Thomas Guthrie was born on July 12, 1803 to a prosperous merchant and his devout wife. He entered the University of Edinburgh at age 12, devoured the physical sciences, and graduated at 16. He followed his inclinations toward theological studies, and in 1830 assumed the pastorate of a small congregation of farmers and weavers in Arbirlot, Scotland. He started with a rush, forming cottage prayer meetings, Sunday schools, and a parish library. His preaching was relentless, warm, and well received.
After seven years, Guthrie was made minister of Old Gray Friars Church in Edinburgh, then of St. John’s Church in Edinburgh’s slums. He established ministries to the poor, whom he frequently visited, talking with them about their feelings and needs. He continually innovated. His best-known program was the “Ragged Schools” for juvenile delinquents. He fiercely promoted total abstinence, seeing daily the effects of alcohol on the unfortunate. The poor loved him. Yet his outgoing personality, intense passion, and colorful sermons appealed to the higher classes of society, and Guthrie soon became the most popular minister in Scotland.
When his health failed, he turned from pastoring to spend his remaining years editing a Christian magazine. On February 24, 1873, while resting in the arms of his son, he looked up and said, “I am as helpless now in your arms as you were in mine when you were a baby.” With that, he died. His funeral procession wound through a crowd of 30,000 spectators which included 230 children from the original “Ragged School.”
The success of his preaching is best explained in his own words: When I went to Arbirlot I knew pretty well how to speak sermons, but very little about how to compose them; so I set myself vigorously to study how to illustrate the great truths of the gospel, so that there should be no sleepers in the church, no wandering eyes; but everywhere an eager attention. To convert my hearers was not within my power; but to command their attention, to awaken their interest, to touch their feelings and instruct their minds, was—and I determined to do it.
Be pleasant and hold their interest when you speak the message. Choose your words carefully and be ready to give answers to anyone who asks questions. (Colossians 4:6)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). July 12.