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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter I - Birth, Birthplace, and Parentage


Thomas Guthrie, the subject of the following brief Memoir, was born in the town of Brechin, Forfarshire, on the 12th day of July, 1803. At one time, Brechin was the site of an Episcopal see, and the county town of Forfar. It seems, however, to have made comparatively little progress during the first years of the present century, as the population, which was 5166 in 1801, had only increased to 6508 in 1831. and to 7933 at the last census. Brechin is beautifully situated on the left bank of the Esk, at a distance of eight miles from the point where that river joins the sea at Montrose. In the Esk there is abundance of fine trout, the existence and accessibility of which doubtless kindled and stimulated young Guthrie's love of piscatorial pursuits, a love which did not desert him in his maturer years. At one time Brechin was completely walled round; and until very recently some relics of the gates were still to be seen. Perhaps the most noteworthy ancient edifice- in the town is the Cathedral Church of St Ninian's, supposed to have been founded by I>avid I., and a portion of which forms the parish church where the Guthrie family usually worshipped. It is a stately Gothic fabric, 166 feet long, and 61 broad, the roof being supported by two rows of pillars and arches. The eastern end was sadly devastated at the Reformation, but the building, in fact, appears never to have been completed. "The present parish church occupies the west end of the Cathedral. At the north-west corner is a square tower, with a handsome spire 128 feet high. At the south-west corner is one of those round towers, probably of Pictish origin, of which this and another at Abernethy are all the specimens that remain in Scotland. The tower of Brechin is a circular column of great beauty and elegance, 80 feet high, with a kind of spire or roof rising 23 feet more, making the whole height 103 feet, while the diameter over the wall at the base is only 16 feet." The entrance to this tower is about feet from, the ground, and on the stones forming it are rudely carved several grim figures well fitted to excite the imagination of youth and the interest of the antiquary. The tower itself seems to have suffered little injury from the lapse of years, but it is off the plumb-line, and vibrates in a high wind. In the immediate locality of Brechin there are many places of interest, not the least important being Brechin Castle, the seat of Lord Panmure, which is built on a perpendicular rock, overhanging the south Esk, half a mile south of tho town. To this noble edifice and its grounds young Guthrie had easy access, owing to the intimacy existing between his family and Lord Panmure.

It is worthy of note that Maitland, author of the Histories of Loudon and Edinburgh; Dr Gillies, the historian of Greece; Dr Tytler, the translator of Callimachus; and his brother James Tytler, who had so large a share in compiling the "Encyclopaedia Britanica." and other standard works, were all natives of the parish of Brechin. But there are others, hearing the name of the subject of our Memoir, who have shed upon the old burgh the lustre of their varied achievements. There was William Guthrie, a political, historical, and miscellaneous writer, who was born in Brechin, where his father was Episcopal minister in 1708. More, than a century previous we find mention of another William Guthrie, born near Brechin in 1620. This was the author of the "Christian's Great Interest." He appears from "The Scots Worthies," where he has not unworthily found a place, to have been distinguished for his sincere piety and his consistent adherence to nonconforming principles. Ami now we come to James Guthrie, "the noblest Roman of them all.'' He was the son of the Laird of Guthrie, and commenced his ministerial career in Lauder, from which place he was translated to Stirling in 1619. It is related of this fearless, consistent, and truly godly man, that when he cam3 to Edinburgh to sign the " Solemn League and Covenant," the. first person he met on entering the West Bow was the public executioner. This singular circumstance he could not help regarding as a premonition that he would one day suffer by the hands of this functionary, on account of the document he had that day come to subscribe. His foreboding was realised, and none of the Covenanters met death with more firmness, or with greater serenity of mind. With each and all of these distinguished men, Thomas Guthrie claimed a relationship more or less remote. They were all cadets of the Guthries of Guthrie, one of the oldest families in Forfarshire. He was early acquainted with the story of their lives, and especially with that of James Guthrie, the covenanting hero, who had "resisted unto blood, striving against sin." Thus Brechin and its immediate neighbourhood, with its Pictish tower and curious sculptures, its ancient battlefields and Danish camp, its flowing stream and wooded heights, and its illustrious roll of men renowned in literary and ecclesiastical story, furnished much well fitted to excite intellectual activity, feed the youthful imagination, develop the latent love of natural beauty, fill the soul with noble resolve for highest service in the cause of humanity and God, and so be the becoming birthplace of Thomas Guthrie.

The father of Thomas Guthrie was a banker, and one of the leading merchants in Brechin. For a number of years he occupied the prominent position of chief magistrate, and in that capacity acquired on amount of respect and popularity that stood his family in good stead. But in a town containing little more than 5000 inhabitants there was not much scope for mercantile enterprise, nor much hope of amassing wealth. To maintain appearances, and provide for the requirements of his numerous family, the elder Guthrie, like many others in rural districts, added to the other ramifications of his business that of a grocer. Probably at one period of his career Thomas was twitted about this fact. At all events, it was a circumstance to which lie not unfrequently referred, and always, be it said, with manly and proper feeling. Speaking at an early closing meeting in Edinburgh, he said : "Shopkeepers are one of the most important classes of the community. With few exceptions, the houses in Edinburgh stand upon shops; and if the foundation go to pieces, where will the superstructure be? Did not Napoleon Bonaparte call us a nation of shopkeepers, and did not this nation of shopkeepers lick Napoleon Bonaparte and all Europe to boot! I say; then, up with the shopkeepers! Close your shops in good time, and let us have a right race of shopkeepers, morally, physically, intellectually, and religiously. Although the brains birth, birthplace, and parentage of our shopkeepers are not yet what they should be, and what they will be, I will say for them that they make the best, very best, the most virtuous, honest, and religious part of the community. They are not what you may call a learned people, but they are very clever, very sharp; and 1 will say for Edinburgh, that one or two of our most sagacious men are shopkeepers, whose intelligence I'll stake any day you like against 'tho tottle of the whole' of the advocates and all other men in the city. I say, let no man despise shopkeepers. They are the backbone of our country, and if the backbone is not right, depend upon it, the whole body is wrong. With regard to the grocers, I have a special interest in them. My father was a grocer, a merchant engaged in various branches of business. He had a shop all his days; and do you think I am ashamed of that? I think God I had such a father, a man who maintained a high character in the community, and, I repeat, God forbid that I should be ashamed of such a man! More than that, I have two sons in the trade— I might have sent these sons to India, or used any influence I had to get them into Government offices. Some of my genteel friends held up their hands in astonishment that I should have made my sons grocers. But I'll tell you why I made them grocers, and did not send them to India. I wanted my sons to stand upon their own feet independently of any man's patronage ; and if any man wants a good advice from me as to how he would dispose of his sons, I recommend him to do the same. I felt that if I asked favours for my own family, I should soon be required to ask favours for other people; and if I once began, I saw I would soon become a perfect Solicitor-General. 1 felt that by doing so I would soon lose any influence I possessed with great men, whose acquaintance I never sought, though they sought mine and that, in so far as I could make, a good use of that influence! I was bound to use it for the religious, educational, and benevolent interests of the people. I have reserved my influence for those; and so far as asking favours for myself or others of my family, these hands are, clean."

Thomas Guthrie's mother was in all respects a most superior woman. Both by natural endowments and by education, she was far a-head of the average lady of her time. She was a "managing" woman, and inculcated economy; she was a prudent woman, and kept her own counsel; and, above all, she was a good Christian and an inflexible Seceder. Her influence with her family accompanied and flowed from this one fact more than any other. Iler strong love for Secession was the result of still stronger religious convictions. She was no stern bigot either; but practised and enforced toleration where it was not incompatible with orthodoxy and religious freedom. At that time of day the Seceders were a comparatively humble and obscure body. The Church of Scotland was dominant anil all powerful. But the acorn planted by the Erskines was slowly yet surely assuming the proportions of the deep-rooted and wide-spreading oak. Mrs Guthrie was a woman who thought for herself, and taught her family to do likewise. She was a staunch and unflinching friend of nonintrusion and anti-patronage. She held strong views as to the necessity of reforming the Established Church, which she regarded as an Augean stable requiring the services of some ecclesiastical Hercules. The example of a strong-minded mother is all potent in a family, especially when that sometimes equivocal attribute is accompanied, as it was in this case, with perfect Christian consistency. Guthrie was early taught to cherish a warm feeling towards the. Seceders, and this continued to be a distinguishing trait of his character all through life. Speaking on behalf of the proposed union of the churches, he says:—

"My regard for the Seceders, if I may be allowed to allude to personal matters, is not a causeless prejudice. It is founded on a better knowledge of the Seceders than perhaps many in this house have. One of my parents—a sainted mother, and how she would have rejoiced to see this day! — was a Seceder, and other two members of my family felt themselves constrained, by the thrusting in of an unpopular minister into the collegiate charge of Brechin, to leave the parish church; and in consequence of the accommodation in the parish church being deficient when we were young, we were all Seceders. We were sent to the Secession Church. Until I came to the college, I was in the regular habit of sitting in the Burgher Church; and, until I became a preacher, I generally worshipped, on the Sabbath evening, in the Burgher Church of Brechin. I do not think I lost anything by that. With my mother's milk 1 drank in an abhorrence of patronage; and it was at her knees, sir, that I first learned to pray, that I 1 earned to form a reverence for the Bible as the inspired word of God, that I learned to hold the sanctity of the Sabbath, that I learned the peculiarities of the Scottish religion, that I learned my regard for the principles of civil and religious liberty which have made me hate oppression, and, whether it be a pope, or a prelate, or a patron, or an ecclesiastical demagogue, resist the oppressor. I have seen them outside in, and inside out; know more of that body than a very large number of those here, and the sound of Seceder, sir, sounds like music in my ear, and is dear to my heart. I did not say they were perfect. I do not know anybody perfect except our friend, indicating Dr Gibson, who has to confess nothing at all. With their anti-Burghers and Burghers distinction, their Lifters arid anti-Lifters, and with their aversion in the olden time - though they have changed wonderfully of late, and let no man ever say that he will not change—with their aversion to paraphrases and hymns, to gowns and bands, to crosses on the outside of the church, or any ornament whatever within, there is no denying it, my friends were a little narrow. There are worse things, however, in the world than being narrow. The way of life is narrow. It is said that my friends, the Seceders, were narrow minded and gnarled. They were gnarled. They were a gnarled oak, sound to the core, solid in the grain, and the very timber, before all others, out of which men like to build ships in which to fight battles, or ride out the storm.

"I knew the old Seceders well. Perhaps we may find that there is not so much difference between them and us as there used to ba. This may be, not because the old Seceders have come down to us, but because we have risen up to them. They have now no exclusive right to the honour of having their n3,me made a reproach because of their piety. I remember the day when it was so—the time when the man who would not sware or debauch himself, who maintained family worship, would talk to another about his soul, and rebuke his fault, was sneered at as a Seceder. Dr Burns of Kilsyth used to tell how, when travelling in a stage coach north of Aberdeen, he encountered a farmer, who, it turned out, was on the way to see his minister about baptism. Dr Burns seized the opportunity of putting a good word into the man's ear; speaking to him about the importance of the ordinance. Whereupon the other looked at him astonished, and said, 'Ye'll be a Sinceder man?' and when Dr Burns repudiated the connexion, telling him that he was mistaken, and that so far from being a Seoader, he was a minister of the Established Church, the man, more astonished still, exclaimed, 'If ye'r no a Seceder, then ye'll be frae the south,' adding, 'We dinna trouble oursels much about these things here; the fact is, if the lairds are guid to us, and dinna fash oursels about the ministers.' I will give an example from my own experience. I was returning from the General Assembly to my own parish of Arbirlot, when, between Dundee and that place, a man mounted the coach who was pretty drunk lie had no sooner seated himself than he began swearing at a shocking rate; and while 1 was thinking how I could close the blasphemer's mouth, and whether such an attempt might not be like casting pearls before swine, his neighbour on the other side turned round, and solemnly and affectionately rebuked him; whereupon, with eyes rolling in his head, and speech thick in his mouth, and a fiendish sneer linking in his cheeks, he looked round, and said, 'Ye'll doubtless be a Seceder.' In this case the drunken man uttered a truth—the gentleman was a Secession minister. I tell you, my friends, who are sitting with us in this house, that the day has gone by for such remarks, and that Seceders, as I am happy to think, have no longer the exclusive right to be reproached for godliness. This should make a union all the more hearty and practicable. The Seceders have not sunk, but we have risen. The descendants of those good old Seceders, so far as I know, have not forfeited their title to be considered worthy of their ancestry."

But there were other directions in which the superior mind and intelligence of Mrs Guthrie made themselves manifest. She was an ardent politician. At the time of which we write, Brechin joined with Aberdeen, Arbroath, Montrose, and Bervie, in sending a member to Parliament, and we have heard from one who knows the circumstances well, that Mrs Guthrie's influence had a great deal to do in controlling the election. Mr Joseph Hume was her favourite candidate; she approved and admired his economics; she sounded his praises far and wide, and at the election, which was marked by an unprecedented excitement, she fought his battle so well, that, as far as Brechin was concerned, his opponent (a Mr Mitchell) was nowhere. The mutual sympathies of Lord Panmure and Mrs Guthrie in favour of the great political economist led to a somewhat close intimacy between the two families, and this friendship was helpful in various ways to the subject of our Memoir.

We have given those extracts and dwelt thus long and minutely upon the religious tendencies and political sympathies of Mrs Guthrie, because it was doubtless largely due to her teaching and example that Dr Guthrie exhibited in after life, as the most distinguishing feature of his character, a "charity as boundless as the sea," and a love for humanity as deep.


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