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Alexander Whyte: Lessons to Learn

Category Articles
Date October 29, 2013

What do we make of Alexander Whyte? His books, unlike those of many of his liberal contemporaries, are still in print and are popular with Christians all over the world. Christian Focus publish his famous Bible Characters. Other books of his in print include: Lord Teach Us to Pray, Samuel Rutherford and some of his correspondents, Bunyan Characters and An Exposition of the Shorter Catechism. He was a prolific writer and was widely regarded as the greatest Scottish preacher of his day. And yet there is something troubling about him. And it is to be found in his books.

I first heard of Alexander Whyte from my childhood minister in Stornoway, the Rev Kenneth MacRae. He warned us against using Whyte’s Exposition of the Shorter Catechism which provides what is in many ways a helpful explanation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I have used it myself along with other books in preaching through the Catechism. Recently I read The Life of Alexander Whyte by G F Barbour which was first published in 1923 shortly after Whyte’s death. To me it was a fascinating and yet shocking and disturbing book. There was so much that was good in the life of Whyte but at the same time there was so much confusion, lack of discernment and dangerous false teaching. It now became clear why Whyte repeatedly and approvingly quoted liberal and Roman Catholic writers in his Exposition of the Shorter Catechism.

Whyte’s long active life (1836-1921) spans the second half of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. It was a time of great change, tremendous confidence in man’s intellectual and technological abilities, and optimism in the advance of civilization and the church within it. This was the period when the theory of Evolution was published and became popular and when the Higher Critics undermined the authority of Scripture within the mainline churches and yet evangelicals like Whyte seemed totally unconcerned. It was also the time of the rise again in this country of the Roman Catholic Church following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. The Tractarians or Oxford Movement within the Church of England developed into Anglo-Catholicism. In 1845 their great leader John Henry Newman converted to the Church of Rome. And then there was the beginning of the Ecumenical Movement with the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 which is universally regarded as the beginning of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Whyte’s Life is interesting from the perspective that it gives on the changes taking place at that time in the church and society, in Scotland and beyond.

Youth and Training

Whyte was born in Kirriemuir to a single mother, Janet Thomson. Though his father John Whyte wished to marry Janet she refused, feeling that two wrongs wouldn’t make a right, and he then left for America where he married and spent his life. Janet had to work hard to bring up her son and he grew up in relative poverty with few advantages. She appears to have become a devout Christian and adhered to the Free Church in 1843. In his student days Alexander made contact with his father and received some financial help. They met up and later John Whyte’s only daughter Elizabeth came to keep house for Alexander who was a bachelor in his first charge. She married one of his ministerial colleagues, Rev Thomas Macadam.

Alexander at the age of twelve, to please his mother, began to serve his trade as a cobbler. However from an early age he had felt that his calling was to be a preacher and no sooner had he trained as a cobbler than he sought means to enter Aberdeen University. He had a great love for books and learning. While employed in shoemaking he would have a book open on the bench in front of him. Having completed his arts training he went to New College in Edinburgh and graduated in 1866. He became an assistant to Dr John Roxburgh and shortly afterwards was ordained a colleague. In 1870 he was called to be colleague to Dr Robert S Candlish in Free St George’s, Edinburgh.

Minister of Free St George’s

Candlish was already suffering from ill-health and passed away in 1873. His deathbed is fascinating. He had been very keen on hymns and eventually got them introduced to Free St George’s. Interestingly on his deathbed he said to Whyte, ‘Oh, man! I wish I had learned all the Psalms by heart’. God’s words were the real comfort not the words of man. Whyte describes the final scene:

The dying Principal sent for me to bid me farewell, and I found Dr Rainy already at Dr Candlish’s bedside. I had no sooner entered the room than the dying man put out his hand to me and said: ‘Good-bye. I had hoped to be spared to help you a little longer but it was not to be. Good-bye’. Then he motioned to Dr Rainy to kneel down at his bedside, when he threw his withered arms around Rainy’s neck and kissed him and said: ‘I leave the congregation to Whyte and I leave the New College and the Assembly to you’.

Rainy shared Candlish’s desire for the union of the Free Church with the United Presbyterian Church and he was the leader in accomplishing this after having watered down the Confession of Faith by the notorious Declaratory Act of 1892.

So at the age of 34 Whyte found himself sole minister in charge of possibly the most influential congregation in the Free Church. His congregation had over 1000 members amongst whom were to be found many professors, doctors, lawyers and scientists. For years he held a young men’s class on Sabbath evening after church which was attended by 500 students and young professionals and a similar meeting for around 500 young women on a Wednesday afternoon. He was in constant demand as a preacher and became Principal of New College, the most prestigious of the divinity colleges of the Free Church (by then the United Free Church), in 1909 and continued in that position until 1918. So here was a man in an ideal situation from which to be a huge influence for good in the Free Church and later in the United Free Church, but sadly the Church he left behind when he died was rapidly becoming more and more liberal and he seems to have done nothing to stem the tide. Nor did he even seem able to see that there was a problem.

What would he say today if he were to survey the scene? The union he longed for with the Church of Scotland took place in 1929 and the united Church is only a fraction of the size of the two individual Churches in 1921 when he died. He felt burdened to preach on sin and the need of repentance but how few Church of Scotland congregations herald that message now. Sadly ministers who live in open immorality are free to continue in the ministry. The congregation of St George’s West which his church eventually became ended up with a liberal minister and a handful of a congregation. It was amalgamated with St Andrews and St George’s recently, and the massive, beautiful building was sold to Charlotte Chapel whose building had become too small for its congregation. Hopefully the gospel will soon be heard again within this building.

Liberal Theology

Many of Alexander Whyte’s closest friends were liberal theologians and they had as one would expect a huge influence upon him. He met Marcus Dods at New College and for the next forty-six years they were bosom buddies and normally, when possible, met on Saturdays and went for walks discussing theology together along with a small group of others who shared the same outlook. Whyte along with Dods edited Clark’s Handbooks for Bible Classes series. Though Dods completed his training for the ministry in 1858 he had to wait six years till he received a call. Whyte could not understand why congregations would not call this clever, gifted minister, but God’s people, at the time, showed more discernment than Whyte did. Dods had accepted the Higher Critical theories which destroyed the authority of the Scriptures. In 1864 Dods became minister of Renfield Free Church, Glasgow, where he worked for twenty-five years. In 1889 he was appointed professor of New Testament Exegesis in the New College, Edinburgh, of which he became Principal in succession to Robert Rainy in 1907. His writings, and particularly a sermon on Inspiration published in 1877, rightly incurred the charge of heresy, and shortly before his election to the Edinburgh professorship he was summoned before the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, but the charge was dropped by a large majority showing how the whole church had become infected with liberalism. Other liberal friends belonging to the same inner circle were J Sutherland Black who edited the higher critical Encyclopaedia Biblica along with T K Cheyne. When William Robertson Smith was charged with heresy for his article on the ‘Bible’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica and forced from his chair, Alexander Whyte was his chief defender and dissented against the motion of Principal Rainy that he be removed from his chair. Whyte sought another heretic, George Adam Smith, to be his assistant minister and was very disappointed at his refusal. His biographer assures us that even in his last years he welcomed the writings of H A A Kennedy and James Moffatt which we would describe as liberal trash — treating the Bible simply as man’s thoughts about God rather than God’s authoritative revelation to man.

Why was Whyte so supportive of liberal theologians? He was greatly enamoured with learning and when he was a youth he read everything he could lay his hands on. He had a tremendous admiration for science. His own theology was pietistic and lacked the clear Reformed character which the first generation Free Church Theologians of 1843 had, e.g. Chalmers, Cunningham, Bannerman, Duncan and Smeaton. He believed in Christ and his atoning work and justification by faith alone in his own soul and heart, and saw this as the way of salvation for his people, but he was at the same time in awe of the academics and wanted them to have freedom to pursue their studies and investigations without interference from church courts.

Cardinal Newman and the RCs

Another strange influence in Whyte’s life was Cardinal Newman who began as a Church of England minister and later became a Roman Catholic. Whyte loved a beautiful style of English and Newman’s writings had that. He liked the way Newman put things and so quotes him extensively in his writings. He and some of his friends paid a visit to Newman and he had a signed portrait of Newman hung in his study. He was a voracious reader himself and often passed on books to students and young ministers, and Newman’s works were frequently among the first to be sent. Later in his life he came across Santa Teresa, a sixteenth century Spanish nun and would often quote her and pass on her writings. She taught that people should strive for the ‘devotion of union, a supernatural but an essentially ecstatic state — there is also an absorption of the reason in God, and only the memory and imagination are left to ramble’. He was attracted to mystics such as her. Latterly when on holiday on the Continent he would attend Roman Catholic mass with great appreciation.

Ecumenical Wooliness

Whyte became an ecumenist. He was very enthusiastic for the union of the Free Church with the United Presbyterian Church. He went to London to hear first hand the House of Lords Judgment of 1904 and was deeply shocked by it and scathing towards those judges who supported the original Free Church (Continuing). Later he was a great advocate for the union of the United Free Church with the Church of Scotland. But he went even further than that, seeking the union of all churches. He stated in one of his sermons which was printed and published:

The first step in a real union of Christendom will be taken when we come to admit and to realize that the Greek Church (Greek Orthodox) was the original mother of us all; that the Latin Church (RC) was her first child; and that through both these Churches we ourselves have our religious existence; through them we have the universal foundations of our Creeds and Confessions and Catechisms; our public worship also; our Christian character and our Christian civilization; and everything indeed that is essential to salvation . . . When we humble ourselves to admit that some other Churches have things of no small moment to teach us and to share with us, and things it will greatly enrich us to receive and assimilate; when we have a Christian mind enough to admit and even to welcome thoughts and feelings like these — then the day of a reconstructed Christendom will have begun to dawn at least for ourselves.

He told his wife that he hoped for ‘the recovery of the Christian year (Christmas, Easter, etc), an optional Liturgy, the simplification of the Standards (a reduced Contession of Faith), Superintendents who will have all the virtues and none of the faults of Bishops’. What confusion and denial of the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’!

He was an enthusiastic supporter of the World Missionary Conference, the precursor of the World Council of Churches. He actually received the leader of the Bahais, Abdul Baha Abbas into his home and had him address a meeting in his home. Whyte’s introductory words were: ‘Dear and honoured Sir, I have had many meetings in this house, but never have I seen such a meeting. It reminds me of what Paul said, “God hath made of one blood all nations of men” and of what our Lord said, “They shall come from the East and the West, from the North and from the South, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God”.’ What happened to ‘Ye must be born again’ (John 3:7) and ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6)?

Lack of Discernment

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.


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