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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter V - Call to Edinburgh—Old Greyfriars—St. John's


After a residence of seven years in Arbirlot, Dr Guthrie was, in 1837, called to the metropolis. By this time "his fame was in all the churches." He had established for himself a reputation as an orator second to none in the Church of Scotland, Dr Chalmers alone excepted. He had also been enabled to do the church some service. We have already referred to his co-operation with Dr Chalmers in his Church Extension Scheme. But he came still more prominently before the world in connection with the Non-intrusion controversy. Whatever he undertook to do he did with all his might, and this, added to his fervid burning eloquence, made him the cynosure of the church. It was not difficult to foresee that he was destined to become "a pillar in Israel;" and hence he was placed in a sphere where his genius and energy could find the most ample scope. Old Greyfriars was selected as the field of his future operations. A vacancy had occurred in this collegiate charge by the death of Dr Anderson, and the Town Council conferred on him the great honour and responsibility of giving him the presentation. Arbirlot and its people had taken a great hold on his heart, and to leave its fresh rural fields to work in the dingy closes and "lands" of the Cowgate, was no easy trial. Impelled, however, by that overruling Providence which so often urges men of power to leave an easy for a more difficult spot, Dr Guthrie accepted the call to the collegiate charge of Old Greyfriars.

It was no easy ordeal that he had to undergo in being thus transferred from a small and isolated country parish, with little more than a thousand souls, to a populous and stirring metropolitan charge. Here, too, he had to till the place and maintain the unrivalled prestige and reputation left behind them by such men as Robertson the historian and Dr Erskine—the one the great leader of the moderate, and the other of the evangelical party in their day and generation. Then, what soul-stirring reminiscences belonged to that same old church! It had been associated with many a manly struggle for spiritual independence. Within its walls, in 1638, the national covenant was partly subscribed, and in the churchyard surrounding it reposed the ashes of many of Scotland's most illustrious sons. The population of the parish were, on the whole, illiterate and wicked, and neglected the ordinances of God. Little wonder, then, that the change produced a profound and lasting impression on Dr Guthrie's mind. "The contrast," he has declared, "both morally and physically, between my present and my former sphere, was such as, without God's help, to appal the stoutest heart. My country parish had no papists; I had come to one that swarmed with them. My country parish had only one public-house: and I had come to one where tippling abounded, and the owners of dram shops grew like toadstools on a public ruin. With one thousand inhabitants, my country parish had but one man who could not read; and I had come to one with hundreds who did not knew a letter. My country parish was not disgraced by one drunken woman; and I had come to one where women drank, and scores of mothers starved their infants to feed their vices. My country parish might show a darned, but had not a ragged coat; and I had come to one of loopholed poverty, where men and women were hung with rags, and the naked, cracked, red, ulcered feet of little shivering creatures trod the iron streets. In my country parish there was but one person who did not attend the house of God; and I had come to one where only five of the first one hundred and fifty I visited ever entered either church or chapel. My old country parish had not a house at least without a Bible ; and I had come to one where many families had no Bible on the shelf nor a bedstead on the floor. Inside and outside, the roll might be written with lamentation, mourning, and woe." The great heart of Guthrie was stirred to its inmost depths by the crime, wretchedness, and poverty he saw around him. He was musing on the subject one day while overlooking the Cowgate, and thinking how he could best deal with the discordant and seemingly irreclaimable material around him, when some one gently tapped him on the shoulder. On looking round he saw Dr Chalmers standing before him. The latter evidently guessed what was passing in the mind of his friend. Neither of them spoke for a few. moments, but stood in silence contemplating the scene. "All at once," to quote the words in which Dr Guthrie himself tells the story, "Chalmers, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, waved his arm, and exclaimed, 'A beautiful field, Sir; a very fine field of operation!'"

There was much in common between these two men. Both were the sons of country merchants; commenced their ministerial labours in country parishes; and were thence translated to city churches. Chalmers made it the great aim of his life to reorganise the parochial system of Scotland, so that the destitute and outcast might be visited and reclaimed, and the young instructed in the lessons and duties of religion. Guthrie took a different road to reach the same goal. Chalmers, towards the close of his life, set on foot a scheme for reclaiming the inhabitants of the West Port district in Edinburgh—a locality notorious alike for physical squalor and moral degradation; Guthrie laboured assiduously in the same field. Both were mixed up with, almost every phase of the memorable Non-intrusion contest, both before and after the passing of the veto law by the General Assembly, to the Disruption in 1843; and they generally thought, spoke, and voted in the same way. Both were expert financiers; and Guthrie did as much for the Manse Fund as Chalmers achieved on behalf of the Sustentation Scheme of the Free Church. In other respects the two men were "similar, though not the same." Both possessed not only the tricks but also the genius of oratorical power, although the perfervid, burning eloquence of the one presented a marked contrast to the more stately periods and finished rhetorical embellishments of the other. They were much together; and it will be readily understood that Chalmers exercised, both by precept and example, a powerful influence over his younger colleague; so that to Chalmers' zeal and sympathy it is no doubt, in great part, due that Guthrie undertook and carried through his manifold and useful labours among the destitute and degraded in Old Greyfriars' parish.

It requires a high motive, and the exercise of no ordinary self-denial, to induce a man to labour as Dr Guthrie did among the wynds and closes in the parish of Old Greyfriars. It is not merely that he remembered the case of the poor: that is saying little, he consecrated his whole energies to the moral, social, and educational amelioration of his parishioners. He spent the silent watches of the night, as well as the broad noon-day, among his flock. And such a flock! Neither Shoreditch nor St George's in the East could produce more loathsome and degraded specimens of humanity. It was not their poverty alone; although they could have rivalled Falstaff's ragged regiment in that; but the coarse brutality, the worse than heathen ignorance, the demoniac instincts of the men and women with whom he came in contact, would have made any one inspired with a less lofty and resolute purpose shrink from the work which he undertook. He exposed himself to perils from violence, from disease, and from foul contagion in his holy mission. But he never forgot that, although

"The trail of the serpent was over them all,"

these wretched people had claims upon him as a minister, as a Christian, and as a man. To effect the reclamation of the rising generation was his great aim; he could make little of the hoary-headed sinners. His face was as familiar in the dens of iniquity that abounded in and around the Cowgate, as those of the broker's man and the constable. But while he was often compelled to hear blasphemy, he seldom was the victim of personal abuse. The young, especially, "found their comfort in his face." He had always a word of sympathy or encouragement for them. He regulated his conduct by the sentiment which he has himself expressed in the following striking words:—"Keeping out of view the depravity of human nature, which is common to all, these children are very much what you choose to make them. The soul of the ragged boy or girl is like a mirror. Frown upon it, and it frowns on you; look at it with suspicion, and it eyes you in the same manner. Lift your arm to strike, and there is an arm lifted against you. Turn your back, and it turns its back on you. Turn round and give it a smile, and it smiles again in return. It will give smile for smile, kindness fur kindness."

From, the first, Dr Guthrie took rank as a preacher of singular vigour and vivacity. In Edinburgh, no less than in Arbirlot, he was resolved not to let his people sleep. If at first his manner and illustrations had a certain homespun character, he came by-and-bye to see the advantages of adapting himself even to the most cultivated taste, and took much more pains with his style. His labours in the Greyfriars were divided between preaching on Sundays in the parish church and "excavating" on week-days in the parish purlieus. It was not long before the parish church became crowded with hearers, many of them persons of the first position and influence in Edinburgh. Among his regular hearers were Lords Jeffrey and Cockburn. The story is told of Cockburn that, being asked by a friend who met mim one Sunday where he was going to church, he answered, "Going to have a greet wi' Guthrie." Lord Rutherford was also among his regular hearers, and so was Lord Cunningham, whose views on church controversies were diametrically opposite. Hugh Miller joined his congregation when he came to Edinburgh, and continued through life his warm and admiring friend. At first, however, this influx of ladies and gentlemen from the New Town was rather embarrassing. When he came to Edinburgh the Voluntary controversy was raging, and the reproach was flung out on the one side, and repudiated on the other, that the Established Church was the Church only of the gentry, and that the odious annuity-tax was levied on the poor to support the ministers of the rich. Mr Guthrie at that time believed in the Established Church as the church of all classes, and besides he was diligently working in his parish, and was annoyed at the Town Council laying on seat rents, which really went to exclude the poor, and furnished some reason for the reproach of the dissenters. Under the influence of these views he promoted the uncollegiating of Old Greyfriars' Church, and in 1840 got a new church and parish erected close to the Cowgate, called St John's, in which it was intended to try the experiment of allocating one portion of the sittings to the people of the parish, and allowing the rest to be let to the public at comparatively high rates. The experiment proved highly successful, but he had not occupied his church long before events occurred that led to a revolution in the ecclesiastical arrangements of St John's and of the whole of Scotland.


 


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