Who Is William Guthrie?

Tim Brister —  October 12, 2008 — 3 Comments

[Reformation Heritage Books has graciously provided this biographical and reprint essay on the life and works of William Guthrie. You can find this information and others in the book, Meet the Puritans.]

William Guthrie (1620-1665)

William Guthrie was born in 1620 to James Guthrie, Laird of Pitforthy, Angus. He was the eldest of five sons, three of whom would become ministers of the gospel. He studied under his cousin, James Guthrie, at the University of St. Andrews, graduating with a Master of Arts degree in 1638. He stayed in St. Andrews to study theology under Samuel Rutherford, whom God used to call Guthrie both to salvation and to the ministry. Once called, Guthrie decided to give his family inheritance to a younger brother so that he would be free to minister unencumbered by earthly cares. Meanwhile, he remained close friends with his cousin until James died as a martyr at the gallows, one of the first to be executed in the persecution that followed the restoration of Charles II.

Guthrie was licensed to preach by the presbytery of St. Andrews in 1642. For two years he was tutor to Lord Mauchlin, eldest son of the earl of Loudoun, a leading Covenanter. In 1644, he was ordained as minister in Fenwick, an Ayrshire parish that recently had been established as an offshoot of Kilmarnock. Conditions in the parish were dismal. Ignorance abounded. People did not fear God. Many villagers refused to attend church services and would not take time for catechizing or family worship. Nevertheless, Guthrie served diligently as pastor. He even offered half of a crown to a man who preferred hunting birds on the Sabbath if he promised to attend church. The next Lord’s Day, the man came to church. Guthrie promised him the same amount the next week. The man never missed church again. He was converted and later became an elder in the church.

Under Guthrie’s twenty-year ministry in Fenwick, the town received a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. The new church was filled. Hundreds of people became regular attenders, were reborn, and grew in the grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus. Matthew Crawford, who was the minister at Eastwood, said that Guthrie “converted and confirmed many thousand souls, and was esteemed the greatest practical preacher in Scotland” (cited by Matthew Vogan, “William Guthrie,” Free Church Witness [March 2003], p. 4). George Hutcheson, who assisted Guthrie at Communion, said that, if there was a church full of saints on the face of the earth, it was at Fenwick.

Guthrie married Agnes Campbell one year after he settled in Fenwick. Less than a year after he married, he was called to serve as chaplain during the Civil War in the Scottish army. When Guthrie fell seriously ill before his departure, his bride stopped worrying about his safety in the war. She bowed under God’s sovereignty, realizing that her husband was in God’s hands everywhere. Guthrie was preserved through his time in the army and returned to his parish.

Guthrie suffered numerous physical ailments related to stress. He tried to overcome these, in part, through fishing and bird hunting. Even while hunting, he discussed spiritual truths with fellow sportsmen.

Guthrie’s work was marked by zeal and courage. On one occasion, several soldiers who lacked proper credentials approached the Lord’s Table. Guthrie talked to them with such loving gravity that they immediately returned to their seats.

In 1647, a treaty was signed between Charles I and some Scottish nobles, binding the king to a limited support of Presbyterianism in exchange for freedom to return to the throne. Guthrie then joined his cousin James, Samuel Rutherford, and John Livingston, who supported the minority Protestors in opposition to the Resolutioners. In 1654, Guthrie served as moderator of the Protester Synod of Glasgow and Ayr.

Other appointments also came Guthrie’s way. In 1649, he was appointed as a commissioner to visit the University of Glasgow. A few years later, he became one of the Triers to approve ministers and lecturers before they assumed their ecclesiastical positions. By that time he had received pastoral calls to several larger parishes, but he declined them all.

In 1657, a collection of Guthrie’s unedited notes from his sermons on Isaiah 55 were published without his consent as A Clear, Attractive, Warning Beam of Light. In response, Guthrie published those sermons the following year as The Christian’s Great Interest. John Owen was much impressed with these writings. He said Guthrie’s little book contained more divinity than all of his own writings combined. “He is one of the greatest divines that ever wrote,” Owen said.

Because of his connection with William Cunningham, earl of Glencairn, Guthrie was allowed to retain his pulpit for several years following the restoration of Charles II. The archbishop of Glasgow, Alexander Burnet, embarrassed by Guthrie’s refusal to submit to episcopacy and envious of the crowds that attended Guthrie’s services, however, deprived him of his ministry in 1664. On the Wednesday before the Sunday on which the suspension was to take effect, the people of Fenwick observed a day of prayer and fasting. Guthrie preached to them from Hosea 13:9: “O Israel! Thou hast destroyed thyself.” The following Sunday he preached his last sermon on the remainder of the text: “but in me is thine help.” By the end of the sermon, much of the congregation was in tears.

When twelve soldiers seized Guthrie at noon that Sabbath, he said to one, “The Lord may pardon your countenancing this business.” When the soldier responded, “I wish we never do a greater fault,” Guthrie replied, “A little sin may damn a man’s soul” (John Howie, Lives of the Scottish Covenanters, p. 287).

Guthrie lived for about a year in the Fenwick manse. While visiting Pitforthy to settle the family estate due to the death of the brother, he fell very ill and died of kidney disease on October 10, 1665, at age forty-five. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. Four of his children predeceased him.

Most of Guthrie’s unpublished writings were seized and destroyed in 1682 by a soldier searching his widow’s home. A collection of seventeen of his sermons was printed in 1779, then reprinted in 1880 as Sermons Delivered in Times of Persecutions in Scotland.

The Christian’s Great Interest (BTT; 207 pages; 1969).

This book is a classic on assurance of faith. It has been reprinted more than eighty times and has been translated into several languages, including French, German, Dutch, and Gaelic.

Guthrie’s book is divided into two sections. The first part provides numerous biblical tests on how one may know whether or not he is a Christian. Guthrie’s use of “Interest” in the title refers to a legal claim in the covenant that Christ makes with believers. He places us in a courtroom setting to be examined by Scripture to determine whether or not we possess saving grace. After proving that believers may be assured of their salvation, Guthrie examines various ways by which sinners are drawn to Christ. He then focuses on saving faith as a most sure evidence of having a saving interest in Christ. He also distinguishes that faith from the faith of hypocrites. He concludes the first part by explaining why some believers doubt their interest in Christ.

The second part deals with how we might attain a saving interest in Christ. In the second chapter, “What it is to Close with God’s Gospel Plan of Saving Sinners by Christ Jesus, and the Duty of So Doing,” Guthrie reaches the crux of his treatise. This is a helpful chapter for those struggling with the reality of their faith. The next chapter deals with objections one can raise against closing with Christ, such as excessive sinfulness, inability to believe, unfruitfulness, and ignorance. The final chapter describes personal covenanting with God in Christ. The book concludes with a four-page, question-and-answer summary of the work.

Throughout this book, Guthrie distinguishes between the extraordinary and ordinary experiences of the believer. In this he helps sincere believers who have discounted their own salvation because they have been looking for extraordinary experiences upon which to build their salvation rather than relying on a childlike faith that trusts in Christ alone.

This is a wonderful book for people who are searching for spiritual certainty. Thomas Chalmers claimed it was “the best book I ever read.” He added, “It has long been the favorite work of our peasantry in Scotland. One admirable property of this work is that, while it guides, it purifies.”

Other Puritan Profiles in the 08PRC:

* Who Is Sameul Bolton? (September)
* Who Is William Bridge? (July)
* Who Is John Bunyan? (May)
* Who Is Jeremiah Burroughs? (April)
* Who Is Thomas Watson? (March)
* Who Is John Flavel? (February)
* Who Is Richard Sibbes? (January)

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