Sunday, 3 May 2015

Dr Thomas Guthrie on politics

Dr Thomas Guthrie (1803-1873), as I've said in previous articles on this blog, was one of the last great Christian polymaths of the Victorian era.  He was a preacher, a writer and a social reformer with great influence in the areas of education and politics.  Dr Guthrie did not stray into writing and politics with some guilty notion that he was going 'off piste'. His Christianity was a theology for life and informed every area of society.  Christ is not just the head of the church but he is also King of the nation and his teaching and commands needed to be applied to poverty relief, education and politics.  It is the compartmentalisation of our Christianity into sacred and secular that has led the the Scottish church having a diminishing influence over the last 100 years.

So where did Guthrie stand politically?  Well he was never a party political man despite being on friendly terms with some of the most powerful men and women in the country; Lord Jeffrey, the Duke of Argyll, Lord Southesk, the Right Hon. Fox Maule (Earl of Dalhousie), the Duchess of Sutherland, Dr Tait the Bishop of London and Mr Gladstone.  In 1871 Guthrie was the only dissenting Scottish minister to be invited to the marriage of Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne where he was presented to the Queen.  During one of his Ragged School speeches Guthrie spoke of his political views;

'I am a Conservative in conserving all that is good; I am a Liberal in advocating a wise liberality as regards Government funds towards all institutions that aim to make men better, soberer and wiser; and I am a red-hot Radical in seeking to uproot everything tending to disgrace the grand old name of Britain.'

Guthrie was familiar with politics and politicians and made frequent visits to Westminster in the cause of the Ragged Schools.  But Guthrie never had faith in politics to transform a nation as so many people do today.  Indeed he was badly let down by government despite his many powerful friends and great influence.  After giving evidence to a Parliamentary Committee in 1856 the Privy Council decided to provide 50 shillings per year for children from Ragged Schools.  In 1857 this decision was reversed and the funding was reduced to 5 shillings.  Guthrie was understandably angry and said;

'I do not wish to speak evil of dignities, but there are some things in respect of which it is difficult to keep one's temper, and this is one of them.  We have leaned on a broken reed.  For a brief period, in answer to importunity like the widow's, we got fifty shillings a year for every child of the abandoned classes trained within our school - only one third of the cost....It's injustice and folly are still more plainly brought out by the contrast between the liberality shown to those institutions which attempt to reform the child who has committed crime, and the meanness dealt out to such institutions  as ours, that, reckoning prevention better than cure, seek to destroy crime in the very bud.  What a monstrous state of matters!'  (Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie and Sons, 1896)

After this there was a deputation to the Privy Council to reconsider in 1859.  Guthrie talks vividly of leading this delegation to London and walking up the street like 'a column of soldiers'.  They met with Mr Adderly in the Treasury building who Guthrie described as 'fighting shy'.  It must have been quite a sight to see Guthrie in full flow and he says he got 'quite animated'!!  The only outcome was the passing of the Industrial School Act in 1860 which gave state assistance to children in ragged schools committed there by magistrates.  A Privy Council report from 1861 recorded that of 6172 children in ragged schools across the UK, only 242 had been committed by magistrates thus the vast majority were supported by voluntary contributions.

At a public meeting convened in Edinburgh in 1860 to consider what steps should be taken to rectify the huge deficit of £700 caused by the withdrawal of the government grant, Dr Norman Macleod said;

'It is monstrous that Government, who would not give sixpence to save a man's leg, would quite willingly give twenty pounds for a wooden one after the leg was taken off.'

Dr Guthrie himself let the government have it with both barrels;

'What I wish the public to understand, is this - you must either help us in our present extremity, or we must cast seventy of these poor children overboard. Now, who is to select these victims?  I will not do it.  I sympathise with Hagar, when after her doing her utmost to sustain her son, she withdrew, not choosing to see him die.  It will be a black day for Edinburgh when these children are cast into the streets.  God says 'Room in heaven for the guilty:'  here they cry, 'Room in the prison for the innocent;' and when these poor creatures have gone their horrid march from our blessed school to yon dreary cells, let them put upon the door of the prison, "Under the patronage of the Privy Council".' 

Guthrie left his most stinging rebuke to the end;  

'I have been three times at Downing Street, and it is a shocking cold place. I have seen a bunch of grapes put into a well, and you took it out, instead of a bunch of grapes it was a bunch of stones.  There are such things as petrifying wells, and I have seen a kind and good hearted man go into office in Downing Street, and the next time I saw him he was as hard as stone.'

He had been to Westminster and pleaded for help with the poor ragged children of Edinburgh.  He had eloquently argued in his 'Plea for Ragged Schools' the value of prevention rather than cure.  But it had all fallen on deaf ears. Thankfully at the meeting in question rather than the £700 that was needed from the good people of Edinburgh they raised a staggering £2200.  One donation of £157 was from domestic servants in Edinburgh.  Another donation came from a farm servant who said; 'I am a poor farm servant, and it is all I can spare at present as I have a widow mother to support and I am the one son.  I do not want my name down in any of the records.'

Dr Guthrie engaged with the government of the day.  He realised the power and influence of politics but he also saw how it could crush the local, and at times more informal compassion that was making a huge difference.  During his evidence to a Commons Committee in 1852 that was set up to enquire into the 'condition of criminal and destitute juveniles in this country', Guthrie made this famous statement which in many ways predicted the next 150 years of welfare provision; 'the practical suggestion that I would make is not that the government should come forward and supersede our local efforts; I should look upon that as a great calamity; I do not wish the government to supersede our efforts but I wish the state to do this, to supplement them.'  It is the superseding of all local and voluntary efforts that have led to so many of the problems we have today.  God's primary welfare state was and is the nuclear and extended family and only as we once again support and encourage God's institution of the family will we see stronger communities.

Guthrie also realised how limited politics was.  It was not the government that was the great motivating power that assisted thousands of desperate and destitute ragged children, it was the power of Christian love and compassion in men like Dr Thomas Guthrie.  Just as in Victorian Scotland, Guthrie's faith was not in politics but in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and its power to bring spiritual and moral reformation.  Of course we need to engage in politics and more Christians need to stand for parliament.  But what we need most is a spiritual revival in our country and reformation of the church.  We need a radical and yet winsome Christianity best summed up in my favourite Guthrie quote;

'We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish; courteous, not boorish; generous, not miserly; sanctified, not sour; that loves justice more than gain; and fears God more than man; to quote another's words - "a religion that keeps husbands from being spiteful, or wives fretful; that keeps mothers patient, and children pleasant; that bears heavily not only on the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin,' but on the exceeding rascality of lying and stealing; that banishes small measures from counters, sand from sugar, and water from milk-cans - the faith, in short, whose root is in Christ, and whose fruit is works ." '

Thomas Guthrie, Faith and Works, Man and the Gospel.

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