Thomas Guthrie statue – Edinburgh

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead….As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:14-17,26 NIV) 


“Search Thy Scriptures” James 5:39
Thomas Guthrie Ragged School Edinburgh

At a recent conference on Education in Edinburgh with a focus on establishing independent Christian schools, my CVE colleague, Megan Paterson, referenced the work of Rev. Thomas Guthrie in the city in the mid-nineteenth century. Less than ten minutes walk from where we were meeting, he had begun his second ministry within the Church of Scotland. Guthrie was ardently evangelical with a penchant for Christian activism: he saw no point to lamenting sins and sorrows with words in sermons from pulpits while failing to do anything about them. Seeing the plight of hundreds of children “with worthless, drunken and abandoned parents as their only guardians” turning into career-criminals, and hearing from the Governor of the Edinburgh jail, Mr Smith, “that 740 children under 14 (245 of which were under 10) had been committed to prison in the previous three years,” Guthrie acted.  

               He established a network of so-called ‘Ragged Schools’ across the city. The schools took in children and young people up to the age of 18, keeping them in school for 12 hours a day. They were fed three basic meals a day and the curriculum covered reading, writing, arithmetic, “industrial habits and skills” and Scripture. Guthrie believed strongly that these children could be redeemed. He wrote of them: “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, T., 1847 ‘Seed-Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools: Three Pleas for Ragged Schools’). Find out more at  

               For the Ragged Schools alone, which had an enduring impact, Guthrie deserves attention. But his determination to pair preaching and practice extended to every part of his life and faith. Scotland’s Licensing Laws, for instance, were the outcome of his practical efforts to deal with widespread drunkenness and control the uncontrolled sale of alcohol. In the Great Disruption he led his congregation out of the Church of Scotland and he became a leading light in the Free Church. His personal fund-raising efforts brought in an astonishing £116,000 (roughly equivalent to £11.6 million in today’s terms) in just a year for a Manse Fund for those ministers and families who had lost their homes in the Disruption. Guthrie was a man of deeds as well as words. 

               What are the sins and sorrows we lament with our words today? Two years of COVID and lockdown? A mental health and health care crisis? Systemic inequalities of income and education? The cost-of-living crisis and the ever-expanding demands on Foodbanks? Political polarisation and divisions? Resurgent ‘Right Wing’ philosophies and rising racism? Spreading terrorism and rampant extremism? Guthrie – and the apostle James – might simply ask us, “And what are you going to do about them?” May we pray and preach about these things, but also act upon them.