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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter X - Free St John's, Moderatorship


Dr Guthrie, as we have seen, had not been long in the collegiate charge of Old Greyfriars before he made up his mind that more good might be accomplished if the parish was divided. With this view he set about the formation of a new parish and the erection of a new church, which would be in closer proximity to the Cowgate and the West Port, where he recognised the need of more provision for the spiritual wants of the inhabitants. He ventilated and advocated the propriety of this scheme until, in 1810, the new parish of St John's was erected, St John's Church built, and he was appointed minister—Mr Sim retaining the Church of Old Greyfriars. In carrying out the arrangements for his new church and parish, he made it a condition, to which the subscribers and the Town Council agreed, that one-third of the seats were to be entirely free, while another third should be charged for at a merely nominal rate, so as to encourage the poor and destitute to avail themselves of religious ordinances. He rigorously enforced compliance with these conditions; and even when he was in the zenith of his popularity and power, drawing to his church crowds of people from all parts of the city, he would not allow a single seat to be occupied by strangers until his own parishioners, no matter what their appearance, position, or character, had been accommodated. So far as practicable, the same regulations were carried out in Free St John's, to which he removed after the Disruption; and it caused no little offence to many of his warmest admirers that their social status was entirely disregarded, and they had to give way to men and women from whom, in all probability, they would have shrunk as from a plague. Protests innumerable were made to the Doctor with a view of having this rule departed from, but he was perfectly inexorable; and strangers continued to be accommodated in a hall underneath the church until the regular members and adherents of the congregation were in their places.

In the winter of 1844-45 Dr Guthrie entered upon the new church of Free St John's, which, as we have said, was built for him at the top of the West Bow, within a stone's throw of his old parish church. Most of his congregation went with him at the Disruption; but whilst the new church was being built they saw very little of their minister, who was absent on his great work of the Manse Scheme. On his return from that tour with flying colours, he received from his congregation a most cordial welcome; congratulations poured in upon him on every hand; and he was perhaps the most popular man of the whole church. But while his popularity had gained, his health had suffered; the Herculean labours he undertook sapped his usually robust constitution, and laid the foundations of permanent disease. His heart became affected. On several occasions he was laid aside from active duty, and he was recommended to seek change of air and scene. This induced him to visit the Continent; and he travelled on this and subsequent occasions through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. In these visits he acquired a large amount of useful information, and frequently conducted religious services—both giving and receiving benefit.

In 1856 Dr Hanna was appointed his colleague at Free St John's. Up to this time he had been without either colleague or assistant, although the precarious state of his health sometimes kept him out of the pulpit for weeks together. The appointment of Dr Hanna was brought about in the following manner. Ho had made an arrangement with the Rev. Mr Addis, of Morningside Church, to exchange pulpits for a few Sundays while he was editing the works of Dr Chalmers. Mr Addis thus removed to Dr Hanna's church at East Kilbride, and the latter took up his quarters at Morningside. About, this time Dr Guthrie had made up his mind that he must either retire altogether from pulpit duties, or have a colleague. The congregation deprecated the adoption of the former course; and having heard Dr Hanna preach in St John's on several occasions when their own minister was unable to be present, they resolved to invite him to become collegiate minister of St John's. The formal call was given by the Congregation, and accepted by Dr Hanna, who continued, with great satisfaction to ail concerned, to be Dr Guthrie's colleague for a period of eleven years, retiring in 1867.

From the time that he obtained the assistance of Dr Hanna, the pulpit appearances of Dr Guthrie became much less frequent, and he officiated in his own pulpit for the last time in 1865, although subsequent to that date he occasionally assisted at communion services, both in his own church and elsewhere.

On the 22d day of May, 1862, Dr Guthrie was appointed Moderator of the Twentieth General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. But for his infirm health, it is probable that this honour,—the highest that it is in the power of the church to bestow,—would have been conferred upon him years before. His election was proposed by the retiring Moderator, Dr Candlish, who, among other justly laudatory sentiments, gave utterance to the following:—"His genius has long since placed him at the head of all the gifted and popular preachers of our day, and with his other rare qualifications, has won for him an influence in quarters otherwise all but inaccessible; an influence nobly used; never for any selfish end, but always for Christ's truth and cause alone. His efforts in every work of benevolence, and specially on behalf of ragged children, have made his name, like that of Howard, synonymous with philanthropy. For our church he has been in many ways a benefactor as well as an ornament; and hundreds of manses all over the land will be his endearing monument." The nomination was seconded by his intimate friend and warm admirer the Earl of Dalhousie, who concluded his speech with these truthful and noble words:—"It was his lot to show the example of preaching to the outcast people of the land, in the wilds and amid the snows of Canobie; it was his privilege to take up the question of providing manses for our houseless ministers, and we know how nobly he wrought that scheme. Having established, on a foundation which, I trust, will not be easily moved, the ragged schools, Thomas Guthrie directed his ever active mind to put down intemperance and drunkenness throughout our city. Brethren, there is not a sin in this city with which he has not endeavoured to do battle,—not a sorrow in it with which he has not sympathised,—and those of you who are citizens of Edinburgh, to you I say again. This is the man whom you are this day invited to honour. In honouring Thomas Guthrie, the Court is conferring honour on itself; and I cannot help feeling a selfish pleasure in seeing him so highly honoured, seeing we come from the same country, were born in the same town, and love to dwell among the same scenes." Dr Guthrie was introduced to the Assembly by Dr Buchanan of Glasgow.

Often has the Free Assembly Hall been crowded with anxious and expectant faces; but never did it exhibit a more memorable aspect than on this occasion. It seemed as if the whole city had turned out to welcome the man whom his church delighted to honour. Hundreds tried in vain to obtain admission. The audience stood on the tiptoe of expectation, for it was pretty generally understood that the moderator-elect was prepared to make one of his most brilliant oratorical efforts. Dr Guthrie did not disappoint his numerous and expectant friends. His opening address began with a plea for indulgence, on the ground that "he was not conversant with the forms of church courts, having, before the Disruption, oftener found himself at a gun than by the wheel; and, since the Disruption, such time as he could spare from pulpit and pastoral duties had been given to other fields." He then referred, in his own peculiar manner, to the services rendered by former Moderators; the growing and gratifying desire for union among Christians; his attachment to the principles for which, as Free Churchmen, they had fought and suffered; the Court of Session and the Cardross case; the Veto and Church Settlement Act; and the immediate duty and ultimate destiny of the Free Church not to pull down the Established Church, but "to bring our church into a state of the highest efficiency,— filling our professors' chairs with the best professors, our pulpits with the best ministers, our schemes with the best conveners, our eldership with the cream of the people, and our people with the very finest of the wheat,"—and thereby prove that a church faithful to her Head in heaven, and to the Bible on earth, and faithful to the people's rights and to the interests of souls, without aid from the State, can stand on her own good feet." At the close of his address, Dr Guthrie paid a tender, cordial, and nobly eloquent tribute to the memory of Hugh Miller and Dr Cunningham. Of Miller he said, Talk to the people of Scotland of a name that lent lustre to the Free, Church, and a pen that did her the greatest service, and I Will tell you a name that rises in the minds of Scotland's people, and trembles on their lips—the name of Hugh Miller. . . Years have passed since we lost him. Years often abate the sense of loss, but in my mind they have here only increased the sense of it. How often have events happened when we would have wished to have him back again—back in our field of battle—how often have we been ready to cry, like our fathers, when hard pressed by the English, 'Oh! for one hour of "Wallace wight!'—Oh! for one hour of Miller! one paper from him! one flash of his steel in the battle field! . . . Who had a pen like his, who so ready for the onset, and who showed such prowess in the field! Ay, whose name in lordly hall, or Highland glen, or crowded city, by seashore or among our mountains, was more a familiar word than Hugh Miller's name. He fell a sacrifice; he was a martyr m his own way to his mighty efforts in the cause of truth, of patriotism, of the Free Church, of civil and religious liberty; and, I will also add, to the cause of science, ministering as a priestess at the altar of religion." Of Dr Cunningham he said, "He, whom Miller loved so well,—whom, next to Chalmers, he most revered,—who was, of all men, as a man-at arms, facile princeps,—who might of all men have received the noble title of defensor fidei, defender of our faith,—is, since the meeting of last Assembly, dead and gone. We shall see his face no more. We miss him here, and what can I say of him more than this—we would have missed him more in the day of conflict? I leave it to this Assembly to record, in terms suitable to his worth, his distinguished abilities, and his distinguished services, their sense of the value they set on William Cunningham; that generations hereafter may know how much we valued him who carved his name on the very pillars of our church; how much we owe to him who was a lion in the battlefield and a lamb at home; how much we owe to him who, while he lived, and now by his works when dead, did so much to anchor the church over the ground of that old and sound theology which Paul revealed, Calvin illustrated, Knox imported, and William Cunningham so nobly defended. Fathers and Brethren, where he did so much to anchor our bark, I trust she will ever ride. In these days, when men are lifting the anchors of their faith and driving on the shores of infidelity, now and hereafter also, may our church never depart from that sure anchor-ground; and may her ministers ever be men whom no earthly advantages will tempt to sign what they do not believe, and no earthly loss will deter from avowing what they do!"

Dr Guthrie's speech, in closing the Assembly, was worthy of himself and of the occasion. It was long, elaborate, racy, and comprehensive. We give one or two brief extracts, valuable in themselves, and as fair specimens of the whole speech. Repudiating all sympathy with the errors of Bunsen, he adds, "Far less do I sympathise with those who, having embraced German errors, still hold Church of England livings; and, so doing, deal with the most sacred vows after a fashion that, I will take leave to say, would in commerce be counted fraud—would in domestic life destroy its peace, and end in actions of divorce—and would, in the affairs of State, brand a man with the name of a traitor; and would, in other days, have brought his head to the block. I have no sympathy with such men. If ministers of the church may do what ministers of the State may not,—what men in commerce may not—what men in domestic life may not— may sign one thing and believe and act upon another—then, in 1843, we were 'martyrs by mistake. We might have held both our livings and our principles in that way. We acted otherwise, and what a fatal blow to religion had we not acted otherwise! There is something more eloquent than speech, I mean the eloquence of action; and I am bold to say that Hall, Foster, or Chalmers never preached a sermon so impressive or sublime as the humblest minister of our church did on that day of May, when he gave up his living to retain his principles, and joined the crowd that, bursting from the doors of St Andrew's Church, with Chalmers at its head, marched out, file by file, in steady ranks, giving God's people, who anxiously crowded the streets, occasion to weep tears, not of grief but of joy, as they cried, 'They come, they come; thank God! they come."

He referred with approval to the idea of Bunsen, that the Free Church had been raised up, and placed in favourable circumstances for solving the problem, whether a church, without aid or countenance from the State, could fulfill the two grand objects of every living being—sustain itself and extend itself; and, after noticing one or two collateral matters, added: "If we can secure for our church the rising talent and genius, as well as the piety of the country—if we can fill our pulpits with our ablest as well as our most pious youths, I do not despair of a favourable result. We are very near it already. The Free Church is only nineteen years old, and already we have a revenue of above 300,000 a-year, as much as the whole revenues of the whole Established Church. We are engaged in this grand experiment, and we shall work it out successfully, if we do our duty to the missionary cause abroad, and what I make, free to call the 'minister cause' at home." To a remarkably eloquent and unique pleading for the "minister cause" the remainder of the address was devoted. We give a few of the noble utterances: "Genteel poverty! may you never know it! genteel poverty, to which some doom themselves, but to which ministers are doomed, is the greatest evil under the sun. Give me liberty to wear a frieze coat, and I will thank no man for a black one—give me liberty to rear my sons to be labourers, and my daughters to be domestic servants, and the manse may enjoy the same cheerful contentment that sheds its sunlight on many a. pious and lowly home. But to place a man in circumstances where he is expected to be generous and hospitable, to have a hand as open as his heart is to the poor, to give his family a liberal education, to breed them up according to what they call genteel life,— to place a man in these circumstances, and deny him the means of doing so, is, but for the hope of heaven, to embitter existence....There are certain ways of evading the claims of ministers to such a competence as they are entitled to. Some people do not like to hear of these nutters. Some, not many, I hope, are like an honest man belonging to Aberdeenshire—begging the pardon of the Aberdonians here, I tell the story as I heard it—who, on being asked what he thought of the Free Church, replied, 'Oh, I admire her principles, but I detest her schemes. . . . An honest weaver stood up, and was clear for keeping the incumbtnt at the lowest figure. He saw no reason why ministers should receive more for weaving sermons than he had for weaving webs. He alleged, in proof of the advantage of a poor stipend, that the church never had better nor so good ministers as in those days when they went about in sheepskins and goatskins, and lived in caves and holes of the earth. If any sympathise with the weaver, I answer that I have an insuperable objection to 'caves and holes'—they create damp; and, secondly, as to the habiliments, it will be time enough to take up that question when our people are prepared to walk Princes Street with us, not in this antique dress, but in the more primitive and antiquated fashion of goatskins with the horns on. So I dispose of all such wretched evasions.

I now pass on to a second evasion, drawn from a case which actually occurred though not in our congregation, nor in any congregation of the Free Church. A lady, rustling in silks, and in a blaze of jewels, went to visit her minister's wife, more a lady than herself, with the exception of the dress. She condoled with her on the straitened circumstances and means of ministers; and looking into the pale care-worn face of the excellent woman, said, as she turned up the white of her eyes, ' But, my dear, your reward is above!' From the bloodless lips of some poor sinner in a cold, unfurnished garret, where the man of God, facing fevers and pestilence, has gone to smooth the dying pillow, and minister consolation in that last dark hour, I have been thankful to hear the words, 'Your reward is above'—but from silks and satins--disgusting !—cant, the vilest cant, and enough to make religion stink in the nostrils of the world! Does that saying pay the minister's stipend! —will it pay his accounts? Fancy the worthy man going to his baker or his butcher, and instead of paying down money, turning up the white of his eyes to say, 'Your reward is above.' I fancy they would reply, 'Oh, no, my good Sir, that will not pay the bill;' and I say what does not pay bills does not pay ministers' stipends as they ought to be paid."


 


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