Life was hard in those days and James resolved to emigrate to America with his wife and then family. They were prevented from doing so by a fierce storm in the Pentland Firth. John had not then been born, but providence prevented him going there. After all, if he had, John would not have been born.
You may ask, Would he not have been born in America? The answer to that question is no because the then wife of James would not be the mother of John. Sadly, James’ first wife died shortly after the aborted trip to America. In 1775, James remarried, this time to the daughter of a Christian man who lived near him, and to them was born John four years later (he was their second child). Divine providence arranged for John Macdonald to be born in Reay.
John was born when his father was away from home. His mother was cared for by a neighbouring widow and she developed a very strong attachment to the baby that she asked the parents if he could live with her once he was able to do so. Perhaps surprisingly to us, they agreed to this proposal, maybe because there were a lot of other children in the home, and it may not have been that big. In any case, he lived with her for five years. During that time, she dedicated herself to caring for him in a spiritual as well as physical manner. Although he was so young, he testified at the end of his life that he could still recall some of her earnest prayers for his spiritual welfare. Whatever we think of the arrangement, we cannot doubt that God in his providence arranged for a prayer warrior to intercede for him. Providentially, he was the child of much special prayer (no doubt his parents prayed for him as well).
When John went to school, it soon became obvious that he was brighter intellectually than the other pupils. The problem was that two pupils were the children of the gentry, and the teacher was reluctant to let John get too far ahead of them. It looked as if providence was preventing him from obtaining suitable education. But to come to that conclusion would be believe in presumption rather than in providence. Despite the teacher’s fears, the mother of the boys heard about what was happening, instructed the teacher not to be so concerned, and arranged for John to teach her two children every evening about the lessons for the following day, for which John received a financial reward. In providence, God arranged for possible barriers to be removed and even added monetary help which would have been valuable for John.
His ability at arithmetic opened doors for him to look after the annual accounts of several wealthy farmers and estate owners, and it was clear that he should proceed to a university. Before he could do so, when he was eighteen, he was sent to Thurso by one of the estate owners with a letter. It so happened that the army recruiters were there that day and young John, being very interested in music and dancing, participated eagerly in the festivities. The outcome was that he enlisted, and that usually meant he would be in the army for many years. It looked as if his future was in the armed services. Fortunately a neighbouring minister was in town and when he heard what happened he immediately tried to get John released, but it was only with great difficulty that he managed to do so. If he had become a soldier, he would not have become the apostle of the north. Again, divine providence over-ruled what seemed to be the path he was on.
Although he had been brought up in a very devout environment, John did not show much interest in spiritual things until his second year in university that he began to take seriously the state of his soul.
In 1813, John Macdonald was inducted to the charge of Ferintosh. A year later, his wife died while he was away on a preaching tour in Caithness. The annual communion had been arranged for the week after his return, which coincided with the funeral of his wife. This communion was his first as minister of Ferintosh and yet, in providence, what would have been a spiritual highlight was obviously affected by his bereavement. His elders suggested that he postpone his communion because he had a major part to play in the preaching (in those days, those who came to assist the local minister only assisted – they did not replace him). He refused to postpone the communion, so on the Sabbath he preached to about 10,000 people on the text, ‘I will betroth thee unto me forever.’ The relationship between his own loss and the theme of his sermon was obvious, and many were affected by his words that day. His response to a difficult providence was owned by the Lord.
Macdonald had several children, the best known being his son called by the same name. He became a minister, first in Elgin and then in London. Then he became a missionary in Calcutta. In 1847, the father went to preach in Perthshire. He received a letter which he put in his pocket, intending to read it after his preaching was over. He did not get an opportunity to do so until the following day and when he opened it he discovered that it contained information about his son’s death. We could say that providentially he was kept from reading the letter until his preaching duties were over. Obviously, as he travelled home, his mind was on his son. When he preached in Ferintosh after getting home, his text was the words, ‘It is well.’ Such a response tells us what he thought of divine providence.