Life Story

Peter MacLean 1800 – 1868

No doubt many interesting stories could be told regarding people who came to faith during the spiritual awakenings in Lewis between 1822 – 1832 which we examined in our last post. Some converts became full time Christian Workers, Evangelists, Missionaries, and Ministers. Others were scattered abroad as the result of immigration, going on to have a profound social and spiritual influence in their new homelands. Yet others maintained a quiet and humble witness on their native Island.

One man, who would become legendary both at home and in Canada, was Peter MacLean. Peter was born in the parish of Uig, Lewis in 1800. He grew up in the area and went on to become a successful merchant in Stornoway.

One evening, in November 1825, it fell to Peter to lead worship in the family home. He read from the sixth chapter of the prophecy of Hosea, which begins – ‘Come, let us return to the Lord.’ He had only read a few lines when he was choked by emotion, and tried to start over again. However, he found himself weeping and was unable to continue. Under deep spiritual concern his thoughts turned immediately to his neighbours. Despite the fact that it was now late at night, Peter went round the nearby houses rousing the people and advising them to get up and seek God’s mercy. The people, it is said, were ‘awe-struck’ and it is reported that a number rose to pray and that some came to faith.

Having himself experienced rest from his inward spiritual battle Peter had a strong desire to reach others with the message of God’s grace and peace. He lost interest in his business and wound up his affairs. He subsequently studied for the Ministry in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, being licensed to preach in 1836. Very soon thereafter he received a call from some of his fellow Islanders who, having emigrated, were now settled in Whycocomach and St Patrick’s Channel, Cape Breton, Canada. Some of these people were also children of the Lewis awakening and a number were know to him.

Peter was ordained in 1837 and settled in Whycocomach. He was known here as ‘Maighstir Padruig’. It is said he ‘preached his first sermon at ‘the Narrows’, on September 2nd, 1837, and his first at Whycocomagh on the 9th of that same month. The first of his services here was held in the open, on a sloping field. Many of his hearers came in boats’.

Within two years Peter MacLean had engaged seven teachers for his Parish and by 1838 there were 227 children attending classes. A further 224 adults had learned to read the Bible.

During his years in Cape Breton, Peter MacLean worked tirelessly as an Evangelist. On occasions it is reported that he crossed the shifting ice of the Bras d’Or wrapped in a Buffalo robe with his face frozen by the icy wind. It is said – ‘His preaching was accompanied by very extraordinary effects upon his hearers, not only mentally and spiritually, but also physically.’

Maighstir Padruig was to become the main driving force in a spiritual awakening which was to sweep through Cape Breton between 1838 – 1842. His ministry during these years has been described as ‘catalytic’. He loved the people and was loved by them. It is recorded that his captivating appeal was ‘with his conciliating and healing message, proclaiming, not just divine wrath, judgement and retribution, but divine mercy, pardon and grace’ and ‘his vivid biblical imagery, his pulpit appeal and his spontaneous eloquence went straight to the hearts of his Cape Breton followers.’

This spiritual movement was at its height in the winter of 1839/40. It was said to have been marked by ‘a spirit of earnest inquiry and prayer’ and an ‘insatiable thirst after devotional exercises’, a ‘constant pouring over the Scriptures,’ and a ‘delight in conversing on religious subjects.’ The movements is said to have originated in Whycocomagh and spread to the adjacent communities of Lake Ainslie, Broad Cove and Chimney Corner. The converts are recorded as being ‘filled with a deep conviction of sin and humility, exaltation and release.’

The spiritual life of the community was, as a result, transformed. Prayer meetings were organised and the Bible read and memorised. Illiterate converts eagerly learned to read in order to be able to read the Bible.

Interestingly one commentator recorded of MacLean – ‘The Rev, Peter MacLean, despite his humble crofting origins, travelled to all his preaching engagements in morning coat, silk top hat and white shirt and cuffs!’

Regrettably, for the people of Cape Breton, Peter MacLean’s ministry came to an abrupt halt in 1842 when ill health forced him to return to his native Lewis. His influence however, remained for many years and he is still celebrated on the Island today.

Although a physically fit and powerful man the five years he had spend exerting himself for the people of Cape Breton, took a heavy toll. On his return to Lewis his friends thought he would never recover. However, after a time of rest he was on his feet again and his reputation as a preacher soon spread throughout his home Island and beyond. Crowds flocked to hear him.

After his return to Scotland MacLean married one Flora Campbell, said to be ‘a lady of superior piety and gifts and social position.’

He was subsequently called to Tobermory, Isle of Mull in 1843. Within a short period of time it is said that upwards of 1000 people attended his preaching here.

It was while he was a Minister in Tobermory that ‘Aonghas nam Beann’ (Angus of the Hills – see last post) visited. He came with ‘Mistress Peggie McKenzie’, also from from Lewis, who was ‘well known throughout the Isles for her eminent life and character.‘ Angus, it is said, ‘had attached himself to her so strongly that a separation could not be thought of.’ At the half-yearly communion Peggy McKenzie used to come and stay at the Free Church Manse in Tobermory and was always accompanied by Angus who was accommodated nearby.

In 1853 Peter MacLean again visited Canada. During this visit he travelled 7,289 miles, preached 91 times as well as conducting prayer meetings and other gatherings. Revisiting Whycocomagh for a communion weekend some 5000 are said to have attended with ‘200 boats in the bay and 500 horses tethered in the groves.’ This weekend is said to have been ‘the largest Pentecostal service ever held in Cape Breton’. It is further recorded that – ‘It is remembered today (2017) as the occasion when more than 5,000 people from nearly every congregation in Cape Breton met together in a joyous Reunion of Faith.’

MacLean subsequently became minister of Stornoway Free Church of Scotland in 1855 and was involved in another spiritual awakening which swept through the Island in 1859.

Writing in 1860 of the 59 movement generally, the ‘Prince of Preachers’, C.H. Spurgeon noted – ‘The times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord have at last dawned upon our land. A spirit of prayer is visiting our churches. The first breath of the rushing mighty wind is already discerned, while on rising evangelists the tongues of fire have evidently descended.’ And, the same year, the Moderator of the Free Church, addressing the General Assembly stated – ‘We, as a church, accept the revival as a great and blessed fact. Numerous and explicit testimonies from ministers and members alike bespeak the gracious influence upon the people’.

Although plagued by ill health between 1855 – 1868, Peter MacLean visited Canada once again in 1866. He died following a short illness in March 1868.

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