A McDonaldite Church on Prince Edward Island
It is very hard to write a brief biographical piece that will do justice to someone who was revered, legendary and eccentric as Rev. Donald McDonald. Simply termed by his followers, congregants, and friends as “The Minister” he was truly a brilliant man. In writing this brief piece about this man I would like to thank Rev. John MacLeod of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), for first telling me of the exploits of this man and Rev. Kent Compton of the Free Church of Scotland who still labors in the same part of the vineyard as this man did for sending biographical sketches, and the hymns that he authored. There will be no pictures of “The Minister” in this piece because he did not like cameras, yet despite never being photographed his voice and the memory of him preaching the good tidings of the Gospel still lingers on Prince Edward Island.
Donald McDonald “The Minister”:
Donald McDonald was born in Perthshire, Scotland in 1783. His father had been of the surname McKay but changed his name after fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army. MacDonald’s family appears to have been caught up in the waves of revival that swept through the Highlands during this period and this left some strong impressions on McDonald as a young man. In 1808 McDonald enrolled to study Divinity at St. Andrews University and would graduate in 181 6, working through university as a farm hand and tutoring a highland chieftain’s children to earn money to pay for his tuition. He was ordained a missionary in the Highlands of Scotland and from there he began to develop a problem with the bottle. Little is actually known about McDonald’s life at this point other than his drinking became so bad, or his reputation so tarnished, or both, that he left for North America. He arrived on Cape Breton Island in 1824 with a letter stating that he was in “good standing” as a minister in the Church of Scotland. (whether this was actually true is up for debate.) When he arrived he set up a ministry among Highland Scots that had settled in the Malagawatch area of Cape Breton Island. Old habits die hard even in a “New World” and he was known for frequent drunkenness. He appears to also have had a like for drinking with Roman Catholic Scots who settled nearby to his mission station. After two years in which his cup was always full his ministry on Cape Breton Island had run dry. He then left Cape Breton for Prince Edward Island. By 1828 McDonald had discontinued preaching and was working odd jobs, at this point sunk into a deep depression he began to read his Bible. The Bible reading seemed to greatly trouble him described one young man who often saw him reading his Bible, he was rapidly moving into that blessed Gospel Vice between Law and Gospel. Finally one day as McDonald himself said “being at my wits end I retired to my bedroom and there fell on my knees but had no utterance in prayer, my head seemed as dry as a piece of cork. But thanks be to God I was relieved. My bonds were burst asunder. My soul was brought out of prison. Old things were passed away and all things became new.”
It was after this experience McDonald began to preach again and felt truly as a servant to a most high Master. His preaching soon became urgent and many were attracted to hear the once washed up Minister preaching the Gospel of Christ in fullness. By 1829 Revival had broken out on the Island and it would continue til the year 1830. In this revival many strange things began to happen such as heavy convictions of sin and people even convulsing in their seats, soon those that sat under his ministry were known for having “the works”(the shakes that were somewhat common under his ministry during the revival). Those who sat under McDonald’s Ministry were called “McDonaldites” a name McDonald himself never seemed to dismiss. By the end of the revival several hundred were converted and several thousand had heard his preaching or become adherents to his ministry. Out of this MacDonaldite sect was born. Because of his great popularity McDonald soon became the pastor of a few thousand people and began to preach all over the Island. Due to his great popularity he never owned a home, rather he always stayed with his people at their homes across the Island. Though a great preacher of the Gospel he would fall into error with his strong Premillennial views, even going so far as to say that the Highland Scots were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Despite his sometimes strange views he proved a pastor of great affect for his flock. He would organize his adherents into preaching stations and churches finding the most godly men among them to be their elders. Though while he did elect elders in all the congregations the preaching duties were entirely left to him.
McDonald seems to have greatly enjoyed his preaching duties and delighted to be a servant to so many on the Island. His sermons were known to start off at a conversational tone then would increasingly get louder and more urgent. The urgency of his preaching would characterize his ministry as well as some theological views he held. He was also known for maintaining rigid Calvinism for his whole life, never leaving behind the doctrines of Grace revealed in the Holy Writ. He was by all accounts a fervent preacher and a man of great expression. He was known for his outgoing personality as well as desire to instruct his people, they were his flock and he was simply “The Minister”.
McDonald until the day he died insisted he was a Church of Scotland minister but never had any contact with a Presbytery and was most independent in his thinking and actions. The union of 1875, eight years after his death would see the Church of Scotland affiliated Churches combine into the Presbyterian Church in Canada, that is except the McDonaldites. The McDonaldite churches would continue claiming to be part of the Church of Scotland and until the 1930’s sent delegates to the Church of Scotland General Assembly when the Church of Scotland finally asked them to stop the practice. The Churches would later join the Free Church of Scotland were they remain to this day.
“The Minister” would in 1866 fall very ill and then see recovery enough to try and make one final preaching circuit to all of his congregations and preaching stations. He would only make it to Southport, Prince Edward Island where he would become bed-fast. While on his death bed for the last few months of his life he received numerous visitors and would even continue Baptizing infants while on his death bed. Finally on February 21st 1867 Donald McDonald passed into heaven. His funeral was the largest funeral ever seen on the island up to that point and his adherents were devastated. Rev. Donald Mcdonald during his lifetime reportedly baptized more infants, married more couples than any other minister in Canada and perhaps in the whole of North America some have said. Truly is a man with an amazing legacy, interesting life and although not the most theologically sound was truly a much loved Pastor and servant of the Lord most High.
Donald McDonald’s memory still lives on in the Churches he fathered on Prince Edward Island. The Hymns he wrote are still sung before and after the service of worship with the Communion Hymn being on of the favorites. He was truly despite all error a true preacher of the Gospel and very much someone who should be remembered today.
The Pulpit at Desable Free Church of Scotland, one of the Churches McDonald built.