An address given in 1995 by Rev John J Murray on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the opening of St John's Church. Edinburgh
We extend a warm welcome to you all here this evening to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the opening of this building. There is a leaflet prepared for the occasion giving you information about the opening of the building and the early days. As I address the subject of Thomas Guthrie, preacher of the Gospel, ministering in a city of sin and sorrow, I am conscious that I have not had the time to give adequate treatment to this great man, but I do want to share some things with you this evening which I think will be of profit to us and I hope to make some application to our own situation..
This building was opened on 18th April 1845 and Dr Guthrie wrote: ‘The sun rose bright on Friday: We had an overflowing audience. The church looked beautiful’ The Church was designed to accommodate 1200 people. Of course the interior has changed since those days but when it was built it was intended to accommodate that number of people. It is good to get a contemporary account of what was going on in this building in the middle of last century. For that account we go to Dr J W Alexander, son of Dr Archibald Alexander, from America who was visiting Edinburgh in 1857. He tells us about his visit to this Church:
'At 2.00 pm I went to Free St John’s, strangers, how truly I comprehend the term. I was admitted only after the first singing. I found myself waiting in a basement with about 500 others. At length I was dragged through a narrow passage and found myself in a very hot overcrowded house near the pulpit. Dr Guthrie was praying. He preached from Isaiah 44:22, Return unto me for I have redeemed thee. It was fifty minutes but it passed like nothing. I was instantly struck by his strong likeness to Dr John H Rice. If you remember him, you will picture the type of man he is, but then it is Dr Rice with an impetuous freedom of motion, a play of decibel and speaking features and an overflowing unction of passion and compassion which would carry home even one of my sermons. You can see what it is, with his exuberant diction and poetic imagery, the best of all is that it was honey from the comb, dropping, dropping, in effusive gospel preaching. I cannot think Whitefield surpassed him in this. You know while you listen to his mighty voice broken with sorrow that he is overwhelmed with the love of the Spirit. He is a colleague and preaches only in the afternoons. As to manner it is his own, but in general like Duff’s with as much motion but more significant and less grotesque but still ungraceful. His English moreover is not spoilt so much. The audience was wrapt and melting. It was just like his book, all application and he rose to his height in the first sentence.'
Guthrie the Preacher
Now we may note certain things recorded for us there in that account by Dr Alexander.
First of all, we see the the mass appeal that Dr Guthrie had as a preacher. 'Strangers and visitors are admitted only after the first singing. I found myself waiting in a basement with about 500 others’. Perhaps the basement was a little larger than it is today because you can hardly imagine 500 people in the hall downstairs. Dr Alexander goes on to say: ‘Dr Guthrie is the link between evangelical religion and the aristocracy. People of all sorts go, nobility come down from London and stopping here cannot pass without hearing him. They are willing to pay any sum for pews (those were the days of seat rents) in order to secure an occasional hearing.’ Of course the original St John’s in Victoria Street, which is still standing, had been built to house local people from the densely populated tenements of the old town, particularly in the Cowgate, and so the church was intended for the poor people in the community. One says about the congregation: ‘Looking around, while all were setting themselves you have before you as mixed and motley a collection of human beings as ever assembled within a church, peers and peasants, citizens and strangers, millionaires and mechanics, the judge on the bench, the passers on the roadside, the high-born dame, the serving maid of low degree, all in one close together.’ Cowgate folk mingled with such men as Hugh Miller the Geologist, men of Letters and Sir James Young Simpson, the discoverer of chloroform. And that was Guthrie's congregation in those days.
Secondly, as to the manner of his preaching. Dr Alexander speaks about that impetuous freedom of motion, that overflowing unction of passion and compassion, that exuberant diction and poetic imagery. It is believed that after Thomas Chalmers, Dr Guthrie was the most admired pulpit orator in the 19th century. He was indeed, as someone has described him, ‘the pictorial preacher of the age’
Then, thirdly, there is the matter of his preaching. ‘It was honey from the comb, dropping, dropping in effusive gospel preaching, and I cannot think that Whitefield surpassed him in this’. And that tells us of course that Dr Guthrie was first and foremost a preacher of the everlasting gospel. He preached Christ and Him crucified. A Mr Dick, who was a parishioner in his first charge, says: ‘I recollect the first text he preached from at Arbirlot. I was too young to collect much of the sermon but I remember this, the name of Christ seemed as it were ringing in my ears, it was the golden thread that bound all his sermons together. He was a preacher of Christ and him crucified.’
Then we have the motivation: 'You know that while you listen to his mighty voice broken with sorrow that he is overwhelmed with the love of the Spirit'. And I believe that was the secret to Dr Guthrie’s life and ministry.. That is what made him the preacher he was. He preached with the earnest desire to do good to the souls of men and women. That is what led him to give his very best to the humble farming folk in the district of Arbirlot, near Arbroath, which was his first charge. That is what brought him here to Edinburgh to work in the charge of Old Greyfriars and eventually to see the formation of St John’s. That is what made him such an advocate of Church extension, not only nationally but here locally in Edinburgh. That is what led him to the setting up of the Ragged Schools and to the support of the temperance movement..
We have no record in his autobiography as to his early spiritual experiences and we have no reference to his call to the ministry. It was common enough in that century that parents looked for at least one of the sons in the family to enter the ministry, and that is exactly what happened in the case of Thomas Guthrie.
Guthrie was born at Brechin in 1803, and after local schooling, he came to Edinburgh University at the tender age of twelve. He spent eight years in a regular course in the University plus two additional years and then he was licensed to preach the Gospel. We speak today about the difficulties of those who are licensed to preach the Gospel and have become probationers, to find charges. Well, considering the preacher Dr Guthrie turned out to be, it was five years before he received a presentation, as it was called then, to a vacant charge. He used up some of that time by going to Paris and studying there and also working in his father's bank in Brechin. But eventually he was presented with a charge, and on the 13th May 1830 he was inducted to the rural parish of Arbirlot. The district is very near to Arbroath and in that day there were 1,000 parishioners in the place. After the induction there was a reception, 'at a cost to myself of some sixty pounds'. He continues: 'The fees to the Crown cost about thirty pounds, and the other thirty pounds or more went to defray the cost of a dinner which I gave that day in a hotel in Arbroath to the members of the Presbytery, some of mine own private friends, and the farmers of the parish of Arbirlot.' He goes on to comment: 'Happily nowadays these old convivial customs are to a large extent abandoned. They not infrequently led to excesses, unseemly at any time and, and on such solemn occasions as an ordination; not unseemly only, but revolting. On this occasion one or two of the farmers were rather uproarious and one minister got drunk before leaving the table. Some years thereafter, he was tried by the Presbytery, and deposed by the General Assembly for drunkenness and other crimes.’
When Thomas Guthrie came to the Parish of Arbirlot he succeeded a very old man, Richard Watson, who persisted in preaching to within a fortnight of his death, at the age of 87. Although he was popular in his day, and always evangelical, one does not wonder that, in his closing years, there was lethargy in the pews. The very first sermon of the new minister sounded like a trumpet call, the repose of the sleepers was effectually broken. Mr Guthrie determined that his every hearer should understand him; carrying out in a higher sphere Lord Cockburn’s rule while at the bar (an anecdote Mr Guthrie delighted to tell as an illustration of the witty judge's sagacity): ‘When I was addressing a jury I invariably picked out the stupidest-looking fellow of the lot and addressed myself specially to him - for this good reason: I knew that if I convinced him I would be sure to carry all the rest.’
When Guthrie went to the parish of Arbirlot there was, as was the custom in that time, two diets of worship on the Lord’s Day, separated from each other by an interval of half-an-hour. 'This required the getting up of two distinct discourses week by week, a serious task for any man and an almost impossible task for a raw young man to do well'. He speaks about the counsel of Hugh Miller, a very competent and indeed first rate authority in matters of composition, that he wondered how a minister could come forth Sunday after Sunday with even one good finished discourse. 'Robert Hall had no lower estimate of the difficulties and labours of the pulpit; as appears in his reply to the question of one who asked “How many discourses do you think, Mr Hall, may a minister get up each week?” “If he is a deep thinker and great condenser,” was Hall’s answer, “he may get up one, if he is an ordinary man two, but if he is an ass, Sir, he will produce half-a-dozen”. ’
And so as these two diets lay heavily on Guthrie, he planned to do something about it. He decided to dispense with the two services and instead have one service which lasted two hours This was a view which he had throughout his ministry that his hearers’ attention might be fixed on one thing, because he found that the congregation’s attention was indeed lapsing when it came to the second service. Not all of them went to the second service, and even those who went were finding it very difficult to concentrate. So here at an early stage in the ministry he was showing the need to concentrate and to get through to his hearers, and not only that but he set up what was at that time quite a novel thing and that was he gathered together a class for young men and young women between the ages of 15 and 25. He had this class every Sabbath evening, with psalm singing and prayer, much the same as in ordinary public worship but also had subjects of examination. First, there were one or two questions on the Larger Catechism, the subject matter being broken down for most ordinary comprehension and abundantly illustrated by examples and anecdotes. Secondly, the sermon or lecture delivered in the forenoon was gone over head by head, introduction and peroration, various topics being set forth by illustration drawn from nature, the world, history etc of a kind that greatly interested the people but such as would not always have suited the dignity and gravity of the pulpit.
This was a kind of catechising and introducing people in a more informal way to the subject matter of the sermon and this appears to have had great success in the community, and so that was another way in which he helped to get through to the people.
But he also speaks about the mode of his preaching. ‘I had when a student in divinity paid more than ordinary attention to the art of elocution, knowing how much of the effect produced on the audience depended on the manner as well as the matter; that in point of fact, the manner is to the matter as the powder is to the ball. I attended elocution classes, winter after winter, walking across half the city and more after eight o’clock at night, fair night and foul, and not getting back to my lodgings until half-past-ten. There I learned to find out and correct many acquired and more or less awkward defects in gesture - to be in fact , natural; to acquire a command over my voice so as to suit it force and emphasis to the sense, and to modulate it so as to express the feelings, whether of surprise, or grief , or indignation, or pity.'
We can see in the beginnings of his ministry the potential that was to develop in future years. Dr McCosh, who became President of Princeton College in the United States, was a colleague of his in the ministry for some years before he left this country. He said: ‘The dull eye of the cow boy and the servant girl who had been toiling all week among the horses and cows immediately brightened up as he spoke in this way and they were sure to go back next Sabbath and take others with them. It should be added that his unsurpassed power of illustration was always employed to set forth the grand old cardinal truths of the Gospel.’ There is a little incident from this time that is worth mentioning. 'He soon became a popular idol and the country people had all sorts of stories about him illustrating his kindness of heart. He had a favourite dog, Bob, black, rough and ungainly, much attached to his master but in no way amiable to other men and dogs. This animal at times insisted in going into Church when his master was preaching and the minister in the midst of his sermon would open the pulpit door and let him in, evidently to keep him quiet.’ Another informant remembers seeing this actually occur. ‘Bob lay quietly at his master’s feet until the close of the service. When the blessing had been pronounced the people were vastly amused to see his four paws lain on the book board, the great black head appearing above it as he gravely surveyed the departing congregation.’
In his first congregation Dr Guthrie established a reputation as an orator and as a popular preacher. There were other concerns that came into his life too. He became involved in the Church Extension work that Dr Thomas Chalmers had launched. He tells us, ‘On behalf of Church extension I visited a considerable area of Forfarshire to stir up zeal in that cause in the ministers and the people.’ In this connection he mentioned how the Rev Robert Murray M'Cheyne met with an accident that resulted in an illness that terminated in his death. ‘He accompanied me on my tour to Erroll, full of buoyant spirit and heavenly conversation. After breakfast we strolled into the garden, where there stood some gymnastic poles, an apparatus set up for the use of Mr Grierson’s family. No aesthetic, no stiff and formal man, but ready for any innocent and healthy amusement, these soon caught M'Cheyne’s eye and, challenging me to do the like, he rushed at a horizontal pole resting on two upright ones and went through a lot of manoeuvres. I was buttoning up to succeed and try if I could not outdo him when, he as he hung by his heels and hands, some five or six feet above the ground, all of a sudden the pole snapped asunder and he came down with his back on the ground with a tremendous thud. He sickened, was borne into the manse and lay there for days, and was never the same man again.’
But not only did Dr Guthrie become involved in the Church Extension Scheme but he also became prominent in connection with the Ten Years’ Conflict which lead to the Disruption. He was one of the Non-Intrusionists and he worked very zealously for that cause. He was very much involved in all the events connected with the Disruption. There is one famous story about Dr Guthrie in connection with the Disruption controversy which I would not like to omit.. This is what he had to say about the interdicts that were being put on Courts and so on at that time: ‘In going to preach at Strathbogie, I was met by an interdict from the Court of Session - an interdict to which as regards civil matters I gave implicit obedience. On the Lord’s Day when I was preparing for divine service, in came a servant of the law and handed me an interdict. I told him he had done his duty and I would do mine. The interdict forbade me under the penalty of the Calton-hill jail to preach the Gospel in the parish churches of Strathbogie. I said the churches are stone and lime and belong to the state, I will not intrude there. It forbade me to preach the Gospel in the schoolhouses. I said, the schoolhouses are stone and lime and belong to the state; I will not intrude there. It forbade me to preach in the churchyard and I said, the dust of the dead is the state's and I will not intrude there. But when these Lords of Session forbade me to preach my Master’s blessed Gospel and offer salvation to sinners anywhere in that district under the arch of heaven, I put the interdict under my feet and I preached the Gospel'. And that was the man whose chief love was for the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he saw that the cause of Christ was tied up so intimately with the contendings of the Disruption times.
Move to Edinburgh
We need to retrace our steps. After a seven year ministry at Arbirlot, Thomas Guthrie was destined for Edinburgh. A vacancy came in Old Greyfriars Church and although the whole Kirk Session of that Church was moderate in their outlook, the Town Council gave the presentation of that vacancy to Guthrie. He was inducted as colleague to the Rev John Sym on 21 September 1837. There could be no greater contrast between the place he left and the place he came to. From Arbirlot, with its fresh rural fields, and he came to the Cowgate , with its dingy closes and overcrowded tenements.
There is a story told about how Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge one day soon after he arrived in Edinburgh. His great heart was stirred to its inmost depths by the crime, wretchedness and poverty he saw around him. and thinking how he could best deal with the discordant and seemingly irreclaimable material when a hand was laid on his shoulder. On looking round he saw the famous Dr Thomas Chalmers. 'Hopeful of success, he surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden; those foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease changed into “ dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody “. Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, “A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation.”.''
He spoke of the contrast with his previous field of labour. ‘The contrast both morally and physically between my present and my former sphere was such as without God’s help to appal the stoutest heart.’ Where he was preaching in the Old Greyfriars Church there were many revellers but also some men of nobility, including Lord Jeffrey and Lord Coburn. The story is told of Lord Coburn that being asked by a friend who met him one Sunday where he was going to Church. He answered, ‘Going to have a greet with Guthrie.’ He speaks about his preaching in the Old Greyfriars Church and the collegiate minister there who was an older man and how all the crowds were coming out to hear Dr Guthrie, but this man was not jealous. .
Guthrie delighted to take his turn in the service for the poor, which Mr Sym had, some years before, had commenced in the old Magdalene Chapel in the Cowgate:
'With my excellent and able colleague I have a parish where there are two congregations. We have in the Greyfriars Church , a congregation of ladies and gentleman, and in the Magdalene Chapel we have a not less interesting -to me in some respects a more interesting – congregation in so far as it contains some who, like the lost sheep of the wilderness, have been brought back by the parochial system graciously and rejoicingly to the fold they had left'.
'When I preached there on Sunday afternoons the seats were free in the first instance only to the poor parishioners of the district. Till they were accommodated others had to wait at the door and a curious and interesting sight it was to see two lines of ladies and gentlemen stretching out into the street as they waited their time while the poor, the maim, the halt and the blind marched up between them to take precedence in the house of God. The gold ring and the goodly apparel were at a discount with us in the Cowgate where the respectable stood in the passages and the poorest of the poor occupied the pews. Now I will give a little description about this. ‘Living in the parish on the very borders of its sin and misery, the hours of the day were exposed to constant interruption by my poor wretched parishioners when I was in the house. But most of the day was spent outside among them and by the evening I was so tired and exhausted that I was fit for nothing but the newspaper, light reading and the lessons and play of my children. Anyway, I had resolved on coming to Edinburgh to give my evenings to my family, to spend them not in my study as many ministers did but in the parlour among my children.’
The first winter he was in Edinburgh (1837-38) was one of extraordinary severity. 'For six weeks at least there was not a spade put into the ground. The working classes, most of them living from hand to mouth, contracted debts which weighed them down for years. For the poorest of the people, who had not character enough to procure on credit, were like to starve for lack of food and fuel. My door used to be besieged every day by crowds of half-naked creatures, men, women and children, shivering with cold and hunger and I visited many a house that winter where there were starving mothers and starving children, and neither bread nor Bible. With climbing stairs my limbs were like to fail and with such spectacles of misery my heart was like to break'.
That is the situation he came to and after speaking about the disease and so on that were so rife in these places, he says: 'It was not disease or death, it was the starvation, the drunkenness, the rags, the heartless, hopeless, miserable condition of the people, the debauched and drunken mothers, the sallow, yellow, emaciated children, the wants both temporal and spiritual, which one felt themselves unable to relieve which sometimes seemed to overwhelm me, making me wonder why for such scenes of suffering I had ever left my happy country parish with its fragrance of bush, the golden firs of its moor and the green and clover flowers of cultivated fields, with heath blowing in every breeze and bloom in the rosy cheeks of infants laughing in their mothers arms and of boys and girls on their way to school. I began my visitations in the Horse Wynd and he speaks of the condition of the Horse Wynd before but now he says:
'Of the first one hundred and fifty I visited going from door to door there was not five who attended any house of God either Church or Chapel. Most of the families were clothed in rags. Many of the houses were almost without chair or table; the bed was a quantity of straw gathered in one corner beneath some thin and ragged coverlets and in almost every case all their misery was due to drunkenness. The fathers and mothers drunk and the children were starved with cold and hunger and so brutally used that the young looked old and with a fixed expression of sadness seemed as if they had never smiled.'
On one occasion he was baptising a child, in a house in the Cowgate. There was a terrific commotion next door and as the walls were very thin, he could hear there was a violent struggle, someone was thrown to the floor and a great cry went out. And he says: ‘not to baptise but to prevent murder though at some risk, was present duty, so stopping the service, I asked the father of the child I was to baptise to stand by me while I forced my way into the room where this murder was going on. Strange and startling as it was to me, he having lived long in such localities had become familiar with such scenes and would have nothing to do with it:’ and Guthrie had to do that on his own.
Free St John's
Before long another church was planned to have for these poor people in the Cowgate. The building was commenced in the Nether Bow, re-named Victoria Street, in 1838 and completed in 1840. Guthrie entered his new pulpit on 19th November of that year. The gallery of the church, with three hundred and fifty sittings, was let to applicants from all parts of the city; but six hundred and fifty sittings – the whole area of the church in fact – were reserved as absolutely free seats for residents in the parish, poor or rich, who applied for them. Guthrie, writing to his brother said 'We are abundantly filled with people, and you would be delighted to see the masses of common people who cram every corner and nook of the area.' Following the Disruption of May 1843 Guthrie and his congregation left their nearly new building and for two years met in a large Wesleyan Chapel in Nicholson Square.
Plans were soon put in place to erect a new building just across on the other side of Victoria Street with its front on Johnston Terrace. The sum of £6,000 was raised for the project and it was recognised that the amount ruled out an elaborate exterior. Guthrie was anxious that the architect, Thomas Hamilton, should devote his energies 'chiefly to the interior'. The building was opened on 18th April 1845 as was mentioned already. Guthrie comments: 'After sermon I made a short address; in which, among other matters, I set myself frankly and fairly to defend and justify the ornate character of our church, telling my hearers that “there is no sin in beauty and no holiness in ugliness”.'
There were may other calls on Dr Guthrie's time. He became involved in what was known as the Manse Fund. After the Disruption of 1843 and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland the ministers involved not only lost their church buildings but also their manses. There was an incredible amount of suffering for ministers and their families. So Dr Guthrie was appointed to go round the country campaigning for funds for new manses. After he had toured thirteen Synods and fifty eight Presbyteries in a year he was able to announce to the General Assembly of 1846 that £116,370 had been raised. £116,000 was raised in one year and he put a great deal of effort into that, an effort that affected his health.
But Dr Guthrie became involved in many other things. He was concerned for the situation in this area and what they wanted to do was to have further Church extension, and plans were put in hand for this The church was given an area of Edinburgh to operate in and that area was The Pleasance. So they began to work there and Dr Guthrie delivered sermons in support of an appeal for that church and he preached on the text, He beheld the city and wept over it (Luke 19:41). These sermons were published under the title The City: Its Sins and Sorrows. That volume made a great impact upon the people of his day. He says:
'Well, upon entering on a work in The Pleasance, certainly not the worst district in the town, we found more than one-third of its 2,000 inhabitants, more than 600 of the whole 2,000 people, passing on the grave as careless of their souls as if they had none to care for: living without the profession of religion, living without God and hope in the world, living to all practical purposes, heathens in a Christian land.'
The Ragged Schools
Guthrie's familiarity with the needs of the city, especially the area around the Cowgate , inspired him to become a social reformer and he is remembered today more than anything else perhaps for the promotion of the Ragged Schools. The idea of these Ragged or Industrial Schools originated in England with John Pounds in Portsmouth. The inspiration for the Ragged Schools in Scotland was Sheriff Watson who started one in Aberdeen in 1841. However it was Guthrie who became the driving force behind the Scottish movement. Guthrie appealed for public backing in his book, Plea for Ragged Schools, published in 1847 and it went through eleven editions in one year. It was met with a good response and such a response in Edinburgh that Guthrie was able to secure premises for the first Ragged School on the Castle Hill in 1847. For these destitute children this institution was intended to provide free food and clothing, vocational training and religious instruction. They were sorely needed and a great provision for the desperate situation that many children faced, homeless, parentless, cast out in the street, and Guthrie had this great compassion for these children.
Now some dissension arose later on over the religious aspect of the education provided. Guthrie and most of his backers argued that they were acting in loco parentis to the children and so were entitled to instruct them in Protestant Christianity. Other people of course were making claims for Roman Catholic teaching and later on there were separate Ragged Schools. Dr Guthrie had pioneered this work in Edinburgh and also in other parts of Scotland. In 1852 he gave evidence before a House of Commons Committee and an Act was passed in 1854 which empowered Scottish Magistrates to commit vagrant children aged four and under to Industrial Schools. So the State took recognition of what Dr Guthrie was doing and that was put on a more established basis in the city..
We noticed in the extracts already quoted how Dr Guthrie was deeply concerned about the drunkenness in the areas and the effect the drunkenness had in the sadness and the sorrow that it was bringing into so many lives. Drink was at the root of all the destitution, misery and crime. So both his experience and his pastoral work in the Cowgate and other places led him to support the Temperance Movement. In 1851 the Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness was formed and Dr Guthrie was urgently requested to write the introductory pamphlet of a series to be issued by the Association. That pamphlet is called Plea on behalf of Drunkards and Against Drunkenness. He himself became a total abstainer. In the book, The City: Its Sins and Sorrows, he laid so much to the door of strong drink, appealed so earnestly on behalf of its victims that public feeling in Edinburgh and wherever his books were read was stirred to its uttermost depths.
His Latter Years
All these labours took a toll on his health. After all his exertions going round the country for the Manse Fund he developed a heart problem and he had to be off preaching for more than a year (1848-49). And so Dr William Hanna, who was to become the biographer of Thomas Chalmers, was inducted as his colleague in the congregation of St John's in 1850. But after he recovered from that illness he was able to preach again but once on the Lord’s Day for a further fourteen years. And that was why Dr Alexander from the USA heard him preaching at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. His colleague would have preached in the morning. There would have been no evening service in those days. He retired from the pastorate in 1864.
In his retirement he engaged in many activities, including writing and travel. He preached his last sermon during a trip to his beloved Highland retreat at Lochlee in August 1872. In the parish church in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Lord Chancellor he preached from Hebrews 10.38, 'The just shall live by faith'. By September of the year he suffered and attack of congestion of the lungs. During his final days he was at St Leonards-on-Sea, in the south of England. Such was his name and reputation that a telegram was received from the Queen at Windsor asking for information as to his health. He passed to his eternal reward on the 24 February 1873 at the age of 70.
His funeral took place to the Grange Cemetery. What a scene that was. He lived on Salisbury Road about a mile from the Cemetery. The funeral procession was three-quarters of a mile long and both sides of the road, from the Salisbury Road to the Grange, were lined with thousands of people. They reckon that upwards of 30,000 people were assembled that day, the largest funeral gathering seen in Edinburgh since the death of Sir James Young Simpson. And at the graveside there in Grange Cemetery the children of the Ragged Schools were among the people who were the mourners. They sang There is a Happy Land. Two of these little ones from the Ragged Schools placed a wreath on the grave of Dr Guthrie. Such then was the man who lived to do such great things out of his love for God and for his people.
Lessons from his life
I would like in conclusion to draw some lessons from the life and ministry of Dr Guthrie. I would mention four in particular that we might profit from.
First of all, we, especially those of us who are involved in the work of ministry must learn a lot from his preaching: this determination he had to make his hearers understand, to gain the attention of the people. As we saw in that extract from Dr Alexander, 'the audience was wrapt and melting' because he was getting home to them. As Guthrie said: ‘speaking to convert the hearers was not within my power, but to command their attention, to awaken their interest, to touch their feelings, and instruct their minds was, and I was determined to do it.’
He was a master in the use of illustration. The story is told of a seaman in the congregation listening to Guthrie’s description of a nautical disaster. As he listened to this illustration, he leapt up and removed his coat and was ready to dive in and save the drowning person. That was the power that this man had, the power of illustration and he read widely, he took his illustrations from nature. How many illustrations were given to him in those days in his first congregation. He was there beside the sea and he got illustrations from the sea and from shipping. He got illustrations from nature around him. And he used all these things, he pressed them into the service of the Gospel and no wonder he was such a popular preacher and such an effective preacher of the Gospel and the preparation he put into his sermons. Perhaps we preach too many sermons in a week in some parts of this land today. There is wise counsel from Dr Guthrie that a sermon needs a tremendous amount of preparation if it is going to be effective and for good.
Then, secondly, his soul-winning. It was the worth of the human soul that affected Dr Guthrie. It affected him in his first charge in Arbilot as well as in Edinburgh. He did not make any distinction. He did not regard Arbilot as just a nice, comfortable place to be in. No, in his rural setting he gave himself to seeking and saving souls. Likewise in the crowded tenements of the Cowgate he went out after the lost. It cost him something as we have seen in his state of health.. But he went after the people. Like his Saviour, he beheld the city and he wept over it. As Dr Candlish says of him, ‘his pity was ever active and he went out after the lost and he sought them in the darkest places’.
Thirdly, his love. ‘He was overwhelmed,’ says Dr Alexander, ‘by the love of the Spirit.’ You see it extended not only to the souls of men but to the whole man. He had that orthodoxy of doctrine and he was clear enough on the basic truths of the Gospel. But he also had the orthodoxy of life. He says in one of his sermons, ‘there is no respect in which we are more like our Father than this, love’. And he says, ‘And so, brethren, get me the love of Christ into a man’s heart. Let God the Holy Spirit kindle that flame in a man’s heart, I say, that man is fit for anything.’ That’s what inspired Thomas Guthrie to be a preacher, to be a philanthropist, to be a social reformer, to have an impact upon his city, to the needy around him, and no wonder there is a statue to him in Princes Street gardens. The people of the city and of the nation acknowledged the tremendous contribution that he made to this city and to its needs.
And there is one final thing that we can say about Dr Guthrie, and that is his fervency. What fervency he manifested in all that he did. He gives an illustration of this himself. He says: 'An obscure man rose up to address the French Convention. At the close of his oration, Mirabu, the giant genius of the revolution, turned round to his neighbour and eagerly asked, “Who is that?” The other, who had been in no way interested by the address wondered at Mirabu’s curiosity, whereupon the latter said, “That man will yet act a great part” and asked to explain himself added “he speaks as though he believes every word he says.” Much of pulpit-power under God depends on that. . They make others feel who feel themselves. How can he plead for souls who does not know, does not feel, the value of his own.’ And that was Dr Guthrie. He had that desire to see souls being saved, to see men and women being brought to the knowledge of the truth and how he went about this work with such energy, and with such eagerness and he speaks about the city, he says, ‘If this is not to be done, and nothing effectual is to be done to meet the evils that afflict our country, what shall be the end of these things?. Unless they are met, met in time, and before the constitution sinks and loses all power to rally, the end of these things must be the ruin of our land. Our cities, especially our large cities, being in this, as they are in every other country, the great centres of influence, if they increase in ignorance, irreligion and immorality during the next century as they have done in the past, those who fear the God of heaven and profess the faith of Jesus Christ will find themselves a weak minority. We are just now rapidly moving on to such a dangerous crisis. That is the rock to which the vessel of the State is drifting and when that happens it needs no orator to tell what shall be the end of these things.’
And this is the rallying call he gives to us today. Under God, he says, it depends upon ourselves whether that shall or shall not be our fate. Matters are not so far gone but it may be averted. A great French General, who reached the battlefield at Sandown, found that the troops of his country had been worsted in the fight. Unskillful arrangements had neutralised gallant bravery, and offered the enemy advantages they were not slow to seize. He accosted the unfortunate Commander. Having rapidly learned how matters stood, he pulled out his watch, turned his eyes on the sinking sun, and said, ‘there’s time yet to gain the victory.’ He rallied the broken ranks, placed himself at their head and launching them with the arm of a giant in war upon the columns of the foe, he plucked the prize from their hands and won the day. There is time yet also to save our country. There is no time to lose. To her case perhaps we would apply the words which we would leave as a solemn warning to every worldly, careless, Christless man, ‘Behold now is the accepted time, behold now is the day of salvation.’
May what Guthrie stood for, what he believed and what he worked for, make us men and women of God, rise up to follow in his footsteps, to claim the lost for Christ, and this country once again for God.