Guthrie, Thomas (DNB00)

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GUTHRIE, THOMAS, D.D. (1803–1873), Scottish preacher and philanthropist, was born at Brechin on 12 July 1803. His ancestors for several generations were Forfarshire farmers, who claimed connection with James Guthrie [q. v.] of Stirling, the covenanter, executed in 1661. His father, David Guthrie, was a trader and banker in Brechin. His favourite brother Charles became an officer in the East India Company's army, while another brother was a physician. In the Brechin schools he was, he tells us, chiefly distinguished for 'fun and fighting.' At the age of twelve he left Brechin for the university of Edinburgh, where he spent ten years, from 1815 to 1825; four in the arts or linguistic, philosophical, and mathematical course; four in the study of divinity, biblical criticism, church history, and Hebrew, and two in medical and scientific studies. He also devoted special attention to public reading and speaking.

Guthrie was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Brechin in 1825, at the age of twenty-two. Under the system of patronage which then prevailed in Scotland, it was five years before he obtained a living. In 1826 he went to Paris to study natural philosophy, chemistry, and comparative anatomy in the Sorbonne, and to walk the wards of the Hôtel Dieu. In Paris he studied hard, and made friends with students of different races and religions. On his return home in 1827 he spent two years as manager of his father's bank. Finally, in 1830 he was ordained minister of the parish of Arbirlot, near Arbroath. He married in the same year.

The sermons preached by him before the presbytery, with a view to license and ordination, were constructed on severely logical lines, without a spark of originality. But when in contact with the farmers, peasants, and weavers of Arbirlot, in all of whom he took from the first a strong personal interest, he soon joined to old-fashioned views and appeals a power of appropriate illustration and a dramatic force which had not hitherto been associated with evangelical opinions. His imposing presence, genial and expressive features, and natural gestures commanded attention. Although possessing unusual readiness of speech, he always wrote out his sermons in full, and committed them to memory; but his manner was spontaneous, and he could introduce thoughts which rose in what he called the white heat of preaching. In Arbirlot he started such innovations as a savings bank, a Sunday school, and a parish library, and his personal popularity and tact insured their success.

In 1837 he was ordained one of the ministers of Old Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, and in 1840 he was appointed to St. John's parish there. He left Arbirlot with many misgivings as to his power to influence Edinburgh congregations. But his preaching proved as attractive in Edinburgh as in Arbirlot. From his first sermon in 1837 down to his retirement in 1864 the announcement that he was to preach, whether in Edinburgh or elsewhere, drew large congregations. His audiences were not confined to members of his own denomination or to any one class. Lord Cockburn described his sermons as appealing equally to 'the poor woman on the steps of the pulpit' and to 'the strangers attracted solely by his eloquence.' Guthrie's colleague, William Hanna [q. v.], pointed to the motley collection of human beings of all classes and conditions brought together by his preaching, and to the exceptional length of years through which his popularity in the pulpit was maintained.

On coming to Edinburgh in 1837 the conflict in the church of Scotland, which ended in the disruption of 1843, was in progress [see Chalmers, Thomas]. Between 1838 and 1843 Guthrie vigorously supported Chalmers and the other opponents of the intrusion of civil authority into church government. His gift of platform speaking proved invaluable. 'In his own sphere,' wrote Dr. Candlish, 'and in his own way Guthrie was to us, and to the principles on which we acted, a tower of strength. His eloquence alone—so thoroughly inspired by his own idiosyncrasy, so full always of genial humour, and yet withal so ready for passionate and affectionate appeals—made him an invaluable boon to our Church in the Ten Years' Conflict and afterwards.' On 18 May 1843 the disruption finally came, and 474 ministers, Guthrie among them, seceded from the national church. Guthrie's prediction that all the missionaries in foreign countries would join the free church was fulfilled. Guthrie became minister of Free St. John's Church in Edinburgh, and most of his old congregation followed him. The change involved for him little pecuniary sacrifice, but in behalf of his less fortunate colleagues Guthrie made it his special endeavour to raise a fund for building manses, or residences, for the ministers. In twelve months, from July 1845 to June 1846, he collected 116,000l., and a caricature of the period represented him as 'the modern Samson' carrying the manses of the free church on his back. In later years he advocated a union between the free church and the united presbyterian church. But he never doubted the wisdom or propriety of the disruption. His incessant exertions at a continuous series of public meetings in the cause laid the foundation of heart disease, which only an iron constitution enabled him to withstand. In 1847 Sir James Clark informed him that he would probably never preach again. Other physicians gave him the same opinion. Yet he preached for more than twenty years afterwards.

Guthrie, a liberal in politics, was always active in the social movements of his day. He took a leading part in the agitation for a national system of education which produced the Scotch Education Act of 1872, and was one of the first in Scotland to advocate compulsory education. But his name is chiefly associated with the cause of Scotch ragged schools. He was what Dr. Samuel Smiles called him in 'Self-Help,' the apostle of the ragged school movement rather than its founder. His earliest work as a pastor in Edinburgh lay to a large extent among the poorest and most degraded classes living in the wynds and closes of his parishes of Old Greyfriars and St. John's. He soon perceived that the most effective results were to be obtained among the young. This conviction produced his 'Plea for Ragged Schools' in 1847, which led to the establishment of the 'Original Ragged Schools' in Edinburgh for the class whom he called 'city Arabs.' The interest excited was universal. Lord Jeffrey sent 50l. with a strongly sympathetic letter, and contributions came from the most diverse quarters. Guthrie's insistence on his right to teach the whole Bible to all his ragged scholars led subsequently to the withdrawal of some of his supporters and to the establishment of the United Industrial School. But the real value of Guthrie's ragged school work was accurately stated by William Robertson, D.D., whose New Greyfriars school was established before Guthrie's: 'It is not the single school which Thomas Guthrie established under the shadow of our ancient fortress which is his real monument, but the hundreds of ragged schools which the powerful pleading of his eloquent tongue and pen has planted in half the cities of the British Empire.'

In 1844 he became, in spite of ridicule, a total abstainer. He ardently supported the cause in sermons, speeches, and pamphlets, notably in the volume entitled 'The City, its Sins and Sorrows.' He took his full share in the prolonged fight which resulted in the passing in 1853 of the 'Forbes Mackenzie Act' (a measure resisted at every step by the whole liquor interest), which gave to Scotland Sunday closing, and shortened the hours of sale on week-days. He advocated total abstinence on the grounds of Christian expediency, as a necessary measure for Great Britain at the present day. He did not hold the absolute and universal necessity of total abstinence, and he often deplored the apparent impossibility of reconciling the northern nations of Europe to the use of unadulterated wine. Mr. Gladstone, when introducing his Light Wines Bill in 1860, said, with reference to the benefits likely to come from their consumption in this country: 'I have found testimony which is entitled to great weight, coming from a man pledged by his sacred profession, eminent for his eloquence, distinguished and beloved for his virtues—Dr. Guthrie.' His writings and speeches on the temperance question were familiar to all denominations of Christians. In the Roman catholic manual entitled 'Catholic Belief,' under the heading 'Five good Reasons for Total Abstinence,' four of the reasons given are ascribed to Guthrie.

Guthrie was a voluminous writer. His 'Pleas for Ragged Schools' created so much interest that at the entreaty of the publishers he consented to the publication of his first volume of sermons, 'The Gospel in Ezekiel,' in 1855. That volume has reached a circulation of over fifty thousand, and later volumes from his pen have been scarcely less successful. He was the first editor of the 'Sunday Magazine' from 1864 till his death, and contributed many articles to 'Good Words,' at the request of his friend, Dr. Norman Macleod, its editor. His various avocations brought him into close connection with many men of eminence. Thackeray visited him at Edinburgh, and he showed him over his ragged schools. Ruskin sent him in 1853 his 'Stones of Venice,' accompanied by a letter containing the sentence, 'You must be accustomed to people getting very seriously and truly attached to you at first sight.'

Although Guthrie retired from the active work of the ministry in 1864, he remained in public life almost to the close. He also continued to enjoy his two great sources of health and recreation, angling in the highlands of Scotland and foreign travel, and was a constant supporter of the missions of the Waldensian church in Italy. He died at St. Leonards on 24 Feb. 1873. His funeral at Edinburgh was made the occasion of a great public demonstration. Many eulogies were pronounced over his grave, but none so touching as the ragged school girl's, who was overheard to say, 'He was all the father I ever knew.' In 1849 he received the degree of doctor in divinity from the university of Edinburgh; in 1862 he was made moderator of the free church general assembly; in 1865 a sum of 5,000l. was publicly presented to him, and in 1869 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

All Guthrie's works have been republished in the United States, where their circulation has been almost, if not quite, as large as in Great Britain, and some of them have been translated into French and Dutch. His principal works were: 1. ‘Pleas for Ragged Schools,’ 1847-9. 2. ‘Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness,’ 1851. 3. ‘Gospel in Ezekiel,’ 1856. 4. ‘The City, its Sins and Sorrows,’ 1857. 5. ‘Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints,’ 1858. 6. ‘Speaking to the Heart,’ 1862. 7. ‘The Way to Life,’ 1862. 8. ‘Man and the Gospel,’ 1865. 9. ‘The Angels' Song,’ 1865. 10. ‘The Parables,’ 1866. 11. ‘Our Father's Business,’ 1867. 12. ‘Out of Harness,’ 1867. 13. ‘Early Piety,’ 1868. 14. ‘Studies of Character from the Old Testament,’ 1868-70. 15. ‘Sundays Abroad,’ 1871.

[Autobiog. and Memoir of Thomas Guthrie, D.D. by his sons, David Kelly and Charles John Guthrie, 1874.]

C. J. G.