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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter XIII - The Pulpit—Platform—Society—Person


Although not, in the strictest sense of the term, a refined and intellectual preacher, Dr Guthrie drew around him many of the literati and rank of Edinburgh. Hugh Miller not only attended his church, but officiated for years as one of his elders. Sir James Y. Simpson, the professor of mid wifery in Edinburgh University, and one of the most genial, accomplished, and characteristic Scotchmen that the nineteenth century has produced, was also a member of his congregation, and superadded to that the honour and value of his personal friendship. Lord Dalhousie, when he visited Edinburgh, was regularly accustomed to "sit under" him; and strangers, illustrious and obscure, came from far and near to listen to his unique oratory. As a preacher, Dr Guthrie might be regarded as variable and discursive.. Still, his sermons had always this one characteristic, that in them he never lost sight of Christ and the gospel. To this extent, he adopted the Horatian maxim, and 

"Kept one consistent plan from end to end"

although his modes of carrying out that plan were not always the same. His exuberant fancy sometimes carried him away into regions where his hearers could hardly follow him. His figures were alternately full of beauty or of terror, of gracefulness or of sublimity.

"Sometimes fair truth in fiction we disguise,
Sometimes present her naked to men's eyes."

It is a mistake to call him, as some have done, an ad caplandam orator. His oratory wanted none of the polish that distinguished Chalmers' wild whirlwind bursts, or Hall's grandly ascending periods, but it had qualities entirely its own. All at once he emerged from a practical commonplace exordium, and ascended to the highest flights of eloquence with a rapidity and dazzling grandeur that was perfectly electric. A moment more, and the preacher's voice resumed its ordinary tone. The variety of his style concentrated attention on his discourse. No one could go to sleep under him. One of his Boanerges-like bursts of passion was not only an antidote against somnolency, but was sufficient to rouse the deepest slumberer. More, perhaps, than any other preacher of his time, he had the power or knack of fixing truths on the memory. He sent them home as if they had been discharged from a battery, and fixed them there by a process peculiar to himself.

Not a little of his popularity as a preacher has been put down to his manner of delivery; but there was nothing so exceptional in that as to give it any distinguishing features, if we except a habit, that he often indulged, of making a liberal use of his pocket handkerchief, not in the way nor for the purpose appropriate to that useful article, but, as many thought, in the way of an oratorical trick. He was accustomed to throw it out at full length, and then, catching it as one might catch a cricket ball, he would repeat the operation with a little touch of variety. Guthrie needed not such a meretricious aid as this to assist the effect of his oratory. But whether it was an involuntary habit or a deliberate trick, it was done with such perfect naturalness and apparent lack of consciousness, that the action was entirely destitute of vulgarity. Many of our greatest preachers have involuntarily acquired habits in the pulpit equally, it not more singular. We need only refer to Dr Candlish's invariable practice of violently thrusting his lingers through his hair, as if he would tear a handful out by the roots, when in the midst of his peroration, as a parallel instance of the force of habit.

If Dr Guthrie was great in the pulpit, he was not less so on the platform. In his speeches, it has been said, "There is always a flourish of far-resounding laughter, and then a mailed truth steps down upon the stage." No matter what the cause on whose behalf his sympathies were enlisted, he felt it a matter of duty to assist it to the utmost of his power. Besides this, he could more easily indulge in the platform his keen perception of humour, and his quiet satire on the prevailing fashions of the day. But he could also burn with indignation, and utter words that scorched and scathed by their very truthfulness. He was fearless as a lion, while gentle as a lamb. He never hesitated to call a spade by its proper name. He was slow to wink at follies or vices, however fashionable or frivolous, and yet he allowed the utmost liberty of thought, speech, and action, where there was no sacrifice of morality or religious principle.

To sum up the qualities which were developed in the course of his long and distinguished career, it may be said that Dr Guthrie was neither a reasoner nor a scholar, but was simply a powerful public orator, both in the pulpit and on the platform. In both places his style was picturesque, as was his personal appearance. He had an immense command of natural imagery, a large fund of humour, and could produce great effects by an apparently simple pathos. He did great service to whatever cause he espoused.

In society he showed remarkable conversational powers. A genuine Scotchman in feeling and sentiment, he had a great fund of anecdote, chiefly of a national character, and few could tell a quaint Scotch story with better effect. His catholicity of spirit led him to associate with persons of all sects, and he enjoyed tlie friendship of not a few eminent men of the day. As indicating that he was not unknown in the highest quarters, it may be mentioned that on the occasion of the marriage of the Princess Louise he was honoured with an invitation to the wedding ceremony, and was presented to the Queen by her Majesty's express desire.

But it was round the social board and in the domestic circle that the humour, geniality, and strong manly sense of Guthrie were most strikingly displayed. He had a fault common to all great speakers, although in him it became a virtue, that, namely, of practically absorbing, while he only seemed to assist and suggest conversation. He was accustomed to indulge in monologue—another characteristic of men abundantly gifted with a ready utterance. But no matter what the circumstances or the subject might be, Guthrie was always edifying and interesting. If sometimes a little didactic, he never became "stale, flat, or unprofitable;" and his friends paid as much deference to his opinions as did the Literary Club to the ipse dixit of old Dr Johnson. Nor was he unmindful of the claims of others. He had the power of silence as well as of speech. We have referred to his intimacy with Hugh Miller, and one reminiscence of this intimacy may be given here.

It needs not be premised that being what they were, and standing to each other as they did, in the relation of minister and elder, the friendship of the two men was of the closest and warmest kind. Dr M'Cosh has described how he was invited to Dr Guthrie's house for the purpose of meeting Miller at dinner. The two "Doctors" had been walking together on this particular day, and at some distance from the house of rendezvous they saw Miller approaching the door. They ran to overtake him, Dr Guthrie remarking, "If he goes to my house and finds me not in, he will set off," At dinner there were several others present, and Dr M'Cosh tells how "Dr Guthrie restrained his usual flow of mingled manly sense, humour, and pathos, to allow his friend Miller to speak freely."

In personal appearance, Dr Guthrie was tall and robust-looking, though rather loosely built. His style of dress was careless, And in his attitudes, whether in walking or in speaking, there was perhaps more of spontaneous freedom, than of grace.


 


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