Life Story

Tormod Sona

One man, universally respected in Hebridean Christian circles was Norman MacDonald – ‘Tormod Sona’ (Happy Norman). Born on the Island of Lewis in the spring if 1852 Norman was in touch with a generation who had experienced the  outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Revival on the Isle of Lewis in 1827. Norman was converted at the age of 19 and was ordained an elder of Barvas Free Church of Scotland in 1902. He died in July 1945 aged 93.

Norman was not a morose Christian but maintained a deep joy and lively sense of humor. He dwelt much on the theme of the covenant love of God. Marked by a deep spirituality, Norman was often on his knees, seeking communion with his Lord. His public prayers by contrast were brief and at times even abrupt. His spiritual insight and experience of divine revelation, was, he believed, in answer to prayer. His biographer has noted, ‘He could frequently astonish his friends by saying something which showed that hidden things were shown to him. This he had because he had enquired of the Lord of things according to his will relating both to his own life and that of others.’ [1]

Some time after his conversion Norman drifted from his first love but, shortly after his rededication, entered a unique and deep experience of the love of God. So powerful was this experience that when passing the place some time later he pointed it out to a friend and said, ‘Do you see that corner there? That is the place where I first said to the Lord, ‘It is enough; my cup is full and it can hold no more.’ [2]  How did God reveal His mind to Tormod Sona? Perhaps the easiest way to discover this secret is to examine some of his experiences.

One night a man in Norman’s area was very ill. His wife, a Christian of note, prayed earnestly, both for her husband’s salvation and his recovery. She asked the Lord to make Norman pray with her. He immediately became aware that someone needed his prayers, and was not long on his knees when he found what he referred to as an “open door” in the lonely woman’s home.

Calling to see her the next day he said, ‘You were awake last night, and you would not keep your peace till you had me up also. A similar event occurred early one morning when Norman found himself unable to sleep with the conviction that someone needed his prayers. In his mind/spirit he went from door to door, village to village, until he found an “open door” at Europie, in Ness. The next time he visited the village he made discrete enquiries, discovering that on the night in question a person in the house was very ill.

The first principal that appears in these incidents is that the Spirit reveals the mind of God by impression. The Holy Spirit impress upon the mind a certain need, person or circumstance in to which He desires the believer to become spiritually or practically involved. This can be seen again and again in the experience of Norman MacDonald and many men and women in the history of the Highland church.

The following incident reinforces the way in which the Holy Spirit, frequently led Norman. A woman from North Tolsta, while attending a communion in Shawbost was passing through a period of spiritual difficulty. Entering a house she found Norman sitting by the fire and after shaking hands with him she quickly left. However, the same evening she found herself in his company once again. Speaking to the gathering Norman said. ‘There is someone present who is bearing a great trial, but let me give you this word from the Lord – The Lord upholdeth all that fall, the cast down raiseth up again.’ The facts of the matter were, that when the woman had entered the house in the morning, these words were ‘powerfully presented’  to his mind. So much so that he was aware of her burden and compelled to remember her in prayer.

The term used by Norman is interesting – ‘give you this word from the Lord’. This is a clear case of direct revelation of another’s need through a powerful impression. Today, in come Christian circles, such a revelation would probably be referred to as a ‘word of knowledge’. Yet, the irony is, that many who admire Tormod Sona and have no difficulty in attributing his knowledge and insight to the work of the Holy Spirit, will give no doctrinal place for such a revelation today and would decry those who lay claim to such. How can we allow it on one hand and then deny the possibility of it on another? The fact is that the history of the Highland church is filled with men and women, laymen and clergy who have walked in this kind of revelation.

Another way in which God communicates and reveals his mind and will is by dreams and visions. Of course the Bible has many examples of this. But, does God use such means today? Many would say no. However, Norman MacDonald would disagree, as would many of his contemporaries.

A woman who lived in Canada and was unknown to Norman was passing through ‘the deep and troubled waters of spiritual concern’. One night she dreamt that she was standing close to a strange group of people who were praying. A man in the group approached her and placing his hand on her shoulder, spoke kindly to her from the scriptures. In her dream she felt a sweet peace entering her being, and her bondage giving way to a sense of peace. When she woke she was a new woman – the darkness had passed away. The woman spoke one day to a friend from Lewis who knew Norman. Describing the man in the dream Norman’s friend had no difficulty in identifying him to the woman as Tormod Sona.

Nor was this the only known occasion when Norman’s prayers reached well beyond his native shores. On one occasion during the First World War he told a friend – ‘I was in Italy last night, and the German prisons cannot keep my prayers from getting in where the poor prisoners are.’ Indeed, a short time before his death, and before it became public knowledge, Norman, accurately informed his son one morning that Hitler had taken his own life.

The phenomena of the apparent physical appearance to others, of a man involved in a spiritual battle for the soul, was not unique to Norman MacDonald. Another who lived on the extreme edge of the natural world and saw far in to the world of the spirit, was James Matheson (1805 – 75). James was born and lived at Clashnagarve, which lies about five miles north-west of Dornoch. Converted as a young man, James Matheson was also pre eminently a man of deep devotion and prayer. Beside the burn, which ran near his home, was a hollow where James spent many hours in prayer. For many years after his death the mark of his knees could be seen in the ground.

During the Crimean war James rarely if ever slept in his bed – spending extraordinary periods in prayer. Some men from the 93rd Highlanders fighting in the trenches, saw, on more than one occasion, a strange man moving about the trenches. After returning home at the end of the war some of these men were at a communion in Creich when for the first time they saw James and recognized him as the man who had appeared to them in Crimea.

When God revealed his mind to Norman by the Holy Spirit or through the written word, his faith was implicit. If he received a ‘promise’ from the Lord he would, to use his own words – ‘put it in the bag, and when the Lord placed a constraint on my spirit to plead its fulfillment I would do so.’ Again we note that sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit is necessary in the life of communion and revelation.

Another distinguished and universally respected figure who talked of ‘pleading the promise’ given in revelation, was the Rev. James Calder of Croy (1712-1775). In a diary entry for 24th June 1735, he speaks of God revealing himself – ‘By suggesting sweetly and powerfully …’. He goes on – ‘I laid hold of this promise in the Lord’s strength, and then pleaded, and still plead its gracious accomplishment in His time and way.’ [3]

However real and intimate the revelations Norman MacDonald received, there were naturally times when he received no direction. On one occasion when asked by a minister whether or not he had any guidance in relation to a certain matter, he replied – ‘There is nothing in the world easier for me to do than to believe God’s word; but in this case I have no guidance’.

One particular area of revelation which is, and has in the past, been condemned by some evangelical commentators is any hint that God might reveal to another who would come to faith and who would not. For instance in Skye during the Revival of 1812/14, a number of women claimed to have received prophetic revelations in regard to those who would be converted and those who would not. This was considered as ‘marked fanaticism’ by some evangelical commentators. Yet, men of the same persuasion comment favorably on similar claims made by James Matheson, Norman MacDonald and others. Was it because they were men, and the others were women? Can women not receive the same depth of revelation as a man? Or might it be the case that there is a certain contradiction and confusion in some circles over this issue, i.e., it was all right for the spiritual heroes of a bygone generation but not for us today. However, once again, this kind of revelation can clearly be seen in the following incident.

In the village of South Dell on the Isle of Lewis there was an elderly Christian lady, a prayer warrior, who Norman held in high regard and with whom he enjoyed fellowship ‘in the Spirit’. Meeting her on one occasion she said – ‘Did you see the three on whom the dew fell last night?’. ‘I hope’, said Norman, ‘our …. was among them’. This elderly lady had received an assurance that the Lord had heard her prayers on behalf of some, whose salvation had been a burden on her spirit.

This union of believers in prayer would appear to be almost unknown in the Highlands and Islands today, yet it was a daily experience of many in past generations. One day Norman saw a young woman walking in a field. He prayed for her and immediately ‘obtained a promise’ that she would become a Christian. However the ‘promise’ was not fulfilled for 35 years! On another occasion he said to a few close friends, ‘I got two young children from the Lord last night, and although they are still in school, they are His’.

The kind of spiritual insight and perception experienced by Norman MacDonald and others was naturally evident in their preaching, if indeed they were preachers. Someone once commented after hearing Norman preach – ‘I never heard anyone preach like you before’. To which he replied, – ‘Probably not, and you may never hear anyone preaching like this again’. This was not any kind of boast but rather a reference to the fact that he believed preaching had become easy, since few had real spiritual perception. Indeed so rare was this kind of spirituality becoming, that speaking to a friend one day Norman said – ‘I  know most of the witnesses in these parts, but there is only one among them who agrees with my own outlook and experience’. This is a telling comment and one that reveals just how far the spirituality of our islands had sunk since its glory days. Then men and women walked in revelation. Ministers preached in revelation and would break in on their own sermons with ‘words of knowledge’. One example of this is recorded of the famed   ‘Big MacRae’, Rev. John MacRae of Kintail. One Sunday morning Hector Jack, of Strathconon, rose early   to go to Knockbain, where MacRae was then minister. As he listened to the preacher, he was astonished to hear his own experiences so accurately described. However, he could not really believe that the preacher was referring to him. At this point, MacRae broke in upon his line of thought and exclaimed – ‘Young man, you are wondering if I am referring to somebody else, but I am not; I am referring to you who were so anxious last night lest you should sleep in, that you divested yourself of only part of your clothes when you went to bed’. This was exactly what Hector Jack had done, but still he thought the description might apply to somebody else in the congregation. Again MacRae raised his voice to a yet higher pitch, and said with great emphasis –  ‘You are still thinking young man, that I may be referring to someone else in this gathering. To put it beyond all doubt for you, I am referring to you, who, in addition to what I have already said, prayed beneath the willow-bush in your back-garden before you left for Knockbain this morning’. Satisfied with this identification the young fellow gratefully accepted the message as ‘from the Lord‘ and ‘With overflowing joy, gave thanks to God who, by His servant, had spoken to him the very message that he so urgently needed and desired’. [4]

There is a hint that Norman may have considered an over emphasis on academic qualities as being responsible for this decline in revelatory preaching under the conviction and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Commenting of a place a friend had recently visited he said – ‘They are big and learned men over there; but as for myself I have only as the Lord gives me from hour to hour’.

 To people who came to him with a question from the scriptures he would ask them whether or not they had enquired of the Lord themselves. ‘Better’, he would remind them, ‘ the light you get on the Truth on your knees than any light you get from men. No one can open scriptures like the Lord Himself.’

Commenting on Norman’s experience of revelation the Rev. Murdoch Campbell, comments –

 ‘We see through the bible how the Church, and God’s people individually, have been guided and preserved in all their perils and ways by God’s Spirit and Word. They sometimes receive spiritual and inward impressions which enable them to apprehend where they are and with whom they are. When Abraham for example, entered Gerar the whole malignant atmosphere of the place reacted on his renewed spirit so much that he exclaimed, ‘surely the fear of God is not in this place’. If similar mystical apprehensions were often present with Norman these we must trace not to any psychological abnormality but to the presence of God’s Word and Spirit in his heart. He was a man of such sensitive feelings that he could almost instinctively sense the spirit of other men’. [5]

One experience that Norman held in common with many believers of past, and indeed, more modern, times, was a supernatural awareness of impending visitors to the house. It is reported that – ‘he could almost invariably tell his daughter-in-law when any of God’s people were about to visit his home’.

 Such revelation in what may appear to be minor matters may surprise some, but it surly goes to show that our God is interested in the small details of life as well as the bigger issues. This truth can be seen in another incident when, shortly before a church service, Norman led a small group in worship. As he prayed he forgot about the time. On rising from his knees only one of the company was left, the others having gone on to the service. As Norman and his friend walked to the church, he stopped once more to pray briefly before entering. When the prayer was over he said – “We may go in. When we shall enter the minister will be in the act of illustrating a portion of the word, and not an eye in the church but will be riveted on his outstretched hand’. And so it proved, no one was distracted as they entered.

It was noted earlier that Norman was not a Christian who suppressed his seasons of joy. On one occasion a person in his company thought that he laughed too heartily and reminded Norman that the Lord was never known to laugh. Norman replied – ‘That is so and do you know why? No! Well, I will tell you. He had sorrow that I might rejoice, and he wept that I might have joy’.

Norman had little time for those whose religion consisted of a formal legalism and whose tongue was contrary to their actions. He once said – ‘A true Christian could be known even if he had no tongue’. Nor was he narrow when it came to fellowship with the Lord’s people. He loved all God’s children, irrespective of denominational differences.

Another quality in the life of revelation would appear to be a tender conscience. Norman is reported to have once stated – ‘Rather than hurt my conscience I would not touch even that crumb of bread.’ A conscience honed in such a way was obviously sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

One night as he was preparing to go to bed a word from the Lord came to Norman. Someone was in need of his help. However, he tried to go to bed thinking that the matter could wait, but to use his own words – ‘The one foot refused to follow the other.’ He got dressed and went outside. After walking for a considerable distance, praying as he went, he met a person who was in deep distress of body and soul. Norman did all he could to alleviate the situation and as a result blessed another and was himself blessed. Commenting on such situations Norman strongly advised his friends never to disobey God’s Word or quench the impulse to pray.

It is instructive to note that the qualities we have been examining all join in harmony to produce a life that blesses others and pleases God. A life of prayer and nearness to God, revelation of the mind and will of God in the day-by-day walk, obedience to the leading of the Spirit, a tender conscience, a deep joy, and openness to and love for fellow believers. To such qualities, I hope you will agree, we should all aspire.

——————–

[1] The King’s Friend, Memorial of Norman MacDonald or Tormod Sona, Rev. Murdoch Campbell, MA, Undated, Page 7.

[2] Ibid, Page 10.

[3] Diary of James Calder, Rev. William Taylor, M. A. Stirling, 1875, Page 5.

[4] Big MacRae, George N. M. Collins, Knox Press, Edinburgh 1977 – Page 30.

[5] The King’s Friend, Memorial of Norman MacDonald or Tormod Sona, Rev. Murdoch Campbell, MA, Undated, Page 23.

 

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Tom Lennie
    June 22, 2022 at 12:48 pm

    An excellent and riveting overview of Happy Norman’s outstanding life. What a guy! I’d absolutely love to have met him…. better still, to spend a day or two in his company. What an effect that would have on my faith. Thanks so much for reminding us of his remarkable depth of spiritual understanding and discernment.

  • Reply
    admin
    June 22, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you for commenting Tom .. much appreciated.

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