This biographical sketch, now slightly edited, is taken from the recently republished Ministers and Men in the Far North by the Rev. Alexander Auld. (See New Publications on page 93) See page 70 for a sermon by Mr Sinclair.
THE Rev John Sinclair was a native of Canisbay, Caithness. His parents were John Sinclair, farmer, Brabster, of Canisbay, and Anne Cooper. They were a worthy couple the wife, in particular, was widely known for her piety. She was in the habit of attending religious ordinances in other parishes, and the neighbours would say to her husband, “How can you put up with your wife going so often from home?” “Put up with her!” he would reply; “The wonder is that she comes back and puts up with me.” But John (who had at all times been an agreeable neighbour and an indulgent husband) became at length the subject of a work of grace. His convictions of sin were such that often he would not go to bed, for fear of awaking in a world of woe. His wife would sit up all night with him, and encouragingly say, smiling, “Oh, man, you will have better days yet.” “Wife, how can you smile at me,” he would reply. “More likely you would weep for me.” When, by the word of the gospel, he ultimately got deliverance, he felt to use his own words like one raised from the dead, or ushered into a new world, and thought that sin would never again trouble him. In the midst of his joy his wife would say, “Oh, John, you are on the mount now, but you will not always be there; you must in the Lords time come down to the wilderness,” which, he had been heard to say, “I had to travel in many a day.”
The family of this excellent couple received from them an example which seems to have been lost upon none of them. Donald, younger brother of the subject of this brief sketch, grew up to be an amiable and accomplished man, and was well known in Caithness, and afterwards in Aberdeenshire, as a successful teacher of youth. Some years ago he emigrated to Natal, where, much to the regret of his many friends, and to the loss of that colony, he met his death by a fall from his horse. Other members of the family still survive, and adorn their station and profession. [This was written in 1869. Ed.].
John, the eldest, early became the subject of religious impressions, and was remarkable from his childhood for his tenderness of conscience and regular performance of secret prayer. One, who was his school-fellow, tells us that there was near his fathers farm an old sheep-cote, to which he used regularly to repair for this purpose, and which was styled by other boys “John Sinclairs cree.” [that is, a fold or pen, Ed.]. When his father would be threshing in the barn, John, quite a child, sitting down beside him, would put to him such questions regarding experimental godliness as would make the father shed tears when the boy was out of sight. Thus the Lord was training him from his youth, and fitting him for after service in His vineyard.
He, as well as the rest of the family, got the best education that country schools then afforded, and in the winter of 1819-20 he was engaged as assistant teacher of the Parish School of Bower. While he was there Mr David Steven became intimately acquainted with him, and said of him, “A youth of such godly life, attainments, and self-denial, I almost never knew.” Thereafter he taught on his own responsibility a school in Thurso, and made many friends among the pious people of that town. From Thurso he went to be master of the Parish School of South Ronaldsay, and when there he met with some trouble; for, having opened a Sabbath school, others besides children began to attend it, receiving from Mr Sinclair instruction in divine things very different from what they were in the habit of getting from the pulpit. This excited the jealousy of the minister, who threatened to bring Mr Sinclair before the Presbytery unless he discontinued his Sabbath evening teaching. Failing to put his threat into execution, he was asked by a parishioner for the reason. “Well, you see,” replied the minister, “the lad is so well acquainted with his Bible that its not easy to establish a charge against him.” But he contrived to make the place so uncomfortable for John Sinclair that he was anxious to leave it, and wrote a friend in Caithness that he intended doing so. The latter, however, dissuaded him from doing this, telling him to wait until the Lord in providence should open for him a door elsewhere, for it appeared there was work for him to do where he was. After a time, the Parish School of Latheron became vacant, and some friends applied to the heritors of it on behalf of Mr Sinclair, who heard nothing of the matter until he got the letter announcing his appointment to the situation. “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptation.”
After going through the usual literary and theological course, Mr Sinclair was, in 1837, licensed to preach the gospel by the Presbytery of Caithness; although, as one has said of him, “he was taught divinity in both law and gospel before he entered college or hall”. When, in the same year, the Rev. Archibald Cook removed from Bruan to Inverness, such was their appreciation of Mr Sinclairs character and gifts, that the Bruan people cordially called him to be their pastor, notwithstanding his ignorance of the Gaelic language, which many of them at that time were best acquainted with, and which had always hitherto been used in Bruan church.
The Bruan mission had been frequently favoured with an able ministry. The late Mr Mackintosh of Thurso began his work there in the opening years of this century [the 19th century, Ed.], and in those days of spiritual darkness preached the gospel in purity and power. Mr Mackintosh had a felicitous way of unfolding gospel truth out of the types and shadows of the Old Testament dispensation. His method of holding out offers of the Saviour also, was so large and liberal, that a hearer of his used quaintly to say, “Mr Mackintosh is a man that makes free with his Masters goods.” His ministry was honoured by not a few seals, one of these being the late worthy John Sutherland, Badbea. After his settlement in Thurso his preaching was said to have lost somewhat of its power. One of his attached Bruan hearers went to Thurso to judge as to this for himself, and having told his errand to Mr Mackintosh, the latter replied, “It would be no wonder, William, if what you heard were true, for I left most of my library (meaning his exercised hearers) behind me when I left Bruan.” In the
monthly prayer meetings, both in English and Gaelic, he frequently invited any one who had a “question” on his mind to propose it, in order that it might be spoken to by judicious persons present. If no one responded, Mr Mackintosh would say, “Well, we will continue in the exercise of prayer, for one days inputting is equal to three days gathering in harvest.”
Mr Sinclairs own ministry was a brief one, but bright in respect both of zeal and faithfulness. He seemed to have an impression that his time would be short, and he lived and laboured as one who thought so. From his childhood he was the subject of divine grace and habituated to deep self search, and he therefore gained an unusual acquaintance with the human heart, which, in dealing with the consciences of his fellow-men, he made powerful use of. Trained also by grace to maintain a life of nearness to the Lord, he had much insight into the “mystery of godliness”, and preached “Christ crucified” with much tenderness and unction. Indeed, his superior mental power, matured by long study, his varied acquirements, and his previous acquaintance with divine truth and experience of its power, enabled him from his first entrance on the work of the ministry to take a prominent position. His bearing, grave at all times, was strikingly solemn in the pulpit. To those living without God in the world, his appeals were most arousing, and left, we believe, in not a few instances, impressions of a lasting kind. His exposure of the groundless hopes of formal professions was peculiarly thorough, and at times excited against him on the part of such no little hostility. But to the Lords people he commended himself as a “good householder, who brought forth out of his treasures things new and old”.
The labours of Mr Sinclair, who never seems to have enjoyed robust health, were, after being a few years in Bruan, much interrupted by bodily ailments. At length, in the autumn of 1843, at the comparatively early age of 42 years, he departed this life. The regret felt at his passing away by the people among whom he laboured, appears in the following epitaph on the memorial stone placed by them over his mortal remains in the burying-ground of Bruan:
To the Memory of
THE REV. JOHN SINCLAIR,
Late Minister of the Free Church, Bruan,
Who died 22nd Aug., 1843, Aged 42 Years
He was a burning and shining light;
of eminent gifts and grace, deep experience, and holy life;
powerful, zealous, and spiritual
as a preacher and minister of the word;
faithful, affectionate, and beloved as a relative, friend, and pastor.
The people of his charge, while erecting this tribute to his memory,
desire to give all the glory to Him to whom it pertains.