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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter XI - Efforts in the Temperance Cause


Next to the Manse Scheme and Ragged Schools, there is no movement in which Dr Guthrie took such a conspicuous interest as that of temperance. Forty years ago, a teetotaler was comparatively a rare avis. He was regarded as a well meaning but eccentric man, who had "a bee in his bonnet." Then it required more courage than it does now, to resist the temptations planted thick as thorns on a rose bush, in the path of the total abstainer. The movement was treated, even by men otherwise respectable and exemplary, with scorn and ridicule. The use of intoxicating drinks had become so common with the people, no matter what their rank or condition, as to enter into the economy of every day life—and be regarded as an indispensable adjunct to christenings, births, marriages, and even funerals. The common mind had come to regard drink as a panacea for all the evils that flesh is heir to; and alike in the palaces of the rich and the hovels of the poor, it was as much in request as the very "staff of life" itself. Under these circumstances, it required no little moral courage to take, as Dr Guthrie ultimately did, such a firm and determined stand against the drinking usages of society. The Doctor gives the following account of the origin of his teetotalism. Along with Mr J. 0. Brown and Mr Bridges he had been travelling in Ireland, as a deputation to that country, shortly after the Disruption. "In this journeying," he says, "we reached a town called Omagh, from whence we had to travel a mountainous country to another place called Cocton. The day was one of the worst possible, with bitter cold and lashing rain. Half-way there stood a small inn, into which we went, as a sailor in stress of weather runs into the first haven. Those were the days, not of tea and toast, but when it was thought that the best cure for a wet coat and a cold body was a tumbler of toddy; and we no sooner got within the inn than the toddy was ordered. We took our toddy, and, no doubt, in moderation. But if we, with all our haps on, were in an uncomfortable state, far more uncomfortable was our half-ragged carman; if we were drenched, he was drowned. Of course, we felt for our courteous and civil driver, and we thought that what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander, and we offered him a glass; but the carman was not such a gander as we, like geese, took him for; to our perfect amazement, not one drop of the toddy would he touch. He said, 'I am an abstainer, and will take no toddy.' "Well, that stuck in my throat, and it went to my heart and (though in another sense than drink) to my head. That and other circumstances made me a teetotaler."

The "other circumstances" referred to are undoubtedly his experiences of the effects of drink in his pastoral work among the inhabitants of the Cowgate, and other slums of Edinburgh. Very soon after he came to the metropolis, he saw enough to convince him that, so far as the poor were concerned, drink was the root of nearly all their destitution, misery, and crime.

When the "Scottish Association for the Suppression of Drunkenness" was formed in 1851, Dr Guthrie was urgently requested to write the introductory pamphlet of a series to be issued by the. Association. This was the origin of his "Plea on behalf of Drunkards and against Drunkenness." In this Plea he announced himself as an abstainer. "Speaking individually," he says, "we think ourselves bound to say, that we go much farther than the principles of this Association would carry us—than most of the esteemed and honourable men with whom we are here associated. On principles of patriotism and Christian expediency, we think that the evil has arrived at such a pitch, that it were well if, instead of either attempting to muffle or even to muzzle the monster, the country would agree to put a knife through its heart, in the entire disuse of all intoxicating liquors." The "Plea" was argumentative throughout, gave a number of very telling facts and figures, and produced a profound impression. A still greater effect, however, was produced by the delivery and publication, some years afterwards, of the discourses on "The City: its Sins and Sorrows." Lest its pictures should be regarded as exaggerations, he lays:—

"No good cause has ever but suffered from injudicious zeal and extravagant statements. Regard for truth, and my very anxiety to see this evil arrested, unite in preventing me from indulging in exaggeration—were it possible here to exaggerate: I say possible to exaggerate. For what flight of fancy, what bold strokes of painting, what graphic powers of description, could convey any adequate idea of the evils and sorrows that march in the train of this direful and most detestable vice? Standing on the surf-beaten shore, when ocean, lashed by the tempest into foaming rage, was up in her angry might, I have seen a spectacle so grand and where she couched in the valley, arrayed in a gay robe of summer flowers, I have seen nature so beautiful; and where rattling thunders mingled with the roar of the avalanche, and untrodden peaks of eternal snow rose clear and serene above the dark mysterious gorge, within which the battle of elements was waging, I have looked upon scenes so sublime, as to pass description. Nor colour nor words can convey an adequate idea of them. To be understood they must be visited, to be felt they must be seen.

"Incredible as it may appear, this remark is no less true of many regions of sorrow, and starvation, and disease, and vice, and devilry, and death, that the smoke-stained walls of these dingy houses hide from common view. These were for years the painful field of my labours. Let no man fancy that we select the worst cases, or present the blackest side of the picture. Believe me, it is impossible to exaggerate, impossible even truthfully to paint the effect of this vice either on those who are addicted to it, or on those who suffer from it —crushed husbands, broken hearted wives, and most of all, those poor innocent children that are dyeing under cruelty and starvation, that shiver in their rags upon our streets, that walk unshod the winter snows, and with their matted hair and hollow cheeks, and sunken eyes, and sallow countenances, glare out on us, wild and savagedike, from these patched and dusty windows. Besides, if the extent of this evil has been exaggerated, it is a fault that may be pardoned. It is a failing that 'leans to virtue's side.' Perhaps she exaggerates his danger, but who quarrels with the mother, whose love for her sailor boy keeps her tossing on a sleepless pillow—praying through the long hours of a stormy might, as her busy imagination fancies that in that wild shriek of the fitful wind she hears his drowning cry. "When the nursery only has caught fire, and a faithful domestic, plucking the babe from a burning cradle, rushes into your chamber, and makes you leap to the cry, The house is all on fire! will he, that hurries away to save the rest, challenge the exaggeration! Exaggeration is as natural to earnestness of purpose and depth of feeling, as a blush to shame, or a smile to happiness, or the flash of the eye to anger."

We give one or two of the Doctor's word pictures, mode of putting the argument, and heart stirring appeals: —

"With a pagan from any part of China, that vast empire, but one which our opium trade and greed of gain has demoralised, I say that I should be afraid to find myself in many districts of this city of schools, and colleges, and churches, and hospitals, and benevolent societies, and people of high Christian worth and unquestionable piety. Amid the idle groups of bloated women, and half-naked children, and wrecks of men, filling up many a close-mouth and foot of filthy stair—with our path crossed by some reeling drunkard, who launches himself headlong into the common sewer—with so many shops, under Government licence, turning health into disease, decency into tattered rags, love into estrangement or bitter hatred, young beauty into loathsomeness, woman's natural modesty into loud and coarse effrontery, mothers' milk into poison, mothers' hearts into stone, and the image of God into something baser than a brute—how could I look that sober, upright pagan in the face, and ask him to become a Christian? I must be dumb, lest he should turn round on me to ask:—Are these Christians?i Be these the fruits of Christianity? I would repel the charge. But what if he should follow it up with a blow less easy to parry? Pointing up to those here who are rolling in wealth, or enjoying the abundant comforts of their homes, or the ordinances of their worship, he might next ask:—What are these Christians doing? What do they to save their fellow-creatures from miseries that move a pagan to tears? What to save them from crimes unpractised by those whom you call the followers of the false prophet, by us to whose distant land you send your missionaries to turn us from our fathers' idols? What could I say? How would I look? With what answer could I meet the withering sarcasm:—'Physician, heal thyself!'

"Go not away, I pray you, under the delusion, that like a fog-bank which lies thick and heavy on the valley, when heights are clear, and hill tops are beaming in the morning sun, intemperance is confined only to the lowest stratum of society. I know the contrary. Much improved as are the habits of the upper and middle classes—and we thank God for that, extending as that improvement has done to those who stand beneath them in the social pyramid—and we bless God also for that, and hoping that this improvement, like water percolating a bed of sand, will sink down till it reaches and purifies the lowest stratum—we have met this vice in all classes of society. It has cost many a servant her place, and—yet greater loss—ruined her virtue. It has broken the bread of many a tradesman. It has wrecked the fortunes of many a merchant. It has spoiled the coronet of its lustre, and sunk the highest rank into contempt. It has sent respectability to hide its head in a poor house, and presented in luxurious drawing rooms scenes which have furnished laughter to the scullions in the kitchen.

"But it has done worse things than break the staff of bread, lower rank, wreck earthly fortunes, and crown wealth with thorns. Most accursed vice! "What hopes so precious that it has not withered, what career so promising that it has not arrested, what heart so tender that it has not petrified, what temper so fine that it has not destroyed, what things sc noble and sacred that it has not blasted! It has changed into ashes the laurel crown on the head of genius, and, the wings of the poet scorched by its hell-fire baine, he who one!; played in the light of sunbeams, and soared aloft into the skies, has basely crawled in the dust. Paralysing the mind even more than the body, it has turned the noblest intellect into drivelling idiocy. Not awed by dignity, it has polluted the ermine of the judge. Not scared away by the sanctity of the temple, it has defiled the pulpit. In all these particulars, I speak what I know. I have seen it cover with a cloud or expose to deposition from the office and honours of the holy ministry, no fewer than ten clergymen, with some of whom I have sat down at the table of the Lord, and all of whom I numbered in the rank of acquaintances or friends.

"The. frightful extent, of this vice, however, is perhaps most brought out by one melancholy fact. There are few families amongst us so happy as not to have had some one near and dear to them either in imminent peril, hanging over the precipice, or the slave of intemperance, altogether 'sold unto sin.' Considering the depravity of human nature, and the temptations to which our customs and circumstances expose us, that fact, however melancholy and full of warning, does not astonish us. But, to see a father or mother, to see a brother or sister venturing on the edge of a whirlpool, in whose devouring, damning vortex they themselves have seen one whom they loved engulphed, does fill us with astonishment. I knew a mother once, who saw her only son drowned before her eyes. Years came and went ere she could calmly look upon the glorious ocean, or hear without pain the voice of the billows amid which the boy was lost. How many have a better, or rather a bitterer, cause for hating the sight of the bowl! Considering how many are lost—sink into perdition, victims to this vice—I do wonder that so few Christian, or no Christian, but loving parents, candidly consider the question, whether it be not their duty to train up their children according to the rule, 'Taste not, touch not, handle not.' I have wondered most of all to see a pious father indulging in the cup that had been poison-death to his son. Why does he not throw it away, cast it from him with trembling hand. Taking up the Knife, red with the blood of his child-making sure that it shall be the death of no one else—why does he not fling it after the lost —down, down into the depths of hell!

"Grant that there were a sacrifice in abstaining, what Christian man would hesitate to make it, if by doing so he can honour God and bless mankind? If by a life-long abstinence from all those pleasures which the wine-cup yields, I can save one child from a life of misery—I can save one. mother from premature grey hairs, and griefs that bring her to the grave—I can save one woman from ruin—bringing him to Jesus, I can save one man from perdition—I should hold myself well repaid. Living thus, living not for myself, when death summons me to my account, and the Judge says, Man, where is thy brother? I shall be found walking, although at a humble distance, in the footprints of Him who took his way to Calvary. He said 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.' This cross, which has been borne by missionaries to pagan lands, which has been held high in the battle-field hymen nobly fighting for their faith, which rose above the red scaffold flowing with martyrs' blood, may be carried into our scenes of social enjoyment, and, a brighter ornament than any jewels flashing on beauty's breast, may adorn the festive table. If this abstinence is a cross, all the more honour to the. men who carry it. It is a right noble thing to live for God and the good of man."

Thus, in his "Plea," and in "The City: its Sins and Sorrows," he laid so much to the door of strong drink, and appealed so earnestly on behalf of its victims, that public feeling in Edinburgh, and wherever his books were read, was stirred to its uttermost depths. Perhaps no works that have ever been written, either before or since, have done more to promote the temperance reformation. The terrible earnestness of the writer, his well known philanthropic character, his thorough knowledge of the evil, and his impassioned and pictorial eloquence, gave his opinions and pleas a force and power that seldom attaches to temperance literature, even of the most radical and pronounced type.

Besides that phase of the evil most familiar to him in Edinburgh, there was another aspect of drunkenness with which he had often come into contact in the country, and which had made an impression on him from his earliest years. It was that form of the evil which is so common at hiring fairs, and which often leads simple young men and women into temptation and crime. He had seen in his early days, at the two half-yearly markets in his native town of Brechin, scenes of debauchery and riot that were simply, or at least chiefly, the result of the absence of any counter-attraction; and he made up his mind that he would endeavour to provide an antidote. Accordingly, he made a point of visiting some of the principal fairs in the Lothians and the adjoining counties, commencing with Biggar. Referring to this, he says:—

"Four weeks ago I was at Biggar Fair, and the week after next I am going to Calder Fair—not to buy sweeties, far less to drink whisky toddy; but recollecting what I witnessed in my early days at the two hiring markets in my native town of Brechin, and the scenes of drunkenness, dissipation, and disorder there enacted, I will go there for the purpose of doing what I can to stop them, with God's help. I believe I succeeded at Biggar Fail in keeping some hundreds of people sober, and sending them home sober as judges; ay, and more sober than many judges have often been."

Besides his "Plea for Drunkards," &c., and "The City: its Pins and Sorrows," Dr Guthrie wrote two of the Pictorial Tracts issued monthly by the Scottish Temperance League. They were entitled "The Contrast," and "A Word in Season." Both tracts were written for the month of January, in different years, and had an enormous circulation. The last of the two had reference to a most tragic and touching incident, of which the neighbourhood of Blairgowrie was the scene.

Dr Guthrie frequently appeared upon the temperance platform; and the style of his advocacy will be seen from the following extract,—taken from a speech delivered by him at a meeting of the Free Church Temperance Society, held in the City Hall, Glasgow, 9th February, 1859:— "Well, then, if these drinks are not good for the body, are they good for work? I say they are not. What do you take a dram for?—Oh, because it is cold. And in summer why do you take it?—Because it is so hot. It is a most extraordinary thing this whisky. It is so good when they are cold, and it is good when they are hot; but it is neither good when they are cold nor when they are hot. Sir John Boss, Admiral Beecher, Edward Parry, Dr Richardson, Sir John Franklin—all these men have faced the northern climate. These were men that, had never for weeks a dry stitch upon their backs—it often happening that they were sheathed in ice; and the universal testimony (and if these men are not to decide it, is it some wretched trooper in Glasgow that was to do so!) of these men, who lived in sixty degrees below zero, and faced the roaring storm and washing sea, was one unanimous testimony to this effect, that spirits are the worst things that a man could take when exposed to a severe climate, hard weather, and painful circumstances. (Cheers.) Let us take one jump from the Pole to India. Look at the list of the soldiers divided into as many total abstainers, moderate drinkers, and drunkards. Now, the proportion in which they die is this —16 drunkards, 26 moderate drinkers, and just 15 teetotalers. That is the question in regard to heat. I have settled that question in regard to cold, I have settled that question in regard to heat; and, I say, I defy any man in the world, in health, heavy work or light, in cold or warm weather, to shew that the taking of porter, or ale, or spirits, will give him more vigorous health. Now, don't tell me it is for heat. Then do you take it for your temper? Do you say so? Many a poor wife knows the opposite—that it has turned a husband into a hard-hearted, cruel, and unfeeling father. I would not give anything for the company of a man who needed spirits to put him in good spirits. Will any one dare to say that I am a gloomy man, or ill-tempered? I defy them. "Will any one say that I am an unhappy man? I am very happy, I am glad to say. I can tell you that I feel my spirits lighter, and I feel my purse heavier. I feel my head clearer, and my heart better, and my stomach better, for being a teetotaler. (Cheers.) I was in ill health through over exertion in the cause of the church, and ordered by my physician to take wine. I took it for three years; and as I was threatened with gout, meeting Professor Miller one day, he said, 'If you continue to take wine, you may lay your account to have the gout.'—'Then,' said I, 'henceforth I will give it up.' Since that day, three years have elapsed, and I have had better health ever since, and worked more than before. (Cheers.) Now, I adopted this cause of total abstinence, and I'll tell you why; I don't think it is sinful to take spirits, but I hold it a matter of the highest Christian expediency to be a teetotaler. I went to the poor house, and found five out of six of the paupers there, directly or indirectly, through drinking. I went to the prison, and found five out of six of the culprits there, directly or indirectly, through drinking. I went to the ragged school, and found 99 out of the 100 of them there, directly or indirectly, out of drinking. I went down to the Cowgate, Grassmarket, St Mary's Wynd, College Wynd, Brodie's Close, and I found it meeting me at every corner, defeating me in every effort; it defeated our schools, churches, and missionaries, and I felt that if these wretched, lapsed, lost, degraded classes were ever to be raised in the platform of humanity, drink must be banished from the land. I want to know if you ever saw a city missionary not a teetotaler? I have seen some begin as moderate drinkers, but they never continued long until they became teetotalers; and if the audience were to go down and live in the Saltmarket for a few days, it would do more good than my speaking to doomsday. If any one of you would go down and hear that cursing, brutal husband, who, six years ago, was a noble workman with a lovely wife, to whom he had pledged his heart and affections, with their children clothed, and, happy to see their father, running to meet him; but now they run from him, and his wife trembles to meet him, and makes her prayer to God to strike her dead and take her out of the world. If you were to see such a scene, I am sure you would all give your heart and hand in this noble work.

I am sorry to detain this meeting so long, but, as I understand there is a large number of office-bearers of the Free Church as well as members present, I would like to say a few words more, especially to them. My friends, I assume no presumptuous position. It was some time before I made up my mind to join the temperance cause; and I would use the argument with you that I did with a lady. I said to her—If you tell me of the good drink does, I will tell you of the ill it does. I need scarcely say that she could not tell me any good it does. (Cheers.) Well, now, I wish you to think severally what good it does. Will you have a worse head, a worse purse, or a worse body for being teetotalers? Do you think it would be a great sacrifice to give them up? There never was so great a mistake in the world. The first day I wanted my wine I thought the servant had not cooked the dinner so well; the second day there was something funny about it; the third day I never thought of the wine at all; and now when I go to dinner, and see ladies and gentlemen drinking, it looks to me as if they were drinking salts or castor oil. (Loud laughter.) Depend upon it, it requires no sacrifice at all. If you mean to make a trial, I say, God help you. If you do make it,—if you are a drunkard—oh! you need to pray long and deep to God to help you. In regard to those who are not drunkards, believe me there is no sacrifice whatever. I speak from experience. I put it to the Free Church elders, to my brethren in the ministry, —I put it to the Free Church members—that drink does no man real good except as a medicine. Is it true that it does thousands eternal evil? Is it true that it has carried more souls into hell than any other vicious indulgence? Is it true that it is the cause of all the wrecks that flutter in your streets—the cause of the ruin of nine-tenths of the females that walk the streets and disgrace their sex? Is it true that it fills the prison and the poor-house, and breaks human hearts, and destroys more happiness than any other indulgence whatever! If you cannot put your hand on any good, and I can lay my hand on that world of evil, my dearly beloved Christian friends, what are we to live for? Am I to live for my own indulgence when that is the cause of the ruin of thousands and millions in the land? I say, No! Did Jesus live, for himself? He said, 'The Son of man came not to be ministered unto but to minister.' Did Paul live for himself? He said 'He would eat no flesh while the world lasted, lest he made his brother to offend.'

I pray you to take this subject home to your knees to night. I say, souls are perishing in thousands by these drinks, and I am entitled to ask, and do ask it, that you Christian men and women pray to God that he would direct you and teach you what is your duty. If you can go down before God and pray that he may keep you from being a total abstainer—if you can pray God to keep you from being carried away by this speech, do it, do it! This is a question that requires your solemn consideration, and as you shall answer to Him who wont take from us this reply, ' Am I my brother's keeper?'"

When Dr Guthrie was a student, there was not, so far as he knew, an abstaining student within the University, nor was there an abstaining minister in the whole Church of Scotland. But the success of the temperance movement had effected a wonderful change in this respect, and he was not more zealous in its promotion than sanguine of its ultimate triumph. "In the course of another generation," he said, "the man who shall sit down to his bottle of wine or his tumbler of toddy, will be as rare as those creatures, the Megatheriums, which remain to us the strange specimens of another, and, let us be thankful, a past generation." He was specially anxious to secure the support of the ministry to the temperance movement. He would rather see in the pulpit a man who was a total abstainer from this root of all evil— drink, than a man crammed with all the Hebrew roots in the world. In speaking of the benefits of temperance, he was accustomed to urge four reasons for being an abstainer—";my head is clearer, my health is better, my heart is lighter, and my purse is heavier". His plan for closing the mouths of objectors to temperance principles, was to ask them if there was no young man among their acquaintances or relations who had. been ruined by indulgence in intoxicating liquors? He seldom got a negative answer. His opinion was that Scotland was about the most drunken country in Europe. On this subject he says, "During a tour in France, Belgium, Sardinia, Switzerland, Prussia, and Germany, I have seen, in seven weeks, although I was in Paris at the time of the baptismal fetes, and in Brussels during the three days' celebration of Leopold having been on the throne for a quarter of a century, less drunkenness than might be seen in Edinburgh in three days." "What a blessed providence it is," said a distinguished foreigner, "that you Anglo-Saxons are a drunken race; for, were you not, there is a power, talent, and energy within you, would make you masters of the whole world!"

One more reference to the dark record of his experience, and we have done with this subject. It will show how strongly and acutely he felt that the temperance cause deserved sympathy and support. "Seven years of my ministry," he says, "were spent in one of the lowest localities of Edinburgh; and it almost broke my heart, day by day to see, as I wandered from house to house, and from room to room, misery, wretchedness, and crime; the detestable vice of drunkenness, the cause of all, meeting me at every turn, and marring all my efforts. If there is one thing I feel more intensely than another, it is this; that drink is our national curse, our sin, our shame, our weakness. I speak the words of truth and soberness when I say that this vice destroys more men and women, bodies and souls, breaks more hearts, and ruins more families, than all the other vices of the country put together! Nor need I speak of the multitude of lives it costs. Nothing ever struck me more, in visiting those wretched localities, than to find that more than a half of these families were in the churchyard. The murder of innocent infants in this city by drunkenness, out-Herods Herod in his slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem. I appeal to every missionary and every minister who visits these localities, whether the great obstacle that meets him at every corner, is not drunkenness. I believe we will in vain plant churches and schools, though they be as thick as trees in the forest, unless this evil is stopped."


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