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Life of the Rev. Thomas Guthrie D.D.
Chapter IV - Settlement at Arbirlot and Marriage

The ministerial charge of Arbirlot becoming vacant by the sudden death of the incumbent, Mr Watson, the presentation was given to Mr Guthrie by the Crown, through the influence of Lord Panmure, the only heritor in the parish. The settlement took place in 1830, and, on the whole, was as agreeable to the Congregation as to the presentee himself. Once in harness, the Dr did not allow the grass to grow beneath his feet, but began his life's work in good earnest.

Arbirlot is a small parish in the county and on the sea coast of Forfarshire. It was a purely rural parish, and during his ministry had this remarkable peculiarity, that there was only one person, a kind of freethinker, who did not attend the parish church. The population at the time of Dr Guthrie's settlement was exactly 1000, and altogether agricultural. The whole parish is the property of Lord Panmure. The stipend paid to the parish minister in Dr Guthrie's time was 184 4s. 5d., with the addition of a manse, a garden, and a glebe of four acres. Some years after his settlement a new parish church was built, having accommodation for 639 worshippers. There was no dissent in the parish, no opposition, no controversy; and with no special requirements of any kind to stimulate the young minister's efforts, he might have settled down into a quiet, easygoing country parson, whose memory would have perished with himself, but for the exciting and eventful times upon which he fell, and his noble determination to consecrate his whole powers to the service of God and humanity.

The turning point of Dr Guthrie's career as a preacher was reached during his ministry at Arbirlot. It happened in this wise. He found that the agricultural class (of which his congregation was almost entirely made up) was not easily awakened or impressed by the ordinary pulpit ministrations. He had thundered in their ears the terrors of Mount Sinai; he had sounded the Gospel trumpet with a blast loud enough to rouse the dead; he had implored, threatened, and almost scolded them: but nothing seemed permanently to arrest their attention—they went to sleep under his most fervent and heart-stirring appeals. One Sabbath, however, he happened to introduce an interesting anecdote; and he observed that its effect was electric— even the most somnolent of his congregation woke up and listened with attention while he proceeded to "point the moral." The service over, he informed his wife that he had discovered the way to keep his congregation awake; and from that time forward he missed no opportunity of illustrating his discourse either with an appropriate story, or an equally effective and apropos effort of the imagination. He had another way of finding out what was most adapted to his audience. It was his habit to go over his sermons with a class of young people; and from their answers he easily gathered what parts of his sermons they understood and felt, and what parts, on the other hand, they had little interest in. By all these lessons he sagaciously profited in his after preparations.

His ministry roused the people of Arbirlot out of the profound sleep in which they had been permitted to indulge, and was accompanied by a measure of spiritual blessing. His fame began to spread, and was considerably increased by a public lecture which he delivered at Arbroath in opposition to Voluntaryism. The attention of the metropolis was turned upon him; and the late Alexander M. Dunlop went to Arbirlot to hear him preach, and carried hack to Edinburgh the report of his great powers in the pulpit.

It is worthy of mention that during his ministry at Arbirlot, Dr Guthrie was prostrated by a very serious attack of fever. For many days his life hung in the balance; and night after night his friends watched him with hardly a shadow of hope that he would see the morning. Had he not had a frame of great vigour he could not have survived the attack; but through God's mercy his life was preserved for the valuable and important services which it was his great privilege to render both to the church and to the world.

Besides the faithful discharge of his ordinary parochial duties, Dr Guthrie, while at Arbirlot, gave himself, as occasion offered, to the general work of the church. It was at this time that Dr Chalmers set on foot his great scheme of Church Extension. In that enterprise Dr Guthrie took a warm interest, and both by sympathy and personal effort did much to promote its success. He looked upon Dr Chalmers' idea of planting 200 new churches in the most destitute localities of the land as a grand conception, and this, in all probability, was the first application of that powerful magnetism which afterwards drew him so closely to the first moderator of the Free Church.

White at Arbirlot, Dr Guthrie had scope and verge enough for cultivating his love of angling, and from the waters of the Elliott, which runs through the parish, and which had long been noted for trouts of a peculiar relish, he landed many a fine basketful. Fault-finders are a numerous class, and Dr Guthrie was not without his detractors. He was charged with cruelty to animals, and the malignant accusation as founded on his predilection for the sport which Isaac Walton has made classic. The accusation was scarcely worth heeding, but after a lecture by Mr Gamgefl on cruelty to animals, the Dr referred to it in the following terms :—

"In my view, the man or the woman who inflicts cruelty either upon their children, or the brute creatures, sins against the light of reason as well as against the law of God. Hogarth, the great portrait painter, painted some pictures representing the progress of cruelty. He began with a boy torturing cats, and ended by showing him at the gallows for murder. I warn parents against allowing their children to kill flies, or to inflict needless pain on any creature. It is quite consistent with my profession that I should come forward to take a part in such a meeting as this, but some of my friends, who remember a picture in the Exhibition, in which I am represented as fishing in a boat, may be inclined to ask whether I practise what I preach. Now, I believe I have derived health both in body and mind from angling; but if I really thought I was inflicting cruelty on fishes by so doing, I would not have engaged in that amusement. But one day, when I was fishing along with my son, I caught a trout of which I happened to make a post-mortem examination, and in its belly I found a rusty hook and a piece of gut, which must have remained there for weeks or months. It is quite clear that the fish could not have felt any pain from that hook, otherwise it would not have seized so readily on mine. In fact, the trout was evidently in the most comfortable circumstances in the world. People think that when a fish is taken out of the water, and when they see it walloping its tail about, that it is suffering great pain: but the fact is, that after the fish is dead, the tail wallops for a good while."

Very shortly after his settlement at Arbirlot, Dr Guthrie married Ann Burns, daughter of the Rev. James Burns, minister of Brechin. For this young lady he had long cherished a sincere attachment, and only delayed the consummation of their union until he was settled in a regular ministerial charge. Mrs Guthrie, belongs to a family that has lipped both the Established and the Free Churches with some of their most eminent ministers. She was a niece of Dr Burns of Corstorphine, who had several brothers no less popular ministers than himself; and she was also related to the late Professor Islay Burns, of the Glasgow Free Church College. This may perhaps be the most fitting opportunity to put on record the fact that, throughout his whole married life, Dr Guthrie enjoyed an exceptional degree of conjugal felicity. All his plans and efforts were heartily supported by his amiable wife, from whom also he received needed encouragement in times of doubt, difficulty, and danger.

"She was but words are wanting to say what;
Say what a Christian should be—she was that."


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