Illustration: Stornoway Harbour
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Fifty Years On: Remembering the Rev Kenneth A MacRae
As one who owes a debt of gratitude to the ministry of the Rev Kenneth A MacRae (1883-1964) it would not be right to let the 50th anniversary of his death (5th May) pass without a short tribute to his memory. He exercised a powerful ministry over 50 years in the Free Church of Scotland and his memory lives on in the monumental work, Diary of Kenneth A MacRae, edited with additional material by Iain Murray. He made a lasting impression on my early Christian life. I had correspondence with him and then entered into personal contact. I would like to highlight the significance of his testimony.
A commanding figure
Physically he was a striking figure of a man. There was the strong influence of the military background in which he was reared. He had a fine upright bearing and a brisk step. There was the same disciplined and methodical approach to his work and ministry. This combined with his physical tenacity enabled him to undertake a prodigious amount of work throughout his life. Likewise in Church life and in national life he had a commanding voice.
A godly man
Many things could be said about him as a Christian. His subsequent life was shaped by that conversion experience which he records: “I hereby put on record that since the Lord in his sovereign mercy entered my heart on the lonely summit of Bell’s Hill in the Pentlands on that memorable afternoon – 9th August 1909 – I have ever sought to serve Him as my only Lord.” Finding no food for his newborn spiritual life in the Church his parents attended in Edinburgh, he searched for and found a satisfying ministry in Free St Columba’s, where the Rev Donald MacLean was the pastor. Soon after his conversion he tasted something of the old Highland piety in the childhood haunts of his native Ross-shire and he carried with him to the end of his days an ideal that he kept pursuing.
A soul winner
He was first and foremost a preacher and a pastor. He loved to preach Christ and him crucified. He wrote: “I must not lose sight of the preacher’s golden rule: ‘Never preach a sermon which has not sufficient in it – used of the Spirit – to lead a soul to Christ’.” And he was used by God to lead many souls to the Saviour. In one place he gives figures of those brought to Christ under his preaching. He expected conversions. He was a diligent pastor. Typical entries in his diary include: “Spent a most enjoyable day in Totscore. Gave a brief exhortation in every house upon a text which I judged to be suitable to the state of each family, and thus was able to bring the truth to twenty-three individuals capable of comprehending it, nine of whom either cannot or will not go out (to the church) to hear it.”
A champion for the truth
I think we are especially indebted to him as a champion for the cause of Christ in the midst of a deteriorating spiritual situation in the Church in Scotland. Having experienced the soul-destroying nature of theological liberalism and the subtle danger of the new school of Victorian evangelism, he was wholly committed to full-orbed Calvinism all his days. He was ministering in the midst of a drift from the old ways and no man understood the nature of the declension better than Mr MacRae. He felt that the distinctive Reformed testimony of the Free Church was being compromised by a weakening of principles. He had the discernment to see when some of his colleagues were supporting outside movements that would be harmful to the testimony of his Church.
In this connection he had a great concern to instruct the rising generation in these principles. As early as 1936, at the request of the Public Questions Committee and sanctioned by the General Assembly, he undertook a three month itinerary “with a view to seeking to persuade the young people of the Church to a greater interest in and zeal for the message and testimony which has been given the Free Church to declare.” He prepared a sheet ‘What the Free Church Stands For’ which was given out at the close of each meeting. The account of the tour in the Diary is most revealing. It highlighted a great need for such instruction, especially in congregations south of the Highland line.
Sadly the situation did not improve and in later years Mr MacRae had to fight some battles in the courts of the Church. Things came to a head in the 1950s. A booklet which he wrote on his voyage to Australia in 1953 was published under the title, The Resurgence of Arminianism, in 1954, coinciding with the time of the Greater London Crusade of Dr Billy Graham. The General Assembly of the Free Church in May 1954 had indicated public approval of the Crusade. Mr MacRae in a letter published in The Monthly Record in September 1954 gave “another point of view” and felt that the approval was “a betrayal of our testimony.” Coming to the 1955 General Assembly with an Overture from his Synod to deal with the matter in hand he faced some bitter opposition and the motion was defeated by 53 votes to 37. It was a watershed in the history of the Church. He recorded in his Diary: “It was a sad Assembly, which chilled my heart and filled me with apprehension as to the future.”
A voice in the nation
If we assess the situation carefully we will discover that Mr MacRae was probably the last preacher of the Word who made a lasting impact on the nation. He was a firm believer in the Church’s duty to call statesmen (the magistrate) to account with regard the laws of God. He regularly instructed his own people about the threats that were arising in the nation, and he was so highly respected that he could carry many in the community with him in opposition to encroachments on the Sabbath. He used the correspondence columns of the newspapers to great effect. A tribute in the local paper after his passing said: “Probably no man in his day has done more by word and by pen and appropriate action to keep the moral and spiritual tone of the island at a high level.”
Mr MacRae was thrilled to discover in the late 1950s a resurgence of interest in the Reformed Faith, manifested by the reprinting of old classics on both sides of the Atlantic. In his eightieth year he travelled to London to conduct services in the Free Church congregation there and to go on to the city of Leicester to speak at the first Banner of Truth Trust Ministers’ Conference when he shared a platform with fellow stalwarts in the faith, Professor John Murray and the Rev W J Grier. Belfast. Back in Stornoway he reported that he had seen in England “a little cloud like a man's hand.” He concluded: “Worm Jacob may yet thresh the mountains.”
When he died in Stornoway in May 1964 the crowd wishing to attend his funeral was so enormous that two separate services had simultaneously to be held, one in the main Church building and the other in the Seminary in Francis Street, both packed to capacity. The press reported that at least a thousand men took part in the procession. “Hundreds of women lined the streets many of them weeping.”
May God raise up men like him in our day!