Review – James MacGregor

macgregorJames MacGregor: Preacher, Theologian and Defender of the Faith

John W Keddie

214 pp, pbk, £9.00


James MacGregor (1829-94) is not a name from the nineteenth century Free Church of Scotland that has been much remembered. He was neither a hugely memorable character like John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, nor a theological writer frequently reprinted in the twentieth century, like Hugh Martin, nor a major leader in ecclesiastical affairs, like Thomas Chalmers or James Begg.

But MacGregor was a notable minister in congregations of the Free Church, a professor of theology in Edinburgh, and later a minister in New Zealand. His life is an interesting story, never previously recorded in any substantial account, and our own Mr Keddie has undertaken a fine work of historical research in preparing this biography. The result is a concise narrative, thoroughly referenced, and studded throughout with colour and interest.

MacGregor came from Callander, and grew up speaking Gaelic, wearing the kilt, going barefoot. He excelled at school, went on to Edinburgh University, and from there embarked on training for the ministry at New College, under the auspices of the Free Church of Scotland. From his teacher, William Cunningham, MacGregor imbibed the rigorous theology of Scottish Calvinism, and in due course he was recognized himself as an able theologian, with a thorough and tenacious grasp of true doctrine, that stood him well in an age of intellectual flux.

He went on to pastor congregations in Barry and Paisley, and in wider church affairs assisted in defeating proposals for union with the United Presbyterian Church during the First Union Controversy (1866-73), which he rightly discerned as highly dangerous, particularly highlighting the erroneous doctrine of unlimited atonement, held in contravention of the U.P. Church’s stated commitment to the Westminster Confession. In 1869, he wrote a closely-argued ‘Memorial’ to the General Assembly opposing the proposed introduction of hymns into public worship, which sadly was eventually approved in 1873.

In 1868, the retirement of James Buchanan led to MacGregor’s appointment as Professor of Systematic Theology at New College, a hugely important position, signifying the widespread recognition of MacGregor’s capacity as a theologian. He had already published a popular textbook on Christian doctrine, and a treatise on Sabbath observance, and it seems to be on the strength of these contributions, together with his occasional articles in theological journals, that he was appointed to the College.

MacGregor’s involvement in the Robertson Smith case (1877-81) was much more disappointing. He showed sympathy in the early stages of the controversy to Smith, arguing that his controversial arguments had to be made, and the motions he supported in church courts in dealing with the case downplayed the significance of Smith’s heterodoxy, and called for his restoration to his professorial duties with an admonition. Mr Keddie shows that MacGregor believed that Smith’s views would quickly be refuted by further study, in retrospect a very naïve position.

In 1881, MacGregor was advised by his doctor to remove himself and his family to a healthier climate, after the loss of two of his teenage children, and they all emigrated to New Zealand that year. MacGregor pastored a church in Oamaru, South Island, for the last thirteen years of his life.

The title of this book gives a good summary of MacGregor’s life, especially the latter term, ‘Defender of the Faith’. Having been soundly grounded in the Reformed faith, and in the theology of the Westminster Confession, he rigorously defended it all his life. The tragedy of this period is just how isolated MacGregor really was in his generation in this staunch adherence to truth. Sadly, the compromises of the Church in the Victorian period have marred her history ever since. We are thankful to have this account of one better example to follow.


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