Rev Donald MacLean was so well known and so prominent a figure in the Church that it is difficult for us now to think of him as no longer occupying that place among us. But, as with Paul, the time of his departure arrived, and his absence from this passing world means that he also is now present with the Lord and in the company of the spirits of just men made perfect in heaven. We who are left behind are conscious of the breach left in our ranks and the greatness of the loss sustained. Of his removal it might truly be said that an alert watchman has been relieved from his post on the walls of Sion and a worker, skilful above many in dividing the Word of Truth, has been called to rest from his labours.
It is now left to others coming after him to wield that two-edged sword which he so expertly handled over so many years, in not only contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, but, above all, in propagating it, and thus being instrumental in bringing about the conviction and conversion of souls. In the ninety-sixth year of his life and sixty-first year of his ministry, he was summoned to receive his Master’s commendation and reward on 13 August 2010.
Donald MacLean was of Highland parentage. His father (also named Donald) was a native of Coigach in Wester Ross and his mother belonged to the island of Raasay. In both of these places there were not a few godly men and women who, in 1893, “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”. Accordingly, fully supporting the stand taken by Rev Donald Macfarlane, they, and many others like-minded, separated from the Declaratory Act Free Church. They understood the significance of that godly man’s action when, after tabling his protest in the General Assembly of that year, he walked out, taking with him – inviolate – the constitution of the Disruption Free Church of Scotland. Of such antecedents were Donald MacLean and Rachel MacLeod, who, in the Lord’s providence, were to meet in Glasgow, where they were subsequently joined together in marriage.
They were to set up home first in the Gorbals, where their first child was born, but shortly thereafter they moved to the Shawlands area of the city and it was there that their family of one son and two daughters were brought up. Rev Neil Cameron was then the minister of the St Jude’s congregation, which worshipped at that time just off Blythswood Square, and, although some three to four miles distant from their home, it was there that they regularly attended the means of grace. Public transport being then run – as it is, alas, to this day – in systematic disregard of the Lord’s Day, they, rather than transgress the commandment, walked back and forth to church on the Sabbath. Their son and first-born came into the world on 3 June 1915 and he was, in due time, baptized by Mr Cameron.
We wonder if the thought entered the mind of any witnessing the event that the infant boy, that day formally brought within the bound of the visible Church, was destined, 45 years later, to occupy the pulpit of the minister administering the sacrament. On the same day another infant named Alexander McPherson was baptized and he also – as is well known – was to be called to the ministry of the gospel and in that office served his Master faithfully over many years. One would be inclined to think that Mr Cameron, who undoubtedly was one who prayed for harvest labourers, might well have prayed that day that the two little infants before him would in due time be called to that work. In any case the two infants became fast friends as they grew up to maturity and manhood, and then stood shoulder to shoulder as good soldiers of Jesus Christ until death divided them.
As soon as they were able to walk the distance, Donald MacLean and his two younger sisters were brought by their parents to the public means of grace and he retained vivid memories of the preaching of the Rev Neil Cameron and especially the solemn manner in which he commanded the attention of his hearers, although apparently not possessing the oratorical gifts which others were noted for and employed to such effect. However, although his natural conscience might have troubled him from time to time, it was not under Mr Cameron’s preaching that he came under real concern for his soul. Nevertheless, it was very evident that Mr MacLean greatly appreciated the clarity and conviction with which that man of God declared “all the counsel of God” and also his lifelong unwavering faithfulness to the principles for which the Church stood in 1893. Mr Cameron passed away in March 1932 and in December of that year Stornoway-born Rev Roderick Mackenzie, who had pastored the Gairloch congregation with great acceptance for nine years, was inducted as his successor.
Mr MacLean was then almost 17 years old, a pupil at the Albert Road Academy and was as yet without God, without Christ and without hope in the world. On leaving school, instead of following a university course, he began the course of studies and training with the firm of W G Galbraith which led to his becoming, in 1939, a chartered accountant. Later in life Mr MacLean was wont to point out the exact location in Wester Ross where in the early 1930s he met for the first time a 26-year-old man from Lochcarron named William MacLean, who was at that time a schoolmaster in Ness. The friendship forged on that occasion was to be of a lifelong nature and the bond between them endured until Rev William MacLean departed this life in 1985. We mention this friendship because it was to have an important bearing on the kindling of spiritual life in the soul of Donald MacLean.
A year or two after they met, William MacLean underwent a saving change and this information, conveyed to his Glasgow friend, suddenly brought home to him the solemn realisation that he, unlike his informant, was not one who loved God, but was a sinner lost, ruined and exposed to the wrath and curse of God on account of his sins. The One who brought him to this knowledge of himself did not however leave him to despair, but moved him to seek mercy for his guilty soul and to make diligent use of the means of grace. Accordingly he began to attend the prayer meeting and, in secret, earnestly and prayerfully to search the Word of God. For most of 1935 he described himself as being in a very disturbed state of soul. Although continually hearing of the fullness and sufferings of Christ as a Saviour and the obligation that he was under to embrace Him as freely offered in the gospel, he discovered that actually believing in Him to the saving of his soul was another matter, something infinitely beyond the ability of “the natural man”.
But before the year was out, “the shadow of death was turned into the brightness of the morning”, to use an expression often heard from his own lips. This occurred in November of that year. In his own words: “When coming home from the office, my soul was much taken up with meditating on a particular portion of the Word of God. The portion was: ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’. My soul was filled with wonderful thoughts of the love of God in Christ, and I could truly say that my meditation thereon was sweet. On the evening of that day I went to the prayer meeting. The text was 1 John 4:10; the same text that I had been meditating upon was now gone over in the sermon. “When I came home, alone in my bedroom, I was thinking of this wonderful love, and in doing so I felt a marvellous sense of being drawn to Christ in the gospel, and embraced Him by faith as my hope for time and for eternity. I had read and heard of others who, at the time of their union with Christ, had it sealed with a portion of Scripture. I began to plead with the Lord that this would be so also. It did not please Him to do so at this time. I did not understand it then, although I came to understand it later on, but I was now tempted that my experience in closing in with Christ was not the true liberty of the gospel. I resolved to cast it from me and to seek deliverance in some other way.
I am convinced that in doing so I grieved the Holy Spirit by my unbelief, and became very cast down and miserable. I continued in this state for many months, very tried in my mind, and feeling wretched. One night, while trying to sleep, I thought that my mind would break with the strain I felt, when these words dropped into my soul with light and power: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus’. I now saw, in a light which I had never seen before, that salvation is in union to Christ, and not in any particular experience I might wish to have.” At this juncture he found the printed sermons that Rev Jonathan Ranken Anderson preached at the time when his congregation in Glasgow was favoured with an outpouring of the Spirit to be of great help to him, but most helpful of all was his own minister. Tempted as to the reality of his spiritual experience in the matter of assurance of salvation and having made it a matter of special prayer that his experience would be gone over by the minister that evening, he set off to attend the prayer meeting in Clydebank.
Mr Mackenzie’s address was based on the words: “They shall be all taught of God”. In Mr MacLean’s own words: “He went over every point in my spiritual experience, although it was completely unknown to him. As he mentioned each point, he said, ‘This is what it means to be taught of God’. I was in a very happy frame of soul, enjoying the sweet taste of the full assurance of salvation for a considerable time.” Now an earnest follower of the means of grace, Donald MacLean had the inestimable privilege of becoming acquainted with some of the older godly men and women in the Church, some of whom had sat under the ministry of spiritual giants of the past such as Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall and Rev Alexander MacColl of Lochalsh. Not only such men as Alexander Murray of Bonar (father of Professor John Murray), John MacAulay of Applecross, Murdo MacKay of Strathy, but godly women such as Harriet MacDonald of Dingwall, and Charlotte MacKay of Strathy, as well as the Morton sisters in Glasgow, were to leave an indelible impression of true godliness on his mind.
At this time he also made the acquaintance of Arthur W Pink, who was then resident in Glasgow. Before taking the step of making a public profession of Christ, Mr MacLean was greatly exercised as to his fitness to take it, the fear of communicating unworthily and of eating and of drinking to his own damnation weighing heavily on his mind. On one occasion, having attended a service in Greenock and while walking away from the church in the company of Mr Donald Campbell, divinity student, (later Rev Donald Campbell, Edinburgh), Mr Campbell asked him how he had enjoyed the sermon, and the reply was to the effect that he had felt very dead under it. The response of this friend was that he had often felt like that at a time when he was failing to do his duty, and this seems to have given the young Donald MacLean much food for thought.
Encouraged by the words of the lepers at the gate of Samaria, “We do not well: this day is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry till the morning light, some mischief will come upon us: now therefore come, that we may go and tell the king’s household”, he came before the Session in November 1937 and was cordially received into full membership of the Church. Having qualified as a chartered accountant in December 1939, he continued to work for the same firm until he was called up in March 1941.
From that date until January 1946, he served in the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant. From the atmosphere of a Christian home and a relatively shielded office environment, he was now to find himself sharing accommodation with shipmates who were for the most part worldly and ungodly. In hearing him speak of his experiences over these years of naval service one would gather that he was not one who hid his light under a bushel. In the course of his early training in the south of England, he became friendly with many who attended the Galeed Gospel Standard chapel in Brighton, where Mr John Gosden was the Pastor. His almost five-year-long period of war service was to begin in West Africa, but over the latter part of it he was based in this country. Having undergone training to become an anti-submarine specialist, he finished the war instructing classes of sailors in the art of hunting U-boats.
Thoughts of entering the ranks of the Christian ministry apparently entered his mind shortly after his public profession of Christ, and some of the godly of his acquaintance, without knowing his own thoughts, predicted that that would eventually become a reality. Foremost among them there appears to have been Rev Malcolm Gillies, at that time the minister of the Stornoway congregation, and one for whom Mr MacLean retained the highest regard. What he heard from the lips of men doubtless influenced his mind to some extent as he earnestly sought light on the path of duty, but it was alone and in answer to prayer that he received what he regarded as his warrant to study for the ministry. “If thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth”, were the words which were impressed on his mind with light and power.
On 24 September 1945 he appeared before the Session in Glasgow, and the following day he was received by the Southern Presbytery as a student. In September 1946 he began his studies under the Church’s theological tutors: in Dingwall for the first session under Rev D A Macfarlane; and then in Oban, under Rev D Beaton, for the second. William MacLean was to be his fellow-student. Having successfully completed their studies, they were both licensed on the same day, 29 June 1948 – Donald MacLean by the Southern Presbytery and William MacLean by the Outer Isles Presbytery. At that time it was mostly in Gaelic that public worship was conducted in congregations situated in the north-west Highlands and Islands area, and it was regarded as essential that ministers settled over them would be fluent in the language. Mr MacLean’s knowledge of Gaelic was at that time minimal, but this was to change as a result of his spending some weeks in Glendale as the guest and pupil of Rev John and Mrs Colquhoun. Within a few months his fluency in Gaelic was such that he felt it his duty to accept a call, signed by 303 persons, to the Portree congregation, and his ordination and induction took place on 22 December 1948.
There he was to labour in his Master’s service for eleven and a half years. Active and zealous in attending to his pastoral duties, he not only preached three times on the Sabbath Day (morning and evening in Portree, and in Braes or Kensalyre in the afternoon), but also held meetings in several outlying villages during the week. From the outset of his ministry it was apparent that his preaching ability and grasp of theology were outstanding, and, largely as a result of being often called upon to assist at communion seasons, this soon became well known throughout the bounds of the Church. That he had seals to his ministry in Skye is well known, although for the most part those who were his spiritual offspring at that time have now departed this life. In faithfully witnessing against increasing Sabbath desecration and other evils, he attracted the attention of the press and of the wider public. His ministry in Portree came to an end when he accepted a call from the Glasgow congregation in 1960. We are sure that the severing of that pastoral link was not an easy matter either for him or for his flock and we know that his attachment to the people of Skye remained strong for the rest of his life.
His induction at Glasgow took place on 14 June 1960 and there he was to labour for the next 40 years of his ministry. The Glasgow charge was then regarded as one of the heaviest and most demanding in the whole Church. Mr MacLean was to preach three times on the Sabbath, the morning service in Gaelic followed by English services in the afternoon and evening. In addition he was every week to conduct two prayer meetings, one in Gaelic and the other in English. Homes of families belonging to the congregation, scattered throughout the city, were visited, patients in hospitals were sought out by him and all this accomplished without taking account of the other burdens and duties which were laid upon him by Church courts. There was some easing of the pastoral burden when, after some years, it was considered reasonable to bring the services in Gaelic to an end.
Before arriving in Glasgow he had, for a period of eight years, edited the The Young People’s Magazine. By that time he had also been appointed Convener of the Finance Committee, Clerk of the Jewish and Foreign Missions Committee and Tutor in Systematic Theology. The duties connected with these extra-pastoral appointments he fulfilled with characteristic efficiency and zeal. It may be mentioned here that he visited our African Mission on two occasions, in 1955 and 1965. He was also the first minister to attend an Mbuma Zending annual meeting in Holland, an event which to this day results in massive financial support for our African Mission work. Mr MacLean also visited Australia and New Zealand in 1965, and again after an interval of 13 years. He visited Canada as a deputy in 1977. In 1977 he was appointed Clerk of Synod and for the next 13 years – some of them very difficult years on account of the nature of certain cases coming before the Court – he was to discharge the duties of that office in a most competent manner. Alert and watchful, he detected and resisted any attempt to weaken the Church’s testimony and witness. Largely as a result of his hand being on the helm, the Church weathered the storms that arose in the seventies when ecumenically minded men were found within its pale, men who would, if they had had their way, have altered it from the course set in 1893. This was especially manifest in 1989 when the Synod condemned attendance at the blasphemous Roman mass, including requiem masses at funerals, a decision which was to lead to the departure of 15 ministers and certain other officebearers, followed by a significant number of members and adherents, to form the Associated Presbyterian Churches.
After resignation from the Synod clerkship, Mr MacLean served as Moderator for two consecutive years, 1992 and 1993. This departure from the usual practice is accounted for by the fact that the Synod regarded him as worthy of the honour of presiding at the Church’s centenary, which was commemorated at a gathering held in the New College, Edinburgh, the very venue where Rev Donald Macfarlane placed his famous protest on the table in 1893.
But it was in preaching and in rightly dividing the Word of Truth that Mr MacLean excelled. He used both his “quiver of arrows” and his “cruse of oil” to great effect, and we are sure that some readers of this obituary will remember how true they found that to be in their own spiritual experience. There will be those who remember how he was used of God to handle their case in the course of preaching as if he were already apprised of their particular trouble, concern, or perhaps perplexity in regard to the path of duty. Taking heed to himself and to the doctrine, all the counsel of God was declared with the aim of doing good to young and old. The years following his induction in Glasgow were to see the opening of the floodgates to immorality and permissiveness and he did not fail to preach to the times, warning and exhorting the many young people that were his hearers to be on their guard and not to yield to peer pressure nor follow a multitude to do evil.
The students who passed through his hands over his period of 27 years as Tutor in Systematic Theology will remember him as one who was master of his subject. He not only endeavoured to make them in turn sound in their theological views, but, above all, impressed upon them the absolute necessity of having Christ and His sufferings at the heart of their preaching at all times. Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism he roundly denounced. He himself loved to preach Christ as freely offered to sinners of mankind and rejoiced to hear of others doing the same.
He condemned the Arminianism of Billy Graham when he conducted his Glasgow crusade in the fifties, and wrote an article to that effect in The Free Presbyterian Magazine which was widely read and no doubt changed the attitude of many. The same witness was raised in connection with Luis Palau’s campaign in the eighties. Right to the end he kept abreast of what was taking place on the ecclesiastical scene both at home and abroad and we know that, while he firmly held to the post-millennarial view of the second coming of Christ and earnestly prayed that the whole earth would come to be filled with His glory, he was greatly concerned over the low state to which the cause of Christ had come in this generation and over the absence of a sense of sin.
We do not claim perfection for Mr MacLean. Like others who served their Master well, he had his failings. At times he was too readily taken in by men who proved after the lapse of time to be no friends of his at all. But whatever failings he had were far outweighed by the many other admirable qualities for which his memory shall endure and remain fragrant. Failing eyesight, which meant that he was no longer able to drive, moved him to resign from the Glasgow charge in 2000, but his mind remained as clear as crystal and he still continued to preach wherever and whenever it was his duty to do so. He was also able to play an active part in the affairs of the Southern Presbytery. For a time he served as the interim-Moderator of the Fort William Kirk Session, cheerfully travelling there by bus to spend the weekend under the hospitable roof of Mr and Mrs Iain MacKinnon at Onich, in order to conduct the services on the Sabbath.
In 1955, Mr MacLean married Grace MacQueen of Inverness and for 53 years she was his faithful companion and helpmeet. A gracious lady, she, in addition to fulfilling admirably her domestic duties, including the raising of four children, was known in the Glasgow congregation as a Phebe-like succourer of many. She passed away in 2008. Nine months prior to that, Mr and Mrs MacLean had become residents in Ballifeary House, Inverness. From the date of his arrival, Mr MacLean conducted the “family worship” held morning and evening. This was much appreciated by the residents and staff and was a duty which he himself apparently relished. “I regard it as an extension of my ministry”, he said.
Towards the end of July 2010 he contracted a chest infection which, notwithstanding the care and devoted attention given to him by the Ballifeary Home staff, failed to clear up and he was admitted to Raigmore Hospital, where everything possible was done to bring about his recovery, but it was not to be. Six days before the end, he was visited by Alasdair MacRae, one of the Inverness elders, and at the end of the visit Mr MacLean said to him: “In spite of my faults, which are many, like Paul I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith and I am trusting in the finished work of Christ. I am now ready when the call comes, which I expect will be soon.”
Two days later, in the course of a clear, lucid spell, he said to a relative at his bedside: “I got a truth this morning”, after which he quoted the words, “The time of my departure is at hand”. His condition worsened during the evening of August 11. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he was heard quoting very clearly the words: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them”.
In the early evening of August 13 he departed to Immanuel’s land, where Christ is all the glory. On the day of his funeral, family worship was conducted in St Jude’s church, Glasgow. A large number of people from all parts of the Church attended. His mortal remains were laid to rest beside those of his late wife in Linn Cemetery to await a glorious resurrection. “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” To his sorrowing children, Donald, Helen, Rachel and Murdo (to whom the writer is indebted for providing so much helpful information), we anew offer our sympathy and express the desire that their father’s God will be their God also, and their Guide even unto death.
(Rev) John MacLeod
[This obituary was originally printed in the October 2011 issue of the Free Presbyterian Magazine.]