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Three other R’s

Scottish evangelicals of the 19th century can teach us about revival, reformation, and reunion

Three other R’s

An 1862 painting titled Dr. Guthrie on a Mission of Mercy by James Edgar (National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

In 2012 Manhattan could boast of 31 developments in which a 2,300-square-foot condo would sell for at least $5 million. Seven fat years later, that number has more than tripled. Some are in parts of the city where neighbors a block away are at least relatively poor, so development owners are creating ways for residents not to have to leave their buildings.

Among the ways, according to a May 21 New York Times article: Owners build in plush film screening rooms and indoor soccer fields, bring in mobile florists and pet portrait makers, and feature classes on blindfolded dancing and dream decoding. It’s the 21st-century version of a change Edinburgh went through in the 19th century.

Let’s back up a bit. During the 17th century and most of the 18th, the rich and poor of Edinburgh lived in close proximity. The ground floors of tenements on narrow, cobbled alleys called “closes” had shops, workshops, and pubs whose owners or renters lived on the floor directly above. Above them (and above the filth and stench of the streets) lived lawyers and doctors. At the very top, in cramped space, were the poor.

Starting in 1767 and escalating into the 1840s, though, Edinburgh in an early form of city planning created New Town, with wide, straight streets and Georgian buildings: That’s where merchants, professionals, and aristocrats lived. As they stopped interacting daily with the poor, out of sight was also out of mind. Today, a 1910 statue of the 1840s Presbyterian pastor who thought deeply about the poor, Thomas Guthrie, is close to the border between Old Edinburgh and New Town. I asked passersby who Guthrie was. None knew. But his efforts changed lives in the 19th century and are a model for 21st-century action as well.

In the 1840s, few pastors had contact with hundreds of ragged children and their often-inebriated parents. In 1845 the Edinburgh jail reported that 740 children under the age of 14 had been in prison during the previous three years. The following year Charles Dickens called children like those “the most miserable and neglected outcasts … a wretched throng, foredoomed to crime and punishment.”


Peter Scholey/Alamy

Thomas Guthrie statue on Princes Street (Peter Scholey/Alamy)

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.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Guthrie at the blackboard of his ragged school in Edinburgh (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

GUTHRIE’S EXPERIENCE HAS MUCH TO TEACH US about setting up schools, but we can learn more than that from him. When I lived in and walked the streets of Manhattan a decade ago, Yogi Berra’s words rang true: “You can observe a lot by just watching.” But increasingly, as in 1840s New Town Edinburgh, out of sight is out of mind, and the luxury housing developments reported by The New York Times are escalating escapism.

Class divisions have been a perpetual problem within the church. Amos and many other prophets thundered on that subject in the Old Testament. James and others did so in the New. The house in Edinburgh where John Knox reputedly died in 1572 displays a plaque featuring the great Reformer’s ardent statement: “In the name of the eternal GOD and of His Son Christ Jesus have respect to your poor brethren, the labourers and manurers of the ground. These have been so oppressed that their living has been dolorous and bitter. Ye must have compassion upon your brethren.”

How to offer effective compassion without enabling un-Biblical behavior has been a perpetual question. The Church of Scotland in 1560, guided by Knox, noted in its First Book of Discipline that every church must provide for the poor, “for foul and horrible it is that the poor are universally so condemned and despised. We are not patrons for stubborn and idle beggars who running from place to place make a craft of their begging, … but God commands his people to be careful for the widow and fatherless, the aged, impotent or lamed, who neither can nor may travail for their substance.”

Churches often were not careful, and many even violated Knox’s imperative within their own buildings. Before the Protestant Reformation, pews were a rarity: They became standard once sermons became central in worship services, and the task of congregants became one of sitting and listening. Many owned their pews the way some sports fans now own season tickets. Some owners even enclosed their seating in pew boxes and locked them. Wealthier church members had seats closer to the front or with good views of the pulpit, and would hand them down to their children.

Thomas Guthrie did not see evangelism and compassion, or truth and love, as dueling entities. He said, “We want a religion that, not dressed for Sundays and walking on stilts, descends into common and everyday life; is friendly, not selfish … generous, not miserly … that loves justice more than gain, and fears God more than man.”

It’s been clear for at least 50 years that the United States desperately needs both Revival and Reformation, a movement toward Christ that influences both hearts and minds. It has also become evident that we need Reunion, the coming together of rich and poor in a way that produces action by hands and feet.


Courtesy of Glasgow City Free Church

Glasgow City Free Church (Courtesy of Glasgow City Free Church)

Glasgow’s finest?

In May I visited six of what one website describes as “the ten best churches in Glasgow.” Three still emphasize Protestant worship of sorts. One is Biblical: Glasgow City Free Church, with lofty stone pillars. Two are liberal: The Church of Scotland’s St. Mungo’s Cathedral, a Gothic edifice with high windows and soaring towers, and St. Mary’s Cathedral, an Anglican church (with a 207-foot-high tower) that “prides itself on being open and inclusive, supporting LGBT rights.”

Two other churches are even more diverse. Queen’s Cross, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Scotland’s most famous architect, has an Art Nouveau look with geometric graphics and stained glass rose and heart windows. It no longer has worship services, but it advertises itself as “a truly unique venue that offers a stunning backdrop for your Wedding Ceremony.” What was the Kelvinside Parish Church, with a soaring campanile tower, cast iron columns, and graceful arches, is now a bar with a back room that seats 160 and offers at 1 p.m. each day “A Play, A Pie & A Pint.”

The one-act play on the day I attended, Toy Plastic Chicken, detailed the travails of a toy-carrying woman whom an ambitious male airport security guard detains. On one level it just made fun of an overwrought man, but the implicit message was that the men next door are more dangerous than terrorists.

The last of my six-church sample, the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel, publishes a “Religion & Belief Guide” that has one page each on eight different faiths (Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Judaism, and Paganism) and two pages on Sikh beliefs. The page on Christianity does not even mention Christ’s death and resurrection, but a glossy brochure offers the chapel as the venue for “First Class Weddings with Distinction.” —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.