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McDONALD, DONALD, Presbyterian clergyman, author, and hymnist; b. 1 Jan. 1783 in Drumcastle near Rannoch in Perthshire, Scotland, son of Donald McDonald and Christan Stewart; d. 21 Feb. 1867 in Southport, P.E.I.

Little is known of Donald McDonald’s early years in Perthshire. His father had been a McKay and had fought in the Highland army under Prince Charlie, but after the battle of Culloden in 1746 he changed his name to McDonald and settled on a farm on the border of Rannoch. The family was amongst those caught up in the wave of revivalism which swept over many regions of Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1808 Donald McDonald entered the University of St Andrews to prepare for the ministry; after working for a time as a tutor to a chieftain’s family and as a farm labourer, he completed his studies in 1816 and was ordained a clergyman of the Church of Scotland. He did not settle into a routine parish ministry but elected to serve as a missionary in the Highlands of Glengarry for the next eight years.

There is no reliable record of McDonald’s activities at this time, but in later years a persistent rumour existed to the effect that while in the Highlands he developed a drinking problem which at least partially accounted for his emigration to Cape Breton Island in 1824. Although he arrived in British North America in possession of a letter stating that he was a properly ordained minister in good standing, McDonald never eliminated completely the suspicion that he had incurred the disfavour of the Church of Scotland.

After two years in the Bras d’Or Lake area of Cape Breton the restive McDonald, then 44, moved to Prince Edward Island which was in a period of rapid growth and change owing to a heavy influx of immigrants, mostly from Scotland. On the Island, in 1827, he underwent a deep spiritual awakening. This experience, which McDonald regarded as the unmistakable touch of God, marked the beginning of an outstanding 40-year ministry among the people of Prince Edward Island. By the time of his death in 1867 he had single-handedly established a parish of some 5,000 members and adherents, which covered the full length of the Island, and which included at least 12 congregations and several preaching stations.

Known to his people simply as “The Minister,” McDonald was constantly on the move, sometimes preaching every night in both Gaelic and English. He never married, and, from 1827 to 1867, with no home of his own, he lived, literally, with his people. Although he was in some respects an austere, imperious individual and exercised an almost autocratic control over his congregations, his people – mostly fellow Scots – appear to have regarded him with great warmth and affection. In doctrine he was often stern and dogmatic, the essence of unbending Calvinism; but an acquaintance once described him as a “hearty” individual with a “keen appreciation of the humorous,” and his frequent, and often impulsive, acts of kindness to the needy, whether they were his followers or not, were widely acknowledged during his lifetime and became part of his legend after his death.

McDonald’s ministry on the Island was characterized by some exceptional features. During two revivals, in 1830 and 1860, religious excitement among his followers rose to a fevered pitch and many hundreds were “awakened” and “set free” under the influence of his impassioned preaching. His ministry frequently gave rise to physical manifestations or “works” of spiritual excitation. The response during the first revival was so extraordinary that McDonald became unalterably convinced he was God’s specially ordained instrument, and his labours on the Island were part of the divine plan for gathering the chosen people into the church before the imminent arrival of the millennium. This theme, which included the notion that his followers were members of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel, was extensively elaborated by McDonald in The subjects of the millennium, published in 1849. He also published in 1845 A treatise on the holy ordinance of baptism, a rigorously partisan attempt to establish the true scriptural mode and meaning of Christian baptism and to discredit those – in this case the Baptists – who thought differently. In 1874 a number of McDonald’s followers arranged for the publication of a manuscript entitled The plan of salvation, a brief, incomplete study of types and antitypes, which was found among his papers after his death.

Besides doctrinal dissertations McDonald also composed hymns and spiritual songs. Most are extremely long and somewhat didactic, but they occasionally achieve a fine lyric quality and, when set to well-known tunes of the period, proved to be popular. Only the Psalms were permitted during the worship period in the church, but his hymns were frequently sung during the less formal introduction to it. A first collection, Spiritual hymns, was published in 1835; several years later, expanded editions included also compositions of some of McDonald’s elders. This songbook was still in use in some congregations more than a century later.

In addition to being a forceful, evocative personality, McDonald was also an adept and tactful organizer. Thus, in spite of the intensely spiritual nature of his ministry, he was always able to exert sufficient personal authority and control to prevent serious discord or fragmentation. During his 40 years of leadership he imposed stability and order upon what was a potentially turbulent situation. “The Minister,” however, left no apparent heir, and after his death the question of leadership soon created factionalism.

Although he maintained a nominal connection with the mother church and always regarded himself as a Church of Scotland cleric, McDonald manifested a persistent independence of thought and action. He was not radically innovative or unorthodox, but did freely adapt his ministry to the frontier situation in which he found himself, and both his teachings and techniques were clearly conditioned by the Island and its people. Consequently, the church he founded was in large degree a unique and autonomous Island body. Many of his followers, indeed, referred to it as “Mr. McDonald’s Unattached Church.”

McDonald remained active and alert until his death in his 85th year. His funeral was one of the largest ever held on the Island. A lengthy obituary in the Islander acknowledged that he had been “one of the most remarkable men of his time” and that “tradition will long preserve the memory Of Minister McDonald.”

David Weale

[Privately held material used in the preparation of this biography includes: minutes of meetings, financial records, a copy of McDonald’s last will and testament, and a number of unpublished hymns, which were in the possession of the late Mr Nathan Bears, Brooklyn, P.E.I.; baptismal records of Orwell parish at the eastern end of McDonald’s charge, in the possession of the Reverend William Underhay, Charlottetown; and baptismal records of the De Sable parish at the western end of his charge, in the possession of the Reverend David Compton, Hampton, P.E.I.

McDonald’s published works include: The plan of salvation (Charlottetown, 1874); Spiritual hymns (Charlottetown, 1835; 1840); The subjects of the millennium, traced in their downward progress from their ancestry through the three pre-millennial dispensations; together with a scriptural view of the new Jerusalem; coming of Messiah; sacred numbers, and signs of the times; the end of the world, and the last judgment; and scriptural views of the millennial church (Charlottetown, 1849); and A treatise on the holy ordinance of baptism . . . (Charlottetown, 1845; 1898).

For obituaries of McDonald see: Herald (Charlottetown), 6 March 1867; Islander, 1 March 1867; and Summerside Progress (Summerside, P.E.I.), 4 March 1867. The most comprehensive source of biographic material is Murdoch Lamont, Rev. Donald McDonald: glimpses of his life and times (Charlottetown, 1902). See also J. M. MacLeod, History of Presbyterianism on Prince Edward Island (Chicago, 1904).  d.w.]

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Cite This Article

David Weale, “McDONALD, DONALD (1783-1867),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcdonald_donald_1783_1867_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcdonald_donald_1783_1867_9E.html
Author of Article:   David Weale
Title of Article:   McDONALD, DONALD (1783-1867)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   April 21, 2024