Essay / Theology

Thomas Guthrie and the Ragged Schools

Thomas Guthrie, born this day (July 12) in 1803, is without a doubt one of the greatest preachers on the topic of social justice in the history of evangelicalism.

Guthrie led the movement to establish free schools for the poor in Scotland in the nineteenth century –Ragged Schools, as they were called. As an activist, lobbyist, and education reformer, Guthrie accomplished much for the urban poor in Scotland, and helped to rouse the conscience of the industrializing world at a strategic time. H.O.Old has recently called Thomas Guthrie “the Charles Dickens of the pulpit,” and it is true that nobody can read Guthrie’s descriptions of urban poverty without hearing the Dickensian tone. But that may be tracing the influence the wrong direction: Dickens was deeply moved by visits to the established Ragged Schools, and Guthrie’s first published “Plea for Ragged Schools” made an impact on the novelist.

What makes Guthrie so exemplary for evangelical social action preaching is that he achieves such great persuasive power, moving his readers to go out and engage in carefully planned good works, without ever lapsing into the later liberal error of feeling that he has to de-emphasize doctrine, especially the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.

Guthrie wrote many books, and nearly all of them are now available online. See for yourself what he achieves.

“It makes one sick to hear men sing the praises of the fine education of our prisons. How much better and holier were it to tell us of an education that would save the necessity of a prison school! I like well to see the life-boat, with her brave and devoted crew; but with far more pleasure, from the window of my old country manse, I used to look out at the Bell Rock Tower, standing erect amid the stormy waters, where, in the mists of day, the bell was rung, and in the darkness of the night the light was kindled; and thereby the mariners were not saved from the wreck, but saved from being wrecked at all.” From A Plea for the Ragged Schools, or, Prevention Better than Cure, 1847.

“The Christian power that has moved a sluggish world on, the Christian benevolence and energy that have changed the face of society the Christian zeal that has gone forth, burning to win nations and kingdoms for Jesus, have, in most instances, been born and nursed in cities.” From The City: Its Sins and Sorrows, 1857.

“It is true that a man may impart light to others who does not himself see the light. It is true that like a concave speculum cut from a block of ice, which, concentrating the rays of the sun kindles touchwood or gunpowder, a preacher may kindle fire in others, when his own heart is cold as frost. It is also true that he may stand like a finger post on a road, where he neither leads nor follows; and God may thus in his sovereign mercy bless others by one who is himself unblessed. Yet commonly it happens, that it is what comes from the heart of preachers that reaches the heart of hearers. Like a ball red hot from the cannon’s mouth, he must burn himself who would set others on fire.” From The Gospel in Ezekiel, 1857.

“This doctrine, that God saves men for his own glory, is a grand and very precious truth; yet there is a way of stating it which seems as offensive as it is unscriptural. Concave mirrors magnify the features nearest to them into undue and monstrous size; and in common mirrors, ill cast and of uneven surface, the most beautiful face is distorted into deformity. And as if their minds were of such a cast and character, there are some good men who, not exhibiting Bible truth in its proper harmony and proportions, represent Jesus Christ in this matter of salvation as affected by no motive whatever but a regard to his Father’s glory, and even God himself as moved only by respect to his own. Excluding from their view the commiseration and love of God, or reducing these into very shrunk dimensions, they magnify one doctrine at the expense of another, and, indeed, go to sever some of the most sacred and tender ties which bind a believer to his God. Now, it appears to us that this ill- proportioned theology –the doctrine that the only motive in redemption was a regard to God’s glory– receives no countenance from the Bible. Does not God “pity us, as a father pitieth his children?”” From The Gospel in Ezekiel, 1857.

“We cannot shake off the presence of God; and when doors are shut, and curtains drawn, and all is still, and darkest night fills our chamber, and we are left alone to the companionship of our thoughts, it might keep them pure and holy to say, as if we saw two shining eyes looking on us out of the darkness, “Thou, God, seest me.” The world called him mad who imagined that he saw God’s eye looking on him out of every star of the sky, and every flower of the earth, and every leaf of the forest, from the ground he trod upon, from the walls of his lonely chamber ,and out of the gloomy depths of night. Mad! It was a blessed and holy fancy.” from Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints, 1859.

“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 transcendent love, and to kneel the lower at his cross…” from Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints, 1859.

“God’s costly gift to me, the free gift of His dear Son, both opens my hand, and warms my heart. Melted by His love and mercy, my icy selfishness gives way; and like a lake loosened from its wintry chains, my bounty flows freely out to others. His generosity begets my own. As in His light I see light, in His love I feel love.” From Man and the Gospel, 1865.

Nevertheless the motto of a Christian is Nil desperandum – I despair of nothing. With resources to draw on which the world knows nothing, if our faith is in any degree commensurate with God’s faithfulness, we may address ourselves to duties the most difficult, saying “Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.” In this the believer is no fanatic, or fool; no builder of castles in the air. He knows in whom he has believed; and what in others were the highest presumption is in him a solid, well-founded trust. With God nothing is impossible; nor impossible with one who, responding to a divine call, holds God’s Word in his hand, and feels God himself at his back. It may be held an axiom of the Christian faith that everything commanded is come-at-able… From Our Father’s Business, 1867.

“Our tendency to run into extremes finds no less striking and more sad illustrations in the doctrinal positions which good men have allowed themselves to be driven into by the violence of controversy and the natural recoil from error. In their zeal to put down one error they have often fallen into another…” From Our Father’s Business, 1867.

“Now, though seeing in our best works much to make us blush and nothing whatever, since it is by grace we are what we are, to make us vain, I venture to say that good works, by which I mean works done for the glory of the Father, from love to the Son, and by the aid of the Holy Spirit, deserve a more respectful treatment. It is the exaggeration of a right feeling, and a false humility which casts them into the same heap with our sins. Our trust for pardon and acceptance should rest entirely in the blood of Christ; yet the works which have pleased our heavenly Father and profited our fellow creatures, are to be recalled with thankfulness on a dying bed. Fruits of the Spirit, which glorify not us, but Him through whose grace they have been wrought, they are clear and comfortable evidence of our being the children of God.” From Our Father’s Business, 1867.

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