I move North of the border to Scotland for my next Puritan classic: William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest. Originally published in 1658, it has gone through more than eighty editions, and been translated into several languages. Our copy, is a Banner of Truth Puritan Paperback reprinted in 1982, (price £1.45!). I hope it doesn’t disintegrate when I start to handle its brittle pages.
Born in 1620, Guthrie was the eldest of five sons of the Laird of Pitforthy in Angus, three of whom went into the ministry. He studied under his cousin, James Guthrie at St. Andrews, receiving his Master of Arts in 1638. James was later martyred for his faith, in 1661, in the persecution that followed the Restoration of Charles II. It was William’s Theology tutor, Samuel Rutherford, (the same one who wrote The Letters, I am reading), who was instrumental in his eventual conversion and call to the ministry. Upon receiving this call, Guthrie signed over his inheritance to a younger brother, so that he could concentrate all his efforts on doing the Lord’s work.
God blessed Guthrie’s ministry in Fenwick, Ayrshire where he laboured from 1644 to 1664, until he was ejected, apart from a brief spell as Chaplain to the Scottish Army in the Civil War. According to one of his contemporaries, and fellow minister, Matthew Crawford, “he was esteemed the greatest practical preacher in Scotland.” When he arrived at Fenwick the locals were ignorant of the gospel, but as this godly man prayed, preached and visited many were converted, and the church was filled with people from far and wide. Despite several calls to go elsewhere as minister of larger parishes, he would not leave his flock at Fenwick until he was forced out. His connection with William Cunningham, Earl of Glencairn, enabled him to remain in his pulpit for several years after Charles II was restored to the throne, but eventually the authorities in the form of the Archbishop of Glasgow, Alexander Burnet, caught up with him, and a date was set for him to be ejected from his beloved parish.
On the Wednesday prior to his suspension, the church observed a day of prayer and fasting and Guthrie preached from Hosea 13:9: “O Israel! Thou hast destroyed thyself.” The following Sunday, he preached his last sermon from the remainder of the text: “but in me is thine help.” By the end, most of the congregation were in tears. At noon, he was seized by twelve soldiers sent by Archbishop Burnet. He stayed for about a year in the manse, but when returning to his ancestral home at Pitforthy, to sort out affairs after the death of his younger brother, he himself fell ill, and died of kidney disease on 10th October 1645, aged only forty-five.
In Guthrie’s address to the reader, he tells us that he felt forced to publish the book after the unauthorised publication of some of his sermon notes on Isaiah 55 the year before. He promises a homely and plain style, and “brevity in everything.” Well, I have to say, knowing what I do about the Puritan brethren thus far, I’m with Victor Meldrew on this: “I don’t believe it!” It is a hopeful sign that the book is only a little over two hundred pages long with nine chapters. However, there do appear to be several sections and some subsections in these chapters, plus two parts to the book, allowing him to sneak in two introductions, so the jury is still out! As it is the only book Guthrie ever published, I will allow him some leeway.
His book has been very influential and much loved down through the ages. John Owen used to carry a copy around with him, and said: “That author I take to have been one of the greatest divines that ever wrote.” Thomas Chalmers, a Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland in the eighteenth century, described it as: “the best book I ever read.” With that kind of recommendation, I think I may be in for a treat.