Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dr Thomas Guthrie: The Apostle of Temperance

In daily pastoral visitations, Dr Thomas Guthrie needed no convincing about the devastating effects of alcohol on his parish in Edinburgh.  He often visited homes without a stick of furniture after everything had been sold to buy alcohol.  Children were left starving and homes devastated in the pursuit of addiction.  As Guthrie says: ‘Believe me it is impossible to exaggerate, impossible even truthfully to paint the effect of this vice either on those who are addicted to it, or on those who suffer from it – crushed husbands, broken hearted wives, and most of all those poor innocent children that are dying under cruelty and starvation, that shiver in their rags upon our streets, that walk unshod the winter snows, and with their matted hair and hollow cheeks, and sunken eyes, and sallow countenances, glare out upon us, wild and savage like, from these patched and dusty windows.’

The determination with which Guthrie pursued the temperance cause was all the more remarkable when we understand how unusual this position was in the first half of the 19th century.  In his Autobiography and Memoirs, Guthrie reckoned that there was not a single student in Edinburgh University who was an abstainer. Perhaps even more remarkably Guthrie was unaware of any minister in the Church of Scotland who was a teetotaller. Undeterred by this, Guthrie established the Free Church Temperance Society along with Horatius Bonar and William Chalmers Burns.

When the Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness was formed in 1850 they turned to Guthrie to write their first booklet entitled A Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness. As Guthrie says in the booklet: ‘On principles of patriotism and Christian expediency, we think that the evil has arrived at such a pitch, that it were well if, instead of either attempting to muffle or even muzzle the monster, the country would agree to put a knife through its heart, in the entire disuse of intoxicating liquors.’  Other booklets followed and Guthrie was instrumental in bringing about the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1853 or the Forbes Mackenzie Act, as it is better known. This Act forced public houses to close at 10.00 pm on weekdays and all day on Sundays.

Guthrie’s appeal for temperance was articulated in his book on Luke 19 v 41-48: ‘The City its Sins and Sorrows’.  The four sermons in this volume teach us much about the man. Guthrie preaches like the Saviour he loved. His words are full of love, pity and pathos. His heart had been broken by the sights he had seen in his pastoral visitation of the Cowgate and this is reflected in his sermons. As Christ wept over the state of the people of Jerusalem, Guthrie was broken over the drunkenness he saw ruining lives and destroying families across Scotland. 

Dr Guthrie should act as a challenge to all of us as we seek to once again win cities for Christ.  We need to be challenged by men like Guthrie to have a vision for our cities that are so ruined by drink and drugs.  A vast amount of family breakdown, abuse and neglect of children has its root in addiction. If ever there was a time for coordinated and concerted Christian action it is now.  As Guthrie said: ‘Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work. Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours. Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose.’

The City its Sins and Sorrows by Dr Thomas Guthrie is available as an e-book from Amazon with a Foreword by Andy Murray.

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