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ROSS, DUNCAN, Presbyterian minister, farmer, educator, office holder, and author; b. c. 1770 in the parish of Tarbat, Ross-shire, Scotland; m. 28 Sept. 1796 Isabella Creelman probably in Stewiacke, N.S.; d. 25 Oct. 1834 in West River (Durham), N.S.

At an early period the Ross family moved to Alyth, Forfarshire. Duncan Ross followed the usual paths for one entering the ministry of the anti-burgher Presbyterians, taking some courses at the University of Edinburgh and graduating from the theological hall of the General Associate Synod at Whitburn. He was ordained on 20 Jan. 1795 by the Presbytery of Forfar.

While students, Ross and John Brown had been moved by an appeal in 1792 from the Reverend James Drummond MacGregor, the Presbyterian minister in Pictou, N.S., stressing the colony’s need of ministers. In response, they made a secret pact to emigrate there. This fact became known to the synod and upon graduation both men were posted to Nova Scotia. Sailing for New York in the spring of 1795, they landed on 27 May and then made their way to Halifax.

Ross preached his first sermon in Londonderry, performed his first marriage on 29 June 1795 at Chiganois (Belmont) in Colchester County, and then proceeded to Pictou where on 7 July he, Brown, and MacGregor formed the Associate Presbytery of Nova Scotia, more commonly known as the Associate Presbytery of Pictou. Soon afterwards Ross was given charge of the congregation along the West River, MacGregor took responsibility for the East River, and Brown was assigned to Londonderry. In the years that followed Ross had many calls for his services. In addition to his duties on West River, he preached regularly in Pictou; he was the first minister to preach at Sheet Harbour, and at Stewiacke, 60 miles from Pictou, he gave 13 sermons a year between 1796 and 1800; he also preached at Amherst, 100 miles from Pictou, and ministered at various communities in Prince Edward Island.

In Pictou County Ross was an active and leading figure. Because of the low, infrequent, and uncertain pay of the ministry, Ross turned to farming to support his large family. He erected a threshing mill on his farm at West River and was elected president of the first agricultural society in the rural sections of the province on 1 Jan. 1817. On 16 April 1813 he helped found the first bible society in the county. He played a leading role in the temperance movement, aiding in the organization of the second temperance society in British North America in January 1828 and advocating the cause in the press and from the pulpit. He was a founding trustee of Thomas McCulloch*’s controversial academy at Pictou. As well, he privately tutored students of the Pictou Academy in Hebrew and Greek and later served as a commissioner for the inspection of schools in Pictou County.

Ross also subscribed to and circulated among his parishioners the Boston Recorder, the first religious newspaper on the continent. He was an active supporter of tariffs against American goods in order that the local agricultural industry might develop, and he contributed a lengthy series of articles to the Acadian Recorder, under the pen-name Solomon Wisewood, commenting upon many of the problems facing colonial Nova Scotia.

Despite Ross’s quiet manner, disagreement and discord were his constant companions. Because of MacGregor’s popularity, it was fully six years before Ross was grudgingly accepted by his West River congregation. Harmony prevailed for some time afterwards, but around 1816 a blistering sermon in which Ross ridiculed belief in witches and fairies resulted in the desertion of part of his flock. The arrival in the West River area in 1817 of the zealous and fiery minister Norman McLeod* brought two further years of congregational upheavals, and in the next decade the county witnessed a serious rift between secessionist Presbyterians and adherents of the Church of Scotland, the latter led by the Reverend Donald Allan Fraser*. Only in the later years of Ross’s ministry did a modicum of peace settle over his charge.

Ross has long stood in the shadow of his two friends and contemporaries, MacGregor and McCulloch. Ross probably had the most difficult challenge of the three, but the flood of Presbyterian ministers from Pictou County, among them two of Ross’s sons and five of his grandsons, attests to the thoroughness of his ministry. The secret of his success, perhaps, was that he possessed a capacity to adapt to change. It was Ross who convinced MacGregor that they should purchase horses in order to increase their effectiveness as missionaries. It was he who first married and established a homestead, shortly to be followed by MacGregor. He stood steadfastly by McCulloch during the battles over Pictou Academy, continuing to tutor students when remuneration was most unlikely, and his views on education were both informed and far-sighted.

In stature Ross was below middle height and tended in later years to corpulence. Long, flowing white hair lent him an aura of venerability. He was blessed with sound health and a rugged constitution. His was not a forceful manner, and this, coupled with a weak voice and a hesitant command of Gaelic, tended to detract from his preaching. Most contemporaries spoke of him as hard-working, earnest, and sincere, and although his sermons lacked “fire,” all agreed that he possessed an excellent, dry sense of humour. One suspects that McCulloch’s Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure (Halifax, 1860) reflects some of Ross’s humour. His writings reveal his personality to its best advantage. They are forceful and logically constructed, displaying an intelligent and ordered mind. His pamphlet Righteousness and peace, the fruits of the Gospel is a moving and eloquent affirmation of the Christian belief in life after death.

In mid October 1834 Ross assisted at the ordination of Alexander McKenzie, a graduate of Pictou Academy; a week later he died of cancer of the bowels. Apparently no newspaper carried a report of his passing. He and his wife Isabella, who died in 1845, had nine sons and six daughters; one of their sons, James*, became principal of Dalhousie College.

Allan C. Dunlop

Publications by Duncan Ross include Righteousness and peace, the fruits of the Gospel; or, the relation of the Christian experience and triumphant death of Jane Cameron, in a letter addressed to the Rev. James McGregor, D.D. (Pictou, N.S., 1824), Baptism considered in its subjects and mode: in three letters, to the Reverend William Elder . . . (Pictou, 1825), Strictures on a publication entitled “Believer immersion, as opposed to unbeliever sprinkling,” in two letters addressed to Alexander Crawford (Pictou, 1828), and A reply to a pamphlet lately published, signed X; or, reasons for denying that Christ, by his death, purchased common benefits for his people (Pictou, 1832). A portrait of Ross appears in J. P. MacPhie, Pictonians at home and abroad: sketches of professional men and women of Pictou County; its history and institutions (Boston, 1914).

PANS, MG 1, 742, no.xii; MG 4, James Presbyterian Church (New Glasgow, N.S.), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 28 Sept. 1796 (mfm.). Acadian Recorder, 1826–27. Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church (1885), 184. Gordon Haliburton, “The Tattrie family of River John (1752–1952) . . .” (typescript, Newport, N.S., 1953; copy at PANS). George Patterson, A history of the county of Pictou, Nova Scotia (Montreal, 1877); Memoir of the RevJames MacGregor, D.D. . . . (Philadelphia, 1859). James Robertson, History of the mission of the Secession Church to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, from its commencement in 1765 (Edinburgh, 1847).

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Cite This Article

Allan C. Dunlop, “ROSS, DUNCAN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ross_duncan_6E.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/ross_duncan_6E.html
Author of Article:   Allan C. Dunlop
Title of Article:   ROSS, DUNCAN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 27, 2023