end of his sermon he leaned his huge frame over the pulpit and said with great feeling: "There are few families among us so happy as not to have had some one near and dear to them either in imminent peril hanging over the precipice, or the slave of intemperance altogether sold under sin."  The hearer could contain his emotions no longer and left a broken man.  The following day he sought out Dr Guthrie and was dealt with "fatherly kindness."  He continues: "when he had knelt with me at the throne of grace, and offered up a prayer, the like of which I never heard before or since, he bade me farewell, inviting me to return and see him: but I never did so” (Oliphant Smeaton, Thomas Guthrie,  Edinburgh, 1900, p 98-99).  Within weeks the man was on a ship to Australia where he became a wealthy businessman and generous contributor to charity work.
Guthrie’s influence was so great that he helped to shape and influence the future life of society in Scotland.  The Free Church at that time boasted some of the greatest men to grace Scottish Church history, among them Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Miller, William Cunningham, Robert Candlish, Andrew Bonar  and James Begg.  While Chalmers stood out among them for oratory and statesmanship, Guthrie came close to him in effect and influence.  Guthrie’s statue records that he was a ‘friend of the poor and the oppressed’ but his over-all influence was so remarkable that he defied all categories.  The old Greek word ‘polymath’ is rarely used today but for men like Guthrie and Chalmers, it comes close to describing the vast array of areas they were involved in - theology, education, politics, science, writing and campaigning.  They were as much at home among the poor as mixing with the richest and most influential people of the 19th century.  Guthrie’s writings, particularly as editor of the Sunday Magazine from 1865-1873 could range from theology to social policy and from nature to politics. 
As you will discover when you read The City its Sins and Sorrows, the sermons have much to teach us much about the man. Guthrie preaches like the Saviour he loved. His words are full of love, pity and pathos.  His heart had been broken by the sights he had seen in his pastoral visits and this is reflected in his sermons.  As Christ wept over the state of the people of Jerusalem, Guthrie was broken over the drunkenness he saw ruining lives and destroying families across Scotland but particularly in Edinburgh.  We need to rediscover Guthrie's love for cities.  We need to weep over them, work in them and mend the many broken lives devastated through addiction.  As Guthrie says in his final sermon; "Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work.  Let us thus embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, - although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours" (Thomas Guthrie, The City: its Sins and Sorrows, Edinburgh, 1857).

Friday, 13 December 2013

Guthrie and the Silver Teapot

I spent a very enjoyable hour at the Edinburgh Museum, 142 Canongate last week. After a few months of negotiation I finally managed to get to handle the silver teapot presented to Dr Guthrie and his wife when he retired in 1864 on the grounds of ill health. A Committee was established to ensure that Dr Guthrie was supported in his retirement and that his incredible work was marked appropriately. The committee included the Earls of Dalhousie, Shaftesbury, Carlisle, Kintore and Southesk, the Lord Bishops of London and St David's, the Right Hon W.E. Gladstone as well as clerks and tradesmen. 
We learn in Guthrie's Memoirs that he found out about the testimonial prior to the presentation.  In classic Guthrie humility he wrote to Mr J.R. Dymock in Lochlee; "Some may fancy that this may blow me up.  I have no feelings of the kind, not because I am above the ordinary feelings of our nature, or have not a great deal more corruption than I should have; but such a thing sends a man back to think of his own unworthiness before God, and, if at all right-minded, humbles rather than puffs up; leading him, when he looks at himself and the many blessings he enjoys  than others not less unworthy and perhaps more deserving, to say 'What am I?'"  Despite all his achievements, and even at the end of his long and fruitful ministerial career Guthrie could only see himself as an unprofitable servant.  Some of our ministers could learn a few lessons from Dr Guthrie.
On February 20th 1865 at the Royal Hotel, Edinburgh the 'Testimonial of Admiration and Esteem' was handed over to Dr Guthrie which consisted of £5000 and a 'silver tea and coffee service'. Guthrie responded; "...I do not despise the money; I never did despise money.  Many a day have I wished I had a great deal more money, for I would have found a great deal more happiness in doing good to others, as it were not needed in any other way;...but, 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." 
Unbelievably this beautiful piece of history remains in the archives and is not on display. Perhaps with the exception of a mention in the tiny Old Greyfriars Kirk exhibition there is no official museum which tells the incredible story of Guthrie and the way the Lord used him to rescue thousands from a life of poverty and abuse.  Wouldn't it be great to see this story told and to see these amazing pieces of history on display for everyone to see?  Perhaps one day we will see a Guthrie Museum in Edinburgh - wouldn't that be great?
Guthrie reminds us of Proverbs 10 v 7 'The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked shall rot.'  What kind of legacy are we leaving?  If Guthrie was alive today he would invite you to come to the Saviour who he preached and followed.  It is not religion that we all need it is the Lord Jesus Christ.  I'll leave the last word to Dr Guthrie; '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' (The Pharisee and Publican, The Parables, 1874).


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Good quote