Alexander Whyte – A Woefully Inadequate Portrait

By J.P. Thackway

Here is another pen-portrait from Preachers I Have Heard by Alexander Gammie: Alexander Whyte (1836-1921). To avoid any impression of giving approval to the men under review here, we give Gammie’s recollection of Whyte first, and our critique afterwards.

Here, then is Gammie’s portrait of Alexander Whyte.

There has been no preacher in living memory of greater personality, preaching power, and abiding influence than Alexander Whyte, of St. George’s, Edinburgh.

So much has been written about him that it is almost impossible to anything new. But in my gallery of “Preachers I Have Heard” he could never be omitted, and I have at any rate some personal recollections of one of whom it has so often been said, “He was the last of the Puritans.”
From time to time I received letters from him written in his characteristic style. On New Year’s Day, two years before his death, he described himself as “an infirm old man far from home, and for the most part of my time in bed.”

Then he went on to say: “I spent last Sabbath on a book that I read for the first time more than fifty years ago. It is the work of author who has never been out of my hands for all these many years. And as I read that book again the thought was again and again in in my mind that I will now set down for you to pass on. “Let any of your Divinity student readers early discover and select some great author or authors in divinity; let those great authors be to them all their days something like what Athanasius was to Newman, and Augustine to French, and Luther to Bunyan, and Leighton to Coleridge, and Butler to Gladstone, and Foster and Faber to Marcus Dods, and Hooker and Bunyan and Butler Law and Goodwin to myself. And, sir, I do not know that I could send student readers, or indeed any class of readers, a better New Year advice along with the best benedictions of an old and grateful student.”

The last communication I had from Dr. Whyte was written from Hampstead not long before his death. It was a pencilled card – he rivalled Gladstone in the use of post cards – and the writing was more shaky than ever. After thanking me for some article I had written – nothing escaped him, and he was always ready with a word of appreciation and encouragement -he concluded, according to a habit of his, with some lines then running in his mind:

Let not conscience make you linqer,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness Christ requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

Even his appearance in the pulpit was arresting and impressive. “Look at him,” it has been said. “The frame has a lean squareness suggesting muscular power, the hands are almost fleshless, with a bony grip on the sides of the desk, the face has a singular straitness and severity and pale light in it. High straight brow, large hollow eye-sockets, long lines of spare cheek and thin mouth crossing each other, a square chin; all are marked, all convey their hints with startling decision. The eyes lift but seldom, the close lips hardly open, yet after a sentence has passed they set at the corners with finality.”

He was at his best when he was preaching and aflame with passion. Then the whole man became transfigured. He was once described as a thunderstorm, “a two-legged whirlwind,” as Kingsley said of Synesius.

Emphasis has always been laid, and rightly so, on what has been called Dr. Whyte’s “acute and often morbid anatomy of sin.” Once Dr. Whyte and Ralph Connor were walking in the Pass of Killiecrankie and talking of Henry Drummond. Suddenly Whyte stopped and said with a twinkle in his eye, “The trouble with Hen-a-ry is that he doesna ken onything aboot sin.” He himself seemed to revel in revealing the sinfulness of the human heart – his own most of all. The criticism was heard that he was too introspective, too morbid, but it was his deep sense of sin that gave to his preaching of the grace of God a passion and power it might not otherwise have possessed.

As prominent in his preaching was his power to rise on the wings of his sanctified imagination. For long years he carried out his own precept – “Let your imagination sweep up through the whole visible heavens, up to the heaven of heavens. Let her sweep and soar on her shining wing, up past sun, moon, and stars.”

A young man in Edinburgh who came under the spell of Whyte’s preaching writes: “Vividly dramatic at times, he makes you see things that are invisible. In a truly terrific passage he was picturing ‘the hunting hounds of sin’ on the trail of the sinner. ‘Hearken!’ he cried, lifting his eyes from his manuscript and gazing into the corner behind me. ‘Do you not hear? See! Yon long, lank, lean-bellied hound making up on ye.’ For the life of me I could not forbear a quick glance over my shoulder. Great preaching! With a swift change of tone and manner he pictured the sinner’s escape into the “warm, strong, loving arms of the Heavenly Father.’”

Like other famous preachers – and others less famous – Dr. Whyte had his special sermons. One of them was on the Ransom, which, on the testimony of many witnesses, was an unforgettable event in the spiritual life of those who heard it. Sir William Robertson Nicoll, who was present in St. George’s, wrote at the time of the “rare wealth of imagination and emotion” which was poured into that discourse. Scarcely less moving was the prolonged soliloquy of the sermon, “I Was Crucified with Christ,” or the imaginative power of that on “The New Wine of the Kingdom.”

Of Dr. Whyte on the platform, I have one very vivid memory. It was at a great public meeting on the occasion of the jubilee of the ‘59 Revival. There was a congenial atmosphere, and he revelled in his subject. His address was delightful in its reminiscences, and some of the thumb-nail sketches he gave of prominent figures in the movement were inimitable in their pawky humour and their lifelike portraiture.

What could have been more graphic than his picture of “the North Pole and the South Pole, both discovered long ago, when a stately Presbyterian divine, one of the most handsome and best-roomed men in the country, preached in the open air alongside the “Briggate Butcher” of Glasgow, who had a face that might have been hewn with his own meat-axe, minus an eye, which he lost in one the fights of his unregenerate days, and a voice like a bull of Bashan?”

His address, so human in its touch, and surcharged with a depth of emotion and spiritual fervour, swept all before it. He seemed to touch every chord – at one time stern and austere as a Puritan, at another beaming benevolently on his audience, and at still another with flashing eye and sweeping gesture rousing them to a pitch of enthusiasm.

Someone once said of Dr. Whyte that he was “always like a fire on a cold day.” But nothing better was ever said of him than by his fellow-native of Thrums, J.M. Barrie, who wrote: “To know Dr. Whyte was to know what the Covenanters were like in their most splendid hours.”

October 19, 1940

Our critique

Some readers may know Alexander Whyte from his six-volume work entitled Bible Characters. This set contains nearly 150 studies of people in Scripture and is still in print and popular today.

Whyte features in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Ed. J.D. Douglas, 1974) as follows,

Scottish minister, often described as the “last of the Puritans.” Born in Kirriemuir, he was educated at King’s College, Aberdeen, and at the Free Church of Scotland’s New College, Edinburgh. For four years from 1866 he was assistant minister of Free St. John’s Glasgow, then he was called to Edinburgh as colleague and successor to R.S. Candlish at Free St. George’s. During nearly forty years there he established a reputation as a graphic and compelling preacher to an extent probably unparalleled even in a nation of preachers. In 1909 Whyte became principal of New College and taught NT literature there. He was moderator of the Free Church general assembly in 1898 and the author of a number of devotional books.

To read this, one would imagine Alexander Whyte to be orthodox in his beliefs and faithful in serving his generation. What is sadly missing from this entry is any mention of the treacherous mixture this man was. He can seem as sound as any Puritan divine, and yet his friendships and actions betray him a man without discernment, who should know better – and with little concern to “earnestly contend for the faith.”

Whyte’s lifelong friend was the notorious Marcus Dods, featured in the April-June Quarterly. He also admired Cardinal Newman, and attended Roman Catholic Mass while on holiday. He defended the notorious liberal Free Church professor W.R. Robertson Smith at his heresy trial in 1881. Moreover, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the World Missionary Conference, the forerunner of the World Council of Churches. Worst of all, he received the leader of the Baha’is, Abdul Baha Abbas, into his home and allowed him to address a meeting there.

Gammie’s glowing appraisal sanitises the man, his associates, his lack of warning, and his patronage of heretics. It is extraordinary that a man who preached like a puritan could be little better than a liberal. It serves to warn us that lack of discernment and indifference to issues of truth and error can lead to approving what the Lord hates, and betraying the Truth in one’s own generation and for the generations to come.

Rev. William Macleod, of Knightswood Free Church (Continuing), has a perceptive article on Whyte, first published in the Free Church Witness magazine in October 2013. This excellent exposé can also be accessed at

https://banneroftruth.org/uk/resources/articles/2013/alexander-whyte-lessons-learn

It is highly recommended, and is everything that Gammie’s laudatory piece is not. Macleod’s closing paragraph is a summary of what he wrote,

The lack of discernment of Alexander Whyte is shocking and especially from one who had purchased a set of Thomas Goodwin (the Puritan, Works in 12 Volumes) in 1861 and read and reread them making them his constant companions, one who had experienced the 1859-60 revival and had been used of God in it, one who delighted to preach on sin, on Christ and on the atonement. Whyte is a strange mixture and must be read with care. His lack of appreciation of the destructive nature of Higher Criticism, his ecumenicity, his appreciation for the writings of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians, and his confusion of mysticism with holiness and biblical spirituality should leave us very cautious in our handling of his books. But there is surely a warning in all this to us too. Take care of your friends and your books! Those who are your close associates will affect your life and beliefs.

Gammie’s pen-portrait is wholly taken up with the gifts, reputation, outward appearance, and preaching style of Alexander Whyte. As if these go to the making of a man of God and a faithful minister! If they did, the apostle Paul would rank very low indeed. May we see things clearly and rightly in our day. Our time is not one of bedazzling and famous preachers – perhaps this is just as well, since it keeps people from being ensnared as Gammie was with Whyte. Let us pray that the Lord will raise up many more true men of God: thoroughly orthodox, gracious and gifted – and His sent-servants. Moreover, men who will fearlessly preach all the counsel of God, be zealous for its defence, and be an example to the flock of God for all time.

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