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A great book to give at Christmas!

David Campbell
23 November 2023 22:41

The Banner of Truth has just published a book of daily readings. It is called From Day to Day and was written by Robert Macdonald. There is a link to it at the end of this article. It was my privilege to write an introduction both to the author and his book. What follows is the text of that introductory sketch.

Robert Macdonald was born in Perth, Scotland, on the 18th of May 1813. His mother was a native of Moulin, a little to the north, and had been deeply impacted as a child by the revival there in 1798 under the ministry of Alexander Stewart. Robert himself was converted in his mid-teens whilst a student at St Andrews University. A key factor, as in the case of his close friend Robert Murray M’Cheyne, was the death of a godly brother.

With conversion came a change in career direction. He had toyed at first with the idea of becoming a doctor but now his all-consuming desire was to preach Christ. It meant a move from St Andrews to Edinburgh and several years of preparation for gospel ministry under Thomas Chalmers and David Welsh. Chalmers would later describe him as one of the ablest of his students.

Logiealmond and Leith

Robert Macdonald’s name is particularly associated with Blairgowrie in Perthshire but it wasn’t in Blairgowrie that his ministry either began or ended. Most of his first year, from 1836 to 1837, was spent in the Perthshire village of Logiealmond, a place familiar to him from his student days. His uncle had a house in the district and Macdonald often stayed there during his long summer breaks, teaching Sunday school and conducting Sunday evening services. It is said of the year of settled ministry that followed that it was “not without a first-fruits of that harvest which was afterwards to crown his labours in the Gospel-field”.  

In 1857, after almost twenty years in Blairgowrie, Macdonald accepted a call to the Free Church congregation of North Leith (Leith today is part of the city of Edinburgh). He was to remain one of its ministers until his death in 1893. In a sketch of his life and work published in 1881 Robert Cowan, a fellow Free Church minister, gives some interesting details of his Leith ministry. His opening text was Romans 15.29, “And I am sure that, when I come unto you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ”. So it proved. “Some of his first sermons at Leith are known to have been blessed to the conversion of souls. The Lord’s people have been built up and comforted; and more than one season of special refreshing has been enjoyed. The outward prosperity has also been great. During the first years of his ministry, a beautiful and commodious new church was built…; the communion roll speedily rose from 450 to its present point of 1100”.

The Blairgowrie years

Macdonald’s Blairgowrie ministry began in June 1837. “From time immemorial”, writes Cowan, “the parish had had a seed of the righteous; but a special blessing came to it with the advent of the young pastor, so that the church of Blairgowrie began to be known as a centre of spiritual life and evangelistic work”.  It shared largely in the season of revival that began in Kilsyth in 1839. In a letter, undated but evidently from around 1840 or 1841, Robert M’Cheyne says, “I am sure there never was a time when the Spirit of God was more present in Scotland…There is the clearest evidence that God is saving souls in Kilsyth, Dundee, Perth, Collace, Blairgowrie”. Other places are also mentioned. William Chalmers Burns was at the heart of this movement. So too was M’Cheyne himself, Andrew Bonar of Collace, and John Milne of Perth. And so also was Robert Macdonald of Blairgowrie. These men, says Cowan, “and a few others of kindred spirit, were at that time in the heart of Scotland, in their evangelistic work and evangelical influence, ‘like a torch of fire in a sheaf’”.

It was noted in passing that Macdonald and M’Cheyne were close friends. In Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of M’Cheyne there are a number of M’Cheyne’s letters to him, quoted either in part or in full. In one, appalled at what he had seen of the desecration of the Sabbath in Paris, M’Cheyne appeals to him to “stand in the breach, dear friend, and lift up your voice like a trumpet, lest Scotland become another France”. In a second, written on a Saturday, he says, “You will be busy preparing to feed the flock of God with food convenient. Happy man! It is a glorious thing to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ”. In a third he exhorts him, “Never cease to show your people that to be holy is to be happy; and that to bring us to perfect holiness and likeness to God, was the very end for which Christ died”. In a fourth he urges him to “deal faithfully” with all who come to speak to him about sitting at the Lord’s Table, “especially the young”.

A word about his preaching – and his prayers. In an obituary in The Free Church Monthly, Norman L. Walker writes of how Macdonald preached “with extraordinary vivacity and power”, and how “his prayers were as bright and, one might almost say, as ringing as his preaching”. He adds, “His light hair, his fresh complexion, and the sunny expression of his face attracted people to him, and the joyous spirit in which he proclaimed the gospel added greatly to the interest and power of his discourses”.

In a personal reminiscence he says, “My own earliest recollection of him is at a casual meeting of ministers in the house of Mr. Milne of Perth. It was proposed that we should have prayer together, and Dr. Macdonald was asked to lead. I shall never forget the impression then produced. One felt at once that here was a man who was well accustomed to pray, and who delighted in the exercise. There was a joyous confidence in the supplications which showed a persuasion that He to whom he was speaking was willing to give, and a fullness and freedom of utterance which spoke of a loving heart and a rich spiritual experience”.

Mention needs to be made of Macdonald’s Sabbath school. When leaving Blairgowrie for Leith he confessed, “The happiest hours I have ever spent have been in my Sabbath school, and no part of my labours has been more abundantly blessed”. The regular Sunday services took place before and after noon. Then in the evening, at six o’clock, up to five hundred children would gather in the church for the Sabbath school. By seven, between six and seven hundred adults had joined them. For forty minutes Macdonald would then catechise the children on the lesson of the previous hour, “interspersing anecdote, illustration, and appeal, concluding all with praise and prayer”. Cowan says, “the interest was extraordinary, and the blessing great and continuous”.

Wider work

In May 1843, at the Disruption, Macdonald and most of his congregation severed their connection with the Established Church. A suitable building to house the new Free Church congregation was swiftly erected – and filled. The Disruption led to wider work. For many months prior to the Free Church’s General Assembly of May 1844 Macdonald toured the country, preaching the gospel, and raising funds for the building of church schools and teachers’ salaries. There was at that time no nationwide, government-funded educational system and circumstances forced on the Free Church the necessity of doing what it could. Macdonald was extraordinarily successful in his appeals for help. So too in later months when a large sum of money was needed to build the New College in Edinburgh to train men for gospel ministry.

His book From Day to Day

Of the handful of books that came from Macdonald’s pen the most popular was From Day to Day; or Helpful Words for Christian Life. My attention was first drawn to it by a letter to Macdonald from another close friend, Andrew Bonar. He writes, “My dear Robert, From Day to Day is a book of most pleasant and profitable reading. It is 365 meditations – as many as Samuel Rutherford’s Letters – as many as Enoch’s years of earthly pilgrimage and walking with God. There is a clearness and pointedness in your style of writing that at once attracts the reader, and, dipping his rod in the honey, he finds his eyes enlightened”. Robert Cowan also refers to its “clearness, point, and grace of style”, and adds, “in evangelical savour, in abundance and aptness of illustration, and in home-coming persuasiveness and force, it would be difficult to find a rival to it”.

Norman Walker says of Macdonald that “he wrote most on the page of the human heart. It was the saintliness of his life, the joyousness of his Christianity, his unfaltering faith, his hopefulness, his benignity and loving sweetness of disposition, that won for him the affection of so many, and will ever make his name fragrant to those who knew him”. It was his conviction, however, that his book From Day to Day would “live, both in the original English form and in the various translations, and keep his name from being forgotten”.  Since history, by and large, has failed to bear that out it is a particular joy to see From Day to Day in print again and to have the privilege of contributing this introduction. Having used these daily readings both in my own personal devotions and in family worship I can warmly recommend them.


Here is the link:  A great book to give at Christmas!