Here’s a little more information than I was able to fully fit onto the plate this past Sunday …
As I mentioned in the message, John MacDonald wasn’t the only evangelist in his family. His father, James, was a ‘catechist’ – a lay evangelist, teaching the Bible and the catechism to the Gaelic-speaking people all over his home parish of Reay. And MacDonald’s son, John, Jr., was a foreign missionary to Calcutta, arriving on Indian soil just three years after William Carey died. Much of this I mentioned on Sunday. But let me tell you more about John, Jr.
As a young man, MacDonald’s oldest son became a powerful preacher, something like his father, and was called to be the pastor of a Gaelic-speaking congregation in the great metropolis of London … shepherding immigrant Scots who’d moved to the Empire’s capital for better working prospects. And young MacDonald, like his father, was a great success! Indeed, John Sr. had great hopes that his son might return to the north of Scotland, and pastor one of the large and well-organized congregations there – where his Gaelic would be most useful, and (not insignificantly) where he would be much closer to dear old dad, who loved him deeply.
But young John had too much of his father in him to ‘settle’ for such an opportunity. He’d long watched his father praying earnestly for poor, unreached souls in places like St. Kilda – and often seen his father triumphantly winning such needy souls to Christ. Indeed, so long and so often had he seen his father’s passion to “preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named,” that young John could not help but have the same sort of passion! He could not return home and settle into the now much more evangelized Highlands. Nor could he stay in London. No! Like his father, he had to get out; to go where Christ wasn’t known; to preach where the gospel wasn’t yet preached! And, in God’s providence, India seemed to be just the place!
Nothing could have made his father more happy, don’t you think? In some ways, yes. But in some ways – and like every loving parent, I am sure – John wanted his son closer to home! In fact, when the son asked his father’s thoughts on his becoming a missionary to India, the elder MacDonald wrote back a long letter, filled with both the pros and cons of such an undertaking – but the list of cons was much longer, and more passionate, than the pros! So take heart, parents who face such a request. You’re not alone in your struggle to let go and grant the blessing! Even the greatest of evangelists have a hard time letting their children go to foreign fields!
But – inner struggle though it was – after much back and forth between father and son (with son using his father’s own missionary passion as a tool in his own chest of persuasion!), the father was able to say to the Lord “Thy will be done”; and to his son “May the Lord God of your fathers be with you, and give you ample success among the poor inhabitants of India.” And his son went … gallantly, boldly, and successfully proclaiming glad tidings of great joy, like his father, “not where Christ was already named.”
I see two missionary lessons in this.
First, it is no accident that the two John MacDonald’s had a passion for the lost, and for the advance of God’s kingdom among the least reached. Both of them spent their entire growing up years watching their fathers passionately laboring to win such people to Jesus – prompting me to ask, especially the fathers who read these lines: ‘What are our children watching us give our lives to? What is our passion?’
Second, the story of John MacDonald’s missionary son reminds us that our children are not our own, but God’s. And therefore, difficult as it may be (and it was for MacDonald), we must be willing to say regarding our little ones: ‘The Lord’s will be done’ – even if the Lord’s will is that they go to India, or Greenland, or the desserts of Egypt to live and die, far from home, proclaiming the glad tidings where Christ has not already been named!
MacDonald’s son did both live and die far from home. He left for India in 1837 and died ten years later, never having seen his father’s face again after leaving his native shores. John Kennedy, the elder MacDonald’s biographer, describes the father’s reaction to the news as follows:
In 1847, while Dr. Macdonald was on one of his preaching tours in Perthshire, and just before entering the pulpit in Glenlyon, a letter is put into his hand. Intent on his work, he put the letter unopened into his pocket. Next day, as he was travelling to Edinburgh, he recollected the letter, and on opening it read the tidings of his son's death. A few groans from a father s wounded heart, and a few tears from a fond father's eyes, and the Christian triumphed over the man, and with his heart he said, "It is well." On reaching home he preached from these words in his own pulpit. "'It is well,'" he said, referring to his beloved John, "that he was born; 'it is well' that he was educated; it is better far that he was born again; 'it is well' that he was licensed to preach the gospel; 'it is well' that he was ordained as a pastor; ‘it is well' that he went to India; and above all, 'it is well' for him that he died; for thus, though away from us, and 'absent from the body,' he has secured the gain of being for ever with the Lord."
As the father of six, believe me when I tell you that I do not say this lightly; but I say it nonetheless: May it be that we all would view our children in such a way, surrendering them to the Lord – even if He should choose to carry them far, far away – to be used for the sake of the gospel at the ends of the earth! What better way for us, like young John MacDonald, to imitate our Father (in heaven)?