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A Prince among Preachers

by Rev Neil Ross

The following is an essay written by Rev Neil Ross, minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland congregtion in Dingwall, Scotland. It is a biographical scetch of Dr Kennedy, which pays special attention to his God-given abilities and successes as a preacher of the gospel. Says Rev Ross, "the purpose of this piece is rather to indicate some reasons why he was so highly esteemed as a powerful preacher of the unsearchable riches of Christ." The James Begg Society asked Rev Ross to write this essay for our use as the preface in our new publication, Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall: Sermon Notes (1859-1865). Besides being included therein and in this email, we have also put it on our website, on the information page for this book.

REV. John Kennedy of Dingwall was among the most eminent preachers of the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. His biographer, Alexander Auld, [1] stated as the opinion of competent, contemporary judges that, taking him as a whole, he was "the foremost among them all" (Life of John Kennedy, D.D., 5th edition, p.92). Principal John Macleod in his Scottish Theology went as far as to say, "He was the great preacher of his generation in Scotland" (p.327).

[Note 1: Rev Alexander Auld (1821-1905), after a period as assistant to Rev. Dr. James Hamilton, London, was Free Church minister of Olrig, Caithness from 1855 until his death. He also wrote Ministers and Men of the Far North and Life of David Steven. (Annals of the Free Church of Scotland 1900-1986, p.7).]

Those today who seek to understand something of John Kennedy's eminence as a preacher find theirs a very difficult task as they stand at a distance of more than 120 years from his death. It is even more difficult if they have never heard preachers of his extraordinary ability, and especially difficult when they read that certain of his hearers spoke of his preaching as "indescribable".

However, we have on record the testimonies of people – ministers and elders, learned and unlearned, men and women, old and young – who had first-hand knowledge of his outstanding godliness, eminent gifts and notable usefulness as a minister of Christ. There is marked agreement between those reports, and undoubtedly the truth about John Kennedy's exceptional renown as a preacher is firmly established in the mouths of those witnesses.

If we go back for a moment to his times, say, to a Sabbath in the summer of 1870 and to the newly built Free Church in Dingwall, the county town of Ross-shire, we would see John Kennedy, now in his 52 nd year, enter the wide pulpit with sedate step and serious countenance, ready to engage in work of great gravity. A neighbouring minister, William McDougall of Fodderty, said that when "Mr. Kennedy came out to preach, it was from the secret place of the Most High; his face, so deeply solemn, indicating the weight of the burden of the Lord upon his spirit" (Life, p.122).

He stands before the people, a man of above average height and very broad build. He has an erect bearing, a large head, auburn hair, and a firm but kindly expression in which is mingled dignity and gentleness. There is, to quote one of his congregation, "a becoming native dignity about his whole demeanour". His very appearance commands the attention of his hearers.

The verses of the psalm to be sung by the congregation have been carefully chosen and indicate the theme of his sermon. The congregational singing itself – a great volume of grave sweet melody – is memorably impressive. His prayer is the utterance of a man who is not only very familiar with the throne of grace but who also has a gracious, holy nearness to the divine Hearer of prayer. It is a prayer full of profound reverence and godly fear, gracious humility, holy adoration, and childlike faith; it is a prayer which presents the needs of all the people before him, believers and unbelievers alike. His reading of the Scriptures is manifestly an act of reverent worship; it is also "elegant, and with great taste and expression", wrote John Noble in his "Memoir" of Kennedy prefixed to the fifth edition of The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire (p. cxix).

Then comes the sermon. He announces his text and proceeds to unfold it. His voice, which some have described as mellifluous, and others as melodious, is at first low but clear; it rises steadily as he warms to his subject and brings out things new and old from the treasures of Scripture. Rev. Donald Beaton's assessment was that his "eloquence differed from the impetuous on-rush of Dr. Macdonald's, and the rugged, thundering oratory of Rev. John MacRae. His was more like the irresistible flowing of the tide, moving forward with majestic progress until every faculty of his hearers was filled by it" (Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands, p.274). The people listen intently. His biographer, who occasionally had the opportunity of sharing a pulpit with him, wrote, "It was a rare and interesting sight to look at a large congregation listening to Mr. Kennedy. His elevated thoughts, his eloquent language, his impressive manner, his earnest tones, soon drew to him the eyes and ears of his audience, and rivetted their attention. He was a master of assemblies" (Life, p.95). But it is the divine Master of assemblies Himself upon whom the minds and hearts of both the preacher and the Lord's people are focussed as the time swiftly passes. "Christ was the sun and centre of his preaching," wrote John Noble, who as a young man belonged to Kennedy's congregation. The preacher now concludes his sermon, and he appeals passionately to his hearers, converted and unconverted, to attend to the obligations laid upon them respectively by the part of Scripture he has been expounding and applying.

As the people leave the house of God, some of them feel as others felt when they got a view of the glory of Christ on earth: it was good for them to be there.

To return to our own time, we find that the name of Dr. Kennedy of Dingwall is still cherished by many Christians in Scotland and beyond, despite increasing spiritual declension. While he is remembered as a stout-hearted and trenchant defender of the Reformed faith, the purpose of this piece is rather to indicate some reasons why he was so highly esteemed as a powerful preacher of the unsearchable riches of Christ. Even before he died it was said, "Dr. Kennedy is distinguished among Highland ministers as the most eloquent and impressive preacher in both languages [English and Gaelic]" (Disruption Worthies of the Highlands, 1877, p.532).

A man cannot truly preach Christ until he is united to Christ by faith. Young John Kennedy was brought up in circumstances most conducive to being found in Christ. He was born in August 1819, the fourth son of the saintly John Kennedy of Killearnan, [2] whose preaching was widely blessed. Not only was the Killearnan manse a home in which Christ was honoured daily, but also those were days when showers of blessing descended on Killearnan and the parishes round about.

[Note 2: Rev. John Kennedy (1772-1841), a native of Kishorn, Ross-shire, was licensed to preach the gospel in 1795, and became the teacher of the parish school in Lochcarron. Two years later he was appointed as "preacher" in Lochbroom during the suspension of the parish minister there; then in 1802 was settled as missionary in Erribol (his mission extended from Tongue in the north to Kinlochbervie in the south); and in 1806 became the assistant to Rev. William MacKenzie of Assynt. In 1813 he was inducted to the parish of Killearnan, where he had a very fruitful ministry until his much lamented death 28 years later.]

After being educated in the local parish school, John Kennedy became an outstanding student at King's College, Aberdeen, where he was awarded his Master of Arts degree in 1840. In the same year he entered the Divinity Hall in Aberdeen. Despite his marked success in his Arts course, he did not appear, as he begun his divinity course, to be someone who would achieve ministerial renown. A fellow divinity student, John Mackay, observed, "There was not much in his conversation to give any special promise of the high-toned personal piety and power as a preacher by which he afterwards became distinguished" (Life, p.4). Despite being the son of the eminent John Kennedy of Killearnan he was yet another specimen of what was not uncommon in theological colleges: the unregenerate divinity student. Mackay not only noted that young Kennedy lacked a high sense of the sacredness and solemnity of the ministerial office but also was more familiar with the fiction of Walter Scott than the facts of Biblical theology. He possessed religion but it amounted to not much more than an intense dislike of cold moderatism, with deep respect and great love for his pious father, and "great confidence in the efficacy of that father's prayers" (Life, p.5).

It was the death of his father, on 9 th January 1841, which was used by the Spirit of God to bring John Kennedy to consider seriously his relationship to his divine Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. He had heard many impressive sermons from his father but he did not profit from the preached word as he was destitute of saving faith. When on holiday from college at the end of 1840, he heard his father preach a remarkable sermon on Revelation 3:20, "Behold I stand at the door and knock...." As he listened intently it seemed as if his father's utterances were of one who was just going to step across the threshold to eternity. However, John Kennedy returned to college still unconcerned about his spiritual welfare.

Some days later he was devastated by the distressing news of the sudden death of his father. In his painful bereavement he thought anxiously of his own solemn situation as an unsaved sinner. His just deserts for transgressing the divine law now assumed a fearful reality and he earnestly sought peace with God. "The sense of his sinfulness pressed heavily upon him," we are told, but these words of Christ in John 3:37: "Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out," came to his mind again and again and kept him from sinking into despair.

He was enabled indeed to come to Christ and he returned to his divinity studies a changed man. His diary reveals that during those days he was given deep insights into the person and redemptive work of the Saviour, especially through reading The Person of Christ by John Owen. But those times of spiritual light and comfort were interspersed with grave doubts and disturbing fears about the genuineness of his conversion. However, with hindsight and God-given assurance he saw (as he told a friend some years later) that he had gone back to Aberdeen after his father's death "with a faith which, although weak in degree, was saving in nature". Many years later he wrote of his father's death: "The memory of that loss I can bear to recall, as I cherish the hope that his death was the means of uniting us in bonds that shall never be broken" (Disruption Worthies, p.529).

Youthful John Kennedy was certain that no man could be a true minister of the gospel without being called to that work by God. Was he really called? That was another question which troubled him. "Cannot clear my call to the ministry...." he wrote in his diary. " ‘Take my yoke upon you,' binds me to the service of Christ, but special qualifications, special grace, and special providence needed to clear a call to this: its highest department. What a catalogue of wants! But oh! what a fullness!" (Life, p.42).

By grace he drew out of that fulness which is in Christ and went on to complete his studies. In September 1843, he was licensed to preach the gospel by the newly formed Free Church Presbytery of Chanonry, and five months later he was ordained and inducted to what was to be his only charge: the Dingwall congregation of the Free Church of Scotland. As his biographer says, the severe spiritual struggles through which he passed were the preparation for the sphere of usefulness he afterwards occupied, as being able to comfort others with the comfort wherewith he himself had been comforted of God. (Life, p.92). "From the first," said John Fraser, [3] his brother minister in Rosskeen and author of his biographical sketch in Disruption Worthies of the Highlands, "he became one of the most popular and attractive preachers in the Highlands; and many were the vacant congregations which aspired to call him" (p.530).

[Note 3: Rev. John Fraser (1823-84) was a native of Killearnan, (not of Kilmorack as stated in Biographies of Highland Clergymen), and therefore he and John Kennedy, who was four years older, were boys together in Killearnan. He obtained his M.A. degree in Aberdeen in 1849, studied divinity under Thomas Chalmers, became assistant to David Carment, Free Church minister of Rosskeen in 1852, and was ordained and inducted as Carment's successor a year later. He was described as "a model Ross-shire minister." (Memoir and Remains of the Rev John H. Fraser, Rosskeen, 1885).]

In his own large congregation he had an enormous burden of work. He preached three times on Sabbath, including once in Gaelic; twice during the week, in Gaelic on Tuesday evening, and in English on Wednesday evening. His discourses on Tuesday evenings were detailed expositions of the Book of Psalms, and so profitable and instructive did his own people find them that some people in neighbouring parishes, hearing of this, also attended. He was of the opinion that his ministry in Dingwall would not come to an end until he had finished expounding the Book of Psalms; and so it proved, for this series was actually complete in the week he went to Italy for the sake of his health (he died before he reached home). In addition, he frequently preached at communion seasons throughout the Highlands and Islands and beyond. Although his literary output was not voluminous it was considerable: at least three books, notably The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, plus several booklets, the best known perhaps being Hyper-Evangelism – ‘Another Gospel', Though a Mighty Power. He was also an assiduous letter writer.

How did he succeed in carrying out so much work? Apart from the fact that he was endowed with a strong constitution, both physically and mentally, he said he owed much to the counsel given him by the renowned minister of Cromarty, Alexander Stewart, when he was licensed to preach the gospel. "John," said Mr. Stewart, "I think I know you now. Take one advice from me don't write your sermons. Spend your time in thinking, for be assured if you do not express clearly it will be because you have not thought sufficiently!" (The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, p. xlix.) Towards the end of his life, Dr. Kennedy wrote in the introduction to the last of his weekly published sermons, "This counsel I was constrained to follow because of the pressure of work that came upon me immediately after being licensed, in the busy year of the Disruption, and which certainly did not become less as years were passing" (Kennedy's Sermons, p.608). He also owed much to the assistance of the wise and warm-hearted woman whom God had given him as his life-long help meet: Miss Mary Mackenzie, daughter of Major Forbes Mackenzie of Fodderty.

The genuine preacher of the Word is one who seeks conscientiously to follow the Scripture injunction: "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). While John Kennedy did not write his sermons, he did prepare with pen in hand, as the extant volumes of his sermon notes show. "There lies before us a manuscript book," says Auld, "octavo size, filled with skeleton sermons and lectures, which is a marvel in many respects – in the condensation of thought and language – a single page generally sufficing for the materials of a sermon" (Life, p.43). As can be seen from the facsimile copy of a page of his notes inserted in page 74 of his Life, these were not hasty jottings that only he could read but lucid summaries written in a clear hand.

"No characteristic of his mind is more marked than his reliance on his own resources in all his mental efforts," wrote John Fraser. "He seems to place little reliance on books, or on the thoughts and labours of others. He is not a learned man in the broad sense of that term; at least, with his many pulpit duties, he had no time to become an extensively-read man, and, we believe, he lays no claim to this distinction. He works out his numerous discourses with little beside his Bible and concordance to aid him. They all bear the impress of his own mind and characteristics, and hence their freshness, depth of experience, and eminently Scriptural character" (Disruption Worthies, p.531). At the same time he was well versed in the writings of the English Puritans and Scottish divines. From his earliest days he delighted in, for example, the works of John Owen.

In his choice of a text for a sermon he followed one basic principle: that he himself would first benefit from that portion of Scripture. Writing to a friend he said, "I have spent this forenoon in my study, trying to prepare a sermon on Isa. 61:14,15. If I get food in my text I may get a sermon out of it. But the sermon will be poor indeed, if there is nothing in it but what I have tasted myself. On the other hand, displeasing to me is the sermon that comes from a hand that has not carried to the mouth the provision it sets before others" (Life, pp.160-1).

If a pastor is to be of spiritual benefit to his flock he must also have first-hand experience of the ways in which the Lord deals with the souls of His people in their pilgrimage. At a very early stage of John Kennedy's ministry, the godly observed that he had a depth of spiritual knowledge and experience which belied his years. One noted godly woman, Miss Gammon, said of her young pastor, "He already preaches as if his grey hairs were thick upon him, and it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for us if we profit not by his ministrations." The more discerning among the godly saw that in their minister was a combination, in wonderful proportion, of a number of gifts which make for an outstanding minister of the gospel.

His biographer puts it this way: "His ministry met and satisfied, as fully as the ministry of mere man could well do, the various grades of character and the various phases of feeling in Gospel hearers. In general there may be said to be four of these:

"First, experienced Christians, those most advanced in the Divine life.... They recognised him to be not only a true believer, but one deeply taught in the things of God, one who fervently desired the glory of God and the advancement of the kingdom of Christ – a man of prayer, and one who realised the importance and solemnity of dealing with immortal souls as did few besides. They approved of his theology, which was Calvinistic. He never wavered in his adherence to the interpretation of the Word of God which goes by that name....

"Second, those less grounded in the faith; those who needed special spiritual help and guidance in their Christian course, who feared the Lord, yet often ‘walked in darkness and had no light'. A fair proportion of his Northern audiences consisted of these.... Certainly many a poor burdened one has often hung upon the lips of John Kennedy as a messenger of God to their souls. He, like the good Samaritan, bound up their wounds and poured in the oil and wine of spiritual consolation.

"Third, those who, being stated hearers of the Gospel, were more or less alive to their need of a saving change. A large share of Mr. Kennedy's ministry was accorded to them. Those who charged him with too high Calvinism in his way of setting forth the eternal purpose of God, never alleged that he restricted the offer of the Gospel. He preached Christ with a fulness and power to which few have attained.... He had, therefore, no toleration for the attempts of some Churches to pare down the doctrine of particular redemption by means of ‘general references of the atonement', [4] so as to try and bring it into rational harmony with the offer of salvation to all.

[Note 4: This refers to the erroneous idea of the atonement as having a general reference to all men – that in some sense, Christ died for everyone.]

"Fourth, the large audiences who gathered to hear Mr. Kennedy embraced – as is too much the case – many who were quite indifferent to their spiritual interests. They were not forgotten by him when giving every one his portion of meat in due season. At intervals he would ply the consciences of the careless, showing the emptiness of their excuses for not receiving the Saviour, and the awfulness of their aggravated guilt in rejecting the offers of mercy, urging them to a present acceptance of salvation...." (Life, pp.93-4).

Every true minister of the gospel seeks to learn from the example of other ministers as well as the great Exemplar, Jesus Christ. Timothy learned from Paul's example and teaching, and then other faithful men learned from Timothy. John Kennedy likewise, while following primarily in the footsteps of his Master, also had the ministries of noted godly ministers of previous generations as a pattern to follow. In The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, he gives examples and characteristics of such ministers in the Highlands, and so useful have his remarks been to some that we quote at length from the passage.

"Some were more gifted, some more godly, and some more successful than others," he wrote, "but among them might surely be found men as like to their Master, and as fitted for their work, as Christ ever gave to the Church since the days of the Apostles." Kennedy was referring particularly to the few ministers whose names "tower above those of all others, and to whom, by universal consent, the first place would be given". He adds, "It was neither by talents, nor by learning, nor by oratory, nor was it by all these together that a leading place was attained by them.... but by a profound experience of the power of godliness, a clear view of the doctrines of grace, peculiar nearness to God, a holy life, and a blessed ministry" (The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, p.21).

He continues with this description of their preaching, "As preachers, they were all remarkable. There are some who preach before their people, like actors on the stage, to display themselves and to please their audience. Not such were the self-denied preachers of Ross-shire. There are others who preach over their people. Studying for the highest, instead of doing so for the lowest, in intelligence, they elaborate learned treatises, which float like mist, when delivered, over the heads of their hearers. Not such were the earnest preachers of Ross-shire. There are some who preach past their people. Directing their praise or their censure to intangible abstractions, they never take aim at the views and the conduct of the individuals before them. They step carefully aside, lest their hearers should be struck by their shafts, and aim them at phantoms beyond them. Not such were thefaithful preachers of Ross-shire. There are others who preach at their people, serving out in a sermon the gossip of the week, and seemingly possessed with the idea that the transgressor can be scolded out of the ways of iniquity. Not such were the wise preachers of Ross-shire. There are some who preach towards their people. They aim well, but they are weak. Their eye is along the arrow towards the hearts of their hearers, but their arm is too feeble for sending it on to the mark. Superficial in their experience and in their knowledge, they reach not the cases of God's people by their doctrine, and they strike with no vigour at the consciences of the ungodly. Not such were the powerful preachers of Ross-shire. There are others still, who preach along their congregation. Instead of standing with their bow in front of the ranks, these archers take them in line, and, reducing their mark to an individual, never change the direction of their aim. Not such were the discriminating preachers of Ross-shire. But there are a few who preach to the people directly and seasonably the mind of God in His Word, with authority, unction, wisdom, fervour, and love. Such as these last were theeminent preachers of Ross-shire....

"Their preaching was remarkable for its completeness. It combined carefulness of exposition, fulness and exactness of doctrinal statement, a searching description of experimental godliness, and close application of truth to the conscience. The admixture of these elements, in wisely-adjusted proportions, constitutes the true excellence of preaching. Careful to ascertain the mind of God in His Word, they were not content merely to prefix a passage of Scripture as a motto to their sermon. They chose to preach from a text rather than to discourse on a subject. They did not try what they themselves could say about it, but to tell what the Lord said through it, to their hearers. But, while careful expounders, they were systematic theologians as well. They clearly saw, and they clearly taught, ‘the form of sound doctrine'. No loose statement of doctrine would satisfy them, and yet no men were further than they from being frozen into the stiffness of a cold, lifeless orthodoxy. Their zeal for a sound creed was at least equalled by their desire for a godly experience and a holy life....

"Of all of them, without exception, it may be affirmed that they were scrupulously careful in their preparation for the pulpit. These were not men to offer to the Lord that which cost them nothing. Their aim in studying was not the construction of a finished or a pleasing sermon. Mere sermon-making was not their work. They sought to know what message the Lord was giving them, and to be prepared to deliver it in the manner most accordant with the gifts conferred on themselves, and most suitable to the circumstances and attainments of their hearers....

"All of them were distinguished as men of prayer. Without this, they would not have had their godliness as Christians, nor their success as ministers.... Their abounding in prayer made it safe and healthful to abound also in labours. Their public work was to them no wasting bustle, for in communion with the Lord their strength was recruited in the closet. Wrestling for grace with the Lord, and labouring with grace for the Lord, no blight was permitted to rest on their soul or their service. Prevailing with God as they pled for men, they prevailed with men as they pled for God" (The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, pp.24-9).

Such, in the opinion and experience of John Kennedy, was the model minister; and this pattern he strove to comply with. It is no exaggeration to say, according to those who knew him well, that he was in the same mould as they were and that his preaching bore the hallmarks of the preaching of the best of them. John Macleod was of the opinion (and he had been personally acquainted with many who had heard and were blessed under Kennedy's preaching) that "the great Puritans had no more eminent successor in the Scottish ministry in the 19th century [than Dr. Kennedy]." Macleod also stated, "Dr. Kennedy was a truly great divine. In doctrine he was clear and powerful and at the same time practical. He was tender and judicious in his application of his message and he was an experimental divine in the best sense of the word" (Scottish Theology, p.327).

John Kennedy rejoiced in going forth with the good seed of the kingdom, but there were times when he was cast down because he felt himself to be an unprofitable servant. Although highly regarded by those who heard him even at the beginning of his ministry, he complained in his diary, "Little sense of the weight of the ministry and its awful responsibility..... Little or no impression of the shortness of time and the awful realities of eternity." Another entry reads, "Preached in chains;" and yet another, "A gloomy evening, caused by it being brought home to my soul that I have been preaching what was unsuitable to the people of whom I must give an account." On another occasion he wrote, "Lord have mercy. Oh the uncleanness of my lips! I knew not what I was doing. Lord, cast me not from thy presence; be not silent at the voice of my cry."

But such complaints were interspersed with an acknowledgement of answers to his prayers and of grace given for onerous duties. However, after 30 years of preaching the gospel he still had similar complaints. He wrote to a friend, "I was lately in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Dundee, preaching in connection with communion services and addressing public meetings. The addresses were failures, and the sermons were cold and dry. My soul and my service need each and together to be sprinkled with the precious blood that cleanseth oh! precious words! from all sin." However, someone wrote to him afterwards: "I desire to bless God for having heard you last time you were in Dundee. Your sermon on the electing love of God was a seasonable message to my soul, clearing difficulties and confirming me in the truth. May the Holy Spirit continue to accompany and bless your labours" (Life, p.171).

There were many others who could and did testify that they had benefited greatly from his preaching. Auld said of his labours, "There is good reason to believe that they were blessed by the Head of the Church for the calling and converting of not a few. And one abounding result there need be no hesitation in pronouncing upon how largely his ministry was owned as the means of enlightening, instructing and encouraging the hearts of thousands of the followers of Christ throughout the wide North. Many of these rose up and called him blessed. We venture to affirm that there were few living Christians in the northern counties of Scotland who were not in their day indebted to Mr. Kennedy for the reviving and strengthening of their spiritual life" (Life, p.74.).

David Budge, a prominent Caithness Christian wrote, "Mr. Kennedy above others is a means of warming my cold heart and reviving something of the love of days gone by" (Life, p.147). An old elder, Angus Gray of Lairg, recorded that some time after his conversion he heard Dr. Kennedy preach in Creich. "He spoke of the love of Christ, and so described my case that I was drunk with joy, and when I came out of the church I might as well have been in a foreign land for all I knew where I was.... It was the greatest day I ever had in the world" (The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol. 8, p.118). Someone from Skye went to a Stornoway communion and heard Kennedy preach with much freedom, "but on Sabbath, while preaching the action sermon from Song 5:10 [‘My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.'] he had extraordinary liberty.... The manifestations I had that day of the glorious majesty, worthiness and suitableness of the Lord Jesus Christ in all His mediatorial offices I never experienced before nor indeed to the same extent since. I can never forget it" (Life, p.113).

A young man, who later became a minister of the gospel, recorded that he feared his conversion was false because of what he perceived to be his lack of spiritual-mindedness and conformity to Christ. He had occasion to hear John Kennedy preach on Isaiah 55:1, ‘Ho! everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters....' He began, said the man, "by opening up the free and wide invitation of the Gospel to all classes of sinners; and I felt that though he was a most attractive speaker, and I could not help listening to every word he said, yet it was not the proclamation of the Gospel I was in quest of, but how to get the Gospel to influence my heart and life. At length.... he said, ‘But there is one here today who says, "You have not mentioned my thirst yet; my thirst is for holiness, for such a knowledge of Christ as would subdue sin in me and weaken my heart-corruption".'

"This arrested me, and I listened as if I were the person spoken to when he added, ‘My dear, dear friend, if that is your case – if you do thirst for Christ in order to the crucifixion of all sin within you, and in order to your becoming conformed to His holy image – let me tell you, in His name, you shall yet be as free of sin as if you had never known it; yea, you shall yet be satisfied with the fellowship of Christ and with likeness to Him throughout the endless ages of eternity.' The glowing fervour, yet deep solemnity, with which he uttered those words quite overcame me, and as he went on to prove the truth of what he had stated, my enjoyment was such, that it was as a begun heaven. He exhibited Christ as the living waters to which the text invited, not only as by His atoning death satisfying the sinner's thirst for peace with God, but as also in His risen life procuring the outflow of the Holy Spirit to dwell in the hearts of those who responded to the call, and then traced up all to the fountain of God's sovereign grace, given in Christ Jesus before the world began. Often since then have sin, Satan and the world got the upper hand in my soul, yet, remembering that day's message, I have sought to look again to God's holy temple for the renewing grace of Christ grace treasured up in Christ for the chief of sinners" (Life, pp.104-5).

Others of the Lord's people, who were becoming disheartened by a decline in the standard of the Christian ministry, were greatly encouraged under his preaching. For example, Rev. Neil Cameron of Glasgow wrote that Duncan Crawford, an elder in Oban, was in his younger days quite cast down spiritually as he thought of the unsatisfactory ministers and probationers who supplied his then vacant congregation. Learning that Dr. Kennedy was to preach in Greenock, he decided to go to hear him. "I went to Greenock and heard Dr. Kennedy," he stated, "and as another said, ‘whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell'. From that day the gospel ministry was lifted for me out of the mud, and remained ever since what it ought to be in every Christian man's estimation" (Ministers and Men of the Free Presbyterian Church, p.120).

Others testified to how, under his preaching, they were either awakened to their guilt as sinners, or were brought to close in with the Saviour, or both. One man, who later became a missionary overseas, stated, "I went to Dingwall on a Communion Sabbath, and was arrested by the closing address of the service. The words that stuck to me were these: ‘The soul of man is a most wonderful thing in its undying state; it resembles a deep silent pool of water into which one might throw a stone; to all appearance the stone has gone out of existence, but it is still lying hidden at the bottom of the pool – and so in the heart of a sinner does the Word of God remain powerless, until the time appointed of the Father, when the Spirit comes with quickening power, to make it bring forth fruit to His glory in that very heart, it may be even on a bed of death. As surely, also, does the Word of God revive in the soul of the sinner continuing to despise it, bearing witness in his conscience against him through the ages of eternity in everlasting damnation.'

"The exceeding sinfulness of my own sin oppressed me, and the next Sabbath day found me on my way to Dingwall Free Church. During my long walk of fifteen miles, whilst saying, ‘Be merciful to me a sinner,' I could not name the name of God. When the service was almost finished, and I feared that I was to hear nothing that would reach my soul; in concluding Mr. Kennedy was led to say, ‘There is one listening to me, and his feeling is that he has no right to name the name of God in the prayer of the publican, and that he has nothing but the groaning arising from corruption; but I tell you that such groaning in sorrow for sin is sweet music in the ears of God.' Then, as one said, ‘He showed me all my heart,' and into its bleeding wound he poured the oil of consolation. For ten years I walked fifteen miles to church, but the fatigue and time appeared small and short while my soul was fed and refreshed by the living Word" (Life, pp.106-7).

Another man, George Campbell, a Glasgow elder, when first awakened to his sinnership and guilt before God, engaged earnestly in various religious duties, but felt himself become worse and worse. He began to fear he was an outcast for ever. He attended a communion season in Inverness at which Dr. Kennedy was assisting, but got no relief under sermon after sermon. On Monday, Dr. Kennedy preached with great power on Psalm 45, verses 10 and 11, endeavouring to win sin-convicted souls to Christ. He made the striking remark that Christ accepts ‘the devil's leavings', and then quoted the Apostle's words, "Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." The chains of bondage and despair then fell off George Campbell's soul and he was led into hope and liberty (The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol. 8, p.372).

Then there was the woman in John Kennedy's own congregation who was notorious in Dingwall for her wicked tongue. Under her minister's preaching she was quickened into newness of life and was "transformed into a dove". She lived a consistent Christian life for many years after that. Her children likewise were brought to faith in Christ under his preaching (Life, p.113).

One may well ask, What exactly was the content of the preaching that had such wonderful effects? We have before us the volume of Dr. Kennedy's published sermons, 58 in number, with such titles as, "God Calling the Wicked to Repentance", "The Smitten Shepherd and His Flock", "Redemption and Eternal Inheritance", and "The Humble and Hopeful Worshipper". Those who were familiar with his preaching acknowledged that, while those sermons are excellent, they fail to convey an adequate idea of what his preaching was really like. "Of course," wrote John Macleod, "when they were preached, there was to be taken into account the impact upon his hearers of the preacher's striking personality and style and the reflex impact of his audience upon the preacher. But the written discourses, set down with the deliberate judgment of his fine mind, give us the doctrine, practice and experience that the preacher meant to lay stress upon. The English style has a decided distinction of its own. The inversion of sentences and the epigrams that often occur are marked features of it. The preacher was a special master in the realm of delicate spiritual analysis" (Scottish Theology, p.327).

"They were written," says Auld, "in the cool retirement of his study when he was in delicate health, and were often penned on a sick-bed. They therefore, although exhibiting in the main his way of treating his subject, fall behind what was his wont in the pulpit, especially when fronting a large congregation, and all the powers of his mind raised to fullest activity. His conceptions of truth were on such occasions clear and comprehensive, his grasp of mind sustained and mighty, and his powerful affections, all aglow, poured themselves forth in strains of unstudied eloquence, impossible to be attained in quieter hours" (Life, p.95).

It is interesting to compare his written sermon on Psalm 106:4,5, entitled "A Large Prayer" as published in that volume, with a hearer's full "Notes of a Sermon" on the same text which was published in The Free Presbyterian Magazine (vol. 5, p.203). The notes of the preached sermon, although substantially the same as the written sermon, do indeed have, as one would expect, more spontaneity and warmth.

Of course, as Auld has said (and others have concurred with him), "There likewise often accompanied his preaching that without which all words of merely man's wisdom are ineffectual, the unction from on high, the baptism of the Spirit of God, so that many have had to say, ‘The Lord was in this place; this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven'" (Life, pp.95-6).

John Kennedy deplored a presentation of the gospel which ignored or belittled ‘the sovereignty and power of God in the dispensation of His grace', and for this reason, among others, he wrote his 31 page pamphlet, Hyper-Evangelism, ‘Another Gospel,' Though a Mighty Power, in which he criticised the type of doctrine preached by D.L. Moody and the enquiry room methods of dealing with anxious enquirers during the revival movement of the day. As a result, some charged him with hyper-Calvinism. "This charge was without a foundation," wrote John Macleod in his Scottish Theology, "for no man in his generation made conscience more than he did of proclaiming as the Gospel a message that was as full as it was free and as free as it was full" (p.328). A.P.F. Sell, in writing about Dr. Kennedy in his work Defending and Declaring the Faith Some Scottish Examples, puts it this way, "Kennedy offered Christ to all comers. He did not encourage undue introspection; he did not suggest that the gospel was only for sensible sinners [that is, only for those conscious of their sins]; and he was no antinomian. A High Calvinist he was; a Hyper-Calvinist he was not" (pp.33-4). It was his heralding of this full and free message, and his warm and solemn pleading with sinners to come to Christ, which endeared him to the hearts of the people, as an eminently distinguished ambassador of the cross.

Take, for example, the conclusion of his above mentioned sermon on Psalm 106:4,5, especially the prayer, "O visit me with thy salvation." Here is Dr. Kennedy's closing appeal as recorded by a hearer:

"I am to ask you three questions. Have you ever asked Christ to visit you? Not with your tongue merely, but has your soul really ever felt like that of the Psalmist, that you must remain for ever an outcast unless the Lord visit you? If you have, I am sure there was no failing on His part, for He says, ‘Ask and it shall be given you.' The Lord is faithful and cannot lie. On the other hand, if you have not asked, you have none to blame but yourself for being an outcast today and through eternity. I think though Christ should only have this to say to you at the last day, ‘Never through all the years I was with you in the gospel did you invite me to come to you with my salvation,' you will be left without excuse, not only as regards your inability, but also as regards your choice. Is it not time to cry out, ‘Remember me, O Lord, and visit me with thy salvation?' I am willing to come to a point with you tonight.

"Will you then come to the point now, and ask the Lord now to visit you? There is a present opportunity of sending up the cry to God. If you let it pass there is not one word in all God's Book to warrant the hope of your getting another opportunity. Will you then come to the point now? You never gave one hour to your soul in dealing with God. Won't you give it tonight? Say, ‘Remember me, and visit me with thy salvation.'

"What hope, friends, can you have if the Lord does not visit you with His salvation? You must be cut off for ever. Dead in the destroyer's grasp and near the gate of hell, if God remembers you not, it is death eternal for you. Will you not call upon Him while He is near, and seek Him while He may be found? Now is the accepted time, and now is the day of salvation.' ‘Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you.' ‘Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out' " (The Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol. 5, pp.210-1).

John Kennedy also excelled in encouraging the weak of the flock when they were faced with the solemn duty of remembering the death of their Saviour. When inviting communicants to the Lord's table, he could and did descend to the case of the feeblest believer "and led him out of the prison-house by showing that a sincere desire after God was as sure a mark of grace as the strong assurance of the man who could say, ‘I know in whom I have believed' " (Memoir, p. cxxxi). In his Gleaning of Highland Harvest, Murdoch Campbell tells how Kennedy, one communion Sabbath, used the following illustration for the encouragement of believers who had a wholesome fear of partaking unworthily, "I seem to see an abundant feast spread before the Lord's poor ones. They fear, however, that the good things are not for them. They look longingly at the table, but who is worthy to sit down thereat? But I seem to see a young man in the company who ventures nearer to the table than the rest. He would know what are those letters of gold inscribed on a covering which hides the contents of a dish on the table. And this is what he reads, ‘A gift of choice honey from the Elder Brother to the children to be divided among themselves.' With that they all come, and receive that which by His death He provides" (p.81).

When Dr. Kennedy died, a close friend and brother minister, Dr. Aird of Creich, had this to say to those who gathered to mourn his passing: "Viewed as a minister of the Gospel, he ever shone with peculiar lustre. He was called by the Master to the work, and as a proof of this was fitted for it by natural, acquired, and gracious gifts. In opening up the treasures of the Gospel, it was not his wont to skim over its surface. He searched the Bible for himself, his powerful intellect anointed with the unction from on high, deep and prayerful were his meditations, ever keeping in the foreground the essential doctrines of God's word. His unusual facility for analysing the thoughts and experience of God's people, and distinguishing the true from the false, secured for him an extraordinary place in their affections, for he spoke to their hearts and feelings.... His delight was to proclaim an unfettered Gospel to his fellow-men, and the Lord was pleased to acknowledge the labours of his faithful servant in giving him many seals of an accepted ministry" (In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Kennedy, pp.27-8).

Some may feel that this sketch is too adulatory in its attempt to present Dr. Kennedy's eminence as a preacher of the gospel. Some, for example, regard his type of preaching as tending to inhibit church growth. Dr. Ian R. MacDonald, in his book Aberdeen and the Highland Church (1785-1900), writes of Kennedy that "the stress which he laid on self-examination, in both his preaching and his writing, conveyed to the church at large the impression that if many were called, few were chosen. Where this critical attitude on the part of ministers and Kirk Sessions prevailed, it had the effect of diminishing additions to the communion roll" (p.269).

It was rather the reverse. The teaching and preaching of Dr. Kennedy and his like-minded brethren were the cause, under God, not of diminishing but of increasing the number of those who professed faith in Christ, and also resulted in strengthening the church north of the Grampians in those days.

We cannot but pray that such days would come again, and that ministers of the spiritual calibre of Dr. Kennedy would occupy our pulpits today. To say so will no doubt be regarded by some as a "tendency to magnify the past and denigrate the present" as Principal Donald Macleod put it in the Free Church Monthly Record when he wrote about Dr. Kennedy on the centenary of his death (May 1984, p.98). Commenting on the wistful rhetorical question, "The fathers, where are they?" posed by Dr. Kennedy and echoed by others, he states, "This praising of times past is essentially a ministry of discouragement. Its real interest is not so much to praise God for former days as to denigrate the present. In the last analysis that is the devil's work and its only effect is to discourage those struggling in the service of the kingdom."

On the contrary, it is an undeniable fact that innumerable servants of Christ, by considering the records of more prosperous days in the church of Christ in the past, have not only blessed God for His mighty works, but also have been motivated to seek, and strive for, heaven-sent betterment both for themselves and the church in their own day. While we must guard against an unwise preoccupation with the past, we ought to imitate the resolve of the psalmist: "I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old" (Psa. 77:11).

In remembering them we are bound to pray that God would so work again. When Dr. Kennedy had cause to mourn over spiritual decline in his own day, much more have we. But like him, we must pray. "O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy" (Hab. 3:2). The bare fact that the God of all grace calls us to ask for such a blessing is a tremendous encouragement to us to keep asking. "Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will yet for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them; I will increase them with men like a flock" (Ezek. 36:37).

It is clear that with regard to the truths which have been faithfully passed down to us by John Kennedy and other long-gone, ambassadors of Christ, it is our duty to transmit them to future generations. "This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: that ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour" (2 Pet. 3:1,2). We heartily concur with Rev. H.M. Cartwright, who, when he wrote about Dr. Kennedy in another issue of The Monthly Record, concluded, "It might be a hopeful sign if the hundredth year since his death were marked by a revived interest in the whole message which he proclaimed in pulpit, on platform, and in the press" (October 1983, p.212).

May the Lord bless the publication of this volume of Dr. Kennedy's sermon notes so that there would be a wider and deeper interest in the glorious gospel which he so faithfully, fully and freely proclaimed.

Free Presbyterian Manse, Dingwall.