John Macdonald

John Macdonald of Ferintosh (1779-1849)

Revivalist, Preacher, Minister, Apostle

He was born on November 12th 1779 in the Parish of Reay in the far north of Scotland. The Parish was vacant at the time, so his parents took him to the manse of a neighbouring minister for baptism. This minister, unfortunately, was of a very common type in those days, preferring hunting, shooting or fishing to spiritual duties. On this occasion he was away shooting and would not be back until evening. Macdonald’s parents decided to return home, but on the way they met up with the shooting cleric. The minister decided to baptise the infant there and then. He used the butt of his gun to break the ice of a nearby pool, sprinkled the water over the child and pronounced the necessary words over him.

Macdonald’s maternal grandfather was an eminent Christian who composed several Gaelic hymns and was known as ‘the man who would fight only on his knees.’ His other three grandparents were also strong Christians, so he was born into a good heritage. He was a smart, active child with a cheerful smile. Before leaving for school he would tend his father’s cows, dressed in a kilt, bare footed and bare headed. Even then, as a result of his father’s (who was a catechist) teaching, he was conscious of his sinfulness and often spent an hour in prayer, but out of duty rather than anything else.

In June 1788 he entered the parish school of Reay, beginning Latin three years later. Macdonald’s father was only going to give him a basic education, but the schoolmaster understood the potential of the lad, so taught him for free. He was the brightest boy in the school, and as such he was asked to do the accounts of several farms in the parish. With the help of a local craftsman, he built a room at the end of his father’s cottage so that he could concentrate on his studies. A Mrs Innes of Sandside took note of this clever boy, procuring for him a bursary, which helped him through college. When he was eighteen, Mrs Innes sent him with a letter to the house of a neighbouring landlord. There was a party going on when he arrived, with music which Macdonald had never heard before. He joined in with the dancing and somehow took some money offered to him. This money was given to him by a recruiting sergeant for the army who had arranged the party to trick young men into joining up. Next morning he had to appear before the Justice of the Peace to be attested, but luckily for him a minister was present who recognised him and persuaded the recruiting sergeant to let him go.

In 1797 Macdonald went to college in Thurso, taking with him his beloved bagpipes. He loved music and loved playing the bagpipes. Two years later his thoughts were on higher things, so he deliberately left his bagpipes at home. In a letter his father asked him what he should do with them; the reply was to do whatever he wished. His father went to get the bagpipes, laid them on a block and with a will chopped them up with an axe. He came third in his College overall and first in mathematics. When he was about 20 he went through a major time of distress, seeing that he was heading for hell, but not knowing how to change his course to heaven. One day he was walking along the beach when a light pierced through the darkness. He took himself to a nearby cave. And there he gave his life to Christ. He often went to that cave to spend time with the Lord. One day another young man was walking along the beach. He too was wrestling with the question of how to avoid hell, when he heard Macdonald’s praying in the cave. The words he heard opened the door so that he was able to open his heart to Christ. (James Haldane preached in Thurso on his first preaching tour in the summer of 1797 and again in the summer of 1799. It is likely that Macdonald would have heard him preach, at least in 1799, which seems to be the year when he was trying to make his mind up about becoming a Christian.)

On July 2nd, 1805, Macdonald became a licensed preacher in Caithness. Because of the reputation of his father, there was much expected from the young preacher, but he failed to deliver in his early sermons. Two months later he did a tour of the Northwest Highlands at the request of Sir John Sinclair. The purpose of this tour was to discover whether the extent traditions of Fingalians (an old race) existed in the Highlands and whether Ossian’s poems were still remembered. During the tour he preached in every parish, gaining experience for what he was destined to do in the future. Having preached in Glenelg, the minister (who was a similar type to the one who baptised him, a Moderate) said to him, ‘That was a very good sermon, I suppose, but it was quite unsuitable here; for you spoke all day to sinners, and I know of only one in my entire parish.’

After returning in November, Macdonald acted as a missionary to the districts of Achreny and Halladale for six months. He married his first wife in January 1806. He was then ordained as a missionary minister at Berriedale (on the coast, south of Wick) in September 1806, but he was only there for four months before he went to Edinburgh. While he was there his preaching improved, but still no one would have guessed his future. The Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge obtained for him an invitation from the Gaelic Church in Edinburgh, where he went in January 1807. His father came to help him move, and as they left his humble cottage, while a storm was raging, the roof of the cottage was blown off. His father said, ‘John, I think it was high time to leave Berriedale.’ His charge in Edinburgh was very different to what he had been used to. His natural affability made him a good pastor. He had a difficult task as his congregation came from all over the Highlands, and many had lost their initial Christian fervour due to embracing things of the world in the big city. However, he was able to knit them together. He gave two Gaelic sermons in the morning and an English sermon in the evening. In addition, there were regular prayer meetings, district catechising and a weekly lecture. He would regularly visit his people in their homes so that he could build up a relationship with them. On one occasion he visited a woman whose husband was a Catholic. The husband was supposedly dying, having been instructed not to eat anything by his priest who had administered extreme unction. Macdonald spoke to him, persuading him to eat something as he was very thin. As he was eating the priest arrived; he was furious and tried to snatch the food away, but Macdonald stood in his path. The priest sullenly withdrew; the man recovered, attending the Gaelic Church from then on.

Macdonald took advantage of the learned men that he met during his time in Edinburgh, taking in what they said and carefully studying the books they commented on. During his time in Edinburgh there is strong evidence that he experienced a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. This was very evident in his preaching. Always clear and sound in his statements of objective truth, his preaching now became full of life; searching and fervent, as well as sound and lucid. He warned sinners, which excited the wonder and awe of his hearers. His statements of Gospel truth were from one who deeply felt its power. People could tell that he spoke from his hearts to theirs. His manner in the pulpit changed as well, becoming more vehement. His sermons, always full of thought, bright with illustration and teeming with feeling, were delivered with the most unaffected and intense earnestness. Many noticed the incredible change in his preaching. Soon afterwards, he went to see his father in Caithness; on the way, he was asked to preach by the minister at Tain. In the congregation was a man who had walked sixteen miles. “When the sermon began I forgot all but the doctrine I was hearing. As he warmed up with his subject, the preacher became most vehement in his action; every eye was riveted on the speaker and suppressed sounds testified to the effect which his sermon was producing. His second discourse was so awe-inspiring that the audience became powerfully affected. Such was the awful solemnity of the doctrine and the vehemence of the preacher’s manner that I expected, ere he was done, every heart would be pierced, and that the very roof of the church would be rent. The sermon over, all were asking who the preacher was. ‘A young man from Edinburgh of the name of Macdonald,’ was the only answer that could be given.”

On September 1st, 1813 Macdonald became the minister at Urquhart. His predecessor was the eminent and godly Charles Calder, who did much good work in the parish and who was much loved.It was a well run and gifted parish, where virtually every parishioner attended church. Because it was in such a good condition, Macdonald did not have to spend all his time building up the parish, so he could spend a good deal of time elsewhere. Sometimes when he had been away for six weeks there would be murmurings of complaint, but as soon as they heard his preaching and were greeted by his smile; the murmuring was forgotten. He is described by his biographer as, ‘Short in stature; his complexion dark, his physical frame compact, instinct with animation, his face with features well defined and regular, a brow broad and high; and eyes dark and quick of glance, kept expressive by an active intellect, and ever beaming with fresh love and cheerfulnesss.

The Highlands had at that time a number of good evangelical ministers, particularly at Kingussie, Kiltarlity, Kirkhill, Lochcarron, Dingwall, Tain, Tarbat and Nigg. Other places too had experienced evangelicalism, but the Highlands were a large area with many remote spots, and many Moderate ministers, such as the one who baptised Macdonald. Gaelic schools had been planted in many areas as well; with some bringing the beginnings of light into the area. There were few roads yet in the area, so ministering there involved long rides or walks. This was the mission field of Macdonald, who came to be known as the ‘Apostle of the North.’

In his first year at Urquhart his wife died, but he insisted on performing the annual communion service that was due to be taken. This was celebrated in a natural amphitheatre called the ‘Burn of Ferintosh.’ Around 10,000 attended the service there. The congregation, knowing the loss of their pastor, were quiet and often tearful as he spoke. According to his biographer, this was the beginning of an awakening. ‘In the evening he appealed to the unconverted…The excitement at last was very great, the groans and outcries of the stricken ones sometimes drowning the voice of the preacher.’ During the closing services on Monday the same scene was repeated. In his diary, which he began at the start of 1816, he notes that within two years 58 came to the Lord, with only 12 from his own parish.

This does not seem to be much of an awakening. However, it was enough to encourage Findlater, the minister in Breadalbane (see this website), to hear about it and want a revival in his area. After praying for a while the revival began, so Findlater called on Macdonald for help at the Communion at Ardeonaig for 1816. The minister of Kiltearn was an eyewitness. Tidings of the awakening at Urquhart reached Bread­albane. Mr Findlater then occupied a missionary station there. He was a godly man, a faithful fervent preacher, and the lack of learning and talent in his discourse was well supplied by the unction of a broken heart. He was stirred up by the good news of the Lord’s work in Ross-shire to seek an outpouring of the Spirit on Breadalbane. Prayer-meetings were set up and not long after the “dry bones” began to move. One after another came to Mr Findlater asking, “What must I do to be saved?” He wrote to Mr Macdonald, imploring his assistance at his next communion, and he agreed to go.

Of that communion season at Ardeonaig the following account is given by the Rev. D. Campbell, Kiltearn, who, along with his brother, the Free Church minister of Lawers, looks back on that time as the dawning of a better day. “On Thursday Mr Russell of Muthill preached in English from 1 Kings viii. 38; and Mr Macdonald in Gaelic from John xvi. 9. During the Gaelic sermon an extraordinary degree of attention was excited, and towards the close of it a young woman from Glenlyon cried out, being unable to repress her feelings. Mr Macdonald preached an evening sermon at Lawers from Ps. xxxii. 6. Owing to the darkness of the night, the poor people of Glenlyon could not return home; some of them were quite unfit for the journey, a sense of sin pressing so heavily upon their hearts. Those who were able to go home, next morning brought with them the tidings of Mr Macdonald’s arrival and of the effects of his preaching. This news excited an ardent desire to hear the extraordinary preacher and to witness scenes before unheard of in Breadalbanewhile some desired to experience such influences themselves as were felt by others. The result was that most of the Glenlyon people were in Ardeonaig on Sabbath. Mr Macdonald preached the action-sermon in the tent that day to an assembly of people more numerous than had ever wet before in Breadalbane. His text was Isa. 54:5, ‘Thy Maker is thine husband.’ The sermon was accompanied with an extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit. Some cried out and others were melted into tears while many laboured in vain to suppress their feelings. The place was then ‘no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.’ Mr Macdonald preached on Monday from Luke xvi. 2, a sermon by which many more were awakened; so that this occasion proved to many in Glenlyon, and to some in Breadalbane, to be like the month Abib to Israel, the first of all the months.” Some years later a leading Christian in his area, said that he knew fifty people who were awakened at that sermon at Ardeonaig, of whom he was one, and he was the only one whose conversion he was tempted to suspect.

Macdonald preached a lot in the area, when he was allowed to. Some ministers objected to anyone interfering in their kingdom. He was working even harder now, but was careful to have times of study so that he could prepare his talks, as he never spoke extempore. If he was preaching far from home, he would try and speak in every pulpit he came across on his way home. Through his charm many would open the doors to him, but others refused the ‘wild man of Ferintosh.’

He was refused at Dornoch, but he was not to be stopped, so he went to the neighbouring parish of Creich, where he was welcome and he preached while standing on the edge of Creich parish, while the people sat on the Dornoch side. That particular sermon was full of power and several came to the Lord. In future years many other sermons were preached there and the Holy Spirit moved. The minister at Dornoch died suddenly a few weeks after refusing Macdonald.

In 1817 Macdonald preached in a dissenting chapel while travelling through the Presbytery of Strathbogie. Members of the Presbytery were furious and brought an accusation against him at Assembly. The tactic used was to present the details on the last day of the Assembly after many had gone home, as there was a better chance of passing some extreme measure when there were few people attending. The result was that it was declared illegal for any minister to preach in the parish of another without consent of the minister. Although he was not censured, the decision of the Assembly raised up a lot of indignation by ministers who were not present.

In 1822 Macdonald was sent to St Kilda (all the inhabitants left in 1930, although some military are there now), an island way to the west of the Hebrides with 108 inhabitants (only 42 adults) by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. He really had a heart for St Kilda, so he knew that God was calling him there. The first time he preached there was in a barn which was used as a school. He soon realised that none of them knew the true way to salvation. He preached thirteen times in eleven days. At the final service everyone was crying at the thought of his leaving. He thought five or six were under serious impressions and the rest of the people had a more than average interest in what would happen when they died. The whole island came to see him off.

On his return, he was offered £400pa to return to the Gaelic Church, but he could not leave Urquhart. In May 1823 he was invited to speak at the London Missionary Society Conference. He had never been to London before, and was very nervous about preaching in English, but he need not have been, because he was a great success. He had so many invitations to speak that he had to turn down most.

In May 1824 Macdonald returned to St Kilda. He was welcomed with tears, which really moved him. He was there for two weeks with signs that the Lord was doing something. He visited the island again in 1827. (Strangely the biographer does not mention any of this important event in Macdonald’s life. The remainder of this paragraph is taken from his journal). On the way to the island the weather was against them, so they had to return to Harris. They remained where they were for a few days, hoping for the weather to change. While they were waiting, the captain who was to take them ran out of time. Macdonald had been invited to minister at the Communion service at Uig, so he decided to go there, arriving the day before the service. There had been a revival going on for some time, resulting in 7,000 at the Communion. He preached on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday, seeing many instances of people being touched by the Holy Spirit, or as Macdonald put it, there were ‘showers of divine influences’. It is said that this was the highpoint of the revival. Like at Breadalbane it is as if the power was suddenly turned up under his ministry.

On the Tuesday they stayed nine miles from Uig and the showers were evident again when he preached, and again when they returned to Harris. A man then came along who said, even though it was way out of his way, he would take them to St Kilda, but the winds were still against them. He continued to preach when he could, taking a meeting at Tarbet on the Sabbath. Finally the winds were fair, so they sailed for St Kilda. How providential the storms were for the blessing of the people of Lewis and Harris.

At St Kilda there were signs of blessing according to the journal, but because of what was going on in Lewis it is likely that several gave their lives to the Lord there. That same year Macdonald visited Ireland, touring the south, speaking in a mixture of Gaelic and English. After a little practice he was able to be understood. In some places the churches were crowded out, mainly with Catholics. On one occasion, after a service where the congregation had been considerably touched by the Holy Spirit, a Catholic official got into the pulpit and tried to discredit Macdonald. On finishing his harangue he waited for some applause, but all he could see were some rather disapproving looks.

Macdonald had such a heart for St Kilda. He wanted them to have a Church, so he went around the country raising the money to build a church and manse. In 1830 he accompanied the new minister to St Kilda.

There is unfortunately only a little of Macdonald’s diary still existing. From what there is it can be seen that he went to Breadalbane each year from 1835-7. Although things were much quieter than when he was there during the revival of 1816/7, there was still much evidence of the Spirit at work. Congregations were large and attentive. At Fortingall, the minister invited him to speak in his church. This was extraordinary, considering the same minister, during the revival, had told him that he would never speak in his church. He spoke in the church on each visit. The church being packed on his third visit could have been the early signs of the revival that was to come in 1840.

Whilst in Glenlyon in 1839 Macdonald heard of the revivals going on in Kilsyth and Dundee. He received a call to help, so he went to Kilsyth in September. He found a powerful revival (see this website) going on. He also assisted in Dundee and Perth. On the way home he gave accounts of what was happening further south. There was a stirring at Tain and Tarbart when he ministered the Communion. In the parish of Tarbat, there was a revival in Portmahomak. where David Campbell was minister. When this movement was arousing attention, Campbell’s friend, Stewart of Cromarty, went to visit him to see for himself if it was only a time of sensational and emotional excitement or if it was a real awakening. He saw some of the converts and questioned them. One of them told vividly how when he was awakened to concern, he felt himself to be shut in by the justice of God as a mighty mountain to an ocean of everlasting destruction. So touching were his words that Stewart was ready to cry out himself. As the outcome of his queries he was more disposed to question his own conversion than that of the Portmahomack people. At the next Dornoch Communion, the fourth table, which held sixty communicants, was wholly filled by the young converts from Tarbat. Soon afterwards cholera hit Portmahomack and made a clean sweep of this crop of young converts.

Macdonald enjoyed being at home with his family, but the Lord’s work took him away a great deal. When at home, he would devote two hours to the Lord from 7.00am every morning. He would study from 4.00pm to 5.00pm, do private devotions and study from 6.00pm to 9.00pm and more private devotions from 10pm to 11.00pm. There were also morning and evening family worship. Like all great men of God, he spent several hours a day with the Lord.

He had three children by his first wife and seven by his second, whom he married in 1818. His second wife was reputed to have been much accomplished and very pious. His eldest son, John, was his favourite. He was a clever boy who had a marked conversion experience, and followed his father as a powerful preacher, pastor and missionary. He died in India in 1847.

Macdonald had a close association with the evangelical ministers in his area. Many of them came and went as he was at Urquhart for 36 years. In 1831 Macdonald and the ministers of Killearnan, Kirkhill, Resolis, Auldearn and Cawdor, formed an association to seek the Holy Spirit through prayer and studying of the Bible. They met three times a year for ten years.

In 1842 Macdonald was accused of being the father of the child of a young woman. He immediately had the matter brought before his Presbytery. There was a minister in the Presbytery who really disliked Macdonald and hoped he was guilty, but even he realised that the evidence was non-existent. However, this did not stop him baptising the child and giving it the name of Macdonald. The lies spoken by the woman against the Lord’s anointed were not forgotten; she and several of her family died of a mysterious disease.

This was the time just before the disruption. There had been ten years of dispute over government intrusion into ecclesiastical matters and many ministers were about to take a stand by walking out of the Established Church to form a new Church that would be free from government manipulation. The problem was that they would have no government money to pay ministers’ salaries and they would have to build new churches and new manses, a huge project. Macdonald spent some of 1842 and 1843 going around the Highlands, informing the people what was happening. In January 1843 he preached every day to large crowds, with most being really interested in what he was saying. After speaking he would ask people to sign their agreement to what was planned. He was now in his sixties. I was mid-winter, he normally had to preach outside because of the numbers and he was preaching every day – quite a task for a man of his age.

The day after the Assembly, when the evangelical ministers walked out to form the Free Church of Scotland, Macdonald and his family left his manse, staying in other places until his new manse and his new church were built. In 1845 the Free Church Assembly was held in Inverness, and Macdonald had the honour of being chosen joint moderator for the occasion.

Up until only a few weeks before his death, Macdonald continued to fulfil his calling, travelling the country with the same zeal, and preaching with the same earnestness. His last tour was to the south in September/October 1848. Thereafter he preached locally; his last sermon being at Kiltearn Free Church. Macdonald got a blister on his foot which he tended to ignore. The blister got much worse, but by the time he asked the advice of doctors it was too late as gangrene had set in. The doctors decided not to amputate, just take out the infected part, but the infection had already spread and he died on April 18th, 1849.

During this last illness he said to a friend, ‘There are three things which the Lord hath done for me, and may you have cause to praise Him for dealing so with you. He did not expose my heart sins to the world, He did not punish my secret sins in my public work, nor did he alienate from me the affections of His people during all my ministry.’

An interesting story was told by a friend. One day he was close to Ferintosh, so he went to visit his friend, who he found in bed sick. Sometime during the afternoon Macdonald said to his friend, ‘You have been asking the matter with me; I will tell you now. For some time I thought that God was not revealing Himself to me in His Majesty, as I believed I needed; and I, in my ignorance, was often praying that He would do so. Last Sabbath, on commencing my first prayer in the church, I did so by pleading with the Lord, that He would thus reveal Himself to me; and He was pleased to do so; but the effect was so overpowering to this weak frame of mine that I could scarcely get on with my public duties that day; and here I am suffering in body from obtaining what I then asked.’

A large number of people attended his funeral. He was buried next to his predecessor, Mr Calder in Urquhart graveyard.

This essay was taken from ‘The Apostle of the North’ by John Kennedy, published originally in 1866, reprinted in 1978. Unfortunately this biography does not really describe the success of Macdoanld’s ministry. There was clearly a strong anointing on his life, and he clearly had a significant reputation, so it is reasonable to suppose that there were several local revivals during his years of ministry. From the above we know that he turned the power up in the ‘area’ revivals of Breadalbane and Lewis. We also know that there were local revivals in Urquhart, Portmahamock and Tain, so it is highly likely that there were several more, like St Kilda. Revivals in the Highlands and Islands by Alexander Macrea – Republished in 1998 by Tentmaker Publications.

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