What kind of man was John Macdonald? First, he was an organised man. When at home divided his day into three sets of eight hours. Eight were spent in bed, eight were spent in study and prayer, and eight were spent in other matters connected to the church and home. Providence does not mean disorganisation.
Second, he was a physically strong man. In his early days he travelled through regions without roads and had either to walk or ride, often through cold and stormy weather, crossing swollen rivers to preach to crowds who had gathered to hear him. Eventually such exertions caught up with him. But he refused to let tiredness or even illness prevent him preaching. On one occasion, he was seriously ill and was unable to perspire, which the doctors wanted him to do in order to get rid of the cause of his illness (I have no idea if that is good medical practice today). A local elder heard about the problem and arranged for a cure. He gathered people to the manse in order to hear an address from the minister, who knew nothing about his elder’s plans. After the people had gathered, he persuaded Macdonald to say a few words to them. The minister became increasingly animated as he went on, began to perspire, and by the time he was finished he was soaking with sweat. After preaching he fell asleep and woke up recovered from his illness. Providence has ways of helping us.
Third, he was a busy man. During the years when his ministry was in full flow and he was taking the gospel to many parts of the country, he would spend three months each year in this practice. He preached on average two sermons each day during that three months (about 180 sermons), which meant that he preached more sermons in that period than most ministers do in a year. The rest of the year he would be in his own pulpit or in one near home (he preached in Inverness and Dingwall monthly at special meetings). In the remaining nine months of each year he preached about 100 sermons in his own congregation and roundabout, which is about three a week. So it is calculated that he preached 10,000 sermons after he began his ministry in Ferintosh. An average Free Church minister who preaches for forty years will preach about 5,000 sermons. So we can see that Macdonald was very busy. Yet although he preached on those numerous occasions, he never preached an unstudied sermon. He never took providence for granted. Providence never justifies laziness.
Fourth, he was a man with an interest in the progress of the gospel. ‘His ministry was richly blessed of God. Perhaps no minister of modern times was more owned as the means of converting souls. While in Edinburgh, he took a deep and active interest in the great revival at Muthil, under the ministry of the Rev. Mr Russell. Soon after his removal to Ferintosh, a deeply interesting movement took place among his own people. After that the Word was much blessed on both sides of Loch Tay, and in Glenlyon; and he frequently visited the district and preached with great power and success. The fruits of the revival of religion there are visible to this day. There were great spiritual movements in Ross-shire, the revivals in Kilsyth and Dundee took place, and in all these Dr Macdonald took his share of the work with warm interest. Wherever he heard of the Lord’s cause prospering, he made a point of being present to help it forward.’ We interpret providence by how it helps the gospel progress.
Fifth, he knew great gospel blessing. Says the biographer of his son about the father: ‘The revival in religion which had been commenced or promoted by the efforts of Whitefield, Dr Erskine, and others, was carried forward by his zeal and energy, after his translation from Edinburgh to the parish of Urquhart, in Ross-shire. Indeed, to perhaps none of her living sons does Scotland owe more than to him who has been appropriately styled the Apostle of the North. Not merely has soul after soul been born of the Spirit through his instrumentality, but revival after revival – those harvests of ministerial labour – have been produced, or promoted, by a blessing from on high on his devoted labours; and the day when the secrets of all hearts shall be laid bare alone can tell how many shall rise up to call him blessed.’
Robert Buchanan, in his Ten Years’ Conflict, summed up Macdonald’s ministry: ‘it is enough to say that he was the Whitefield of the Highlands of Scotland. The proudest and most powerful chieftains of the Celtic race never possessed such a mastery over the clans, which the fiery cross or the wild pibroch summoned into the field in the fierce days of feudal strife, as belonged, in these more peaceful modern times, to this humble minister of Christ. From Tarbatness to the outer Hebrides – from the Spey to the Pentland Firth – the fact needed but to be known that John Macdonald had come, and was about to preach the Word, in order that the country for twenty miles around should gather at his call. Ten thousand people have often been swayed as one man – stirred into enthusiasm, or melted into sadness, by this mighty and faithful preacher’s voice.’
What did this amazing man think of his labours? He once wrote, ‘I never enter the pulpit without fear and I never leave it without shame.’
John Macdonald died in 1849. He lived and moved in a world different from ours. He had no concept of motor cars, aeroplanes, telephones, or the internet. Yet he touched more people with the gospel than we do as a denomination with our temporal benefits.