After waiting for a call for 5 years, Dr Guthrie started his ministry in a rural charge in Arbirlot, Angus from 1830-37. Almost the entire parish of 1000 people attended church and the nearest ‘Ale House’ was in Brechin. Despite his inevitable visibility in a small village, Guthrie took extra steps to make sure he came into weekly contact with his people through a savings bank and library both set up in the manse. Far from compromising his ministry with ‘secular’ activity, the library and bank were very much part of Guthrie’s vision for the ministry. It helped him deepen relationships and enabled him to have a godly influence in a small community. As Guthrie says: These and other extra labours which I undertook showed the people that I was seeking to live for them, not for myself – that I came not to lord it over God’s heritage, not to be their master, but their minister, in the original sense of the word.
Moving to the Old Greyfriars Parish Church, Edinburgh in 1837, Guthrie believed strongly in living amongst the people of his parish. In a letter to a friend who was a politician, prior to his settlement in Edinburgh he said: Now, I should like a clergyman never to step out of his own door but he steps in among his population. Guthrie remained true to his word and both of the houses he lived in at Argyll Square, Brown Square and Lauriston Lane were minutes from the heart of the Cowgate.
By the time Guthrie came to Edinburgh he was already convinced of Thomas Chalmers vision for church planting and for the parochial system laid out in his Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns. This included having a church open to people without distinction of class or wealth (pew rents were standard practice at that time), properly equipped schools, elders, deacons and district visitors to aid the minister in systematic visitation of the parish and relief of the poor. The reality of this vision was a huge challenge for Guthrie and as he says of his new parish in comparison to his old one: I can compare it to nothing else than the change from the green fields and woods and the light of nature to venturing into the darkness and blackness of a coal-pit! It was always his intention to plant a church in his Edinburgh parish and in 1840 St John’s in Victoria Street was opened.
So what was Guthrie’s pattern as a pastor? Well, mornings were reserved for study and preparation. He says: For some years after coming to Edinburgh I rose summer and winter, at five o’clock. By six, I had got through my dressing and private devotions, had kindled my fire, had prepared and enjoyed a cup of coffee, and was set down at my desk; having, till nine o’clock when we breakfasted, three unbroken hours before me. This allowed the rest of the day to be given over to systematic visitation of his parish. He took meticulous notes of all his visits and followed up genuine cases of hardship with practical help. Despite the huge demands on Dr Guthrie, both from his parish and his wider responsibilities in the Free Church, he always kept evenings free for his families: I 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.
As Guthrie details in his Autobiography he had daily discouragements as a pastor but as Oliphant Smeaton says of him: He never faltered. He took as his motto ‘Jehovah-nissi – The Lord my Banner,’ and every disappointment and failure only caused him to redouble his efforts and his prayers.’