‘I’ll go down to the pit, if you will hold the rope’
William Carey, leaving Christian friends to go to India in 1793
By the time Dr Guthrie came to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh in 1837 he was already convinced of the need for church planting particularly amongst the poor although there is little that could have prepared him for his new parish. He says: 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 the coal pit. Guthrie was already an advocate of the revived Parochial System: a church at the very doors of the poor, the church free to all without distinction, properly equipped schools, elders, deacons and district visitors to assist the minister in his pastoral work.
Much to Guthrie’s frustration, the Edinburgh Town Council had a system of pew rents and was no doubt delighted that a ‘big name’ like Dr Guthrie would result in greater income. This, in reality, meant that the poor were shut out from Old Greyfriars because they couldn’t afford a pew. This angered Guthrie: I know to my sad experience that while the inhabitants of my parish have been told that they have a church within it, to them, at least, that church is not accessible.’ His vision was for a new kind of church and work began on St John’s in Victoria Street in 1838.
When Dr Guthrie entered his new pulpit on 19th November 1840 he could never have imagined that his tenure would be only 2 short years before the congregation would leave at the Disruption. But in 1840 St John’s in Victoria Street become a beacon of hope for the poor. It was to be a new kind of church where the poor were welcome to hear the gospel without money and without price. Only the balcony continued to be rented out to the wealthier residents of Edinburgh and brought in a healthy income of £280 per year. Thirty elders and fifteen deacons were allotted districts where they actively sought out non church goers and assisted the poor in practical ways. Dr Guthrie saw the church like a parish well and said: how often have I wished that the parish church was more like the parish well, a well of salvation where all might draw and drink. Finally, in St John’s this vision was realised.
While Thomas Chalmers may have been the great pioneer of church planting in the pre-Disruption Church of Scotland, Guthrie was one of his most zealous followers. Both men were in the vanguard of what Dr Cook of Belfast called a glorious enterprise of Christian aggressions upon the region of popular ignorance. It is incredible to think that between 1835 and 1841 the Church of Scotland raised a staggering £300,000 and 222 churches were built. We need a similar love for the lost and vision for church planting across many parts of Scotland where there is no gospel witness. Many peripheral housing schemes are a wasteland for the gospel. Men like Guthrie were not ‘hand ringers’ but men of action.
Let’s take encouragement from the words of Thomas Chalmers at a Church Extension meeting in 1838 where he commended the work that Guthrie was to undertake in St John’s Edinburgh: I know that my friend Dr Guthrie is a house-going minister, and I also know this is the patent way to create a church-going people. I trust that when this arrangement shall be exemplified in the Cowgate, and multiplied over Edinburgh, it will be found that – what no adjustment of political or civil wisdom has been able to effect – the harmonisation of all classes of society shall be at last effected through the medium of Gospel ministrations, and by the omnipotence of Gospel charity.