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Pioneer Life in Zorra
Chapter XVI. Rev. Donald Mackenzie, the Pioneer Preacher of Zorra


"Remote from towns he ran his godly race,
Nor e'er had changed, nor wished to change his place
Unskilful he to fawn, or seek for power
By doctrines fashioned to the varying hour."
—GOLDSMITH.

"His memory will long be cherished." Such are the closing words of the Presbyterian General Assembly's obituary notice of the Rev. Donald Mackenzie. And we may add that so long as life continues his memory will never cease to emit a sweet fragrance in the hearts of those whom, for so long a time, he counselled and led. The pioneer character of his ministry, its long duration, and its powerful influence over a large section of country, all combine to make it particularly interesting. The present sketch must not be looked upon as even an attempt at a biographical survey, but only as an imperfect outline of the life of this good man.

Rev. Donald Mackenzie was born at Dores, Inverness, Scotland, on the 28th of August, 1798, just about one hundred years ago. Very early in life he manifested a clear intellect, and when only thirteen years of age he began to teach a public school. Afterwards he completed a thorough course of study at King's College, Aberdeen. He studied also one session in Edinburgh under the famous Dr. Chalmers; and often has the writer been thrilled as, along with two or three others, seated in the quiet parlor, he has listened to Mr. Mackenzie relating sayings, incidents, and experiences connected with the great disruption leader. We repeat a single incident: "On one occasion," said Mr. Mackenzie, the students behaved rudely in the class-room, and Dr. Chalmers administered a sharp reproof. This we endured unmoved, but when next day the Doctor humbly apologized to the class for having, as he said, lost his temper the day before, we were all overcome with shame. The thought of the great man apologizing to us boys was harder to bear than any punishment that could have been inflicted." The incident reveals not merely the character of a noble Christian, but the secret of success in a famous teacher.

On the 23rd of December, 1833, at the request of the Synod of Ross, and after much prayer and serious consideration, he determined to come to Canada as a missionary to his expatriated countrymen. On April 16th, 1834, he was ordained by the Presbytery of Dingwall in the presence of the Synod of Ross. On this occasion the famous Dr. MacDonald, known as "the Apostle of the North," presided, and preached from Acts xxii. 2!, "Depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles."

On August 18th, 1834, he came to Zorra by stage, and remained the first night at the house of the late Squire Gordon. On Wednesday he conducted the usual prayer meeting, and on Sabbath he preached two sermons, one in Gaelic and the other in English. The hearts of the people were greatly drawn to him, and they earnestly pressed him to remain with them, but wishing to do more missionary work, he proceeded westward by way of London, St. Thomas, Strathroy, Lobo, and Gwillimbury. Here he met lonely but devoted little bands of Highlanders, and preached to them in their native tongue the gospel they loved so dearly. To him more than to any other man, Presbyterianism owes its strength in this western section of Ontario.

In June, 1835, he was inducted into the pastoral charge of Zorra congregation. Prior to this he had anew, and in the most solemn and formal manner, dedicated himself to his God and Saviour. Here are the words of this consecration—words which for simplicity and solemn power have seldom been equalled, and perhaps never surpassed:

"I hang on Thee, O Thou Preserver of men for every breath I draw, and for every thought I think, for every purpose that rises in my breast, and every action of my life. Therefore in my own name and strength I disclaim entering into the covenant with so holy and great a God as Thou art, but do bring with me a glorious Surety, acknowledged by Thine own sacred authority; and in His strength I promise at this date to be Thy servant in all time to come, to obey Thy will so far as understood, to declare it to others simply, faithfully, and unmixed, so far as knowledge and strength enable me to do. And do Thou, by Thy good Spirit and grace, instruct, lead, sanctify, and preserve me for every duty, trial, and event whatsoever in life, and prepare me for death, so that whether living or dying I may be Thine in soul, body, and spirit.

"In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit, this first day of the year 1835.

"D. MACKENZIE."

For thirty-eight years he was pastor, counsellor, and friend to every individual in a larger congregation than has ever fallen to the lot of any other minister in the County of Oxford. He was a man of splendid personal appearance, tall, erect, and with kingly brow. His majesty of manner and weight of bearing, as well as his elevated tone of thought, were such that persons who had no special reasons for approaching him, never thought of doing so. Yet to those who knew him well he was affable and social, and could tell a story and join in a laugh equal to any. His grave step and thoughtful air as he walked to the pulpit, as well as his manner of reading the Psalms and chapters and engaging in prayer, was profoundly impressive. He left no doubt on the minds of the worshippers that he was fully alive to the realities with 'which he was dealing.

He usually began his sermon with hesitancy, and in a very low and feeble voice. As he proceeded his manner became more animated, his matter intensely practical, and towards the close of his discourse his voice not infrequently swelled into a volume of the most touching and impressive melody. Every faculty was kindled, his countenance glowed, his eyes gleamed with fire, the veins in his forehead and neck stood out like whipcords, and his power was simply overwhelming. I have on occasions observed a breathless stillness pervading the assembly; each hearer bent forward in the posture of rapt attention.
Who can ever forget the solemn appeals he frequently made to the consciences of his hearers, declaring that he had set life and death before them ; that not a drop of their blood would be found in his skirts on the "Great Day"; and that he took heaven and earth to witness against despisers of " the truth as it is in Jesus?

As might be expected of one who so went forth "bearing precious seed," he returned "bringing sheaves with him." Mr. Mackenzie had many seals given him of his ministry. It is said we have two immortalities. One immortality we carry to heaven, the other we leave behind us on earth. Our deeds can never perish even on earth. They shall live in the lives of others for all time to come. And so though this reverend father is here no more, he is not dead; he still lives. He lives in the lives and in the work of thirty-eight ministers who, largely through his instrumentality, were led to consecrate themselves to the preaching of the everlasting gospel. And he lives in the lives of hundreds of men and women whose Christian character he did so much to mould, and many of whom occupy, or have occupied, positions of influence in the various professions—medical, legal, and educational.

Zorra has been highly favored in her ministers. Mr. Mackenzie's successors in the sacred office were Rev. Gustavus Munro, M.A., now of Ridgetown, who for eighteen years carried forward the work assigned him; and Rev. G. C. Patterson, M.A., the present pastor. Both these men have proved themselves faithful and efficient; but none would be more ready than they to testify that their success has been in no small measure owing to the pioneer labors of Rev. D. Mackenzie. He sowed and they have reaped, and the day will come when both sower and reaper shall rejoice together.

Once he observed to the writer, "When I begin my sermon, I begin by preaching the law, and then I bring in the gospel afterwards; for," he said, "it is like woman who is sewing—she cannot sew with thread alone; she first sticks a sharp needle through, and then draws the thread afterwards; so," he observed, "does the Lord with us; He sends the sharp needle of conviction, the needle of the law, into our hearts, and pricks us in the heart, and He draws through the long silken thread of consolation afterwards."

Mr. Mackenzie would scarcely be ranked by the schools as an orator, but he seldom failed to clothe his thoughts in both Gaelic and English, in keen, ringing, vigorous language. Warning against bitterness and strife in the home, he characterized the unchristian language sometimes used with the following Gaelic adjectives "Their words are," said he, "biorach, gobach, loisg, toinnte, tarcuiseach, tarsuinn, teumach, aig a bhord, air an teallaich, aig an dorus"; which may be translated as follows: "Their words are piercing, scolding, scorching, twisted, contemptuous, cross, and stinging at the table, on the hearth, and at the door." The Gaelic alliteration cannot be brought out in English, and this greatly weakens the force of the words to the English reader.

Some traits of Mr. Mackenzie's character have already appeared in this book. In his social intercourse with his people, while characterized by dignified reserve, he always manifested sturdy, practical common sense, and never failed, even in trivial affairs, to make a point for his Master.

Often was. he called upon to act as arbiter in some matter of dispute between two of his parishioners, and seldom did he fail to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion. After frank conversation, and then prayer, first by Mr. Mackenzie, followed by each of the disputants, the latter usually shook hands and went home the best of friends.

A few illustrations may be given. One of his parishioners happened to be greatly annoyed with his neighbor's pigs breaking into his potato patch. Time and again he had driven the pigs out, but as often they returned, for pigs have proverbially short memories when potatoes are in question. At last he lost all patience, and instead of driving the hogs out as he had been accustomed to do, he went straight to the owner of the hogs and belabored him most unmercifully. He was not, however, a bad man, and his conscience was ill at ease for what he had done. So, to put himself right, he went to his minister and laid the whole case before him. "Noo," said Donald, "this is what she pe did; and what will my minister pe thinkin' apout it?" "Well, Donald," replied Mr. Mackenzie, "your conduct was good enough for a Hielan'man, but very bad for a Christian." It is needless to say there was no ambiguity in this reproof to the keen religious perception of Donald.

Another story may be given as a type of the many humorous experiences of this eminent pastor, arising from the defective knowledge of English possessed by the majority of his parishioners. In those days a "bank'd barn" was a great rarity, and the farmer who possessed one was usually quite elated over the fact. Sandy M- had just completed such an elegant structure. One day he saw his pastor driving by, and asked him if he would not come in and see his grand new barn. "Certainly," was the prompt response. So Mr. Mackenzie was shown through the barn, while all its conveniences and excellences were pointed out and explained in detail. When taking leave, the minister expressed his sincere admiration of the barn, and his satisfaction at seeing his friend getting along so well in the world. "But," added he, in a a tone of warning, "Sandy, don't lean on your barn." "Lean on her!" cried Sandy, in amazement, "if all ta Hielan'mans in Zorra pe leanin' on her she will not pe hurt." The reader will observe how completely Sandy failed to grasp the force of the English metaphor in the word "lean."

Another well-known incident, illustrating a similar defective English vocabulary, may here be given. A young Highlander, known as Sheumais dearg (Red James), while driving along the rough road, just to the south of Embro, had the misfortune to break his cart. Soon a number of the village gentry gathered around, when the following dialogue took place: Highland driver in despair—"Coot some of ta shentlemans gif her a nail?" Wag in the crowd"Cha. 'n eil." (Gaelic for "no"). Diiver—. "Aye, aye, you wass fery coot in ta joke, but if she wass a braw shentlemans in a shiny hat, an' an you wass an olt proken caart like hersel', she'll not pe said, 'cha 'n eu,' she'll pe gif you one whateffer."

Very early in his ministry, Mr. Mackenzie was impressed with the evils of intemperance and the duty of total abstinence for the sake of others. This duty he rigorously practised himself, and earnestly sought, in the pulpit and out of it, to persuade his people to do the same. While frequently only partially successful, his efforts in promoting sobriety among the people were untiring. A few out of many cases are here given in illustration:

Uisgebeatha (whiskey) was abundant in those days. There were no less than three distilleries in Embro, and consequently much drinking, as we have already observed. Big John was on his way home with a small barrel of whiskey in his sleigh. To his great discomfiture, Mr. Mackenzie met him, and seeing the barrel, at once began to upbraid John for the evil he was doing himself and others. Quite oblivious to the persuasions of his pastor, Big John replied, "Na, na, minister, she pe coot whiskey. We hef not much in ta house, and we pe gif her, to ta chiltren Wi' ta potatoes."

Not so guileless was another parishioner who was accustomed to carry his whiskey home in a small tin pail. Often had he been reproved. This day he knew he would meet the minister, and he formed a plan to get the better of him. He filled his pail with milk, and marched forward looking for his pastor. Sure enough they soon met, and the Highlander at once assumed an air of guilty fear. Of course Mr. Mackenzie gave him a long and faithful lecture on the evils of strong drink. To it all Donald listened, cap in hand, and without a word of interruption to the close, when he replied as follows: "Wee!, minister, you was aye suspecting hersel' and she pe no guilty. This is gude drink," and with this he removed the lid of his pail, exhibiting to the minister, not the fiery liquid suspected, but beautiful white milk. The minister felt somewhat taken aback, but Donald looked innocent, and for a long time chuckled over the success of his trick.

John McPhee was an industrious, honest man, and very devoted to his church. Usually he was kind to his wife and family, and was a good provider. But occasionally he would give way to his enemy, the drink. On these occasions he would for a time completely desert his home, and spend his 'whole time in and around the village bar-room. It happened that at one time there was in the hotel a very sick man confined to his room. Mr. Mackenzie made daily visits to the sick-room, spending an hour or more there on each occasion. Day after day the good man noticed John loafing around the hotel; so one day he called him aside to give him a word of remonstrance. "John," said the minister, "I am very sorry to see you here and in this condition. Do you not know that you are injuring yourself and neglecting your family? Now go home like a Christian man, and attend to your duties." Thus far John McPhee listened attentively, head uncovered and cap in hand. But now it came his turn to speak. "Aye, minister," said he, "I confess I ha'e been taking a drap too much; but I have a sair heart, and it's to droon my trouble that I drink. It amaist braks m' heart to see my ain minister, wham I respekit and lovit, every day for a week or more, come to this hoose, and spending his time drinking in a bed-room. I have been trying to droon my sorrow with a drappie now and then, but oh, it's hard to bear! To see my beloved pastor coming under the infiooence of the drink! But gin ye'll say naething aboot it I shall haud my tongue, and we'll baith do better in the future." In after years Mr. Mackenzie told this story with much glee.

Let it not be inferred from these few instances that drunkenness prevailed to an unusual degree among the pioneer fathers. Such an inference would be unjust. The fathers were, as a class, industrious, sober, self-respecting. Total abstinence did not, perhaps, prevail to the same extent as to-day, but the bar-room treating and the bar-room loafing of to-day, were almost unknown; and intemperance was regarded as dishonoring to God, degrading to character, and destructive to both body and soul.

The incidents we have given will indicate the various duties Mr. Mackenzie was called upon to discharge for his parishioners in those early times, and the extraordinary influence he wielded over them. Perhaps no chieftain possessed such a mastery over the clans in the days when the fiery cross or the wild pibroch summoned to the field, as did this humble minister of Christ for many years over the devoted Celts of Zorra. His work at the yearly Communions, when the people assembled in great multitudes from far and near to celebrate the sacred ordinance, has been spoken of in previous chapters. His sermons, in both Gaelic and English, were plain, earnest, practical discourses, dealing with the hearts and consciences of his hearers; and in his household visits and catechising, he was indefatigable in his care and instruction of the young.

No one could be long acquainted with Mr. Mackenzie without being struck with his profound experience of the Spirit's work, his clear views of the doctrines of grace, and his life of holy watchfulness and prayer. His religion was of a most healthy, practical type. Perhaps never was he heard parading his assurance of salvation, and never, so far as I remember, have I heard him moaning and groaning over his own corruptions. Frames and feelings formed no part of the foundation of his faith. His thoughts were with his Saviour and his Saviour's work, and about these he loved much to converse.

He died at Ingersoll on the 8th April, 1884, in the 86th year of his age.

The stars shine brightest in the darkest night, and the gold looks brighter for scouring. So it was with this revered father. The time of conflict was a time of conquest, and the time of trial a time of triumph. Patiently he bore his heavy affliction. And when the end came and he was within sight of the celestial city, he felt the pressure of the loving arms of Jesus about him, and he triumphed gloriously. Being asked for his dying testimony he whispered his last utterance on earth, "Neither death nor life * * * * can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."


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