The emigrant ship had been caught in a severe storm off the Caithness coast in northern Scotland. The passengers, made up mostly of Sutherland folk, escaping the severe poverty and deprivation of their ancestral homelands, were bound for America.
As the ship, beaten by huge waves, was forced towards the rocks of the northern shore, almost all on board were on their knees uttering loud cries for mercy. Sitting quietly among them was one Kildonan man, James MacDonald. A terror-stricken passenger shouted at him, ‘You hardened godless man, why don’t you pray’. ‘I pity those’ came the answer, “who never prayed till to-night.’
The vessel was dashed on the wild lee shore, but miraculously all on board escaped. The Kildonan man never again attempted to leave his homeland.
In 1770 James Macdonald was appointed catechist for Reay in Sutherland. On the 12th November 1779, while engaged in his work at the far end of the parish, his second wife gave birth to her second child, a son, at their home.
While travelling with a friend on the night of the birth, which took place before he arrived home, James had encouraged his travelling companion – ‘Go to a secret place and enquire of the Lord regarding the child.’ The friend did as requested and on returning told him – ‘a child of the covenant has this night been born in this house.’
The only other person present at the birth was a ‘pious widow, one of their neighbours’. This child was to become the greatest evangelist the Highland and Islands have ever known.
John MacDonald was christened by a ‘moderate’ minister who, his parents having failed to find him at his manse, met them on the moor on their return journey. The man in his shooting attire decided to make “short work” of his responsibility. As ‘they were standing beside a frozen pool, and after muttering a few words of prayer, the minister broke the ice with the butt end of his gun, and fetching the water from the opening, sprinkled it on the infant as he repeated the solemn words of consecration.
The widow who had been present at MacDonald’s birth took a keen interest in him, and, strange as it may appear to our modern way of thinking, after he had been weaned, insisted in taking him to her own house. MacDonald’s parents ‘gratified her wish, and he remained for five years under her care.’
Every night, before putting the child to bed, this woman knelt beside him and prayed audibly for him. Such was the impression on his young mind that even in his latter years MacDonald could recollect some of her petitions. These petitions were to be answered abundantly.
As a teenager John MacDonald was known as ‘the cleverest scholar in the parish’ and as a young man, narrowly avoided conscription at the hands of an unscrupulous recruiting sergeant, being saved only by the intervention of the Parish Minister from Olrig.
MacDonald left home for college in 1797. While there he excelled in his educational attainments, coming within the first three in all his classes. It was during an interval from college that the young student became concerned in a deep way regarding his true spiritual condition. Many believe this came about as a result of his reading the works of Jonathan Edwards, the famous pastor of Northhampton, USA, who was instrumental in the ‘Great Awakening’ of 1740. However, MacDonald himself apparently never recounted his conversion experience, at least publically, as he regarded speaking about such matters as ‘selfish and indiscrete’.
John MacDonald was licensed to preach on July 2nd 1805 by the Presbytery of Caithness and shortly after his ordination he embarked on an Ossianic tour throughout the North West Highlands, at the urgent request of the politician Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster (1754 -1835). Although this tour was not primarily for the purpose of preaching, MacDonald used the opportunity, to preach in each Parish he visited. After having preached at one such service in the parish of Glenelg the minister 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 all my parish’!
Crossing the hills between Assynt and Lochbroom a short time later, he was guided on the journey by a young girl barely in her teens. As they parted MacDonald spoke to her quoting the text – ‘Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth.’ Some twenty years later while preaching at a communion in Contin the woman spoke to MacDonald, telling him that his words had made an ‘abiding impression’ on her. She was regarded by all who knew her as ‘a truly Christian woman’.
MacDonald was subsequently ordained as missionary minister at Berridale in September 1806, having been married the previous January. His time here was short for, by December of the same year he had moved on, being inducted as minister to the Gaelic Church, Edinburgh, in January 1807. His leaving Berridale was timely, for as he took a last look at the cottage, in which he and his wife had been living, the roof blew off and was ‘strewn in fragments on the ground.’
During his residence in Edinburgh MacDonald passed through some form of experience which his biographer, Rev J. Kennedy, Dingwall, refers to as ‘an important change’. He also refers to this experience as ‘a fresh baptism of the Spirit’, the results of which was soon ’apparent in his preaching.’
Soon after this ‘change’ MacDonald preached one Sunday in Tain. A man who had walked some sixteen miles to hear his own minister, Dr MacIntosh, was less than pleased to find a ‘smart looking young man walking’, as he thought, ‘with too rapid progress, and with too light a step towards the pulpit.’ The man’s testimony continues: –
‘I felt at once as if the day was lost. I expected no good and shut up my heart against the youth who came between me and my wonted Sabbath fare. He gave out the psalm. “You can’t spoil that at any rate”, I said to myself. The prayer began; but I scarcely heard the first part of it. Gradually my attention was attracted, but toward the manse seat I found my eye still wandering. Before the prayer was over I ceased to look away from the pulpit. When the sermon began I forgot all but the doctrine I was hearing. As he warmed up with his subject, the preacher became vehement in his action; every eye was riveted on the speaker; and suppressed sounds testified to the effects 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 preachers manner, that I expected ere he was done, every heart would be pierced, and the very roof of the church would be rent ….’
Such was the preaching of this young man who would one day earn the title – ‘The Apostle of the North’.
The year 1813 saw MacDonald once again settled in the Highlands, he being inducted to the Parish of Urqurart on the 1st of September of that year. He was 34 yrs of age when he came to Ross-Shire and within the first year his wife died. The weekend following her death he was due to take communion in Urquhart. No doubt his elders expected him to postpone the services but he replied – ‘No, let not the death of my wife interfere with commemorating the death of my Saviour.’
In the event, as many as ten thousand people, were at ‘The Burn’, Ferintosh, to hear him preach on the text ‘I will betrothe thee unto me for ever.’ From the very start of the service there was an unusual stillness in the congregation. The preacher’s self-denial and sorrow touched the vast crowd. Few eyes were tearless and as evening wore on the groans and cries in the congregation at times drowned out the voice of the preacher. After asking the question from his text – ‘Wilt thou go with this man?’ a number of times, a tall middle aged woman in the centre of the vast crowd stood up, tossed her arms into the air, and exclaimed in tones heard over the vast audience – ‘Theid, Theid, O, Theid” (“ Will, I will, O, I will”).
It was from his base in Ross – Shire that John MacDonald was to embark on long preaching tours throughout the North West Highlands and Islands, as well as other places further south. A stranger once asked a member of MacDonald’s congregation, ‘How is your minister? – ‘I have neither heard nor seen him for six weeks’, was the reply. His long absences, however, appear to have been borne well by the majority of his congregation.
In 1816 MacDonald received a letter from the famed Rev. Lachlan MacKenzie, Lochcarron, part of which read – ‘I hear that you keep a large store of powder which you use in blasting. I wish you would come and try your skill in breaking the hard rocks of Lochcarron.’ He accepted and a strong friendship was formed between the two men.
During Autumn of the same year MacDonald was on his way to Caithness when some men asked him to preach in the Parish of Dornoch. However, the Parish minister, Dr. Bethune, refused to allow it. Unperturbed, MacDonald and his congregation set off to Riavag in Spinningdale where the un-forbidden ground of Creich touches the boundary of Dornoch. The preacher stood on Creich soil while the congregation sat within the parish of Dornoch. It is reported that he never preached with greater power and a number were ‘brought under serious impressions.’
A few weeks after this incident the minister, Rev. Dr. Bethune of Dornoch, who had refused him permission to preach in his Parish, died suddenly. MacDonald noted in his diary – ‘Some weeks ago he refused me liberty to preach on a week-day in his parish though eagerly requested by his people … The Lord will have his own in spite of all who oppose Him.’
One young man who was among the vast congregation in Riavag that autumn day was seventeen-year-old Alex Murray of Rogart. As MacDonald preached in the power of the Spirit, Alex was so affected that he had to be carried out of the gathering. From that moment until his death at the age of 75, he lived an exemplary life – full of the graces of a true Christian.
During 1817 MacDonald spent most of the year preaching away from his home. Some churches locked their doors against him but a few were won over by his kindness. However, others could not be moved to admit the minister who had become known in some circles as – ‘The Wild man of Ferintosh’.
The presbyteries of Strathbogie and Aberlour, subsequently complained to the General Assembly regarding MacDonald’s conduct in ‘Preaching in other parishes than his own’ without express permission. Such conduct was deemed as ‘irregular and unconstitutional’, however MacDonald himself apparently received no official censure.
Some think that men like MacDonald had little or no sense of humour. This was certainly not true in his case. Travelling with a fellow minister one day on a ferry, the men were approached by a drunken man with a dog. Lifting the dog to MacDonald’s companion the drunk asked him ‘Will you christen this child?’ Horrified, the minister ordered the man away. However, he then turned to MacDonald and presented the dog to him with the same question. Rising from his seat MacDonald said – ‘Do you acknowledge yourself the father of what you now present for baptism?’ The crowd on the boat who had been watching the episode broke in to jeers and the man skulked back to his seat!
It was the Rev. John Shaw of Bracadale, Skye, who first introduced ‘The Apostle of the North’ to the Isle of Skye, my home area. Thereafter, he became a regular visitor here until the time of his death. Given that Shaw died in January 1823, MacDonald had obviously visited and preached on the Island prior to that date.
Details of his preaching tours on Skye are fragmented and difficult to trace as none are mentioned in any detail by his biographer. However, we do know that he spent some days on Skye in 1822, probably between 1st and 4th September, while on his way to St. Kilda. It is fairly certain also that he spent this time in the company of John Shaw, as Shaw subsequently travelled with him on the next leg of his journey to Harris. Shaw had intended travelling to St. Kilda with MacDonald but prior to the journey from Harris to St. Kilda his ‘courage failed him’ and he returned to Skye. The SSPCK report for 1823 also reveals that Souter of Durinish, one of the ‘moderate’ ministers had invited him to preach at Kilmiur in 1822, while on his way to St. Kilda.
Following Shaw’s death the Rev. Roderick MacLeod became minister of Bracadale and it was primarily through him that MacDonald’s relationship with Skye continued.
During May 1824 John MacDonald was again in Skye, passing through, once more, on his way to St. Kilda. On 2nd May he preached in Bracadale for MacLeod, where he – ‘Found the congregation assembled – an immense crowd! .. ‘Preached with considerable freedom, and, I trust, with some effect.’
On a return journey from St. Kilda in 1827, Macdonald, on Friday, 21st July, stayed the weekend with Roderick MacLeod at his manse in Bracadale and on the Sunday preached to ‘an immense congregation’, his text being from 1 Corinthians 4: 3&4.
It is worth noting that the scenes of the early Skye Evangelist John Farquharsons ministry in Perthshire proved also to be productive soil under MacDonald’s preaching some ten years later. He made a number of visits to the same places that had been spiritually ignited under Farquharsons preaching – with similar results.
During 1816 we find MacDonald preaching in Gaelic at the Breadalbane communion weekend to vast congregations. On communion Sunday he preached at Ardeonaig on one of his favourite texts, Isaiah 54:5 – ‘Thy maker is thy husband’. It is reported that the preaching was accompanied by an extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Some of the people could not contain their feelings and cried out – others were bathed in tears while yet others struggled to contain their emotions. Revisiting the area on Friday, 11 September 1835, he noted in his diary – ‘Preached at four o’clock at Ardeonaig, a spot once highly favoured to me by various considerations…. Ah! Ardeonaig! Would these times returned.’ – they did and vast congregations and similar results again attended his preaching.
The following September found MacDonald back in Bracadale, Skye, where, on Sunday, 11th he preached to a congregation of some 7000. The vast congregation listened with ‘earnestness and solemnity’. Many were in tears for the duration of the meeting. The following day the numbers were slightly less but the effects the same. He continued preaching to similar gatherings throughout the area until Monday, 19th September. These were indeed days of revival power and blessing!
During 1842 John MacDonald was back in Skye where, in September, he conducted a preaching tour. It was he, in all probability, who conducted a Communion service at Snizort where it was subsequently reported by the Baptist minister of Broadford, Skye, that between 12,000 and 15,000 attended, and – ‘Hundreds fell down as if they were dead’.
It was also most likely about this time that MacDonald preached in the Sleat area of South Skye. On one such occasion the people became so agitated that the parish minister, who was in the audience, rose to his feet and warned MacDonald not to ‘set the people mad’. However, the warning was ignored and MacDonald continued preaching to great effect. Such a reaction gives us some hint of the emotion and phenomenon which accompanied MacDonald’s preaching. Were the same to happen today I have no doubt he would likewise be seen as a dangerous extremist.
On another visit, during which he stayed at Kensaleyre, Snizort, (my home village) with his friend the Rev. Roderick MacLeod, thousands again came to hear him preach. MacLeod rose to introduce his friend to the vast gathering but was doubtful if they could all hear him. Addressing the gathering he said that although they might not be able to hear him speak, when MacDonald rose, they would all be able to hear him! Subsequently – ‘The Doctor rose, and with the one gesticulation of holding in the one hand a pocket Testament that he sometimes struck on the other hand, he was easily heard to the outskirts of the great throng.’
During this visit he also he preached on the border to the Portree Parish, here in Skye as the incumbent there would not allow him preach within the bounds of his responsibility. At the edge of the crowd was an old man leaning on his shepherd’s staff as he listened to the preacher. MacDonald, speaking of the ground on which the sinner may build his hope of salvation, and the relation in which faith stands to the righteousness of Christ, which is that ground, seeing the old man, shouted –‘Look at that old man! On what does he rest his weight? His staff on which he leans rests on solid ground! The staff has its own work to do in holding him up. It is by means of it that he leans his weight on that on which it rests. Without a foundation the staff would have no resting-place, and without the staff, which holds him up as he bends over it, he would fall. So it is by faith that a sinner rests on the righteousness of the Son of God!’
On another occasion MacDonald was returning home to Ferintosh, fresh from the scenes of revival in Skye. He sent word ahead that he would preach at Invermoriston and on arrival addressed the people at a sheltered spot in the open air. An eye witness records of that occasion –
‘He preached with great power, from the words of Paul to the Philippian jailer. The impression of that day was extraordinary. The place was like a battlefield strewed with the dead and dying. Not a few survived to testify that the Lord was of a truth present that day.’
What was it like to listen to this firebrand preacher? The Rev. Allan Sinclair, who was brought up in Glen Urquhart, remembers as a child listening to him preaching in his native glen, during a communion service: –
‘I remember, and ever shall, the thrill of that emotional, powerful voice. I sat in the gallery of the church, in a front seat, while he preached from the words, “We would see Jesus”. The thrill of his voice was such that I felt as if raised from my seat by some invisible power, and in danger of falling over the gallery. There was a strange power in the thrill of MacDonald’s voice. A minister told us – an aged minister of Christ – that on a certain occasion, while hearing him at Strathpeffer, he never knew the meaning of the passage, “My word is spirit,” as he did that day. Such was his emotion, that lest he should disturb the meeting, he rose and retired’.
Another man who heard MacDonald preaching in Glenlyon and Breadalbane was Duncan Campbell. He records –
‘It is true that I was young and susceptible, but I think he was, in Gaelic, the most wonderfully eloquent, poetical and mesmeric speaker I ever listened to, and I may add that I heard most of the other Disruption celebrities and afterwards many of England’s famous orators, clerical and political .. I do not remember that he ever introduced into his sermons the controversial topics of the day. He spoke more like an inspired evangelist than an ecclesiastical partisan. His presence at a communion always caused a huge multitude from far and near to assemble.’
There was more than one instance when John MacDonald revealed a supernatural knowledge of things going on in the mind of his listeners. One such occasion was during an open-air communion service at The Burn of Ferintosh. A young man had determined in his mind to stand up at the end of the service and proclaim to all what a great sinner he was. Consequently, when the service was over he rose to speak, but before he could utter a word MacDonald rose to his feet again, and pointing to him said in Gaelic – “Ghille, tha rud agam ri’radh rint. An rud a cheil Dia na cuir thus’ an ceill agus thoir so leat, ‘Glanaidh fuil Iosa Criosd a Mhic sinn o gach uile pheacadh.’ (My lad, I have something to say to you. Don’t you reveal what God has concealed, and take this with you, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin.’
John MacDonald continued preaching up until shortly before his death in 1849, His last trip away from his home Church was to the south of Scotland in September/October 1848.
His biographer records – ‘In one of his last sermons he declared, that looking back on his preaching, there was nothing which he regretted more than how little he had said regarding the love of God the Father.’ An interesting regret indeed. John MacDonald died on the 18th of April 1849, in his 70th year after an untreated foot infection spread throughout his body. Only eternity will reveal the full impact of the life and preaching of this amazing man of God.
His father James had, of course, predeceased him. It is said that James MacDonald was blind during the last few years of life – something he appears to have been prepared for long before the event. However, he retained full mental capacity as well as his ‘spiritual exercises’ until his death aged 95. A week prior to his passing, and apparently in good health, he ordered extra supplies. His housekeep was surprised and on asking as to the reason for the extra food he replied with a smile – ‘They will be needed for those who will attend my wedding.’