Tag Archives: Late 19th century

Review: Whyte’s Bible Characters

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), Scottish preacher and prolific author. He published a variety of sermons and biographies, but his most famous books since his death have been his Bible Characters.

Overview: Each of these sermons is usually a brief and balanced treatments of a biblical character; for some characters—such as Moses or Paul—there are several sermons, dealing with the chapters of Scripture in which that person is found. If the character is controversial, he will weigh the positives and negatives before expressing his conviction and the lesson that he gains from the character’s life.

Meat: Whyte is an excellent writer. Like F. W. Boreham and A. J. Gossip, he drew on the best English and Classical literature, not just to pepper his sermons, but to illustrate biblical truth in the most meaningful way. He held many prestigious positions and was no mean scholar.

Many of these sermons were cited by scholars as authority for many decades after Whyte’s death. If you found a biblical character confounding, it was always a helpful plan to visit Whyte and see, first, what was his opinion of the character, and second, what lesson did he glean from their story. On a controversial character like Jephthah, for instance, he will weigh the interpretations and then pursue a definite course, which you may or may not agree with.

His sermons have value as a pastor’s resource, but they are also great devotional reading. I really enjoy being able to pick it up on a whim and have a solid sermon on almost any prominent Bible character, whether from the Old or the New Testament.

Bones: I enjoyed many of these sermons, but some of them were absolute duds. The sermon on Eve, while it was interesting, seemed to quote line after line of John Milton. While I love Milton, I was much more interested in understanding the basics of Eve’s story. A few were dull and moralistic; the sermon on Esau, for instance, takes on the sin of gluttony—an unexpected turn, to say the least. I will, however, continue to consult this set of sermons when I am studying Bible characters, because it is unmatched in that regard.

Related: Herbert Lockyer has similar works like All the Men of the Bible, All the Women of the Bible, etc. These works are exhaustive in their inclusion of characters. The individual entries are usually brief, but still directed towards a devotional application.

Whyte’s sermons on Bible Characters were originally published in six volumes, but they are now available cheaply in one large volume, or free as an PDF (in separate volumes).

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Review:  Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ion Keith-Falconer, Arabic scholar, prominent cyclist, and pioneer missionary to Yemen.

When: 1856-1887.

Where: The book covers his training and travels in Scotland, England, Germany, Egypt, and Yemen.

Overview: This is the authorized biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, published within a year of his unexpected death by a friend who knew him at Cambridge. It is still the most complete biography of him available.

Keith-Falconer came from a noble Scottish bloodline. He was definitely a son of privilege; but to his credit, he used this privilege to support Gospel work. He liberally supported urban evangelistic work, not only with money, but with his own sweat.

He was an exemplary academic and excelled in Arabic and other Semitic languages at Cambridge. Before he went to Yemen as a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland, he was offered a lectureship in Arabic by Cambridge, and accepted, if only because the requirements were so light, and the benefits so obvious—he would only have to lecture once annually at the minimum.

He also exemplifies “muscular Christianity.” He stumbled into fame as a cyclist when the sport was just budding into existence on college campuses.

He began to seriously consider missions in late 1884, and left for Yemen in November 1885 for a trial visit. He returned with his family a year later, in November 1886, but within just a few short months, he succumbed to several bouts of malaria, and died at the age of 31.

Meat: Keith-Falconer is in many ways the prototypical missionary of the Arabian Peninsula. He taught that hospitals and academic work were an appropriate avenue for missionaries there, and many followed in his wake.

The announcement of his death coincided closely with the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, and as a result, many were moved to consider the mission field after he died.

Bones: The author, Sinker, was an academic and sometimes gives too much detail on Keith-Falconer’s academic life at the expense of his personal life. An ideal biography would give a better sense of Keith-Falconer’s habits and daily life.

A member of the Yemen mission, James Robson, later produced a bite-sized biography, Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia (1923), which essentially abridges the material found here.

Quotes: “Still, it seemed as if some scheme ought to present itself in which Christian zeal and linguistic power might work hand in hand, or rather, shall I say, in which his intellectual attainments and his learning might be to him something more than a mere parallel interest, existing side by side with, but having no connection with, work for Christ.” (loc. 2116)

“The efforts already made to Christianize Mohammedan countries have produced commensurate results.” (loc. 2724)

“The heathen are in darkness, and we are asleep. . . . While vast continents are shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathenism or of Islam, the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God gas placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission-field.” (loc. 2797)

Review: The Hope of the Gospel

Rating: ★★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: MacDonald wrote only five books of sermons: Unspoken Sermons, Series One (1867), Miracles of Our Lord (1870), Unspoken Sermons, Series Two (1885), Unspoken Sermons, Series Three (1889)and finally, The Hope of the Gospel (1892). I give the dates because there is a progression between them. MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons are profound, meditative, and exploratory; Miracles of Our Lord is more expository, systematic, and devotional; in his fifth and final book of sermons, it seems that MacDonald wanted to clearly delineate a theology of salvation while treating foundational Scriptures. Five of the texts are chosen from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

MacDonald was almost 70 when this book was published. While his views stayed the same through the years, they had grown firmer and are expressed most boldly here in The Hope of the Gospel.

Meat: MacDonald’s theology of obedience is preached or mentioned in almost all of his sermons—all his books, to be honest—but this book allows us to really chew on it; we see it here in relation to foundational concepts of the New Testament. The first two sermons develop this theology with special clarity.

(A quick summary: In MacDonald’s theology, all other aspects of salvation are subordinate to obedience. There is no “imputed” righteousness apart from obedience; there is no salvation apart from obedience. MacDonald doesn’t say that obedience causes salvation, but that it accompanies it.)

My favorites were “Sorrow the Pledge of Joy,” “The Yoke of Jesus,” and “The Salt and the Light of the World.” MacDonald is at home in the Gospels, and his comments on Jesus’ words here are illuminating and expository.

Bones: MacDonald is at his best, like any preacher, when he sticks to the text. And MacDonald at his best is quite fantastic. But in developing his theology of salvation, he is sometimes distracted by a chance to suppress interpretations that he sees as unspiritual and uninspired. In “The Hope of the Universe,” he spends nearly thirty pages grinding a theological axe about the immortality of animals, an idea which, even if I found it enlightening—and I don’t—is certainly secondary or tertiary to Paul’s discourse in Romans 8. (Certainly “the manifestation of the sons of God” is more important than the “earnest expectation of the creature,” whatever is meant by “creature”!)

For these reasons, I would rank any volume of Unspoken Sermons above The Hope of the Gospel; and I would put Miracles of Our Lord above them all for its tact and expository insight. As Roland Barthes said, it is when the author “dies” that the reader is most illumined. The same applies to preachers.

Quotes: “Joy is in its nature more divine than sorrow; for, although man must sorrow, and God share in his sorrow, yet in himself God is not sorrowful.” (“Sorrow the Pledge of Joy,” loc. 801)

“None but the pure in heart see God; only the growing-pure hope to see him.” (“God’s Family,” loc. 968)

“The relation of the Father and the Son contains the idea of the universe.” (“The Yoke of Jesus,” loc. 1303)

“Starts thy soul, trembles thy brain at the thought of such a burden as the will of the eternally creating, eternally saving God? ‘How shall mortal man walk in such a yoke,’ sayest thou, ‘even with the Son of God bearing it also?’ Why, brother, sister, it is the only burden bearable—the only burden that can be borne of mortal!” (“The Yoke of Jesus,” loc. 1357)

“Light unshared is darkness.” (“The Salt and the Light of the World,” loc. 1417)

Related: Unspoken Sermons, Miracles of Our Lord, God’s Words to His Children (posthumous), George MacDonald in the Pulpit (posthumous)

Uganda's White Man of Work book cover

Review: Uganda’s White Man of Work

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: The main subject of this biography is Alexander MacKay, English pioneer missionary to Uganda, but we also hear about Henry Stanley, Robert Ashe, Bishop James Hannington, the Uganda Martyrs, and many others.

The author, Sophia Lyon Fahs, was born to Presbyterian missionaries in China. This is her only missionary biography.

Where: The Kingdom of Buganda, the predecessor to today’s Uganda.

When: 1849-1890. (Published 1907.)

Overview: Alexander MacKay was a practical pioneer missionary to Uganda. His missions group required a litany of practical skills to survive and thrive in Uganda: road-building, carpentry, farming, and teaching, to name a few.

He was invited by the Ugandan king, Muteesa I, and was able to stay longer than many of the other missionaries he worked with, though it was only 12 years. He suffered much at the hands of the vacillating kings of Uganda, who one day said that the religion of Christ was the best, and the next executed missionaries for fear of an outside invasion. The kings also pandered for many years to Arab traders, who conspired against the missionaries, traded in guns and slaves, and sought to promote Islam. The missionaries seemed especially successful, though, in their literacy programs, which were a great service to Ugandans. Despite persecution and martyrdom, the story is by and large a triumph of modern missions.

This book was written for a younger audience, so the story is quite easy to follow.

Meat: The reason this book gets five stars is its scope. The book is almost a condensed history of Ugandan missions. Rather than merely celebrating the work of one man, the author shares the stories of others which both preceded and followed that of MacKay. Before MacKay came, Henry Stanley—the same Stanley that found Livingstone—was told by Uganda’s king to send missionaries to share the Christian message in full with him. In passing, we hear the story of Bishop Hannington, and the Uganda Martyrs, who were executed by King Mwanga II between 1885 and 1887. Finally, we catch a glimpse of the stage of the tremendous church growth in Uganda in 1900.

Bones: This book might simplify or skim over some of the stories; we cannot assume, for example, that all of Uganda’s churches are healthy, or that it has no need of missionaries today.

Listen: Listen for free on LibriVox or iTunes.

Read: Download the PDF for free on Archive

Review: Heather and Snow (The Peasant Girl’s Dream) (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Where: Rural 19th-century Scotland.

Overview: Heather and Snow, which Michael Phillips republished as The Peasant Girl’s Dream, is one of George MacDonald’s Scottish novels. The novel opens on Francis and Kirsty running a race on a highland hillside. Both are ambitious, even stubborn. Kirsty and her family are tenant farmers on the land of Francis’ family. But as they grow, tension comes between them. Kirsty and her feeble-minded brother Steenie grow in tenderness and maturity in the light of Christ, while Francis becomes proud. The story turns on Francis’ pride, and Kirsty’s refusal to let him waste his life.

Meat: MacDonald, in the characters of both Steenie and Francis, deals with various forms of mental illness and even retardation. As in almost all of his novels, in the end, the love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self. MacDonald has a refreshing way of showing the impact of friendship on spiritual life.

Bones: The original edition fully justifies Michael Phillips’ mission of updating the language of MacDonald’s books; speaking as a linguist, armed with a dictionary, the Scottish dialect here is challenging. I wouldn’t recommend MacDonald’s Scottish novels in the original editions unless you just love language. You can pick up the updated edition, The Peasant Girl’s Dream, very cheaply.

Quotes: “The story of God’s universe lies in the growth of the individual soul.” (p. 21)

“The Lord’s gowk’s better nor the warl’s prophet.” (Or, “The Lord’s fool is better than the world’s prophet.”) (p. 125)

“One of the hardest demands on the obedience of faith is—to do nothing; it is often so much easier to do foolishly!” (p. 148)

“It seems to me there’s no shame in being frightened, so long as you don’t serve and obey the fright, but trust in him that sees, and do what you have to do.” (updated, p. 186)

Review: Unspoken Sermons (3 vol.)

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview: This three-volume shows the breadth of MacDonald’s theological thought. MacDonald wrote these sermons in such a way that the conclusion of one introduces the next—but the topics are only vaguely connected. He focuses especially on themes like the Fatherhood of God, the meaning of suffering, and obedience to the two greatest commandments. C. S. Lewis wrote about Unspoken Sermons:

“My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.”

Incidentally, many of the thoughts in C. S. Lewis’ writings that are thought to be innovative or controversial were gleaned from these sermons. In Lewis’ anthology of MacDonald quotes, 257 of the 366 selections are from this little set of 36 sermons. (I am working on an article comparing Lewis’ most famous quotes with MacDonald’s sermon material.)

Meat: MacDonald’s strength in all his books is his stubborn insistence on God’s goodness. His spiritual writing is dense with thought, like that of Oswald Chambers. These sermons are a literary mix of highly abstract and clearly practical. There are many favorites. Lewis often hearkened to “The Hardness of the Way” in his books, such as Mere Christianity. “The Eloi” is a wonderful reflection on divine silence. “Life” is a fantastic exploration of divine suffering, and undoubtedly the most moving thing I have ever read outside the Bible. John Ruskin said that the first volume contained “the best sermons—beyond all compare—I have ever read.”

The other prominent point about MacDonald is his “theology of obedience.” MacDonald places great weight on John 7:17: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” He says in almost every sermon that obedience is “the opener of eyes” and “the only way forward.” This theology is probably most clearly expressed in “Love Your Neighbor” and “The Hardness of the Way,” although MacDonald’s next sermon set, The Hope of the Gospel, deals with this theology of obedience almost exclusively.

Bones: The long trains of thought make it difficult to read the sermons piecemeal; you really need a large cup of tea and an hour (or two) to spare. And some of the sermons are very heady and abstract. I recommend trying “The Way” and “The Hardness of the Way” since they are foundational and straightforward.

The bone that most readers choke on, though, is MacDonald’s universalist tendencies, seen most strongly in “Consuming Fire.” Suffice it to say, MacDonald was strongly countercultural in the context of a stolid Scottish Calvinism, and found himself searching far and wide for more satisfying expression of God’s heart. But most reviewers agree that these sermons “bring everyone who reads them into the very presence of the Living God,” and MacDonald was far more concerned with heart-obedience than systematic theology.

Quotes: “Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it.” (vol. 2, “Life”)

“The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.” (vol. 1, “Consuming Fire”)

“Do at once what you must do one day.” (vol. 2, “The Last Farthing”)

“Had he done as the Master told him, he would soon have come to understand. Obedience is the opener of the eyes.” (vol. 2, “The Way”)

“I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth , to the Master Himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it.” (vol. 3, “Justice”)

Related: Miracles of Our Lord, God’s Words to His Children, The Hope of the Gospel, George MacDonald in the Pulpit