Dr Guthrie was no ivory tower minister. He was the embodiment of salt pressed against the decaying flesh of the world around him. This came at a heavy price with Guthrie's future health problems. He became a magnet for his parishioners seeking temporal and spiritual help on a daily basis; '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 was a starving mother and starving children, and neither bed, bread nor Bible - till, with climbing stairs my limbs were like to fail, and with spectacles of misery, my heart was like to break.' So how did Guthrie respond to all the challenges around him?
His starting point was that man is made in the image of God. The half-naked child sleeping on the streets of Edinburgh was, to Guthrie, as precious in the sight of God as the Queen on the throne. In his first plea for Ragged Schools in 1847 he compared what some regarded as 'rubbish' as shining jewels; 'Yes it is easy to push aside the poor boy in the street, with a harsh and unfeeling refusal, saying to your neighbour, "These are the pests of the city." Call them, if you choose, the rubbish of society; only let us say, that there are jewels among that rubbish, which would richly repay the expense of searching. Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on earth, and hereafter and forever in a redeemer’s crown.'
Secondly, Guthrie took sin seriously. He was no socialist. He knew that little is achieved by the mass and indiscriminate distribution of money or food. Sinful nature often makes a bad situation worse as Guthrie found on his many pastoral visits. Poor families with little we're ravaged further by a drunken or profligate parent. This was the time of the 'dram houses' and 'gin palaces'. Indiscriminate (however well meaning) compassion often compounds problems rather than solving them.
Thirdly, Guthrie believed in the 'almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness'. Our response to poverty needs to be gospel centred. Guthrie knew that compassion without the power of the gospel would change little. Only the grace of God can truly change the human heart. We get a flavour of Guthrie's view of poverty in his great work 'Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools' (published 1847, 1849 and 1860). Having outlined the plight of thousands of 'ragged children' on the streets of Edinburgh he famously said 'These Arabs of the city are as wild of those of the desert, and must be broken into three habits, - those of discipline, learning, and industry, not to speak of cleanliness. To accomplish this, our trust is in the almost omnipotent power of Christian kindness. Harsh words and harder blows are thrown away here.' Unlike today's welfare state the Ragged Schools did not crush people under the weight of a faceless and unresponsive bureaucracy. Christian compassion needs to be personal, genuine and it needs to go 'above and beyond'.
Fourthly, Guthrie's response went to the root of the problem. His response to poverty was what might be termed today 'tough love'. He sought to restore self-respect, hard work and sobriety. While he had all the time in the world for the innocent victims of drunkenness and poverty he was very outspoken against those who perpetuated their poverty through vice. Welfare must always be a hand up not a hand out. This is surely the principle of 2 Thessalonians 3 v 10. If a man is able to work, and work is available, our whole system of welfare should be focussed on helping him work.
Finally, Guthrie wasn't interested in 'harm minimisation' or 'risk management'. His focus was on transformation. This final quote perhaps best sums up Guthrie's views. It encourages us to have a 'wise' response to the poor.
'Blessed is he that wisely doth
The poor man's case consider'