by Maureen Bradley
Alexander Whyte was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, in a two-room thatched weaver’s cottage. His mother, Janet Thomson, was unmarried at the time of his birth and did not marry his father, John Whyte. Soon after Alexander’s birth his father left for America and Janet never saw him again. She struggled to support her son working long hours at the loom and in the summer helping local farmers in harvesting. Though from humble origins as far as physical substance, young Alexander was surrounded by people who held religion in high regard. There were four churches in the town representing the four main divisions within the Presbyterian Church. Sunday mornings he went with his mother to the Free Church, in the afternoon to the Relief Church with his grandmother, and in the evening he went to the Auld Licht Church by himself. Thus at an early age Alexander sought God and hoped that one day he would be a minister.
His endeavors to obtain an education were difficult, for his mother rarely had the funds needed to pay his tuition at the elementary school. He did excel in the little schooling he had but at the age of ten was forced to give up his scholastic efforts to work as a herd-boy for a year. He developed a passion for books at an early age and though unable to purchase any, he was able to borrow them.
Janet Thomson sympathized with her son’s desire to be a minister but due to their meager circumstances was unable to see a way to accomplish this. So at the age of thirteen Alexander agreed to be an apprentice to James Ogilvy, a shoemaker. His determination to get an education did not cease in his apprenticeship. He subscribed to a self-educating magazine and paid a young boy to hold up books for him while be made shoes. When he was fifteen he joined three weavers in a study of arithmetic in their spare time. Also contacts with various friends helped him obtain other studies. Learning for Alexander was a part of living.
In the year 1854 when he was eighteen his apprenticeship ended and he was now old enough to become a member of the Free Church. He became a schoolmaster at Padanaram, a single room schoolhouse of nearly fifty students. This was very hard for him for he had to study every evening to keep ahead of his senior pupils. A year later he accepted a position at the Free Church School in Airlie. It was here that the minister of Airlie, David White, took a special interest in Alexander and helped him prepare for a university education by teaching him Latin and Greek. Funding for his university studies was now the problem. He decided to write to his father in America, a request he found very difficult to make. His father was a successful business man in New York and upon receiving this correspondence sent a generous financial gift. In November of 1858 Alexander Whyte’s dream of a university education came true and he enrolled as a first-year student at King’s College. The college library, with its seventy thousand volumes, soon became a favorite of his. He joined the Debating Society and was recognized as an excellent speaker. Most of the extra-curricular activities associated with college life were not a part of his experience, for he found a temporary job teaching factory workers in the evenings. This brought him enough money for food, clothes, and books.
Whyte related his studies in various fields to ethical and religious questions, he never lost his sense of call to the ministry. At this time he also discovered the works of Thomas Goodwin, a Puritan divine, who was a favorite of his throughout his life. He was soon to develop a reputation for being a lover of the Puritans, for he appreciated their emphasis on a need for personal religious experience. He was invited, in 1861, to be a temporary minister for the Woodside Congregational Church, Aberdeen. The congregation wanted him to become their full-time pastor, but he refused because he did not want to give up his studies.
In April, 1862 at the age of 26 he graduated receiving honors in Mental Philosophy and Moral Philosophy. Since he wanted to be a minister in a Free Church, it was necessary for him to study at a theological college. Entering New College, Edinburgh in 1862, he commenced his theological studies with eminent professors such as William Cunningham and Robert Rainy. During his four years at New College he was able to attend and serve under two notable ministers; Dr. Candlish at Free St. George’s and Dr. Moody Stuart at St. Luke’s. He became the assistant to Dr. Stuart, conducting mid-week services and doing much of the pastoral visitation.
Whyte obtained his license as a Probationer in 1866 after delivering a sermon before the Presbytery. He was invited to assist Dr. John Roxburgh in the ministry of Free St. John’s, Glasgow. In the three years he was at Free St. John’s he supervised the Sunday Schools and Bible Classes, was ordained as a full-fledged minister and invited to work with Dr. Roxburgh on equal terms. Humility and prayerfulness were to become hallmarks of Whyte’s ministry. Though known as a fearless preacher, most of those who knew him said he was shy. As is characteristic of many Scotsmen, “the doors of their hearts open only for the coming in of friends, very rarely for the letting out of confidences.”
In 1870 Whyte was asked to be the junior minister of Free St. George’s in Edinburgh. Dr. Candlish, the senior pastor, was growing old and needed help. This quote from the first sermon he preached at Free St. George expresses some of the hopes he had for his ministry there: “Teach you all how to read and use your Bibles wisely and with profit – to read with understanding, and to read often, the deepest parts of them. To press continually the sovereign and uncompromising place of prayer in the Christian life, and in a word to set Christ in his fullness, in his Person, and work, and rule – continually before you.” (Kathy Triggs, Alexander Whyte the Peacemaker, p. 31) And this is what he did as junior minister and then as their senior pastor, upon the death of Dr. Candlish three years later. He was to be a faithful, watchful shepherd to this flock for approximately 50 years.
When he was 45 years old he married the daughter of a distinguished Scotch family, Jane E. Barbour, and seven children grew up around them (one child, George, died in infancy).
In 1909 Whyte was offered the principalship of the New College upon the death of Dr. Marcus Dods. Though at first he refused it, he later became convinced to accept the office and filled the job with memorable distinction.
After suffering a heart attack followed by several minor attacks, Whyte resigned his post and retired to Buckinghamshire. There he devoted the remainder of his life to reading and writing. He died January 6, 1921 in his sleep. Buried in Edinburgh, “his coffin was covered with a purple pall, embroidered with the words from the Book of Revelation, ‘There shall be no night there.’ On his gravestone was inscribed the motto, ‘I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness.'” (Kathy Triggs, Alexander Whyte the Peacemaker, p. 89) Those who had known him said he was a man who was generous in his assessment of others and rejoiced in the success of those he loved more than in his own success.
Many were the theological debates in which Whyte became involved during his years in the ministry. However, he will always be remembered for his preaching for no ruler has held his subjects more captive than Alexander Whyte did from his pulpit. From this throne he ruled the world-wide empire of the mind and the heart of his people.
He was a man of great imagination and an expert at painting word pictures in his sermons. The following example illustrates not only his ability to have his hearers visualize what he said but also his exceptional dramatic power. When preaching on the Rich Young Ruler he, “watched him and made his congregation see him wheeling blindly down the black depths of the inferno, circle after circle, until just as he disappeared on his way down its bottomless abyss, he, who had been bending over the pulpit, watching him with blazing eye, shouted: ‘I hear it! It’s the mocking laughter of the universe, and it’s shouting at him over the edge, “Ha, ha! Kept the commandments!”‘” (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., pp. 300-301)
He took adults and children by the hand and enabled them to step into his sermons by the way he expressed his ideas. The following address to a small meeting of children at St. George’s is an example of this unique talent. “Dr. Whyte read from the Gospels the story of the widow who cast her mite into the treasury, and went on to say: ‘This woman was a washerwoman. She washed the dirty linen of Simon the Pharisee and other Pharisees round about Jerusalem. We shall all see this woman, children, when we get to heaven. The Lord will come in with this woman on His arm, and He’ll say, “Come here, Dr. Whyte; come here Dr. Smith. Do you see this woman here? She has done more than any of you.” And I shall go up to her and say, “Woman, I used to preach about you, down in Edinburgh.” (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., p. 312)
Here is one more illustration of the genius of his imagination. “Many are the sacred memories in Free St. George’s of sermons at Communion seasons when he preached on the Passion of our Lord. It was in a passage on the crown of thorns in one such sermon that he suddenly said with arresting emphasis, ‘I wonder in what sluggard’s garden they grew!'” (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., pp. 303-304)
His compassion for sinners who were indifferent to the gospel message could be heard at the close of many of his sermons as he would cry “What will it be like to be in heaven?” And then add, “Aye, and what will it be not to be there?” (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., p. 30)
Most of the books published by Whyte are simply his sermons in print. In reading these books you will be impressed with the vast extent of his reading. His knowledge of books and their authors can be shown by his continual quoting of them in his sermons. He was a lover of books and you might even say a glutton when it came to the amount of books he consumed. As an intellectual predator he would digest that which was fit to eat with one swift act of comprehension and spew out the rest. Though he read a wide array of books, he fed his intellect most on the Bible; next in line were the Puritans and the Covenanters. This can be confirmed by his series of sermons on Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Shepard, Thomas Goodwin, and the works of John Bunyan.
He was often referred to as a Puritan risen from the dead. The Puritans were known as experts in casuistry (the science of dealing with problems of right and wrong conduct by applying principles drawn from Scriptures) so was this man. Another strength of his ministry lay in his intimate knowledge of God and in his knowledge of human character. As he had his own heart warmed by Christ, so he singed others. He learned about human character from delving deep into the recesses of his own “desperately wicked” heart. Strict self-examination and self-knowledge were a major part of his own life and teaching. What he himself had experienced was a basis for what he then taught others. He related to his people the terrors and the glories at which his own heart had trembled or rejoiced. Nobody ever heard from his lips any cold truth. He was not detached from the truth he preached. His fiercest accusations were always against himself. When he was speaking in a slum where its inhabitants were known for their drinking he astonished his hearers by informing them that he had found out the name of the wickedest man in Edinburgh, and he had come to tell them; and bending forward he whispered: “His name is Alexander Whyte.” (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., p. 316)
He had no use for abstractions of any kind, he spoke no polite generalities. He believed in the Latin phrase, “Generalia non pungunt” – “Generalities do not pierce the deep”
(Barbour, p. 305). How could toothless and timid generalities arouse sorrow for sin or love for Christ? He would break his theme down into particulars point by vivid point. His sermons were reasoned out and made clear, cutting to the bone of sheer reality. While other pulpits of the day disturbed no one’s conscience and feelings were never hurt, at Free St. George Church, pulpit and pew were not content to sleep together in dull apathy holding to a form of godliness though denying its power (II Tim. 3:5). Truth was carried home to each person’s conscience by the depth and preciseness of each sermon.
Alexander Whyte held in high regard the greatness of the pulpit. His advise to those preparing for the ministry was to neglect any part of their work rather than the preparation for their sermons.
One of his congregation once said, “every sermon in Free St. George was a volcano and every opening prayer a revelation.” (G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte D. D., p. 309)
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