In 1840 Guthrie planted a new church in Victoria Street called ‘St John’s’. Like Thomas Chalmers, Guthrie followed the ‘Parochial’ or ‘Territorial’ system of church planting. Interestingly Guthrie’s new church was within 5 minutes walk of Greyfriars and yet Guthrie believed that the most effective method of outreach was for the church to be on the very doorstep of the community it were seeking to reach. The Parochial System is defined by his sons in their Memoir of their father as; the church at the door of the poor, the church free to all, a properly equipped school in every parish and elders, deacons and district visitors used to make regular contact with parishioners. As with others involved in the Disruption, Guthrie had no reservations in petitioning the government to support or ‘endow’ this work (the Establishment Principle). As Guthrie said on one occasion; “Divide me the large towns into small manageable parishes, provide me with a free church, add to it an endowed school, and with a staff of zealous and active and Christian elders, I don’t despair, with God’s blessing of restoring the waste places, making the wilderness rejoice and the desert glad; but that you can’t get without an endowment” Thomas Guthrie and Sons, Autobiography and Memoirs (London 1896, p 320).
The following is the address given by Guthrie on 19th November 1840 at the opening of St John's;
"One grand purpose for which this church has been erected, is to try the parochial economy in a large city; and so far as I know, it stands this day alone as a parish church within the burghs of Scotland; and amid all the glory and loveliness of this romantic city, it is not, in my opinion, the meanest jewel in her crown, that here she boasts a church where the gospel will flow as free to the parishioners as the water of their parish well.
The founders of our church contemplated a very different state of things from what now exists in many parishes, from what is to be found, for example, in a parish within a stone cast almost of this house; and where, as if in mockery of the able and worthy men on whose back this mountain lies, two ministers have, as parish ministers, the charge of fifty thousand people. In our ancestors wisdom was justified of her children; and they considered a charge of a thousand people ample enough for any man to manage. Nor did they leave the minister alone to manage it. No more than the captain of a ship of war is the only officer on her deck, was the minister to be the only man in his parish clothed with ecclesiastical authority; he was to be aided, supported, and surrounded by a staff of officers, a band of efficient elders and deacons; and as our ancestors thought that a minister had charge enough who had in his parish a thousand people, they thought an elder had charge enough who had in his district some ten or twenty families. They never dreamt of such a state of things as we have in our days in
I can point to districts with the population of a parish, and parishes with the population of a county. Nor in the good and olden time did the elder fill a merely honorary or secular office; he did something else, and something better than stand by the plate, and vote in Presbytery or General Assembly. He visited the sick, his post was often at the bed of death, he counselled the erring, he went forth to the wilderness and brought the wanderer back to the fold, and was at once a father and a friend, a counsellor and a comfort to the families of his charge; he was known to all of them, and all of them were known to him; his name was a household word, and he could tell the name of every man, woman, and child within his bounds; and, frequently discharging offices, both of temporal and spiritual kindness, he thus acquired within his small and manageable locality, a moral influence that was omnipotent for good.
Our present undertaking is intended to remedy these evils. We wish from its ruins to rebuild the ancient economy, and to restore what is not to be found nowadays in any burgh in all broad Scotland, a manageable parish, split up into districts, each containing ten or twenty families, with a free gospel in its parish church, with a school where the children of the poorest may receive at least a Bible education, and with its minister, its elders, and its deacons, each in the active discharge of the duties of his own department. Such is the machinery that, before many weeks are gone, we trust to see in beautiful and blessed operation in the parish of
. And what good, it may be asked, do we expect
to follow? No good at all, unless God
give the blessing. St John’s
Besides the machinery we must have the moving power; but if He smile upon our labours we enter the field confident of victory. What this system has done in former days it can do again – and we have no fear though the eyes of enemies should look on, for we are trying no novel, never-before-tried experiment – our fathers tried it, and they triumphed in the trial – and with the same seed, the same sun, and the same soil, should not the same cultivation produce a harvest as abundant? . . . .
One great advantage of a parochial church with its full complement of machinery, will be found to lie in its drawing together the different classes of society, and narrowing, if not annihilating, the gulf which now yawns wide and deep and dangerously between them. This total separation of the higher from the lower, of the more decent from the less decent, of the wealthier from the poorer classes of society, has originated much of the irreligion, the crime, and misery that deform the face of our city. It is very easy to blame the poor, but we must say that they have been grievously sinned against, at the least as much sinned against as sinning. On all sides beset, surrounded, besieged by temptation, they have been left to themselves, and have had too much cause to say, “No man cared for my soul.” Visited by none whose good opinion they had to gain, and, having gained, to keep, they have never felt one of the strongest human motives to the virtues and decencies of life.
Let a man of Christian character and kindness visit their too long neglected homes; let him prove himself their friend and counsellor; let him show that he has their own best welfare and that of their children at his heart; that he rejoices in their well-doing, and is grieved with their sins; and, with all the certainty of a law of nature, there will spring up in their breasts a desire to gain and to keep the regard of this kind and Christian friend.
It were difficult to tell how many families in this city might have been saved from ruin by the timely counsels, and help, and kindness of such a visitor, especially in those periods of temporary distress to which the working classes are exposed, - for example, such a season as visited Edinburgh two winters ago (1837-38) when for some six or eight weeks there was no work for many, and of course no wages.
The hand of
visits a family with sickness, or
by some accident the head of the house is thrown out of employment, and,
whatever be the cause, the family are brought to the very verge of want; the
children cry for bread, and their mothers have none to give them. What is to be done? A man won’t sit down and see his children
pine away with hunger before his eyes.
Their credit with the shopkeeper is exhausted; they are either ashamed
to ask assistance of their neighbours, or their neighbours are unable to afford
it. They have too much principle as yet
to steal, and too much pride to beg: in these circumstances of great distress,
the eye that looks round for help falls on the sign and shop of the pawnbroker,
its open door invites them in, and when they have once crossed the fatal
threshold, in nine cases out of ten, their ruin is sealed. As the readiest means of meeting a present
and pressing evil, one article of furniture after another is carried to the
pawn; and though I have known them bear much before parting with their Bible
and Sabbath attire, the fatal Saturday night at length arrives when the key of
the pawnbroker is turned upon these; and now, the house of God is deserted, the
seat that once knew them knows them no more, and from step to step, dragging
their children along with them, down they sink into the lowest misery, till the
once well-spent Sabbath is passed by the children in play upon the streets, and
passed by the degraded parents in drunkenness and dissipation. “They drink to forget their poverty and
remember their misery no more.” Providence
I believe, I know this to be the sad history of many families in this city; and all this evil might have been averted had they known one into whose arms, instead of a pawnbroker’s, they could have cast themselves, in whose sympathising ear they could have told their tale of suffering, and to whose kind, and wise, and Christian efforts to relieve them, they could have trusted in the hour of trial. In the elders and deacons with whom we propose to stock this parish, such guides and guardians will be found, and we have no doubt at all that their labours will demonstrate that the parochial economy fairly, freely, and vigorously wrought, offers the best remedy to those evils which assessments, and police, and prisons, and gibbets, may in some measure restrain, but never can eradicate."