Alexander Whyte, a “Specialist in the Study of Sin”

Although there are certain problem areas about the theological perspective of the Scottish preacher and author Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), he was right on when it came to his emphasis on the pervasiveness and odious deceitfulness of sin. In a very real sense he sought to be what he called a “specialist in the study of sin.” [“Preface” to Lord, Teach Us to Pray. Sermons on Prayer (New York: George H. Doran Co., [1923]), xi.] As he commented on one occasion: “I know quite well that some of you think me little short of a monomaniac about sin. But I am not the first that has been so thought of and so spoken about. I am in good company and I am content to be in it. Yes, you are quite right in that. For I most profoundly feel that I have been separated first to the personal experience of sin, and then to the experimental preaching of sin, above and beyond all my contemporaries in the pulpit of our day.” [Bunyan Characters, Fourth Series (Edinburgh/London: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, [1908]), 195].

Late Victorian British society, with its overly romantic view of the Christian life and its faith in a God who was more a doting Father than the awesome Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, presented real temptations to Whyte to focus on things less morbid. Yet he steadfastly refused to change his ways.

Little wonder his assistant John Kelman stated in his funeral sermon that Whyte was “a Puritan risen from the dead, and prophesying in pagan times to a later generation,” who had “no respect whatever for those who thought lightly of sin” [“Whyte of St. George’s” in Ralph G. Turnbull, ed., The Treasury of Alexander Whyte (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1953), 25, 26-27.].

On one occasion Whyte was walking with a friend in the Pass of Killiecrankie and the name of Henry Drummond (1851-1897) came up. Drummond was a popular author and essayist, whose thought was an eclectic blend of Darwinism and Christianity. “The trouble with Hen-a-ry,” Whyte told his companion, “is that he doesna ken [know] onything aboot sin.” [Cited Alexander Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard (London: Pickering & Inglis, Ltd., 1945), 12].

Nor was this preoccupation with sin simply a Pharisaic focus on the sins of others. Whyte was very conscious of his own sinfulness, failings, and shortcomings. “Blessed are we…if we know our sin,” he could say honestly (Bunyan Characters, Fourth Series, 124).

As he recalled when fifty years of age: “The first text I ever heard a sermon from was that great text in Zechariah, ‘Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?’ ‘It is I, Lord,’ my young heart answered; and my heart is making the same answer here to-day.” [G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (7th ed.; New York: George H. Doran Co., 1925), 305].

Whyte told an astonished audience on one occasion that he had discovered the name of the wickedest man in Edinburgh. “His name,” he told them in whispered tones, “is Alexander Whyte” (Kelman, “Whyte of St. George’s”, 29). It was, therefore, in all honesty that he could state, “I would rather take my degree in [sin] than in all the other subjects set for a sinner’s examination on earth or in heaven. For to know myself, and especially, as the wise man says, to know the plague of my own heart, is the true and the only key to all other true knowledge.” [Bunyan Characters, First Series (2nd ed.; Edinburgh/London: Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1895), 57-58].

This concern to plumb the depths of the human heart is well captured by a Latin phrase that Whyte loved to quote: generalia non pungunt, “generalities do not pierce deep” (Barbour, Alexander Whyte, 305).