Dickens’ florid description shows how such children in London and Edinburgh appeared to the middle class: “ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn … perfectly confounded and perverted in their minds … creatures steeped in degradation … young thieves and beggars—with nothing natural to youth about them: with nothing frank, ingenuous, or pleasant in their faces; low-browed, vicious, cunning, wicked; abandoned of all help but this; speeding downward to destruction; and unutterably ignorant.”
Guthrie’s view of “street urchins” differed from Dickens’. Guthrie wrote, “Bedded in their dark and dismal abodes, precious stones lie there, which only wait to be dug out and polished, to shine, first on the earth, and hereafter and forever in a Redeemer’s crown.” Guthrie wasn’t rosy-eyed about children who sometimes survived by stealing and prostituting themselves. But he wasn’t angry with them: He was angry with ladies in silk and gentlemen in broadcloth who carried Bibles to church and prayer meetings but ignored wretches in the gutter.
Andrew Murray, an Edinburgh charity leader who has amply researched Guthrie, says his subject’s statue on Princes Street “epitomises what many of us in the Christian church are seeking to achieve. With a Bible in one hand and his other hand resting protectively on a ‘ragged child,’ Guthrie’s life combined the two great priorities of the church—truth and love.”
“Long Tom” Guthrie was an impressive 6-foot-4, but his early career didn’t impress anyone: He spent nearly 10 years at university and seminary studies, and then five more without obtaining a church position. That hard experience turned out to be a blessing, because he learned about science, banking, and other fields. Guthrie later argued that pastors were more effective when they were “less shut up in their own shells, and had more common sense and knowledge of the world.”
As Murray notes, Guthrie combined Reformed theology with an accessible style—although in keeping with 19th-century practice his sentences were sometimes longer and more flowery than we’d prefer today. Guthrie described how he “studied the style of the addresses which the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry disquisitions or a naked statement of truths, [their statements] abounded in metaphors, figures, and illustrations.”
Wherever Guthrie served, he established savings banks and libraries for his congregation, helping members but also “bringing me into familiar and frequent and kindly contact with my people.” Guthrie thought pastors should live among those they served: “The further the people are removed from the manse, the less influence has the minister over them: and if a man won’t live [in central Edinburgh] I would at once say to him ‘You can’t be my minister.’”
Guthrie created and helped to finance “ragged schools” for the benefit of children growing up wild. He was realistic about how much those children had to learn: The schools typically lasted 12 hours a day in the summer and 11 in the winter.
Guthrie opened up his first ragged school in 1847 in a building still standing on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill. Above the door is an open Bible with the words from John 5:39, “Search the Scriptures.” Its mission statement was straightforward: “To give the children an allowance of food for their daily support. To instruct them in reading, writing, and arithmetic. To train them in habits of industry, by instructing and employing them daily in such sorts of work as are suited to their years.” Students learned a vocation, such as carpentry or sewing.
Guthrie’s last goal was the most important: “To teach them the truths of the Gospel, making the Holy Scriptures the groundwork of instruction.” Andrew Murray says, “He believed that the Christian gospel could save anyone and transform any community. While many Christians saw homeless and ragged children as burdens or a nuisance, Guthrie saw in these street children the potential for moral and spiritual change.” And children did change. The number of under-14s in Edinburgh’s prison population dropped from 315 in 1847 to 56 in 1851.
Guthrie was realistic about expenses: He told financial supporters that students would have breakfasts “of the plainest fare [and dinners] of the cheapest kind.” The short book he published in 1847, A Plea for Ragged Schools, had a “pay me now or pay me later” subtitle: Prevention Better Than Cure. But he also understood that children who had grown up unloved needed hugs, not more horror: “Hard words and harder blows are thrown away here. With these alas they are too familiar at home.”
Guthrie’s experiment was so successful in changing lives that secular educators and politicians decided to universalize it by creating schools for all and mandating attendance. That approach worked well as long as Scottish culture was largely Christian.