When Dr Guthrie came to Edinburgh in 1837, he was appalled by the sights he saw in the Cowgate. Day after day he would visit squalled tenements where he would find horrific poverty and little interest in the gospel. Even those with some income often squandered what they had in the ‘dram houses’ or tippling shops’ which Guthrie did so much to shut down. As he said on one occasion: ‘Nobody can know the misery I suffered amid those scenes of human wretchedness, woe, want and sin.’ It was out of these experiences that Guthrie would emerge as the ‘Apostle of the Ragged School Movement’ and the ‘Apostle of Temperance’. So what were Guthrie’s views on poverty? How did he think poverty could be alleviated or even cured? How does this compare with the rather narrow modern day debate which is almost exclusively financial?
In his ‘Sketches of the Cowgate’ which were reprinted in ‘Out of Harness’ Guthrie tells the story of a house he visited which was like a traveller lighting on an oasis in desert sands. Unlike the houses he usually visited that were filthy, this house was clean and bright: ‘The door opened on an apartment lighted by windows whole and clean, neither patched with paper, nor stuffed with rags, nor crusted with dirt like bottles of old wine; a floor white with washing, and sprinkled with yellow sand, stretched to the fireplace, where the flames reflected from shining brasses, danced merrily in the grate over a well-swept hearth-stone.’ Guthrie, as always, uses very vivid language to tell the tale. He was seeking to contrast what normally greeted him when a door was opened in the Cowgate. The couple were members of his own church and he was delighted to find such a well presented home.
As Guthrie writes about this visit 25 years later (probably for the Sunday Magazine), he remembers how convinced he was that it was a God fearing home: ‘It was a Bethel; God was in the place; and though, like the patriarch, I was in a sort of wilderness, this pleasant sight was a reality – no vision, like the ladder and angels of his dream.’ The house that Guthrie had entered was that of the ‘blind organist’. Every day this man sat at the top of the Mound grinding a barrel organ. His face was horrendously scarred by small-pox and he was blind, no small disadvantages in Victorian Scotland. If there was any house where dirt might have been excused and the signs of poverty expected it would have been in this house. Yet as Guthrie says: ‘it was remarkable by their absence.’ What was the difference between him and his neighbours? Well Guthrie gives us the comparison:
· They never went to church; he did.
· They had no respect for the Sabbath; he kept it holy to the Lord.
· They had no religion; he was a man of devout habits.
· They indulged their vices; he practised the virtues of Christianity
As Guthrie says: ‘So even in the world, his religion was of more advantage to him than their eyes were to them. It made him careful, and frugal, and temperate.’ As Guthrie left the home he said he desired to chalk on the wall of that house for his neighbours to see: ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.’
Surely the blind organist proves to us that ‘Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come’ (1 Timothy 4 v 8). Of course there are exceptions to any rule but generally speaking those who live a godly life can say with the Psalmist: ‘I have been young and now am old, yet I have never saw the righteous forsaken, or his seed begging bread’ (Psalm 37 v 25). To make this a rule without exception would be unwise. We are certainly not claiming that those who fear God will not experience poverty. This would go against many Biblical examples including Christ himself. As Guthrie says of the exceptions to this rule: ‘All good people are not wise. There may be devotion without discretion; saint-ship, but little common sense; and an examination of those cases where piety is associated with poverty and does not succeed in this world, will often discover the peculiarities of the circumstances.’ What we are seeking to argue is that if there are limited resources, godliness, as in the case of the blind organist, can certainly make these resources go much further. A house where there is alcohol and drug addiction, gambling and poor budgeting is a place where poverty will undoubtedly be exacerbated.
Guthrie certainly believed that, despite the exceptions to the rule, the house where God was worshiped, would more often than not be a house where though there might be poverty, there was enough to live on. There may be several reasons for this but surely the main one is that Christianity teaches a man self-denial. As Guthrie says: ‘this virtue lies at the foundation of success in every business and pursuit…’ He continues: ‘It teaches him to say, No! – to sacrifice his passions to his interests; and abstain from those indulgences which, wasting time, squandering money, impairing health, injuring character, lead to the results that, though often attributed to misfortune, are usually due to misconduct.’ Guthrie wasn’t naïve to the injustice that many workers suffered despite working their fingers to the bone: ‘Alas! That many of our working people should doom themselves to toil on till they sink into the grave; or till, amid privations and infirmities that gather about their grey heads like clouds around a setting sun, they have to accept the bitter bread of charity, and at an age when transplanting suits them as ill as it suits a hoary tree, are torn up by the roots and removed to the dreary walls of a Poor House, - to be nursed, when dying, by hirelings, and thrust, when dead, into a pauper’s grave.’ While showing mercy throughout his ministry Guthrie fought injustice at every turn, as we to are commanded to do. He was certainly not blind to the exploitation that was rampant in Victorian Scotland, but he believed that a difficult situation could be made much worse if meagre wages were squandered on drink.
The second aspect that makes poverty less likely in a Christian is that he is willing to work. Idleness and sloth are condemned throughout scripture. As 2 Thesselonians 3 v 10 reminds us ‘If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.’ Now of course this is not saying that if there is no work available it is wrong to accept help and charity, it is saying that if work is available but somebody choses rather to do nothing, our system should not encourage this. One of the key aspects of the Ragged Schools was that the children were taught a trade so they could go on to work and earn a wage. Guthrie sought to break generational poverty by giving young people a trade so they could be delivered from the cycle of poverty and charity. As he says in a speech to the Evangelical Alliance in 1867: ‘From a hundred prisoners, there may be 99 who come into prison by drink. Now, give Bible and porridge, and the bottle will be put away. But we give them still more than the Bible and soup – bread for the soul and body. We try to make them men and women. They are trained to industrial occupations; and formed to several professions in order to become good handicrafts; often they are sent to the colonies.’ In other words, the Ragged Schools offered these young men and women a new life as well as the simple basics they lacked.
The Blind Organist reminds us that while we may come across people with many disadvantages, self denial, hard work and ingenuity can go a long way in transforming a situation. This is in no way to underestimate the devastating effects of poverty. Those experiencing poverty and marginalisation appreciate financial help but most of all they need acceptance and community which the church is able to offer in abundance. Even more than that they need to transforming power of the the gospel that can set them free from the sin that traps so many in a cycle of deprivation and destruction.
In our next article we'll see how both Thomas Guthrie and Thomas Chalmers worked to eradicate poverty in the Parish System sometimes referred to as the 'Parochial System.'