Alexander Whyte was the greatest preacher of his day in Scotland. Few preachers have done so much to heighten the ideals of the pulpit, and the instruction and inspiration to be derived from his life-story are many-sided. With all his tenderness and humility, his freedom from egoism and self-concern, Whyte stands in the direct line of the Hebrew prophets. The lightnings and thunders of Sinai flash and burst over all his work as he addressed himself to the consciences of his hearers.
He was born at Kirriemuir on January 13, 1836. When only twelve he said to his mother, “I’m going to be a minister.” In his college days he wrote to a friend, “I’m reading like a famished wolf.” After four years as assistant minister in Glasgow he was called in 1870 to become a colleague of Dr. Candlish at Free St. George’s, Edinburgh. In his first sermon he said: “Whatever I am to bring here of strength or endowment or attainment or experience, be they great or small, by God’s grace, I shall consecrate myself to the instant pursuit of the one work of saving myself and them that hear me.”
Three years later Candlish died and Whyte became sole minister. His preaching from the first combined the note of intellectual massiveness with that of spiritual warmth. The moral appeal in his preaching was its outstanding mark. He brought doctrine to bear on the sternest facts of life. He lived in the life of eternity and struck home to the deep places of the conscience.
Dr. James Black, his successor, when asked what special qualities lay behind Whyte’s pulpit work said that he had two virtues that help to explain how his bow abode in strength over such a long a continuous ministry. The first was that he was a glutton for work, which was ordered and planned a long time ahead. He was at his desk, pencil in hand, by eight o’clock on Monday morning, and his work was so planned that Saturday was practically a free day. He could forgive any sin in the ministry but laziness.
He was a student until the day he died. He read widely and always made notes as he read. Whyte’s second virtue was that in everything he tried to do he was content to be himself. He used to the full every gift God had given him. He put every ounce of strength into every effort. He used his imagination in dealing with Bible characters until he ended by thinking in pictures.
Roberston Nicoll, in a memorial tribute to Whyte, said: “What struck the listener first was his intense earnestness. There was fire in him. At his best his sermons were wonderful for their pure, true, genuine eloquence. They made a mighty impression. He had an absorbing belief in the power of the pulpit. He failed in no activity but the pulpit was his throne.”
Whyte himself said: “The pulpit is a jealous mistress and will not brook a divided allegiance.” Morning, noon and night, his Bible was in his hands. The morning hours were sacred to study. After lunch he went out on his pastoral rounds; he once said to a younger minister he could not preach under a thousand visits a year. The evenings were spent at meetings or in the study. His was a life unhasting, unresting and as one said of him, “his industry was more than half his genius.”
We learn a good deal about his methods of sermon preparation from his autobiography, entitled “In Study and Pulpit.” He was a systematic note-taker, mainly because of his defective memory. A small notebook was always in his pocket to capture and preserve ideas which came at unexpected times. But this was only an extension of the central instrument of his study, the interleaved Bible, the pages of which became densely crowded with references.
In sending an interleaved study Bible to his nephew, Hubert L. Simpson, who was preparing for the ministry, he wrote: “I have used such a Bible ever since I was at your stage of study and the use it has been to me is past all telling. For more than forty years, never a week, scarcely a day, has passed, that I have not entered some notes in it. I never read anything that sheds light on any passage of Scripture that I do not set the reference down in my Bible over against the passage it illustrates. As time has gone on, my Bible has become filled with illustrative and suggestive matter of my own collecting, and therefore sure to be helpful to me in my work.”
Whyte was little troubled by the search for ideas — he once said that he had more ideas than he knew what to do with — but he took infinite pains to find the most arresting way to express them. He writes to a friend on Friday afternoon that he is resolved to tear up the second draft of his sermon for Sunday and adds, “This will nail me down to my desk all day tomorrow.” When he was in his seventieth year he said in a letter to one of his children: “I wrote my last forenoon sermon three times.”
“A good style, especially in sacred composition, is one of the purest delectations of my life,” Whyte wrote. He always kept a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases on his desk and only by long and severe effort did he attain “that happy daring in the use of words” which marked his style in later years. He made Newman his model in the care which he lavished on the writing of his sermons.
Whyte laid great stress on delivery as well as style. Writing to one of his assistants who was about to be ordained, he urged him to throw all that he was into his delivery of the sermon, since the matter was dead without delivery. His biographer, speaking of Whyte’s delivery, says: “How great was its range. How the devoutness of his nature found expression in it. How the first words of the service carried with them the sense of the very presence of God. How it fell in contrition or warning, and rose and swelled and thrilled in the urgency of appeal. How fitting an instrument it was for the presentation of his message.”
When preaching to small gatherings Whyte dispensed with a manuscript and spoke out of the fullness of his heart. But in his own pulpit he used his manuscript, fearing that if he spoke extempore every Sunday his preaching would lose substance and grasp. Once after a solemn New Year’s sermon a member of the church went to thank the minister. He ended with the words: “It went to my heart as if you had come straight from the audience-chamber.” “Perhaps I did” was the reply.
Whyte’s preaching was personal, ethical, inward and it dealt but sparingly with speculation or social problems. His strength lay in his union of a spiritual imagination with a deep and searching knowledge of human character. In a sermon on the life story of Hosea he begins with these words: “The Bible was not easily written. The Bible cannot be easily preached.”
There was much that was somber in his view of the Christian life. “Some people,” he said, “talk of getting out of the miserable 7th chapter of Romans. You will never get out of it while I’m your minister.” But he emerged from it himself at times. When he resigned his pastorate to Dr. John Kelman, the latter said of him: “He has been the most scalding prophet of sin in our generation and the tenderest friend of sinners.” One of his elders said of him: “No preacher has so often or so completely dashed me to the ground as has Dr. Whyte, but no man has so tenderly picked me up and set me on my feet again.”
His own consciousness of sin gave poignancy to his preaching. Addressing an audience of the poor, he said that he had found out the name of the wickedest man in Edinburgh. “His name is Alexander Whyte.”
The secret of his power lay in the fact that he told people the awful truth about themselves, probing to the very depths of the human heart. He made them face the fact of sin, its reality and hideousness, and follow its course to its wages in death. He did this not only by his rich use of the realism of poetry and fiction and biography but out of his own experience of its temptations.
Yet the total effect of such preaching was not depressing. It was full of encouragement because the vision of sin was never far removed from the vision of grace.
John Kelman tells how he tried one Sunday to preach a sermon in Whyte’s style, but afterwards in the vestry Whyte said to him, “Deliver your own message.” Some people might not like Whyte’s message or his style but that did not worry him. A minister tells how once, when he was a student, he heard Whyte preach from a character in the Old Testament, and commented: “I disagreed with everything he said, his exegesis, his interpretation and his application, but nonetheless he made me shiver down the back.”
During his lifetime Whyte published none of his Sunday morning sermons, though his series of character studies from the Bible and Bunyan given as evening lectures were widely known. After his death two volumes of the morning sermons were issued. One is a series of sermons on prayer, 23 in all, entitled Lord, Teach Us to Pray. The words of that title were combined with some other text to exhibit various aspects of the life of prayer. His soaring imagination, his strong dramatic instinct, and his experimental knowledge of the spiritual life are all exemplified in these sermons.
The other volume of his morning sermons is With Mercy and With Judgment. No sermon he ever preached was far from that twofold theme. Among the 22 sermons in this book are some Communion messages, including the sermon on the Ransom which was an unforgettable event in the spiritual life of those who heard it.
A special interest attaches to the two final sermons of his long ministry — that on “the swelling of Jordan,” which was the last he was able to preach on March 11, 1917 and that on “The Hebrew child’s question,” which was prepared for a Communion service but which he was unable to deliver.
“All experience shows,” says James Denny, “that the Gospel wins by its magnitude, and that the true method for the evangelist is to put the great things in the forefront.” That was Whyte’s say, as a glance at any of his more than twenty volumes will show. In writing to a minister friend he says: “Somehow a great Gospel text is always the most difficult text for me to preach on, so as to make it fresh and interesting. But difficult or easy, I must preach more on such texts, and so must you. It is for such texts, above all else, that we have our pulpits committed to us.”
Whyte laid great stress on the use of imagination in preaching. It was there, as his biographer says, that his strength lay. He had little historic sense. He was a seer and a mystic, whose mind moved habitually on the imaginative level. He let his imagination pierce through and through the subjects or characters on which he preached. It was by no accident that two-thirds of the volumes of sermons that bore his name contain in their title the word Character.
He never forgot that preaching is meant to do something. All the preacher’s gifts — of imagination, of learning, of teaching, of oratory-are to be directed to this end, that he may convince and convert. To fail in this is to leave his task unfinished.
So in his sermons there were stings and hooks in the word that could not be shaken off. At one time he would rake the conscience with a fire of questions: “Did you ever deny a friend? Did you ever sit still and hear a friend of yours slandered, witnessed against by hired witnesses and condemned?” Or he would turn upon his hearers with a sudden, stabbing sword-thrust, as when reciting the details of the Crucifixion: “and when they had platted a crown of thorns,” he broke in with, “I wonder in what sluggard’s garden it grew?” “What will it be to be there,” he cried at the close of a rapturous passage on the bliss of the redeemed; and then suddenly and solemnly, “And what will it be not to be there?”
In 1909, at an age when many would have thought of retiring, Whyte became Principal of New College, Edinburgh. He was singularly successful in gaining the affection and confidence of his students and in relating the life of the college to that of the church. In 1917 he resigned, and died in his sleep on January 6, 1921. In the closing years his life became a pilgrimage from one Communion season to another. Barbour says of him: “He was living steadily in the passion of his Lord.”
This study of one who has been called the last of the Puritans may fitly end with some words from a letter which Dr. Whyte wrote to a Methodist minister who had written to ask his advice: “Never think of giving up preaching. The angels around the throne envy you your great work. You say you scarcely know how or what to preach. Look into your own sinful heart, and back into your sinful life, and around on the world full of sin, and open your New Testament and make application of Christ to yourself and your people and you will preach more freshly and more powerfully every day.”

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