John MacPherson wrote Duncan Matheson, The Scottish Evangelist from his own associations with him as friend and from journals written early in Matheson’s Christian experience. MacPherson laments that many of the details of Matheson’s service were lost because when he wrote letters to his wife, that detailed much of the power and blessing resulting from his ministry, lest others would read them and think more of him than they ought, he wrote at the bottom, “Destroy This.”
Born in Scotland in 1824 when the Church of Scotland practiced a dead liturgy and most ministers were afraid to speak of hell or other eternal realities, young Duncan was stirred by a fiery preacher named George Cowie. Duncan put off the gospel message in his youth. He cavorted with godless companions but his conscience never rested. Through pleading letters from his mother and the kindness of the Christian couple with whom he boarded, he eventually began attending gospel services by Horatius Bonar. After months of soul trouble, Duncan was saved at age 22 through the truth of John 3:16. Within a few days of his deliverance and the joy of salvation, he entered two years of doubts, personal conflict, and confusion. He said of those years “I learned to lean on the Word of God, the bare Word, and nothing but the Word, and was taught to trust not in the Christ of my heart, but Christ in the Word.”
Once settled on the work of Christ, Duncan immediately began to spread the gospel in his home community. One day a devoted Christian lady asked him to speak to an aged group of women she had gathered together. At first he declined because he “couldn’t preach,” but as she pressed him to consider their souls’ welfare he relented and God gave him liberty and power to preach a clear, stirring gospel message to these ladies.
His trademark was his call for the believers to gather for prayer meetings, often arranging a prayer service at noon, one before the gospel was preached in the evening, and another afterward. Because gospel materials were so hard to find, he was consumed with the work of printing sound gospel tracts and booklets. His journal records that some nights he did not sleep at all, but went on composing and sometimes managed to print two thousand tracts in one day.
From the beginning of his work he was burdened about the mission field, particularly China. Instead, he was presented an opportunity as chaplain in a war raging in Crimea. Amid the daily horrors of war ravaging both camps, his journal portrays the more desperate horror of hundreds of young men each day facing death without hope. He often slept only one or two hours each night as he made rounds through the makeshift hospitals, giving tracts and New Testaments to those who could read and reading to those who could not. He spent the better part of three years in eastern and southern Europe. The strain of this work was such that, at age 33, he began to fail physically and from then until his untimely death, his health remained brittle.
After the Crimean War ended in 1857 he returned to Scotland where the stage was being set for the Great Awakening of Britain. In 1859, the Aberdeen Revival took place where thousands were convicted of their sin and saved. MacPherson says: “Brownlow North proclaimed with tremendous earnestness and force the fundamental truth that God is; Reginald Radcliffe preached that God is love; and Hay Macdowall Grant set forth that salvation is free. Duncan Matheson thundered out death, judgment, and eternity, while never forgetting the doctrines of grace. In this way it seemed as if the Master was calling every Christian to take his part, and work in the service of the gospel.”
This revival, like all revivals, was initiated by the recognition of only a few that the eternal issues at stake were far beyond men and that God was the only one Who could save Scotland from depravity and the church from lethargy. As these men and women were on their faces crying out to God, the answer from God came in waves of repentance, first by saints, then by sinners.
Matheson was a gracious and good-natured man; he often gave his last shilling to a needy widow or a hungry family. He wrote thousands of letters of encouragement to friends, converts, and his family. He married Mary Milne, a woman who whole-heartedly supported his passion for souls; he daily wrote her and his two daughters and two sons the sweetest of love notes whenever he was away from them. He was convinced that solemn preaching of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come, and the danger of delay must be the backdrop for the message of God’s grace and forgiveness. He was also convinced of the need for clear gospel literature, whether in tract or simple signage that he often left posted on billboards. One of his neatly printed cards, left on many trains and seats of public places, had this classic warning message:
A God, a Moment, an Eternity
A God who sees thee,
A Moment which flies from thee,
An Eternity which awaits thee.
A God whom you serve so ill,
A Moment from which you so little profit,
An Eternity you hazard so rashly.
Reader, Where will you spend Eternity?
In Heaven or Hell? Which?
He went to community fairs and trading posts, setting up a tent where he would call to the passersby, provide them with tracts and texts, and, at appointed hours he and his companions would preach the gospel. He published a monthly magazine called Herald of Mercy. It was primarily for gospel outreach, containing a collection of stories and illustrations of gospel truth that reached many unsaved as well as providing materials for others to use in their preaching.
Duncan Matheson by John MacPherson is a book which, though written nearly 140 years ago, is still fresh, and its lessons are relevant to all who would put their hearts and hands to the spread of the gospel today. It describes an ordinary man who desired nothing less than the will of God for his daily movements. He wept much over lost souls and wayward Christians. He blazed a gospel trail through his own country, using the pulpit and printed page and thus burned himself out for his God at the age of forty-five.