Thursday, 31 January 2019

Who was Dr Guthrie?

Yesterday I was delighted to visit the 'Ragged School of Theology'.  Based in Niddrie Community Church and in partnership with 20 Schemes, the school trains local men and women in theology through a practical and active learning style.  It was good to meet old friends and chat with the local Pastor Mez McConnell author of 'Church in Hard Places' which is well worth a read.  It stimulates thinking around poverty, the Biblical response and the desperate need for churches in hard places.  While I was there a young man spoke to me.  He had been hugely helped by a some books I had arranged to be sent to a prison about 5 years ago.  He is now a bright Christian and learning some great theology.  It did my heart good to meet him.  I was delighted to do a Podcast with Mez about Dr Guthrie which will be coming out over the next few weeks.  Mez was keen to hear about Dr Guthrie so people were more aware of the background to name 'Ragged School'.  Below is a quick summary of Guthrie's life for newcomers.  Please pray for the folks at Niddrie Community Church and the great vision to plant healthy gospel churches in Scotland's schemes.  

Dr Thomas Guthrie’s statue in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh epitomises what many of us in the Christian church are seeking to achieve; with a Bible in one hand and his other hand resting protectively on a ‘ragged child’ Guthrie’s life combined the two great priorities of the church; truth and love.  Despite his great achievements, Guthrie is almost unknown today either as a preacher or social reformer.  Not a single book of his sermons or his famous ‘Seed Time and Harvest’ remains in print.  This is surely a tragedy and the study of Guthrie’s life and ministry reaps a rich reward for anyone who takes the time and energy to find out more about this great man.   

Standing at 6”4 Guthrie was an imposing figure.  Born in 1803 in the town of Brechin to the son of a local merchant and banker, Guthrie went on to study at Edinburgh University at the tender age of 12.  As he himself comments in his autobiography ‘beyond the departments of fun and fighting I was in no way distinguished at college’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 40).  Spending nearly 10 years at university and then a further 5 without a church prepared Guthrie in a unique way for the challenges ahead.  His sons comment in their Memoir of their father ‘these five years of hope deferred, however, afforded Mr Guthrie a profitable though peculiar training for the eminent place he was afterwards to fill.  His scientific studies in Edinburgh, his residence abroad, his experience of banking in his father’s banking-house, the leisure he enjoyed for enlarging his stores of general information, had all their influence in making him the many sided man he became’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 225).

Evangelist and Preacher
Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and his common touch made him radical (and successful) in both his social reform and his evangelism.  He says in his autobiography; ‘If ministers were less shut up in their own shells, and had more common sense and knowledge of the world, they would cling less tenaciously to old forms, suitable enough to bygone but not to the present times’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 89).  He went on to prove this in his first charge in Arbirlot, Angus (1830-37) by abolishing two Sunday services.  They were replaced by a longer service at noon and an evening Bible Class for young people aged 15-25.  At the ‘Minister’s Class’ Guthrie would work through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, give a shorter, simplified version of the earlier sermon (‘abundantly illustrated by examples and anecdotes’) and test the knowledge of his students.  As Guthrie says in his autobiography; ‘None of the services and ecclesiastical machinery at work did so much good, perhaps, as this class’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 127).

This ‘knowledge of the world’ infused Guthrie’s preaching style.  He combined solid reformed theology with a simple, accessible (if somewhat flowery) style.  He says ‘…I used the simplest, plainest terms, avoiding anything vulgar, but always, where possible, employing the Saxon tongue – the mother tongue of my hearers.  I studied the style of the addresses which the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry disquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abounded in metaphors, figures and illustrations.  I turned to the gospels, and found that He who knew what was in man, what could best illuminate a subject, win the attention, and move the heart, used parables and illustrations, stories, comparisons, drawn from the scenes of nature and familiar life…’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 130)  His great desire was to communicate the redeeming power of the gospel to those who were often shut out of the Scottish Church in 19th century Scotland through pew rents and an ‘elder brother’ spirit.  Like Thomas Chalmers Guthrie followed the parochial system of systematic visitation in defined districts and the Biblical use of the offices of elders and deacons.  His evangelism was relational, low key but always with a long term vision for the transformation of the whole nation of Scotland.

Social Reformer
While Dr Guthrie was one of the finest preachers of the Free Church in the 19th Century, his greatest legacy was surely as a social reformer.  This is summed up on his statue in Edinburgh which declares ‘a friend of the poor and the oppressed’.  Even in his first rural parish in Angus Guthrie was a great friend of the poor.  He established a savings bank and library; ‘The success of the bank and the library I attribute very much to this, that I myself managed them.  They were of great service by bringing me into familiar and frequent and kindly contact with my people’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 113).  Guthrie believed that the minister should live and work amongst the people.  Writing while still in Arbirlot he said to a Mr Dunlop; ‘I have discovered from my own experience that the further the people are removed from the manse, the less influence has the minister over them: and if a man won’t live among the scum of the Cowgate [central Edinburgh] I would at once say to him ‘You can’t be my minister’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 309). 

Arriving in Edinburgh in 1837 he became an associate minister at Old Greyfriars along with John Sym.  The city Guthrie arrived in was growing rapidly with the industrial revolution and poverty, drunkenness, vice and all manner of degradation were never far from view.  There is a famous story told in Guthrie’s book ‘Out of Harness’ that describes how Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh just after he arrived in Edinburgh.  Looking down on his new parish known as the Cowgate he describes ‘a living stream of humanity in motion beneath his feet’.  A hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned around to find the famous preacher and reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers.  Standing in silence for a few moments Chalmers eventually exclaimed ‘a beautiful field sir; a very fine field of operation!’ (Out of Harness, p 126).  This was the field that Guthrie was to labour in for the rest of his ministry.

Guthrie was appalled by what he saw around him on the streets of Edinburgh.   Writing in 1872 Guthrie says; ‘Five-and-thirty years ago, on first coming to this city, I had not spent a month in my daily walks in our Cowgate and Grassmarket without seeing that, with worthless, drunken and abandoned parents for their only guardians, there were thousands of poor innocent children, whose only chance of being saved from a life of ignorance and crime lay in a system of compulsory education’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 438).  Inspired by a cobbler from Portsmouth called John Pounds who saved 500 ‘ragged children’ from a life of neglect and delinquency, Guthrie became the Scottish ‘Apostle’ of the Ragged School movement.  There was already an Industrial Feeding School in Aberdeen pioneered by a Sherriff Watson in 1841 but the key difference was that Guthrie’s Ragged Schools were always attended by choice rather than coercion or as an alternative to custody.  Inspired by the Aberdeen school, and a similar school in Dundee established in 1842, Guthrie began to gather those of like mind to rescue thousands of children who, as he says of one poor boy were; ‘launched on a sea of human passions and exposed to a thousand temptations…left by society, more criminal than he, to become a criminal, and then punished for his fate, not his fault’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 440).

The ‘Ragged School Movement’ was galvanised by the publication of Guthrie’s now famous book ‘Seedtime and Harvest of Ragged Schools’ which was revised and republished three times.  His great skills as a communicator were put to excellent use in this book and Guthrie powerfully put forward the compelling social, economic and spiritual arguments for Ragged Schools.  He argues that the schools harmonised the views of two of Scotland’s preeminent philanthropists; ‘Our scheme furnishes a common walk for both.  They meet in our school room.  Dr Alison [ William Alison, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh, who advocated social and economic measures to alleviate poverty] comes in with his bread – Dr Chalmers with his Bible: here is food for the body – there for the soul’ (Quoted in Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 457).   Children were fed, taught how to read and write, taught practical skills to help them to get a job but most of all they memorised the scriptures, the catechism and instruction was given on all the main Christian doctrines.  What were the results?  The statistics speak for themselves.  The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under 14’s (5% of the prison population).  By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%) (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 459). 

Guthrie was an outstanding preacher, a faithful pastor, a winsome evangelist and one of Scotland’s finest social reformers.  Guthrie’s legacy lives on in the provision that there is both in terms of welfare and education for rich and poor alike.  While Guthrie would be saddened at the secularisation there has been in the public school system, he would surely be pleased to see education being offered to every child free of charge. 

He died in the early hours of Monday 24th February 1873 with his faithful Highland nurse and his family at his bedside.  It is said that with the exception of Dr Thomas Chalmers and Sir James Simpson, Edinburgh had not seen a funeral like it in a generation.  It was reported that 230 children from the original ragged school attended his funeral and sang a hymn at the grave. One little girl was overheard saying ‘He was all the father I ever knew.’  Amongst Guthrie’s last words he was overheard to say ‘a brand plucked from the burning!’  His legacy was that he through his vision and love for his Saviour, the Ragged School movement was established which in turn plucked thousands of little brands from a life of poverty and crime, and brought them to know the ultimate friend of sinners.

Monday, 28 January 2019

The Whole Christ

There are some books that you read that are helpful.  Other books are memorable.  For me, The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson (Crossway, 2017) is in a whole different category.  This book is a game changer and has had a profound and lasting effect on me.  Reading it and listening to it on Audible often moved me to tears.  The book helped me to finally understand much of what I had experienced in my own Christian life and in the church.  I am profoundly grateful to Sinclair Ferguson who has helped me see the glories of God's grace much more vividly.  So much of our theology is linked to how we see God and The Whole Christ helped me to see God so much more clearly as he is revealed in the Scriptures.  This book is a beautiful gift to the church.  You can buy it here.

Nothing New
There is nothing new under the sun and the theological clashes of the 18th century have so much to teach us today.  Ferguson uses the controversy surrounding the publication of 'The Marrow of Modern Divinity' and the ensuing 'Marrow Controversy' to diagnose and offer remedies to the cancer of legalism that is in all of our hearts and is endemic in certain churches.  Like a master surgeon, Ferguson expertly diagnoses and takes a Biblical scalpel to what lurks in all of our hearts and is often present in so many theological disputes.  I've often thought that legalism is somebody else's sin but The Whole Christ helped to see how it seeps into my own heart and it is present, to a greater or lesser degree, in every church.  

A short blog post can't do justification to The Whole Christ.  Many of the issues that Sinclair Ferguson deals with in this book are deep, complex and multi dimensional.  It is important to acknowledge when we are out of our depth and I have no problem in acknowledging that I can barely skirt around the edges of many theological issues.  I am looking forward to my good friend Donald John Maclean writing a much fuller review of The Whole Christ with his deep grasp of the theological issues involved.  His work on James Durham (1622-58) has been a huge service to the wider church and he shows that the 'free offer of the gospel' is not some innovation but is in the rich and historical flow of reformed theology.  I hope to write more about this when I review Joel R. Beeke's wonderful book 'Reformed Preaching'.

Defining Legalism
What I find so helpful about The Whole Christ is that Ferguson weaves his in-depth knowledge of church history, brings Biblical theology to life and writes as an experienced, wise pastor.  Legalism affects so many areas of the Christian life: the way the gospel is preached, the assurance of salvation, the way we view and enjoy God, the way we view other believers and the extent to which we are humbled under the grace and mercy of God in salvation.

The thing is, nobody claims to be a legalist. No reformed Christian ever claims that the observance of the law will save them.  Legalism is often not a matter of doctrine as practice. It is not so much of a 'head problem' as a 'heart problem'.  This is what makes the issue so complex.  Men can preach correct doctrine for decades but yet lack warmth in their preaching, gentleness in their pastoral care and affection for their wife and children.  As Tim Keller says in the introduction: the legal spirit is marked by jealousy, oversensitivity to slights, 'metallic' harshness towards mistakes and an ungenerous default mode in decision making. (The Whole Christ, p 13).

In my own experience, legalists are almost always (very) angry, often highly sectarian or tribal and often tend to be focused on particular doctrines at the exclusion of the gospel.  Legalists tend to be always right so if you are wondering if you are a legalist maybe ask yourself when you last said sorry.  If we genuinely believe ourselves to be sinners, sorry should be a word we use on a weekly if not daily basis.  For some reason it sticks in the throat of the legalist.

Suspicious Symptoms
Ferguson spends the first six chapters of The Whole Christ outlining the marrow controversy, defining legalism, explaining the 'order salutis' (does repentance precede or follow faith?) and then very helpfully examines 'Suspicious Symptoms' in chapter six.  These can include a 'self righteous temperament' which is often the most common trait amongst legalists.  Ferguson very helpfully uses the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 v 9-14 to make his point.  As Luke says, this parable was to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt (Luke 18 v 9).  This contempt of other Christians is common in both traditional and modern churches and is a sure sign of the spirit of the Pharisee.  Some churches seem pathologically incapable of self analysis, humility and reflection.

The Grace Expose
Ferguson also talks about 'the grace expose'.  Parables such as the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20 v 1-16) expose what is truly in their (and our) hearts: without the demonstration of grace, the true nature of their hearts would not have been revealed (The Whole Christ, p 127).  Often when legalists see grace it draws out their legalism.  Ferguson really helpfully quotes John Colquhoun;  When a man is driven to acts of obedience by the dread of God's wrath revealed in the law, and not drawn to them, by the belief in His love revealed in the gospel; when he fears God because of His power and justice, and not because of His goodness; when He regards God more as an avenging Judge, than as a compassionate Friend and Father; and when he contemplates God rather as terrible in majesty than as infinite in grace and mercy, he shows he is under the influence of a hateful temper.  (The Whole Christ, p 128).  This is seen so clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.  The love for the younger brother exposes the legalism of the elder brother. He is angry, resentful and views his father us unjust in rewarding his brother who had 'squandered his living with prostitutes.'

Bondage under the Law
Perhaps the most helpful section in the chapter on Suspicious Signs in the section on a 'A Spirit of Bondage'.  Many of us will have met Christians who are paralysed by the bondage that legalism brings.  When everything is reliant on our performance and obedience to the law, our constant failures brings a spirit of bondage and fear.  The legalist, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, separates God's law from God's character.  Rather than seeing the law as loving laws from a loving God, the legalist is crushed by the law as he sees them as ways to earn merit with God.  They see God as a hard task master who only loves us when we follow his laws perfectly which we are incapable of doing.

Ferguson very helpfully uses the Pilgrims Progress in this section and shows Faithful's struggles with 'Adam the First'.  Using the imagery of Romans 7 Bunyan shows us how we keep going back to our first husband rather than loving our new husband Jesus Christ,  As Ferguson says: We cry to the law to show some mercy; but bare law contains no mercy.  It is powerless to pardon.  Moses, in this sense, can only beat us into a bondage frame of spirit (The Whole Christ, p 131).  What is the remedy?  Our only hope to escape the bondage of the law is to have a clear sight of the nail scars in the hands of Jesus Christ.  The answer to legalism is grace, but not grace as a commodity, grace in Christ. 'He is the propitiation for our sins' (1 John 2 v 2).

A Covenant of Grace or a Rule of Life?
No book on grace would be complete without a proper treatment of 'antinomianism'.  Very simply put antinomianism denies the role of the law in the Christian life.  There is so much confused thinking around this today as people take verses like Romans 6 v 14 out of context.  If you are not familiar with the Westminster Confession of Faith I would urge to to get a copy and study its teaching on the law.  You can order a copy here.

As Paul spent so much of his ministry arguing, the fruit of free grace is not sin or lawlessness, but loving obedience.  Grace does not dismantle the law but it is no longer a covenant of works for the Christian, rather the law is a rule of life.  As we see Christ in the gospel, as we are humbled by grace we delight to do the will of God, not to earn our salvation (which is by free grace) but to please our heavenly father.  This is why the confession says;

 Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God revealed in the law requireth to be done. 
Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), Chapter XIX, VII

So many churches today see 'the law' as the problem.  They think people are put off by any reference to the commandments and any emphasis on holiness of life.  Many of these people continue to live lives of integrity and holiness and we mustn't caricature everyone who takes this view as living in unrighteousness.  They just have a wrong understanding of the law.  In Romans 7 Paul calls the law 'spiritual', 'good', 'righteous' and 'holy'.  In Romans 3 Paul says 'Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law.'  

The law is not the problem, it is indwelling sin.  The answer to sin is not legalism or antinomianism.  The answer is grace.  We must be united with Christ as Paul sets out in Romans 6 v 1-14 - no longer under law (for our salvation) but under grace (v 14).  This does not mean that the law does not remain a 'rule of life' and must play a critical part in the Christian life.  Ferguson helpfully says:  Commandments are the railroad tracks on which the life empowered by the love of God poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit runs.  Love empowers the engine; law guides the direction.  They are mutually interdependent.  The notion that love can operate apart from the law is a figment of the imagination.  It is not only bad theology; it is poor psychology.  It has to borrow from law to give eyes to love.' (The Whole Christ, p 169)

Blessed Assurance
The last three chapters of The Whole Christ deals with the subject of Christian assurance which is a big issue for many Christians.  The Bible teaches that it is possible to have both false assurance and lack of assurance.  As so many have experienced, it is possible to be a 'child of light walking in darkness' as it says in Isaiah 50 v 10.  We see this time and again in the experience of the Psalmist.  During many periods of church history, assurance of salvation has been viewed with  suspicion and a potential source of antinomianism.  The reformation was a rediscovery of the certainty of salvation in justification by faith.  This was reflected by the Westminster Assembly when they said; But the principle acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace (WCF, ch 14.2).  Ferguson deals brilliantly with the perceived conflict between Calvin and the Puritans on whether assurance of faith is of the essence of faith and shows that they are coming at the same subject from different perspectives but meet in the middle.  The fruit of assurance is not 'looseness' as the confession says but that 'his [the believers] heart be may enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duty of obedience' (WCF, ch 18.3)

The Whole Christ is such an important book.  Legalism has done so much damage throughout the church.  It has divided churches, split families and caused deep wounds that last for decades.  It has turned many away from the gospel and given the church a bad name.  It clouds our view of the gospel and encourages us to view the law in a way that God never intended.  So many live in bondage to legalism, never experiencing freedom in Christ.  The Whole Christ calls us back to see the gospel in all its beauty and clarity.  Ferguson says in his own conclusion to the book that through the Marrow of Modern Divinity Boston experienced a fuller realisation of God and his amazing grace.  This led to Boston's heart being bathed in a new sense of God's graciousness in Christ.  The whole tincture of his ministry changed as his preaching became an expression of Christs preaching.  

I hope that in reading this book it has proved a catalyst to me to wrestle with key theological issues of what the gospel is and how we should live it out in this world.  Grace must have an effect on everything we do: our preaching, pastoring, evangelism, parenting, our marriage and our relationships.  The book is a 'litmus test' for those of us who don't think we are legalists.  Could there be any legalism lurking in our heart?  To quote Calvin The human heart has so many crannies where vanity hides, so many holes where falsehood lurks, is so decked out with deceiving hypocrisy, that it often dupes itself (Institutes of the Christian Religion).  The Marrow Men and the Marrow of Modern Divinity exposed a latent gospel hardening that was in the church in the 18th century.  God in his providence used the controversy to expose a practical legalism that had come on the church.  I fear a similar hardness has come on many in the church today and we desperately need to be called back to see the glory and wonder of grace.  The Whole Christ can help us to do that and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

He knows what is in the Darkness

This year I have been challenged to make a few changes in my life.  If last year taught me anything it taught me that life is fragile and unpredictable. I've already posted about my desire to engage much more seriously with prayer (you can read the post here).  I would love in 2019 for prayer to be my steering wheel rather than my spare tyre (I have enough of those already).  At the start of a New Year it is good to be honest.  I waste far too much time, I lack discipline and too often don't achieve what I claim are the goals of my life: to know God, to follow Jesus Christ wherever he leads and to love the people who most people want nothing to do with.  I am too often derailed by circumstances.  Last year I attempted to do less, better.  I'm going to continue that this year.  I want to read more (possibly even finish a book), pray more, say 'no' more often, take care of myself and treasure the relationships that mean most to me.  Being a good brother and son have become really important over the last year, but being a good Dad to 5 boys and a husband remain my full time job.  I am resolved to 'wrestle with Romans' this year and I am really enjoying John Pipers sermon series which is majestic and deeply humbling at the same time.  You can listen to it on Audible or here.  I am reminded of John MacArthur's quote that 'the heart can only go as high in worship as it can go deep into theology.'  I plan to dive deep this year.  

One of the best books I received last year was 'New Morning Mercies' by Paul D Tripp.  I got the book as a gift from Donnie G Macdonald at the end of the Skye Shinty Camp.  I don't use a lot of daily devotional books but there is something different about New Morning Mercies.  Almost every day there is something fresh and different and I come away with a fresh appreciation of God's grace in the gospel.  

The reading for the 4th of January hit me right between the eyes.  Paul Tripp very movingly talks about the day his daughter was hit by a drunk driver.  She had eleven breaks in her pelvis and massive internal bleeding.  When he heard the news he was 6 hours away but when he eventually walked into her hospital room he says 'its as if the whole world went dark.'  I can empathise with his experience over the last 10 months.  Sometimes we experience this darkness for months or even years.  Quite rightly we ask 'where is God?'

Thankfully Paul Tripp's daughter has recovered.  In his devotional he used these interesting words which really stuck me: 'I held on to the thought that our lives were not out of control.  We were comforted again and again with the thought that when it came to Nicole's accident, God was neither surprised nor afraid.  You see, there is no mystery with God.  He is never caught off guard.  He never wonders how he is going to deal with the unexpected thing.'  

Paul Tripp then quotes the verse from Daniel 2 v 22 which I must have read on numerous occasions but this time it just hit me like a train.

20  Daniel answered and said:
Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
21  He changes times and seasons; 
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
22  he reveals deep and hidden things; 
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.

Wow!  What comfort.  As we grope around in our circumstances, disappointments and tragedies, God knows exactly what is in front of us.  To us it is darkness, but not to him.  He sees the end from the beginning and is working all this for his glory and our good.  As Paul Tripp says:

'God is with you in your moments of darkness because he will never leave you.  But your darkness isn't dark to him.  Your mysteries aren't mysteries to him.  Your surprises don't surprise him.  He understands all the things that confuse you the most. Not only are your mysteries not mysterious to him, but he is in complete charge of all that is mysterious to you and me.'

None of us know what this year will hold for us.  But we can take incredible comfort by putting our trust in the one who dwells in perfect light and who know exactly what is in the darkness.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Iolaire - A Sore Visitation wrapped in Mystery

Much has been written on the tragedy of the Iolaire.  This article was written by Rev Nigel Anderson, Minister of Livingston Free Church particularly focusing on the churches response to the events of 1st Jan 2019.

On 1st January 1919 a tragedy occurred in Lewis that for generations has cast a dark cloud over the island. HMY Iolaire had left Kyle of Lochalsh late on December 31st to ferry troops back to their homes, their families, their loved ones. The ship never made it to Stornoway harbour. At  1.55am it struck the Beasts of Holm, the dangerous rocks near the shore and entrance of Stornoway harbour. 205 men out of the 283 on board (including 174 Lewis men and 7 Harris men) perished in sight of land, having survived the horrors of war only to lose their lives so close to home.

Much has been written in recent months on the tragedy: the centenary commemoration held in Lewis on 1st January 2019 has, in particular, brought to a wider national attention the tragic personal accounts of the lost and bereaved. Also, there has been a renewed understanding of the devastating social and economic impact on the island which the catastrophic loss of life contributed to. However, there has been little mentioned regarding the attitude of the churches at the time, as local clergy tried to bring comfort to the bereaved and bewildered as they sought to reconcile what had happened with the providence of God.

Indeed, the whole aspect of the mystery of divine providence in relation to the tragedy was, in many ways, highlighted in the response of the Free Church to the Iolaire disaster especially as many of those who lost their lives were from Free Church congregations. In his Sunday sermon, following the tragedy Rev. Kenneth Cameron, minister of Stornoway Free Church, preached from Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God. He spoke of the dark and mysterious happenings in the providence of God, mentioning the “sore visitation...wrapped in mystery” which brought a “heavy cup of unlooked for sorrow” but that “out of the darkness is heard the voice of Him whose way is in the sea.” Without denying the catastrophe of the events of 1st January 1919 he pleaded with his hearers to contemplate the majesty of God, to bow before his sovereignty, to believe in his righteousness and have recourse to his mercy.

One might have imagined that the deeply religious island would have turned away from faith in a sovereign God after the tragedy. Instead we find the opposite. Murdo Macleod from the village of Leurbost tells of the traditional New Year’s service held on the morning of 1st January when the villagers attended worship to give thanks for peace after four years of war. It was only later that day that the news was heard of the Iolaire sinking and the great loss of life. Later, that evening, the same villagers visited each of the homes of the bereaved and held services of worship.

The recorded response of the grief stricken people across the island who had lost family in the tragedy is that they “reconciled themselves to God.” Even the non-Christian poet Iain Crichton Smith wrote that “In some places such a tragedy would have destroyed the credibility of a loving God: in Lewis it only strengthened their faith in him.” 

In today’s secular society such a reaction is inexplicable, but to those who trust in a sovereign God whose purposes are beyond human understanding, it is an understandable response. Those who have experienced grievous loss have echoed the words of Job in response to his personal tragedy across the centuries: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”