Magazines 2020 Sep - Oct The apostle of Pictou, N.S.

The apostle of Pictou, N.S.

28 September 2020 By Kevin Flatt

Faithfully serving in an unexpected calling

Sometimes God has plans for us we never would have expected

That was definitely the case for James MacGregor, the "Apostle of Pictou."

MacGregor was born in 1759 in the village of St. Fillans in the southern Scottish Highlands. His parents dedicated him at birth to Christian ministry.

His denomination had few pastors to serve in the Highland regions where Gaelic was the main language. MacGregor sensed this was his calling. During his university years he applied himself to studying Gaelic until he was good enough to preach in it.

But as MacGregor neared the end of his studies, the governing synod of his church received an urgent letter from Canada. Many emigrants from the Highlands had settled near Pictou, Nova Scotia, but they had no minister. They implored the Scottish Church to send someone who could preach in both Gaelic and English.

The synod asked the 26-year-old his opinion. The prospect of giving up his life plan and sailing 5,000 km to Nova Scotia – which he imagined as "barren, cold, and dreary" – was overwhelming. Nevertheless, he wanted to submit to God’s will and told the synod he would go if they thought it best. They decided to send him.

"I was thunderstruck by this decision of Synod," he later wrote. "I had considered it a case clear … that I was called to preach to the Highlanders of Scotland, and of course that I could not be sent abroad…. That night I slept none, but tossed upon my bed, till it was time to rise next morning."

In the end he answered the call of duty, reasoning "that souls were equally precious wherever they were." The synod’s decision was made May 4, 1786. On May 31 he was ordained, and on June 3 he set sail for the New World after tearful goodbyes to family and friends. He had more than a month crossing the Atlantic to absorb the immensity of what he was doing.

Despite this unexpected turn in his life, MacGregor served energetically among the settlers of the Pictou region – some of whom had lived there for more than a decade with no religious services. He preached four times each Sunday – first in both English and Gaelic in one place, and then again in both languages 20 km away.

Life could be hard. His flock could not pay him much, so he also farmed to support his large family. His first wife Ann MacKay, with whom he had six children, died in childbirth in 1810 – a devastating blow. His second wife Janet Gordon was a widowed single mother. They had three more children together.

MacGregor’s personality combined a humble, gracious manner with rock-solid convictions. He preached for two years before he felt the settlers were ready to take part in the Lord’s Supper. Unlike many pastors in the colony, who would baptize any child presented to them, he insisted on evidence of Christian knowledge and commitment from the parents first.

At the same time he was willing to minister to people of any denomination in the outlying settlements, who were like "sheep without shepherd." He undertook more than ten long-distance missionary journeys through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick over the course of three decades. Gradually he won the respect and deep loyalty of the people.

MacGregor’s zeal extended to various causes. He was a tireless supporter of the Bible Society and foreign missions, including a Baptist mission to Burma. He furthered plans for improved farming techniques and a local college for training clergy. Of the £27 he was paid for his first year of ministry, he used £20 to buy the freedom of a young slave girl, and he publicly rebuked another Nova Scotian minister for owning slaves.

In 1828 MacGregor suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and affected his memory. He continued to preach and visit, though his health was failing. The unexpected turn in his life had proved a blessing to many, not least himself, but now he was ready for the next journey to an unknown land.

A few days before a second stroke took his life, his 15-year-old daughter told him, "Oh father, I dreamed that you were a king, and that they were putting a crown on you." "Oh," he replied, "I will soon be better than a king and wear a crown of glory."

the historical marker outside first


In grateful memory of The Rev James Drummond MacGregor, D.D. Born at Comrie, Perthshire, Scotland, 1759. Died at East River, Pictou, 1830. Pioneer Minister of the Gospel in Eastern Nova Scotia, where he labored with Apostolic zeal for 43 years. Preacher, Poet, Educationist. Honoured as a man of rare courage and abundant labours.

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more at