Alexander Whyte was born the small Angus town of Kirriemuir, Scotland on January 13, 1836.
His mother never dreamed that her son would one day be acclaimed as “the greatest Scottish preacher of his generation” (Master Preachers, by H. Calkins). He was to become “the most widely respected and influential minister in Scotland. He was elected Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland Assembly, and became principal of New College, Edinburgh” (Biography, by K. Triggs, page 7).
Whyte was born out of wedlock, to Janet Thomson, who struggled to provide for her illegitimate son. Alexander’s father, John Whyte, left for America shortly after the boy’s birth and they never saw him again, although he did pay for Alexander’s university education many years later.
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Janet skimped to get food for her son, and prayed for him. She could not afford his education so young Alexander left school at the age of 10 and worked in a shoemaker’s shop. He had a powerful desire for education and set about gobbling every book he could find, even paying a lad to hold a book for him, so he could read as he worked on people’s shoes.
He began to attend the Presbyterian Church and later wrote… “The first text I ever heard a sermon from was that text in Zechariah, ‘Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?’ ‘It is I, Lord,’ my young heart answered” (Triggs, page 10).
In his village there were four churches, each representing a different division of the Presbyterians. He attended the Free Church with his mother on Sunday mornings, then the Relief Church with his grandmother in the afternoon, and the Auld Licht Church on his own in the evening.
By the age of 26 he had graduated from Aberdeen University … with Honours (!), thanks to funds provided by his father in America in response to his request. Then followed theological training and ordination to the Presbyterian ministry at the age of 30. In 1870 he became assistant minister at Free St John’s Church, Glasgow, and there he continued to exercise a remarkable ministry for the next 50 years.
He married Jane Barbour when he was 45 years of age … and they had 8 children, seven of which survived. In 1892 (at the age of 56) he forsook his earlier Calvinistic doctrines for mysticism … due to a study of William Law’s writings. When his close friend, Robertson Smith, wrote an article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica that denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, Whyte came to his defence in the ensuing heresy trial. And he even befriended Abdul Baha Abbas, leader of the Bahai cult, during his visit to Scotland in 1913 (Triggs, page 83).
“He could not endure controversies with individuals,” wrote W. Robertson Nicholl. And, adds Warren Weirsbe, “He would go to almost any length to build bridges, even if he had to build them on sinking sand … but he was a great preacher and a great soul-winner in spite of his theological excesses” (Walking with the Giants, page 94).
An interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Dr Joseph Bell was a member of Whyte’s congregation … he even treated him in 1909 when the preacher had his first heart attack … and it was this same Joseph Bell who was used as a model for Sherlock Holmes in A. Conan Doyle’s famous books (God & Sherlock Holmes, by Dr W. Wall, page 8).
Whyte’s greatest personal contribution was his sermons, being a passionate and engaging speaker who animated his messages with home-spun, attention grabbing elements. It is said of him that “Nobody ever heard from his lips any cold truth. He was not detached from the truth he preached.”
One of the many examples of his engagement of his audiences comes from a message given in a slum where the populace was famous for their drunkenness. There “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)
The books which Whyte has left us are mostly collections of his engaging sermons.
Dr Whyte died on Wednesday, 5 January, 1921. Earlier that day his wife had asked if there was anything he required. “A draught of life” he replied, so she read to him Psalm Ninety-one (Biography, by G.F. Barbour, page 641).
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com