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Pioneer Life in Zorra
Chapter XVIII. John Ross of Brucefield


"Erect before man, on his knees before God."

THE line which we have quoted above as the motto of this chapter, describes as briefly and clearly as words can do, the character of Rev. John Ross of Brucefield. Such reverence towards God, and such manliness towards man have characterized few since the days of John Knox. His devoted and scholarly widow has published in brief form a memoir; and while excessive modesty has prevented her putting some things so strongly as they might be put, and constrained her to omit many things well worth publishing, yet the history of "The Man With the Book," may be read with profit by all true Canadians; and it can scarcely fail to inspire the reader to more earnest devotion, and a nobler purpose in life. We trust it may prove one element in developing-in our land, and especially among Mr. Ross's Highland kinsmen, a robust, God-fearing character.

The life of John Ross was distinguished, not by striking events or by wonderful achievements, but by a holy, humble, consistent walk with God; and no Zorra minister has left so deep and lasting an impression on all with whom he came in contact.

John Ross was born in the famous little village of Dornoch, Sutherlandshire, Scotland, on the 11th of November, 1821. When eight years of age he came along with his father's family to Zorra. The experiences and adventures of his boyhood are well told by Mrs. Ross.

He was," she tells us, "full of life and fun and ambition, and very fond of athletic sports. Whether it was a hard mathematical problem or a school fight, a game of shinny or a tough debate, he was always ready, and entered into it with all his might. He who in manhood's prime began to be known as "The Man With the Book," was not, in his earlier days, one of those quiet and thoughtful lads, whose story makes other boys feel that they were made of different stuff from themselves. He was felt by his companions to be a boy every inch of him, and one with real and serious faults besides."

One who has passed the allotted span of years, but who is still an enthusiastic curler, being recently asked by the writer, "Did you know John Ross as a sport?"

"I did to my cost. Look at that," said he, pointing to his mouth, which was minus a front tooth, "John Ross did that with his shinny stick—of course accidentally. And strange to say, he, a few minutes afterwards, had the corresponding incisor knocked out in the same way. At the Embro Re-union in '83," continued the Woodstock man, "that is nearly fifty years after this incident, I met Mr. Ross and pointing to the vacancy in my jaw, I said, 'Do you remember that?' In an instant he pointed to a corresponding vacancy in his own mouth, saying 'Do you remember that?'"

But in his love of sport he did not forget that he had a mind, a soul to care for. Even in his boyhood he was a great student of the Bible and a lover of Shakespeare.

His first teacher was Lachlan McPherson, the subject of our last chapter. Mr. McPherson was not only a faithful teacher, but an earnest Christian, and his personal character and conversation were a powerful means in leading Mr. Ross into the way of life. The preaching of Mr. Mackenzie, and more especially the gospel proclaimed by Mr. Allan, were also instrumental in leading him into a clear knowledge of the way of salvation. How thorough his conversion, and how clear his apprehension of salvation through free grace, he himself tells us. In a private letter written only a few years before his death, he says:

"If I am born again, my spiritual birth took the most pronounced anti-Roman form. I first fled from God and from the gospel to which my heart refused to bow, though I was still believing it. I fled on down to dark despair, and for years refused to leave that loathsome dungeon. At last, in my loathsome dungeon or den, God gave me a sight of myself which made me feel that there was not an eye among all God's creatures that could endure to turn one look upon such a man. With this sense of overwhelming shame at its height, I sprang over at one bound to God for covering, saying, 'If thou wilt not look on me no creature can.' That one leap changed my relation and attitude towards the universe. I fled from all God's creatures to Himself as my hiding- place. Freedom from human-say rather creature—authority in all matters concerning God and my soul is one characteristic of my spiritual liberty to this day; and it had its birth in that leap."

Soon after experiencing the wonderful change he stood up for Jesus. A man with his deep conviction and strong personality, could not long remain hidden. Very beautiful, as well as strong and lasting, was the affection that at this time sprang up between the young recruit and an esteemed elder of the church— Mr. Alexander Murray. After the lapse of nearly half a century, when the old elder was on his death bed, Mr. Ross came from Bruce- field to visit the friend and counsellor of his youth, and the meeting was worthy of both men.

The year 1844 was memorable for the disruption in the Church of Scotland. The following year John Ross entered Knox College, having studied Latin and Greek for some time with Rev. Mr. Mackenzie. He soon became the most conspicious figure in his class. His intellectuality as well as his spirituality could not fail to impress his fellow-students.

One of these, who now occupies the chair of Systematic Theology in Knox College, thus writes of him at that time: "He did not parade his religion; he spoke comparatively little of his religious feelings and experiences; but no one could come into close contact with him without learning something of his deep spirituality and profound earnestness. * * * His religion was not a garment put on, but a life which manifested itself; and his character was so transparent, and the currents of his religious nature so strong that the spirit which reigned in him was visible to all around him."

The writer has heard him repeat from memory with fluency, one Psalm after another in Hebrew. On the occasion of his death all the Professors and students of Knox College assembled for the purpose of bearing testimony to his intellectual and spiritual attainments.

After completing his college course he was ordained to the gospel ministry on the 25th of September, 1851, over the congregation of Brucefield, in the county of Huron. There he continued to labor with great fidelity until the end came on the 8th of March, 1887, in the thirty-sixth year of his pastorate and in the sixty-sixth of his life. And during these thirty-six years he only missed one Sabbath that he did not preach.

It is not easy to describe John Ross as a preacher. Like many men of genius his habits of study were irregular. There were times when he spoke with much hesitation and difficulty; but there were other times when he enjoyed great liberty in the pulpit, and his preaching was always doctrinal, evangelical, earnest. Never was his pulpit a spiritual dormitory where all creeds were equally true, and all forms of worship equally safe and equally sensible.

Who that has ever heard him can forget the faithfulness and thoroughness with which he expounded God's law—its holiness, its spirituality, its requirements; or the fiery earnestness with which he reproved sin and showed men their danger, loss, ruin. But the great subject of his preaching was Christ—Christ the prophet, the priest, the king of his people. He gloried in the Cross, and never wearied of speaking about the precious blood of the Lamb. Perhaps his mind ran chiefly on the kingship of Christ.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of the three Reformations?" said he. Then answering his own question, he replied:

"In Germany Christ was lifted up as a Priest, in Geneva as a Prophet, and in Scotland as a King. That is the glory of Scotland. She has not only believed in Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Sacrifice and Advocate for each individual soul, nor rested in him merely as the all-sufficient Instructor, revealing the whole will of God for ecclesiastical, as well as individual guidance; but besides these two she has had a fuller revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ, she has seen him as her King. Germany struck the keynote of the Reformation, and preached faith, faith in the adequate work of the Great High Priest. Geneva added to the faith of Germany the knowledge that comes from careful attention to the instructions of the Prophet like unto Moses. But Scotland added to the faith of one and the knowledge of the other loyalty to a personal and glorious King. Her's was a mighty step in advance.)) young people to-day, in sincerely pledging themselves to "do whatsoever He would have me to do," are honoring this aspect of our Lord's character. "Christian Citizenship," of which we now justly hear so much, is only the development of the truth, Christ our King—our King in the political meeting as well as the prayer meeting.

You doubt," said John Ross, "if you are Christians. But have you the impression of the King? In some coins the impression is dim, in others bright and, clear, but in all it is genuine."

Some of my readers will recall Mr. Ross's appearance in Woodstock, at the great farewell meeting to Dr. MacKay in 188 1, on the occasion of the missionary's leaving for Formosa. The meeting was held in the Central Methodist church, it being the largest church in the town. The place was packed from end to end, there being, as was estimated, a congregation of fifteen hundred persons present. The chair was occupied by Rev. J. J. Hill, rector of New St. Paul's church.

There were thirty or forty clergymen, and many prominent laymen from all over the Province, including Sir Oliver Mowat, now Premier of Ontario. A good deal had been said about the heathen, their degradation, and the duty of the Church to them, when it became Mr. Ross's turn to speak. Suddenly springing to his feet, he took the audience completely by surprise. His tall form, his clear, ringing voice, and his strong Doric accent at once arrested the attention of everybody. "What is the matter," he cried, "with Formosa? What is the matter with China? What is the matter with Canada? What is the matter with Oxford? What is the matter with Zorra? What is the matter with Woodstock?" These questions were put with great deliberation and solemnity. At the close of the last, he made a long pause, looked round upon his audience, and then answered his own questions with three short words, expressed with an emphasis that was startling: "IT IS SIN!" The younger and more superficial of his hearers, of course, failed to catch the point, but experienced Christians at once were impressed with the deep theological and practical significance of the answer. Bad as were the heathen, and sad as was their condition, we ourselves were in the same category with them, afflicted with the same malady, and requiring the same physician. A most important truth that cannot too frequently be impressed upon the minds of Christian workers. Much as we may plume ourselves upon our superior knowledge and attainments, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on a day of judgment than for the people of Zorra, Woodstock, Canada, who reject Christ.

It will here be in place to explain, as briefly as possible, John Ross's action in refusing to enter the union of the Presbyterian Churches in Canada in 1875—an action regretted, profoundly regretted by nearly all his friends, but condemned by none.

Prior to the year 1875 there were four Presbyterian Churches in this country. To the outward observer these differed only in name. The division was the result of importing into Canada from the mother country controversies concerning the proper relationship of Church and State, which were of no practical importance in this country.

In the above year these Churches agreed to unite in one organization, to be called the "Presbyterian Church in Canada." Into this union, John Ross, together with his friend and old teacher, Lachlan McPherson, and their representative elders, four persons in all, declined to enter, on the ground that they could not do so "without betraying the integrity and interests of the truth of God, and the purity of His worship." In particular, they objected to any sanction being given to the use of the organ in public worship, and they characterized the basis of union as "exceedingly defective and unsatisfactory in reference to the Headship of Christ, both as regards His church and the nations of the world." The importance of this latter doctrine will be acknowledged by every intelligent Bible student. This, however, is not the place to discuss the necessity or propriety of Mr. Ross's course. One thing is certain, Mr. Ross, after much prayer and deliberation, was fully convinced that he could not enter the union, "except by such an act as that of Judas." The behests of conscience must be obeyed, cost what it would, and he dared to stand alone.

It was a time of sore trial to John Ross. With his strong social nature, and his unabated loyalty to the Presbyterian Church, it was like rending his heartstrings to be ecclesiastically separated from brethren he loved, and with whom he had so pleasantly associated in Christian work for many years.

But the trial must be endured. And John Ross was both a Christian and a philosopher. He had learned the very important lesson that a man's happiness springs from within and not from without; that it is determined, not by what a man has, but by what a man is. And so even when the strong ties of church relationship were broken, and he stood apparently alone and unbefriended, he was never gloomy or morose, but always bright, cheerful, happy. Once, indeed, we are told, he became discouraged; he feared the effect his attitude toward the union might have on his ministerial brethren, association with whom he prized so highly. But he received encouragement from heaven in a way so peculiar to himself. One bright winter afternoon he came out of his study with his Bible open in his hand. "Look at this," he said to his wife, pointing with his finger to part of the blessing pronounced by Jacob on his son Joseph. "Blessings . * * on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren,"

Yes, John Ross's life was a happy one to the end in spite of his loneliness.

John Bunyan "was separate from his brethren," and spent twelve years as an outcast in prison; but he lived in the sweetest peace, and had glorious visions that will never die.

S. Rutherford "was separate from his brethren," and confined a prisoner in Aberdeen Castle, but his letters show us how happy he was, and at the head of each letter he wrote "Christ's Palace, Aberdeen."

David Livingstone "was separate from his brethren." Henry M. Stanley found him in the heart of Africa surrounded by savage tribes, where he had not seen a white face for many years, in the midst of indescribable loneliness. But the blessing of God was upon his head, and the presence of Christ was so apparent in his life, filling it with comfort and gladness, and giving him a victory over outward difficulties, that a few weeks of conversation and association with him, transformed the infidel Stanley into an earnest believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.

To John Ross the Word of God was precious, and he searched it diligently to know God and his Son Jesus Christ., His mind was illumined by the Holy Spirit, and when suddenly a new truth flashed upon his keen vision his whole soul was stirred, his countenance glowed, and his eyes beamed with very joy.

For many years he constantly carried his Bible wherever he went, holding it in his hand or under his arm; and, after looking to God for direction, he would open it, and as his eye was guided to a text or passage, he would give it to any with whom he conversed, be he stranger or acquaintance. Wonderful indeed, was the appropriateness of the passages furnished him. Many, very many, who never heard him in the pulpit, will have reason to bless God to all eternity for the words spoken to them by John Ross in a stage-coach, or at a railway station, in the shop, on the street, or in the house. This extraordinary method of personal dealing with souls is a work which few have the courage or the qualification to enter upon. But John Ross did it faithfully, and in such a spirit of humility, and self-unconsciousness that seldom was he rebuffed, even by the careless, the profane, the ungodly.

To illustrate his method of work I will quote from a letter written by a Presbyterian minister. He says: "During my college days I had the pleasure of Mr. Ross's company coming from Toronto to Zorra. He was going to his relatives and I to visit my good friend Mr. -----. I felt very much at home in his company. There was nothing stiff or formal about his manner. He conversed freely upon a variety of topics. When we came to the Woodstock station, Mr. Ross met a young man he knew and inquired after his welfare. Then opening his Bible he read a verse or two to the young man, gave a word of advice, and then good-bye. Next we went into a store to inquire if there was any chance of a ride to Embro. The clerk could tell us of none. Mr. Ross opened his Bible, read a verse to the clerk as he stood beside the counter, gave him a word of advice and a goodbye; then we called to see his sister, who, with her family, was living in Woodstock. We stayed only a few minutes. Mr. Ross called the children around him, spoke to them, prayed with them, said good-bye, and we started for Ernbro on foot."

I have mentioned the wonderful adaptation of the passages frequently given him for those with whom he conversed. A young Presbyterian minister had received a number of "calls" within a comparatively short time, probably not without his seeking them. Meeting him one day on the street, John Ross as usual opened his Bible, and the first passage his eye rested on was Zech. II : 17, "Woe to the idol shepherd that leaveth the flock," which he read to the young preacher.

"I am not an idle shepherd, I hope I shall never eat the bread of idleness in the Lord's service," was the somewhat tart reply.

"It is not i-d-l-e," said Mr. Ross, "but i-d-o-l." Then the young and popular brother saw the point.

In company with a brother minister, he was taking his horse out of an hotel stable in Stratford. Parting with the hostler, he handed him his customary fee, read to him Luke 2: 7, kindly adding, "Now John think of Him who was born in a stable."

He visited Zorra a few months before his death, and in company with Mr. Munro, the pastor, called on a number of families. Of course he took his Bible with him and read a verse or passage in each home.

At the close of the day he observed to the pastor, "Did you notice anything peculiar in the passages of scripture the Lord gave me to-day?"

"I did," was the reply, "they all had reference to death, resurrection, and eternity." He at once, in a most earnest way, said, "My brother, depend on it the Lord is speaking to some one to be ready, for He is coming soon. I never had passages of that class recurring in the same way but some of my friends were soon removed by death."

"But can you," said the Zorra pastor, "make the personal application?" "No, I can not," was Mr. Ross's reply; "it may be yourself or myself." He returned home, never again visited Zorra, but a few months afterwards the Master called him home.

It may also be mentioned that one of the homes visited on this occasion, a few days after the visit and the warning, experienced a very sudden and painful bereavement.

The same minister writes me as follows:- "In October, or about the first of November, 1873, I was assisting at a Communion in Harrington, with the Rev. Daniel Gordon, and Mr. Ross was also present. On one of the Preparatory days, just as we were taking our places at the dinner table, I mentioned that Dr. Candlish of Edinburgh was dead. This was sad news to all present, and Mr. Ross sprang to a bedroom close by, exclaiming as he went, "Is Candlish dead?" He quickly returned with his diary, and called our attention to the fact that about two months previous to this he had written in it that God was soon to take Dr. Candlish to his reward. All present were curious to know how he arrived at this conclusion; and, in his own transparent and child-like way, he explained to us how God had in His Word revealed this matter to him. Sceptics may sneer, and infidels may deny, but the fact is as above related ; and the witnesses are still living, and can be produced any day in court."

Let Zorra stand with head uncovered in presence of John Ross, the ablest scholar, the most profound theologian, and the most Biblical preacher of all her sons. One who knew him well writes, "As a teacher of theology, John Ross would have been as able as Dr. Young was as a teacher of philosophy."

Why then did no college ever officially recognize his gifts? Why did no Presbytery ever mention his name as Moderator of Assembly? Perhaps light may be thrown on these questions by asking another, "Why did England treat Charles Gordon, now of worldwide fame, as she once did?" When a man of thirty Gordon had saved the Chinese Empire from breaking up; but on his return the Secretary of State could only with great difficulty recall his name, and knew absolutely nothing of his work in China.

Both Gordon and Ross were men of great ability and piety. They both were men who gave a high place to the Word of God, and to prayer. They both possessed right kingly hearts and hands. Both were mastered by a great devotion to a noble purpose, and both alike experienced the ingratitude of their fellowmen. The lesson for Britain to learn is, to find out such men as Charles Gordon, and place them. The lesson for the Presbyterian Church to learn is, to find out such men as the late John Ross, and place them.

He died March 8th, 1887, in the thirty-fifth year of his ministry, and in the sixty-fifth of his age. And now

"He wears a truer crown
Than any wreath that we can weave him."

His dying testimony was just such as we might expect from his life. Confidently his faith rested on the Word of God. Two lines from a Psalm formed his death song:

"Surely that which concerneth me
The Lord will perfect make."
—PSALM cxxxviii. 8.

Very tenderly and solemnly he bade farewell to his weeping wife and children and loved ones around his bed. His wife he referred to the passage, "Thy Maker is thy Husband; the Lord of Hosts is His name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel ; the God of the whole earth shall He be called." To his little daughter Bessie, weeping in another room, with her heart like to break, he sent the message, "Blessed be the glory of the Lord from this place," and then added the promise, "I will never leave thee; I will never forsake thee!" Taking Maggie's little hand in his, and looking at her, as one who was there writes, with his heart in his eyes, he said, "0, my little daughter Maggie, seek the Lord Jesus Christ, and remember that He has power to draw your heart right over to Himself." Similar parting words he gave to each member of his family, and then fell asleep like a wearied child in its mother's arms.

The company that gathered to pay the last tribute of respect was unprecedentedly large. Eleven ministers representing Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists were present, and all felt that a prince in Israel had fallen.

"He being dead yet speaketh:" and though we shall hear his faithful words, or enjoy his fervent prayers no longer, his influence will live forever in the hearts of many, and will be a constant inspiration to a higher and nobler life.

"Sleep on, it is not by the years
We measure life when all is done—
Your task was big, your crown well won—
Sleep on, good-night, we say with tears."


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