Gregory E. Reynolds
A Personal Appreciation of D. A. Macfarlane, by J. Cameron Fraser. Belleville, Ontario: Guardian, 2013, 62 pages, $8.50.
Similar to Cameron Fraser’s Thandabantu: The Man Who Loved the People, A Personal Appreciation of D. A. Macfarlane is a supplement to the fuller (147 pages) biographical material, I Shall Arise: The Life and Ministry of Donald A. MacFarlane (Aberdeen: Faro Press, 1984), edited by John Tallach.
J. Cameron Fraser is a Westminster Theological Seminary graduate (1978), and served as the last editor of The Presbyterian Guardian (1978-80), which served a largely OPC constituency prior to the beginning of New Horizons as a denominational magazine. Fraser was until recently the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Lethbridge, Alberta. Macfarlane was Fraser’s uncle by marriage to his mother’s sister Ella, but what makes the account more personal is that Fraser lived with him after his mother, Christina nee Finlayson, died in 1961 when Fraser was six. Fraser’s father, James, had been a missionary in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), sent by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1938. He died in 1959. Their missionary labors are chronicled in the biography by Alexander McPherson, James Fraser: A Record of Missionary Endeavor in Rhodesia in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).
While the era in which Macfarlane ministered—he was ordained in 1914—is very distant, and thus different, from ours, his life and ministry should be a great encouragement since we all live in the larger New Covenant era in which the New Testament was written, and into which the gospel of Jesus Christ has intruded with sublime power.
Fraser’s tale tells us of a man of superior intelligence and a fine education who served his Lord faithfully in humble local ministry, eschewing the fame and fortune he might have achieved had he been chosen for another calling (43), or had he been born into a wealthier family. As his ministerial mentor J.R. Mackay remarked, “Mr. Macfarlane has such a capacious mind that you can pour all you have into it and it will hold it all—and more!” (15). While not esteemed in the world’s eyes, Pastor Macfarlane was appointed tutor of Greek and Hebrew by the Free Presbyterian Synod in 1932 (42). He upheld the need for rigorous academic ministerial training throughout his ministry
His first call was to serve the congregations of Lairg and Bonar, Dornoch and Rogart, north of Inverness in the Northwest Highlands. In 1921, he accepted a call to nearby Oban, and finally in 1930 to the joint congregation of Dingwall and Beauly, just outside of Inverness (15). He retired in 1973 after 59 years of ministry.
Macfarlane’s steadfastness is made all the more remarkable considering his lifelong struggle with depression. After a nervous breakdown in his second pastorate, he found relief during his convalescence from a page in John Owen’s commentary on Psalm 130. Owen comments on verse 4, “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared,” in which he is dealing with “objections to believing from the power of sin.” Macfarlane tore out the page that encouraged him and carried it with him for years afterward. After the death of his first wife, many years later, he suffered another breakdown (17). His recovery reminds us that it was God’s grace and presence in his life that enabled him to endure such hardship. Such examples serve to encourage us in our own dark hours.
Among Macfarlane’s imitable attributes was his exemplary faithfulness to his denomination (24). Another was his gentleness, especially with those with whom he disagreed (25). From the effect of his preaching to instances of his pastoral kindness, Macfarlane leaves a deep impression on the reader, and sets a wonderful example for ministers of the Word. Throughout Fraser’s narrative, the personal influence of his uncle on his own ministerial development is instructive and touching. He recalls, “My own recollection of his preaching has more to do with the heavenly atmosphere he brought to the pulpit than the actual content of the sermons. He was deeply conscious of being in the presence of God and communicated that awareness to his hearers” (37). The black and white photographs add to the interest of Fraser’s fine story. The appearances of Edmund Clowney (24) and John Murray (42) in the story add to its interest for OPC officers. I reviewed Fraser’s Thandabantu in Ordained Servant Online in December 2010, an appreciation based on Alexander McPherson, James Fraser: A Record of Missionary Endeavor in Rhodesia in the Twentieth Century (Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).
While Macfarlane was well known in his small area of the world, he is a fine example of the most important kind of Christian leader—the ordinary, everyday pastor of a local church. We need more biographies of similar ministers in our more recent history, and even more examples. God often calls extraordinary men to ordinary ministry.
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, April 2014.