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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter XIV - Writings and Travels


So much space has been devoted to the labours and opinions of Dr Guthrie, that little room is left for a consideration of his writings. This, however, is less to be regretted, seeing that there are very few in the religious world unacquainted with his works, which have found a prominent place in English literature. As an author, he blossomed somewhat late. His more notable works were written after he had attained his fiftieth year. It was not until then that he permitted himself to enjoy any measure of the otium cum dignitate, without which literary labours can scarcely be carried on with either pleasure or profit. In addition to his "Pleas for Ragged Schools," "Plea for Drunkards," and "The City: its Sins and Sorrows," all of which have already been referred to in a preceding chapter, Dr Guthrie has written "The Gospel in Ezekiel," (Edin., 1856), "Discourses from Colossians," (Edin., 1858), "Speaking to the Heart," (Edin., 1802), "The Way to Life," (Edin., 1862), "Man and the Gospel," (Edin., 1865), "On the Parables," (London, 1866), and a great variety of miscellaneous and able articles for the Sunday Magazine and other publications. Without attempting to analyse his works in detail, we may say generally that they are all permeated by earnest sympathy with the truths of the gospel, that they exhibit a mastery of doctrinal distinction and evangelical truth—that they are eminently practical and devout—and that they are characterized by a liberality and toleration which might be thought by the narrow-minded to border on latitudinarianism.

There is little of the letter that killeth, but much of the spirit that giveth life, but perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of his writings, is their wonderful fertility, beauty, and felicity of illustration. Similes and images occur on almost every page; and these are not the more remarkable for their exquisite beauty, than for their appropriateness, and being the fruit of his own observation and experience as a traveller, as a philanthropist, and as a minister of the gospel. In illustrations borrowed from the sea he is particularly felicitous. But sea, air, wind, and indeed all the forces and features of external nature, are alike amenable to his keen and glowing imagination. His "Gospel in Ezekiel" has been described as "the most remarkable volume of sermons that has appeared since Chalmers' Astronomical Discourses, for general popularity and sustained fluency of composition." It would be difficult to give a better idea of his style than the following extract from this work conveys:—

"One day the door of Egypt's palace is thrown open, and Joseph—a model of beautiful manhood, mind in his eagle eye, strength in his form, majesty in his manner, and on his countenance that lofty look which bespeaks high virtue and integrity—enters, accompanied by his father. The old man's step was slow and feeble; the old man's eyes were dim with age; a few thin silver locks mingled with the snowy beard that flowed down his breast, as he came forward leaning on Joseph's arm, and bending beneath the weight of years. Struck by the contrast, and moved to respect by the patriarch's venerable aspect, Pharaoh accosted him with the question—'How old art thou?' Age naturally awakens our respect. 'Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man.' That beautiful and divine command touches a chord in every heart, and sounds in harmony with the best feelings of our nature; and so a Greek historian tells how in the pure and most virtuous days of the republic, if an old man entered the crowded Assembly, all ranks rose to give room and place to him. Age throws such a character of dignity even over inanimate objects, that the spectator regards them with a sort of awe and veneration. We have stood before the hoary and ivy-mantled ruin of a bygone age with deeper feelings of respect than ever touched us in the marble halls and amid the gilded grandeur of modern palaces; nor did the proudest tree which lifted its umbrageous head and towering form to the skies ever affect us with such strange emotions as an old, withered wasted trunk that, though hollowed by time into a gnarled shell, still showed some green signs of life. Nor, as we lingered beneath the shade of that ancient yew, could we look on such an old tenant of the earth without feelings of veneration, when we thought how it had been bathed by the sun which shone upon the cross of Calvary, and had stood white with hoar-frost that Christmas night on which angels sing the birth of our Saviour King. It is a curious thing to stand alone beside a swathed, dark, dusty mummy, which some traveller has brought from its tomb on the banks of the Nile, and to mark with wonder how the gold leaf still glitters on the nails of the tapering fingers, and the raven hair still clings to the mouldering skull, and how, with the arms peacefully folded on the breast, and the limbs stretched out to their full extent, humanity still retains much of its original form. But when we think how many centuries have marched over that dead one's head—that in this womanly figure, with the metal mirror still beside her, in which she once admired her departed charms, we see, perhaps, the wife of Joseph, perhaps the royal maid who, coming to give her beauty to the pure embraces of the Nile, received the infant Moses in her kind protecting arms—-our wonder changes into a sort of awe. Age, indeed, heightens the grandeur of the grandest objects. The. bald, hoar mountains rise in dignity, the voice of ocean sounds more sublime on her stormy shores, and the starry heavens sparkle with brighter splendour, when we think how old they are—how long it is since that ocean began to roll, or those lamps of night to shine. Yet these—the first star that ever shone, nay, the first angel that ever sang—are but things of yesterday beside this manger, where, couched in straw and wrapped in swaddling clothes, a new-born babe is sleeping. 'Before Abraham was,' or these were, 'I am,' says Jesus. His mother's maker, and his mother's child, he formed the living womb that gave him birth, and, ten thousand ages before that, the dead rock that gave him burial. A child, yet Almighty God,—a son, yet the everlasting Father,—his history carries us back into eternity; and the dignities which he left, those glories which he veiled, how should they lead us to adore his transcendant love, and to kneel the lower at his cross to cry—Jesus! thy love to me is wonderful, passing the love of women; my soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour."

Or take the following equally suberb blend of imagery and every-day experience:—"Ere autumn has tinted the woodlands, or the corn fields are falling to the reaper's song, or hoary hill tops, like grey hairs on an aged head, give warning of winter's approach, I have seen the swallow's brood pruning their feathers, and putting their long wings to the proof and though they might return to their nests in the, window-eaves, or alight again on the house-tops, they darted away in the direction of sunny lands. Thus they showed that they were birds bound for a foreign clime, and that the period of their migration from the scene of their birth was nigh at hand. Grace also has its prognostics. They are infallible as those of nature. So, when the soul, filled with longings to be gone, is often darting away to glory, and, soaring upwards, rises on the wings of faith, till this great world, from her sublime elevation, looks a little thing, God's people know that they have the earnest of the Spirit. These are the pledges of heaven—a sure sign that their 'redemption draweth nigh.' Such devout feelings afford the most blessed evidence that, with Christ by the helm, and 'the wind,' that 'bloweth where it listeth,' in our swelling sails, we are drawing nigh to the land that is afar off; even as the reeds, and leaves, and fruits that float upon the briny waves, as the birds of strange and gorgeous plumage that fly round his ship and alight upon its yards, as the sweet scented odours which the wind wafts out to sea, assure the weary mariner that ere long he shall drop his anchor, and end his voyage in the desired haven.

Such passages might be multiplied to any extent, as they abound in every sermon. They are beautiful in themselves; and still more so, when seen in the framework of their context, and read in the light of the truth they are intended to illustrate. We give the following as fair samples of hundreds more:—"With the Sabbath hills around us, far from the dust and din, the splendour and squalor of the city, we have sat on a rocky bank, to wonder at the varied and rich profusion with which God has clothed the scene. Nature, like Joseph, was dressed in a coat of many colours —lichens, grey, black, and yellow, clad the rock; the glossy ivy, like a child of ambition, had planted its foot on the crag, and, hanging on by a hundred arms, had climbed to its stormy summit; mosses, of hues surpassing all the colours of the loom, spread an elastic carpet round the gushing fountain; the wild thyme lent a bed to the weary, and its perfume to the air; heaths opened their blushing bosoms to the bee; the primrose, like modesty shrinking from observation, looked out from its leafy shade; at the foot of the weathered stone the fern raised its plumes, and on its summit the foxglove rang his beautiful bells; while the birch bent to kiss the stream, as it ran away laughing to hide itself in the lake below, or stretched out her arms to embrace the mountain-ash and evergreen pine. By a very slight exercise of fancy, in such a scene one could see Nature, engaged in her adorations, and hear her singing, 'The earth is full of the glory of God.' 'How manifold are thy works, Lord God Almighty! in wisdom thou hast made them all.'" "When in a sultry summer day the sky gets overcast, and angry clouds gather thick upon its brow, and bush and brake are silent, and, the very cattle, like human beings, draw close together, standing dumb in their untasted pastures, and while there is no ripple on the lake, nor leaf stirring on the tree, all nature seems struck with awe, and stands in trembling expectation, then, when the explosion comes, and a blinding stream of fire leaps from the cloud, and, as if heaven's riven vault were tumbling down upon our head, the thunders crash, peal, roar along the sky, he has neither poetry nor piety, nor sense, who does not reverently bow his head and assent to the words of David, 'The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.'"

"The voice of every storm that, like an angry child, weeps and crys itself asleep—the voice of every shower that has been followed by sunshine—the hoarse voice of ocean breaking in impotent rage against its ancient bounds—the voice of the seasons as they have marched to the music of the spheres of unbroken succession over the earth—the scream of the satyr in Babylon's empty halls—the sons; of the fisherman, who spreads his net on the rocks, and shoots it through the waters where Tyre once sat in the pride of an ocean queen—the fierce shout of the Bedouin as he careers in freedom over his desert sands—the wail and weeping of the wandering Jew B|er the ruins of Zion—in all those. I hear the echo of this voice of God, 'I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.' These words are written on every Hebrew forehead. The Jew bartering his beads with naked savages—bearding the Turk in the capital of Mohammedan power—braving in his furs the rigour of Russian winters—overreaching in China the inhabitants of the. Celestial Empire—in Golconda buying diamonds—in our metropolis of the commercial world standing highest among her merchant princes—the Hebrew everywhere, and yet everywhere without a country; with a religion, but without a temple; with wealth, but without honour; with ancient pedigree, but without ancestral possessions; with no land to fight for, nor altars to defend, nor patrimonial fields to cultivate; with children, and yet no clod sitting under the trees that his grandsire planted; but all floating about over the world like scattered fragments of a wreck upon the bosom of the ocean—he is a living evidence, that what the Lord hath spoken, the Lord will do.

"True to his threatenings, Almighty God will be true to all his promises; and to both we can apply the words of Balaam—'Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor: God is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent. Hath he said, and shall not do it, hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?'"

"What, for instance, were the most tempting banquet to one without appetite, sick, loathing the very sight and smell of food? To a man stone-deaf, what the boldest blast of trumpet, the roll of drums stirring the soldier's soul to deeds of daring valour, or the finest music that ever fell on charmed ear, and seemed to hear the spirit on its waves of sound up to the gates of heaven? Or what, to one stone-blind, a scene to which beauty has lent its charms, and sublimity its grandeur,—the valley clad in a many coloured robe of flowers; the gleaming lake, the flashing cascade, the foaming torrent, the dark climbing forest, the brave trees that cling to the frowning crags, the rocky pinnacles, and, high over all, hoary winter looking down on summer from her throne on the Alps' untrodden snows? Just what heaven would be to man with his ruined nature, his low passions, and his dark guilty conscience. Incapable of appreciating its holy beauties, of enjoying its holy happiness, he would find nothing there to delight his senses. How he would wonder in what its pleasures lay; and, supposing him once there, were there a place of safety out of it, how ho would long to be away, and keep his eye on the gate to watch its opening, and escape as from a doleful prison!"

Few men occupying the same position and rank in life, have been greater travellers in their day than Dr Guthrie. Travelling and angling were his two great resources for health and recreation. The latter predilection he was able to gratify at pleasure, through the kindness of Lord Dalhousie and other influential friends. As for his travels, they extended to nearly every part of the United Kingdom and the Continent. With the length and breadth of Scotland he was as familiar as with his own parlour. The "wilds of Kincardineshire, the grim solitude of Glentilt and Loch Lea, the shores of Angus, the wooded gorges of the burn, the fat, fair valley of the Home o' the Mearns,' and many other Norland regions that are a terra incognita to the majority of travellers, were quite within his ken. As for the Continent, towards the close of his life, he made it a practice to go there nearly every winter. He was frequently appointed by the Free Church as a deputation to foreign churches. He attended the Waldensian Synod at Turin in this capacity. A few years before his death he was appointed to visit the American churches; but after having taken passage on hoard an Atlantic steamer, he became unwell, and abandoned the voyage, to the regret of the church both in Scotland and in America. Many reminiscences of his travels have appeared in the Sunday Magazine, where they have been read with great interest. In 1872, he printed a volume for circulation among his own family and friends, containing recollections of a tour through Italy two years before. Arrangements had been made for his visiting Rome in the winter of 1872-73, with a view of relieving the Rev. Dr Lewis, minister of the Presbyterian Church in the "Eternal City," but dangerous illness overtook him. and rendered the journey impossible.


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