Dr. J. A. Wylie (1808) Obituary

Dr. J. A. Wylie.
(Died May 1, 1890.)
by Rev. C. A. Salmond, M.A., Edinburgh.
The Free Church Monthly, August 1, 1890.

Reprinted with the permission of WhatSaithTheScripture.com

In the lamented removal of Dr. Wylie, the leading representative of a Church and also of a cause has been taken from us. Surviving as he did the younger M’Crie, he was the most notable living representative, for years past, of the majority of the Original Secession body, who joined the Free Church in 1852. And, as everybody knows, he has long been the leading Protestant authority, not in Scotland only, but in English-speaking Christendom, on all questions relating to the Romish controversy.

Born at Kirriemuir on 9th August 1808, he had nearly completed his eighty-second year when he died, on 1st May of the present year; but such was his vitality even as an octogenarian, that at the time of his death he had in contemplation an amount of literary work, the thought of which would have burdened many a younger man. He hoped, for one thing, to finish his “History of the Scottish Nation,” by adding other three volumes to the third lately issued; and he had expressed his willingness, when Mr. Cusin died, to undertake if called upon– a task happily committed since to his friend Mr. M’Crie of Ayr– the preparation of the next series of the Cunningham Lectures.

His name– James Aitken Wylie– is itself suggestive, to those familiar with Scottish Secession history of the surroundings and influences among which as a boy he was reared. James Aitken, his minister and name-father, was one of the most godly and in every way estimable leaders of the “Old Light Anti-burghers,” and Dr. Wylie felt and owned to the last how much he owed to his nurture in that school of robust primitive piety. It may interest modern readers about “Thrums” to find the old man writing thus, not long ago:–

“My heart often goes back to Kirriemuir. Its Communion Sabbaths, though now eighty years behind me, are still green and fragrant in my memory. I bless God that I was born in the Original Secession Church. I know see that it was an essential preparation for doing the work to which I have been called; and if I have done any good in the world, the ordering of my birth has been one of the main subordinate causes. The ‘History of Protestantism’ has its roots in the feelings, the kindlings, and the aspirations of my boyhood, and in the sympathy for the oppressed and downtrodden which was wrought in me by the derision and persecution which Mr. Anderson [author of ‘The Ladies of the Covenant’] and myself daily endured from a set of reprobate school-fellows, who termed us ‘Aitkenites.'”

His education was begun in the parish school of his native place. Then he passed to Marischal College, Aberdeen, for three years, completing his Arts course by a session at St. Andrews, under Dr. Thomas Chalmers. In 1827 he entered the O. S. Divinity Hall in Edinburgh, and there came under the influence of a man who impressed him even more than Chalmers had done– Dr. Thomas M’Crie, the biographer of Knox. He was admitted to intimate fellowship by M’Crie, and he carried the memory of his friend and teacher with him as a life-long inspiration.

In 1828, James Aitken Wylie was one of eleven divinity students who, with twenty-one ministers and seven probationers of the Original Secession Synod, “renewed the Covenants” in Edinburgh; and in him the last survivor of this little band of jurants has passed away. Referring to the abiding influence on Dr. Wylie’s mind and character of this early environment, Principal Rainy has fitly said: “His religious life was nourished in some of the richest lines of the Scottish pious tradition; and from that circle and centre of influence he had derived impresssions which gave a special character– and an attractive one– to his modes of view and feeling. He always retained a full sympathy with the characteristic tendencies of the Old Secession in matters religious and ecclesiastical; yet with a certain largeness of construction, and with a literary instinct, which enabled him in various respects to keep pace with his time, and to perceive the new form in which old forces must work.”

His license took place on 1st December 1829, and he was ordained at Dollar on 20th April 1831. His pastoral sphere there was a very limited one, but its duties were faithfully and cheerfully discharged for the next fifteen years, during which period, however, his pen had found for him a much wider constituency. To the time of the Dollar ministry belong his “Modern Judea,” “Scenes from the Bible,” and other works, which were most favourably received, and ran into numerous additions.

In 1846, Mr. Wylie had an important offer from Hugh Miller, which, by the advice of the younger M’Crie and with the eager approval of Dr. Candlish, he felt it his duty to accept– the joint-editorship, namely, of The Witness. This involved his transference to Edinburgh, on whose streets, for the succeeding forty-four years of incessant literary activity, he has been one of the most familiar figures. His association with Hugh Miller on The Witness was a very happy one; and some eight hundred of the leading articles in that almost epoch-making journal were from Mr. Wylie’s hand.

His exuberant energy found outlet the while in the publication of several separate volumes, the most notable of which appeared in 1851, and was entitled “The Papacy: its History, Dogmas, Genius, and Prospects.” This treatise gained for him, by the unanimous award of Drs. Wardlaw, Cunningham, and Eadie, the Evangelical Alliance prize of a hundred guineas. It also won for him a European reputation,– to which the savage attacks of Romish critics, at home and on the Continent, brought added lustre,– and it helped to give direction to his future life.

In 1852, as already mentioned, Mr. Wylie joined the Free Church of Scotland; and in the following year he became editor of the Free Church Record– a post which he held for the next eight years. The degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by Aberdeen University in 1856. Of his separate literary ventures at this time, one was a competitive essay on “The Gospel Ministry: the Duty and Privilege of Supporting It.” He secured by it the prize of £150; and in this connection Dr. Joseph Parker, who obtained proximos honores, writes: “On procuring Dr. Wylie’s essay and reading it, I said, ‘This should have won both the prizes: it is infinitely the best.'” The “Pilgrimage from the Alps to the Tiber,” “The Waldenses,” and “The Great Exodus,” also found many readers.

In 1860, mainly through the instrumentality of Dr. Begg, the Protestant Institute was established; and Dr. Wylie, by acclamation, was invited to be the lecturer. The appointment in his case was for life; and though the subject of Popery is not in itself attractive, it is true– and it is much to say– that for thirty successive years Dr. Wylie’s treatment of it has continued to be a living influence in our land. In him the Churches had no mere holder of an office, but a man with a mission, who, while centering his energies on the functions of his chair, was ready to devote his life in every possible way to the exposure of Papal errors and the clear and fervid counter exposition of the principles of the Reformation. If the members of even his first class felt that they were sitting at the feet of one who was a past-master in his subject, the successive relays of students who, to the number of about two thousand, went through his classes, had equal reason to know that in their teacher they had one not only familiar with Popish theory, but keenly awake to Popish practice in all its contemporary developments.

Besides holding his classes, Dr. Wylie addressed countless meetings in his time throughout the country. His “delivery,” it must be said, contrasted unfavourably with the grace of his written style; but he rose on occasions to a genuine eloquence which fairly carried his audience along with him. This was notably the case once and again in Exeter Hall, where his appearance was latterly hailed with the utmost enthusiasm; and in many parts of England the announcement of Dr. Wylie’s name would draw a large audience together at any time. This was partly to be accounted for by the greater urgency of the Romish question in England. It was partly, no doubt, also due to the great circulation of his writings in the sister country, where his magnum opus, for example– “The History of Protestantism,” 3 vols., 2,000 pp., 1874-77– has sold in scores of thousands.

Dr. Wylie was not one to whom any large share of outward honours fell; nor did he covet them. But that he held a high place in the esteem and a warm place in the affections of many, came unmistakably out at the time of his jubilee in 1881. The meeting, presided over by Sir Henry Moncreiff, at which his portrait, now hanging in the Institute, was presented, was of the most genuinely appreciative character; and the £300 gift, handed to him by Dr. Whyte and the writer about the same time one day in his study, came in so freely from the few friends applied to throughout the country as to indicate that a much larger sum might readily have been gathered had a wider movement been set afoot. The intention of the gift, however, was completely realized; for in the following spring, at the age of seventy-four, the doctor accomplished his tour in Egypt and Palestine, of which he has given a graphic account in his “Land of the Pharaohs,” and his “Over the Holy Land.”

We cannot enter further here into the details of his busy life. It was a life of great simplicity both in purpose and in habit. Spent mostly at the desk, or rather at the desk and mantlepiece on which a great part of his writing was done, it was varied by two regular daily “constitutionals,” at daybreak and in the afternoon, when he was at home, and by an occasional excursion to one or other of the historic lands of Europe, in the intervals of his class work. The day was ordinarily crowned by an hour or two of cheerful converse by the hearth. Those favoured with his intimate friendship will bear the writer out in saying, as he has already done elsewhere, that to be with Dr. Wylie at such times, and to listen to his rich and sparkling conversation, on whatever subject might come up, meant both education and enjoyment.

Men spoke of him sometimes as a “fanatic;” but if his utterances on the Papacy were strong, his detestation of the system was equalled by his tenderness for its unhappy votaries. To virile strength he united a woman’s sensibility. It was a profound mistake to fancy in him an acrid, self-assertive, one-idead controversialist. He was one of the best informed, most genial, and sympatric of men, and his deep unaffected humility was one of his greatest charms. You could not be long with him without perceiving in him a lover of Christ and of all good men, and his mellow unostentatious piety gave an unmistakable savour to all his life.

And now he has gone to be with Christ, for whom he lived and in whom he died. His end was as simple as his life had been. Influenza seized him at the close of his last session, when, through [extensive] work of various kinds, his system was [unusually weak]. For three or four weeks he was confined to bed. Though nothing serious was apprehended, [he was] greatly cheered, as were his two attached [disciples] by the occasional visits of his minister and [fellow] townsmen Dr. Whyte, in whose congregation he had long been an elder, and whose weekly pulpit ministrations had been to him a fountain of [life]. He said to me on the Sabbath evening before he died, “I have often been a very unworthy [worship]per, but I can truly say, ‘Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, the place where thine honour dwelleth.'” It was not till the day before [the end] came that it was a settled conviction with him [that] he was to die. But by that time he had relenquished all his literary plans, asking anything or [nothing to] be done with his papers, as might seem to be best. His mind was reverting to early Kirrie days, and anon going forward to the eternal world, on [which] he was so soon to enter. I said, “You are [relying] on Christ, doctor?” “Yes,” he replied; “[He is] Christ the Rock. If there’s a piece of adamant [any]where in the universe, it’s there– Christ the Rock.” Next morning I was again by his bedside. [Death] was now plainly written on his face. He spoke with difficulty some words of blessing, and as he [entered in] his breathless closing struggle with the last enemy, I could hear him say in the words of the old [psalm]

“Upon the Lord, who worthy is
Of praises, will I cry:
And then shall I preserved be
Safe from mine enemy.”

He remained conscious for a short [time after this], and could give a look of recognition [still], and a farewell pressure of the hand to those [close] to him. But he never spoke again; and [it will] ever be suggestive of a hallowed memory [and laud]able, after a lifelong friendship with him, to [quote] him in turn what he wrote to me of [the dear] M’Crie: “I watched by his bedside when [he was] dying, and I was the last to whom he [addressed] mortal speech.”

Dr. Wylie’s earthly remains were laid in the [New]ington cemetery, just a few yards from the [grave of] Dr. Begg. Principal Rainy made [impressive] reference to him in Free St. George’s on the [follow]ing Sabbath, in the absence of Dr. Whyte[.] [In] speaking cordially of Dr. Wylie’s work, his [literary] power, various knowledge, and “the [inexhaustible] fertillity of mind which age seemed [unable to] weaken or exhaust,” Dr. Rainy said, [and with] these words we close: “Besides his [service we recognized in him the antique atmosphere and [light] and shade of an older time. We feel the [passing] away of memories and associations we [would gladly] have retained among us– interesting, [edifying,] endeared. We are the poorer for the loss. [We see] the old order changing. We shall do well [to cleave] to the truth it lived by, and to reproduce [it with] the fidelity to truth and goodness, to Christ [and the] gospel, which inspired it.”