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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter VII - Manse Scheme, Refusal of Sites, Canobie


The Disruption, and the struggle which led to it, produced great men; it was the outcome and vindication of great principles; it was accomplished at such a sacrifice for conscience sake that history records few, if any, so great; it excited great interest, great surprise, great admiration, great grief, and great joy; and it led to the formation and execution of such schemes of Christian finance as have inspired the church with hope, and made men of the world wonder. During the early years of the Free Church no man was more laborious, earnest, and self-sacrificing than Dr Guthrie in forwarding its interests and advocating its schemes. But there was one scheme with which he specially identified himself, and with which his name will ever be associated in the history of Disruption times and achievements.

The interests of the country ministers had a very large place in his heart. The Building and Sustentation Funds had done much to equalise the position of town and country ministers, but notwithstanding this it was lamentably apparent that in one respect, at all events, the country ministers were in a much worse plight than their city brethren. In many cases the want of suitable dwelling-houses entailed a suffering which could not be thought of without distress. His tender and sympathetic heart was touched by a knowledge of the hardships endured by many of these brethren who, like himself, were suffering for conscience sake. The immediate effect of the Disruption was the ejection from their manses of the 474 ministers and professors who had signed the Deed of Demission. Little or no time was given for preparation; and in several instances, in remote Highland parishes, the protesting ministers suffered, if maybe fatally, from the hardships and privations they were compelled to undergo. Thinking how he could best and most readily help them, he was led to devise one of those Herculean schemes which only men of large heart and the most unflinching courage are able to entertain. In the first General Assembly of the Free Church he proposed the scheme of a General Manse Fund; eloquently urged the necessity of making immediate provision for meeting the loss of the manses; and pleaded that, as dwelling-house accommodation was the most pressing and paramount consideration, all other arrangements should be subordinated to it.. He offered to go through the whole of Scotland and plead for the scheme in every town, village, and parish where there was any likelihood of contributions being obtained. The sum proposed to be raised was one hundred thousand pounds. He fulfilled his promise. Besides visiting frequently from house to house, where large subscriptions on behalf of the manse fund were likely to be got, he travelled all over Scotland and part of England, made such urgent and eloquent appeals, and so stirred the sympathies of the people that, when his work was finished, there was a fund of upwards of 116,000 collected for manse building purposes. Absent for just a year, he travelled the country "from Cape Wrath to the border, and from the. German to the Atlantic Ocean." "Having," he says, in the Assembly of 1846, "in consequence of my mission, visited through Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, from house to house, and from family to family, I stand in this great Assembly perhaps the most remarkable man in this respect. I venture to say there is no man in this house who has such a universal acquaintanceship as myself."

At what an amount of personal and domestic sacrifice this was done cannot be estimated; but one little circumstance may be mentioned. In the midst of his engagements for this fund, scarlet fever assailed his large household, and for a time, at each of the hurried visits which he was able to snatch from his work to visit his family, he found an additional couple of his children prostrated by the disease. His family all recovered; but to the noble-hearted advocate of the scheme himself the consequences were very serious. The excessive labour was too much even for his powerful frame; and as happens so commonly in the case of men whose energies are over-taxed, the heart became affected (1848), and the foundation was laid of the ailment which, after an interval of twenty-five years, has now sent him to the grave, to the irreparable loss of his church and his friends.

One of the most untoward results of the Disruption was that the heritors connected with the Establishment, viewing the seceders with hostility, refused to allow them sites for the erection of churches. A good deal of personal feeling was aroused on this score; nor was it until a select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to deal with the subject, that the heritors could be induced to relent. That Committee did not recommend legislation on so painful and delicate a subject, but it expressed an opinion so strongly condemnatory of the pitiful conduct of those who refused sites, that the Duke of Buccleuch and other large landowners were constrained, by a feeling of shame, to change their conduct, and grant to the Free Churches within their domains a local habitation. Pitiful were the accounts given of the sufferings both of congregations and ministers, compelled to worship all the year round on the public highways, by the sea shore, and under the open canopy of heaven. The sufferers needed sympathy and support, and no one was readier to give both than Dr Guthrie. His tender heart could feel for their sufferings, and his eloquent tongue could, as with trumpet sound, tell their wrongs. Canobie in Dumfriesshire was one of the most noted places where a site had been refused and where the worshippers suffered most. Dr Guthrie visited this scene of petty ducal persecution, preached to the people, and has given the following graphic account of the circumstances and services:—

"Well wrapped up, I drove out to Canobie, the hills white with snow, the roads covered ankle-deep in many parts with slush, wind high and cold, thick rain lashing on, and the Esk by our side all the way roaring in the snow-flood between bank and brae. We passed Johnnie Armstrong's tower, yet strong, even in its ruins, and after a drive of four miles, a turn of the road brought us in view of a sight which was overwhelming, and would have brought the salt tears into the eye of any man of common humanity. There, under the naked boughs of some spreading oak-trees, at a point where a country road joined the turnpike, stood a tent, around, or rather in front of which, was gathered a large group of muffled men and women, with some little children, a few sitting, most of them standing, and some old venerable widows cowering under the scanty shelter of umbrellas. On all sides each road was adding a stream of plaided men and muffled women to the group, till the congregation increased to between 500 and 600, gathering in the very road, and waiting for my coming from a mean inn where I found shelter till the hour of worship. During the psalm singing and the first prayer, I was in the tent; but finding that I would be uncomfortably confined, I took up my position on a chair in front, having my hat on my head, my Codrington close buttoned up to my throat, and a pair of bands, which were wet enough with rain ere the service was over. The rain lashed on heavily during the latter part of the sermon, but no one budged, and when my hat was off during the last prayer, some one kindly extended an umbrella over my head. I was so interested, so were the people, that our forenoon service continued for four hours At the close I felt so much for the people—it was such a sad sight to see old men and women, some children, and one or two individuals pale and sickly, and apparently near the grave, all wet and benumbed with the keen wind and cold rain—that I proposed to have no afternoon service, but this was met with universal dissent. One and all declared that, if I would hold on, they would stay in the road till midnight; so we met again at three o'clock, and it poured on almost without intermission during the whole sermon; and that over, shaken cordially by many a man and woman's hand, I got into the gig, and drove on here in time for an evening sermon, followed, through rain in the heavens and the wet snow in the road, by numbers of the people.

"The people spoke respectfully of the Duke of Buccleuch, and were anxious to give no offence. I preached subsequently on the open hill, down in a sort of hollow, and the people were ranged on the side of the mountain. It was a swampy place in which I preached, and I wished to have some protection between my feet and the wet ground. I saw some fine planks of wood lying close by, and wondered why the people did not take them and use them. In place of that, they went into a house and brought out an old door. After the sermon, I was naturally led to ask why they did not bring the planks that were lying close by, and they said these were not theirs, that they belonged to the Duke of Buccleuch, and that they would not touch them in case any offence might lie taken at their doing so."

Before the Parliamentary Committee, to which allusion has already been made, Dr Guthrie subsequently tendered evidence on the Canobie affair. He said he felt that the refusal of a site was a grievous and unwarrantable exercise of power; and that when he saw the reputable, honest, and religious inhabitants of Canobie necessitated to worship the God of their fathers on a turnpike road, he was so overwhelmed by the sight that "he felt as if he could not preach."


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