SUTHERLAND, MURDOCH, Presbyterian minister and school administrator; b. c. 1826 in the parish of Kildonan, Scotland; m. 1853 Isabella Campbell, and they had one son and two daughters; d. 21 April 1858 in Rothesay, Scotland.
Murdoch Sutherland, the son of a shepherd in the Strath of Kildonan, entered the University of Edinburgh in 1845. His studies were soon subsidized by the Free Church of Scotland’s Colonial Committee, a group responsible for the foreign missions of the new Presbyterian body. Sutherland’s evangelical disposition and his fluency in Gaelic made him a valuable candidate for mission work in Nova Scotia, where dissatisfaction with the established Church of Scotland over its stance on relations between church and state had decimated ministerial ranks in 1844. The committee sent Sutherland to Halifax as a probationer in the summer of 1849, where he attended the fledgling Free Church College.
Shortly after his arrival, Sutherland assumed the superintendence of a growing Sabbath-school and regularly conducted spiritual visitations in the homes of his students’ parents, work that was a carry-over from his days in Edinburgh. Attempts by Sutherland and other students at the college to form a visiting agency to bring religious tracts to the destitute of Halifax met with the decided opposition of Professor Andrew King, but ample opportunity for missionary work was provided at the preaching stations of Pictou, Rogers Hill, and Caribou River. These brief terms of labour during the summers of 1849 and 1850 developed a lasting bond between Sutherland and the people he served. Forced by ill health to return to Edinburgh, he completed his theological studies at New College between 1850 and 1853. Repeated calls from the Gaelic-speaking congregation at Pictou, however, induced the Colonial Committee to expedite Sutherland’s ordination on 13 June 1853. He returned to Pictou in July and was inducted into Knox Church on 28 October.
Sutherland’s efforts to create a secure foundation in the area for the Synod of the Free Church of Nova Scotia were indicative of the efforts of many in the growing denomination. His plain but earnest preaching style, combined with a rigorous scheme of visitations by himself and his elders, contributed to the steady increase in the number of adherents at the three preaching stations under his supervision. Although his manner was forthright and at times combative, it seemed to appeal to the desire of many Highland settlers for a minister with a controversial style. By 1857 the congregations at Pictou, Rogers Hill, and Caribou River were the fastest growing in the synod in spite of Sutherland’s frequent absences. A chronic shortage of ministers made his early career resemble that of an itinerant missionary, and in 1854 he was instrumental in establishing many of the Free Church sessions on Prince Edward Island. Sutherland also played a major role in stabilizing the precarious financial position of the synod, and as a result of his constant exhortations Pictou’s contributions to church schemes, such as the College Endowment Fund of the Free Church College, rose to major proportions.
Sutherland shared the spiritual and social concerns that dominated Presbyterian thought in the mid 19th century. He was an outspoken critic of Roman Catholicism, which caused him to chafe at Pictou’s tendency towards a more expedient attitude of toleration. The defamation of the sabbath was an even greater source of worry, and Sutherland was chosen to investigate the problem by the synod and the recently formed Sabbath Alliance. His reports in 1856 and 1857 attacked a host of activities, ranging from the concerts of military bands to the movement of mail and commercial goods, but special attention was given to the transgressions of railway labourers. As a result of his efforts, missionaries from the synod, beginning with Sutherland himself in 1856, were assigned to the lines of the Nova Scotia Railway then under construction in an attempt to mould a more acceptable life-style. His involvement in such problems as sabbath observance brought him into constant contact with other Presbyterian bodies, and like many of his peers Sutherland became an active participant in the movement for union between his own Free Church synod and that of the Presbyterian Church in Nova Scotia, which was finally accomplished in 1860.
By the summer of 1857 these diverse activities had taken their toll on Sutherland’s frail constitution. Despite a gradual reduction in his duties in 1856 and a prolonged leave of absence from Pictou in the fall of the next year, his health failed to improve. Sutherland resigned from his duties on 11 Nov. 1857 and returned to Scotland in the hope of finding a charge in a more moderate climate, but he eventually succumbed to tuberculosis on 21 April 1858. He had been esteemed for his diligence, enthusiasm, and evangelical priorities, and it was generally agreed that these very qualities robbed the young church of a valuable cleric before his greatest contributions could be made.
Edinburgh Univ., New College Library, New College enrolment book, 1843–95. First Presbyterian Church (Pictou, N.S.), “Record of the Kirk session of the United Congregation of Pictou, Roger’s Hill and Carribo River in connection with the Free Church of Nova Scotia” (mfm. in PANS, Churches, Pictou: Pictou United Church). NLS, Dept. of mss, Deposit no.298/260–62 (Free Church of Scotland, Colonial Committee, minutes, 1844–58) (mfm. at UCA). PANS, MG 20, 153. Univ. of Guelph Library, Archival Coll. (Guelph, Ont.), Urquhart–Campbell–Sutherland papers. Free Church of N.S., Ecclesiastical and Missionary Record (Halifax), 3 (1854–55)–6 (1858); Minutes of the Synod (Halifax), 1855–57. Free Church of Scotland, Home and Foreign Missionary Record (Edinburgh), 3 (1847–48)–4 (1849–50); Home and Foreign Record (Edinburgh), 1 (1850–51)–6 (1855–56); new ser., 1 (1856–57)–3 (1858–59). Presbyterian Witness, and Evangelical Advocate (Halifax), 1 (1848)–3 (1850); 6 (1853)–11 (1858). John Murray, The Scotsburn congregation, Pictou County, Nova Scotia: its history, professional men, etc. (Truro, N.S., 1925). E. Ross, “The history of Presbyterianism in the county of Pictou, from 1817 to the union of 1875,” Proceedings at the centennial celebration of James Church Congregation, New Glasgow, September 17th, 1886 . . . (New Glasgow, N.S., 1886), 30–38.