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It is not the purpose of this Preface to anticipate the biography of Dr. Whyte, now being prepared by Dr. G. Freeland Barbour, or to provide a considered estimate of the great preacher’s work as a whole. But it may be well briefly to explain the appearance of the present volume, and to take it, so far as it goes, as a mirror of the man. The desire has been expressed in various quarters that this sequence of sermons on prayer should appear by itself. Possibly it may be followed at a later date by a representative volume of discourses, taken from different points in Dr. Whyte’s long ministry. It is a curious fact that he who was by general consent the greatest Scottish preacher of his day published during his lifetime no volume of Sunday morning sermons, though his successive series of character studies, given as evening lectures, were numerous and widely known.
At the close of the winter season, 1894-95, Dr. Whyte had brought to a conclusion a lengthy series of pulpit studies in the teaching of our Lord. It was evident that our Lord’s teaching about prayer had greatly fascinated him: more than one sermon vi upon that had been included. And in the winter of 1895-96, he began a series of discourses in which St. Luke xi. i, “Lord, teach us to pray,” was combined with some other text, in order to exhibit various aspects of the life of prayer. The most of these discourses were preached in 1895-96, though a few came in 1897; and at intervals till 1906 some of them were re-delivered, or the sequence was added to. On the whole, in Dr. Whyte’s later ministry, no theme was so familiar to his congregation or so beloved by himself as “Luke eleven and one.” To include the whole series here would have made a volume far too bulky: in a sequence stretching over so long a time and dealing with themes so closely allied, there is a considerable amount of repetition: it was necessary to select. For instance, Paul’s Prayers and Thanksgivings were dealt with at length, and are here represented only by two examples. Further, it has not been possible to give the sermons in chronological order; Dr. Whyte dealt with the aspect of the matter uppermost in his mind for the week, and followed no plan which is now discernible: for the grouping, therefore, as for the selection, the present editors are responsible. They hope that the volume so selected and arranged may be a sufficient indication of the style and spirit of the whole sequence.11The sermons on Jacob and the Man who knocked at midnight are parallel to the extent of a few sentences, and that on Elijah to the extent of a paragraph or two, with studies previously published in the Bible Characters. But they are so characteristic of the preacher, and so vital to the series that it has been deemed wise to give them, even though they are slightly reminiscent of matter which has before appeared. The vii Scottish pulpit owes much to “Courses” of sermons, in which some great theme could be deliberately treated, some vast tract of doctrine or experience adequately surveyed. This method of preaching may be out of fashion with the restless mind of to-day, but in days when it was patiently heard it had an immensely educative effect: it was a means at once of enlarging and deepening. And Dr. Whyte’s people were often full of amazement at the endless force, freshness and fervour which he poured into this series, bringing out of “Luke eleven and one,” as out of a treasury, things new and old.
Nobody else could have preached these sermons,—after much reading and re-reading of them that remains the most vivid impression: there can be few more strongly personal documents in the whole literature of the pulpit. Of course, his favourites appear—Dante and Pascal, Butler and Andrewes, Bunyan and Edwards: they contribute their gift of illustration or enforcement, and fade away. But these pages are Alexander Whyte: the glow and radiance of them came out of that flaming heart. Those who knew and loved him will welcome the autobiographic touches: In one of the viii sermons he recommends his hearers so to read the New Testament that it shall be autobiographic of themselves: if ever a man read his Bible so, it was he. The 51st Psalm and many another classical passage of devotion took on a new colour and savour because, with the simplest and intensest sincerity, he found his own autobiography in them. Who that heard it spoken could ever forget the description, given on one of the following pages, of the wintry walk of one who thought himself forsaken of God, until the snows of Schiehallion made him cry, “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” and brought back God’s peace to his heart? But in a more general sense this whole volume is autobiographic. “Deliver your own message” was his counsel to his colleague, John Kelman. He did so himself: it is here. One or two ingredients in it are specially noteworthy.
1. One is his wonderful gift of Imagination. It is characteristic of him that, in his treatment of his chosen theme, he should give one whole discourse to the use of the imagination in prayer. But there is scarcely a sermon which does not at some point illustrate the theme of that discourse. Here was a soul “full of eyes.” He had the gift of calling up before himself that of which he spoke; and, speaking with his eye on the object, as he loved to put it, he made his hearers see it too with a vividness which often startled them and occasionally amused them. ix The Scripture scene was extended by some lifelike touch which increased the sense of reality without exceeding the bounds of probability. A case in point is the man who knocked at midnight. “He comes back; he knocks again: ‘Friend!’ he cries, till the dogs bark at him.” And sometimes the imagination clothes itself in a certain grim grotesquerie which arrests the slumbering attention and is entirely unforgettable, as in the description of the irreverent family at prayers,—their creaking chairs, their yawns and coughs and sneezes, their babel of talk unloosed before the Amen is well uttered. These pages contain many instances of the imagination which soars, as he bids her do, on shining wing, up past sun, moon and stars, but also of a more pedestrian imagination, with shrewd eyes and a grave smile, busy about the criticism of life and the healthy castigation of human nature.
2. Along with this goes a strongly dramatic instinct. This provides some words and phrases in the following pages, which might not stand the test of a cold or pedantic criticism. A strict editorship might have cut them out: Dr. Whyte himself might have done so, had he revised these pages for the press. But they have been allowed to stand because they now enshrine a memory: even after twenty-five years or more, they will bring back to some hearers the moments when the preacher’s eyes were lifted off his manuscript, when his hand x was suddenly flung out as though he tracked the movements of an invisible presence, when his voice expanded into a great cry that rang into every corner of the church. In this mood the apostrophe was instinctive: “O Paul, up in heaven, be merciful in thy rapture! Hast thou forgotten that thou also was once a wretched man?” Equally instinctive to it is the tendency to visualise, behind an incident or an instance, its scenery and background: “the man of all prayer is still on his knees. . . . See! the day breaks over his place of prayer! See! the Kingdom of God begins to come in on the earth.” Occasionally—very ocasionally but all the more effectively because so seldom—the dramatic instinct found fuller scope in a lengthy quotation from Shakespeare or even from Ibsen. The intellectual and spiritual effect was almost overwhelming the morning he preached on our Lord’s prayer in Gethsemane. Dwelling for a moment on the seamless robe, with “the blood of the garden, and of the pillar” upon it, he suddenly broke off into the passage from Julius Caesar:
You all do know this mantle: I remember The first time Caesar ever put it on.
It was a daring experiment—did ever any other preacher link these two passages together?—but in Dr. Whyte’s hands extraordinarily moving. The sermon closed with a great shout, “Now let it xi work!” and his hearers, as they came to the Communion Table that morning, must have been of one heart and mind in the prayer that in them the Cross of Christ should not be “made of none effect.”
3. It was Dr. Whyte’s own wish that he should be known as a specialist in the study of sin: he was willing to leave other distinctions to other men. No reader of these pages will be surprised to discover that, in
the place of prayer which this preacher builds, the Miserere and the De Profundis are among the most haunting strains. The question has often been asked—Did Dr. Whyte paint the world and human nature too
black? Even if he did, two things perhaps may be
said. The first is that there are so few specialists now in this line of teaching, that we can afford occasionally to listen
to one who made it his deliberate business. And the second is that the clouds which this prophet saw lying over the lives
of other men were no blacker than those which he honestly believed to haunt his own soul. That sense of sin goes with him
all the way and enters into every message. If he overhears Habakkuk praying about the Chaldeans, the Chaldeans turn immediately
into a parable of the power which enslaves our sinful lives. Assyria, Babylonia, anything cruel, tyrannous, aggressive, is
but a finger-post pointing to that inward and ultimate bondage out of which all other tyrannies xii and wrongs take their rise. That is why a series of this kind, like Dr. Whyte’s whole ministry, is so deepening. And that
is also why these pages are haunted by a sense of the difficulty of the spiritual life, and especially of the life of prayer:
we have such
arrears to make up, such fetters to break; we are so much encased in the horrible pit and the miry clay. The preacher is frank
enough about himself: “daily self-denial is uphill work with me”; and when in Teresa, or in Boston, or in the Puritans, he
finds confession of dryness and deadness of soul, he knows that he is passing through the same experience as some of the noblest
saints of God. If the souls of the saints have sometimes their soaring path and their shining wings, they at other times
are more as Thomas Vaughan describes them, like moles that “lurk in blind entrenchments”—
Heaving the earth to take in air.
So these sermons become a tremendous rallying call to our moral energies, that we may overcome our handicap, and shake off our load of dust, and do our best with our exhilarating opportunity. Here the sermon on “The Costliness of Prayer” is typical: there is small chance of success in the spiritual life unless we are willing to take time and thought and trouble,—unless we are willing to sacrifice and crucify our listless, slothful, self-indulgent habits. This is a Stoicism, a small injection of which might put iron xiii into the blood of some types of Christianity; Seneca and Teresa, as they are brought into alliance here, make very good company.
4. For the total and final effect of such preaching is not depressing: it is full of stimulus and encouragement mainly because the vision of sin and the vision of difficulty are never far removed from the vision of Grace. Dr. Whyte’s preaching, stern as the precipitous sides of a great mountain, was also like a great mountain in this, that it had many clefts and hollows, with sweet springs and healing plants. One of his most devoted elders wrote of him: “No preacher has so often or so completely dashed me to the ground as has Dr. Whyte; but no man has more immediately or more tenderly picked me up and set me on my feet again.” Perhaps there was no phrase more characteristic of him, either in preaching or in prayer, than the prophet’s cry, “Who is a God like unto Thee?” And when at his bidding,—with an imagination which is but faith under another name, we ourselves become the leper at Christ’s feet, or the prodigal returning home, or Peter in the porch, or Lazarus in his grave, and find in Christ the answer to all our personal need,—we begin to feel how real the Grace of God, the God of Grace, was to the preacher, and how real He may be to us also. This volume is full of the burdens of the saints, the struggles of their souls, and the stains upon their raiment. But it is no accident that it ends xiv with the song of the final gladness: “Every one of them at last appeareth before God in Zion.”
When all is said, there is something here that defies analysis,—something titanic, something colossal, which makes ordinary preaching seem to lie a long way below such heights as gave the vision in these words, such forces as shaped their appeal. We are driven back on the mystery of a great soul, dealt with in God’s secret ways and given more than the ordinary measure of endowment and grace. His hearers have often wondered at his sustained intensity; as Dr. Joseph Parker once wrote of him: “many would have announced the chaining of Satan for a thousand years with less expenditure of vital force” than Dr. Whyte gave to the mere announcing of a hymn. That intensity was itself the expression of a burning sincerity: like his own Bunyan, he spoke what he “smartingly did feel.” And, though his own hand would very quickly have best raised to check any such testimony while he was alive, it may be said, now that he is gone; that he lived intensely what he so intensely spoke. In that majestic ministry, stretching over so long a time, many would have said that the personal example was even a greater thing than the burning words,—and not least the personal example in the matter of which this book treats,—the life of prayer; ordered, methodical, deliberate, unwearied xv in adoration, confession, intercession and thanksgiving. He at least was not in the condemnation, which he describes, of the ministers who attempt flights of prayer in public of which they know nothing in private. He had his reward in the fruitfulness of his pulpit work and in the glow he kindled in multitudes of other souls. He has it still more abundantly now in that glorified life of which even his soaring imagination could catch only an occasional rapturous glimpse. So we number him among those who through a long pilgrimage patiently pursued the Endless Quest, and who now have reached, beyond the splendours of the sunset, the one satisfying Goal.xvi
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