In 1832, a boy was born in Stirling (Scotland) named Alexander Lyons. He was completely blind from birth. His parents and those who knew him called him ‘Alec’ or ‘Alick.’
Alec’s parents were both Christians but were poor. They did their best to care for their son, but since they had to work to provide for their family, they couldn’t give him the attention they would have liked. So, at an early age, Alec was sent off to school with the other children. The school was also poor, with few books and the classes all held in one room.
The main book for learning was the Bible and each day it was read. Each child had to read the Bible in turn. They had to say the name of the book, the chapter, and the number of each verse in the Bible before they read it. Soon Alexander Lyons began to learn many passages of Scripture by heart. He knew not only the words but the chapter and verse where it was found.
The Bible was also read at home each night. After dinner, Alec’s father would open the Bible and read a chapter. Each Sunday the family went to church and more chapters were read. So Alec heard the Word of God continually. Soon Alec knew whole books of the Bible perfectly, and eventually he is said to have memorized the entire Bible.
After Alec reached adulthood, both his parents died. Since there was no care at that time for people who were blind, Alec was forced to become a beggar on the streets of Stirling.
Many people would approach Alec and ask him where a certain verse of Scripture was and he could always reply correctly. His amazing memory attracted people of learning who came to test his knowledge of the Bible. They were astounded at his accuracy. If a person quoted a text, he could tell where it was found, and if the number of the verse was quoted, he could quote the whole verse perfectly.
One man tried to out-smart Alec. He would misquote a text, but Alec would correct him and quote it exactly. The man then asked him to quote the ninetieth verse of Numbers chapter seven. Alec puzzled for a minute, then said, “You are fooling me sir. There are only eighty-nine verses in Numbers seven.” Alec could also remember the sermons that he had heard and could quote the exact words the ministers had said in their sermons.
Alexander Lyons was a legend in Stirling. But there’s more to this story.
By 1882, Alec was being used as an illustration in Christian circles. However, he was used as a negative illustration. One source describes how he was tested by education experts. They were amazed at his memory of the Bible, but it quickly became apparent that he had no comprehension. He had little or no meaningful understanding of Christian doctrine. Thus Alec became an example of how you can memorize all the Scripture you want, even the whole Bible, but if you don’t understand it, there’s no blessing in it.
However, another source gives a key piece of information which should make us rethink that. Alexander Lyons always carried a large key (this is portrayed in the drawing of him at the top of this post). When his memory would be tested, he would have to have that key in his right hand. He would then tap the top of the key into the palm of his left hand. If someone stole his key, his prodigious memory would disappear. Have you ever known anyone like this?
The evidence is strong that, were he to have been alive today, Alexander Lyons would have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. He wasn’t only blind, but also beset with a developmental disability. This accounts for his incredible powers of recall and his dependence on the key. But it also explains why he wasn’t able to understand, or perhaps communicate, any significant understanding of Christian doctrine.
Rather than making Alexander Lyons a negative illustration of unbelief, we ought to see him as a remarkable child of God. He was able to lay more of God’s Word to heart than you or I ever will. What a blessing! Moreover, if Alec, by virtue of his autism, was unable to have a deep understanding of the body of doctrine taught in the Scripture, then surely God would be merciful to this covenant child. God would be gracious on account of his covenant with Alec and his parents. God kindly deals with us in relation to our abilities. He doesn’t expect the person with Down Syndrome or severe autism to be able to express their faith the same way a non-neurodivergent person can. We shouldn’t expect that either.
In the end, the story of Alexander Lyons is also about how Christians can be brutal and uncharitable. They bite and devour one another. They sometimes jump to conclusions and make harsh judgments without knowing all the facts. In doing so, they don’t reflect their merciful Lord and Master. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7). And his brother James said, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy” (Jas. 2:13).
(Adapted in part from R. Cameron-Smith, The Chief’s Daughter Abducted and Forty-two Other Stories, pp.11-13)