The Prince of Highland Preachers

A Sketch of Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall, by anonymous

ONE day, more than a hundred years ago, Rev. W. S. McDougall, Strathpeffer, made a sorrowful and significant entry in his diary. With a heavy heart he wrote, “My beloved friend and nearest brother-minister, Dr Kennedy of Dingwall, died at Bridge of Allan, on Monday, 28th April 1884. The desolation caused by this bereavement cannot be recorded. Not only are his beloved wife and daughter stricken and prostrate, but the whole Highlands mourn.” That grief was very evident on the day that Dr Kennedy’s mortal remains arrived at Dingwall railway station from Bridge of Allan, when “tears flowed copiously” among the waiting crowd.

The life of this eminent servant of Christ may be summed up as follows: he was born in 1819 in Killearnan, Ross-shire, the fourth son of the saintly Rev. John Kennedy. In 1843 he was licensed to preach the gospel by the Presbytery of Chanonry, and in the following year was ordained and inducted to the pastorate of the Dingwall Free Church congregation. Four years later he married Mary MacKenzie, daughter of Major Forbes MacKenzie of Fodderty. His first book, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, was published in 1861, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him by Aberdeen University in 1873. He died at the age of 64, at Bridge of Allan, as he was on his way home from a convalescent holiday. A man of great grace, godliness and natural gifts, he gave the most unstinted and faithful service to the great Head of the church.

A life of serving the Lord must begin with the new birth. Young John Kennedy, despite the remarkable preaching and holy example of his father, remained unregenerate. He admired his father greatly and loved him deeply, but he had no heart for his father’s spiritual religion. Although he began studying for the ministry, he continued to be quite careless about his soul. A fellow-student noted that he was attracted to the stage almost as much as to the pulpit, and that Walter Scott’s novels occupied his time more than his theological studies did.

Then one day, in January 1841, he was given the devastating news of his father’s death. Crushed with grief, he hurried home to the Killearnan manse. That bitter bereavement proved to be, by God’s blessing, the turning point of his life. He was distressed not only by losing his beloved father, but chiefly by a deep sense of his sin against God, especially in neglecting the admonitions, instructions, and example of his father, now gone. A local man, godly Colin Forsyth, was a great help to him spiritually, and the grieving young man resorted much to prayer and meditation on passages of Scripture, and was kept from despair. He was then enabled to lay hold on Christ and salvation in Him with a faith which, as he said afterwards, “was weak in degree but saving in its nature”.

A student friend recorded, “Within a fortnight he returned to Aberdeen, to all appearances a new man. No change could be more complete than that which was visible in his whole nature. His former indifference to divine things had given place in his mind to deep seriousness, his self-sufficiency to self-abasement, the things of time to the things of eternity. Old things had passed away, all things had become new.” Many years after his father’s death he wrote, “The memory of the loss I can bear to recall, as I cherish the hope that his death was the means of uniting us in bonds that shall never be broken.”

Three years later, and at the age of 24, he became the first pastor of the Free Church congregation in Dingwall. Thus began a ministry which was, and is, justly renowned. Such was his popularity that many other congregations, including one in Australia, invited him to be their pastor, but he remained in Dingwall until his death 40 years later. His work was not confined to Dingwall. Congregations all over the Highlands and in other parts of Scotland esteemed him as a preacher of unequalled power. Rev. D. Beaton wrote, “He has been assigned the honourable place of ‘the prince of Highland preachers’ by those competent to judge.”

His manner in the pulpit, we are told, was strikingly impressive. The editor of The British Weekly wrote: “He at once fascinated us by the arresting solemnity of his manner and the spring-like newness of his English.” Another editor, James Barron of The Inverness Courier, described his appearance as: “not tall, but handsome, strongly built, supple and yet stately. His features were pleasant and firm, suggesting both strength and tenderness.” Barron, who had heard most of the great national speakers of the day, considered that “for sheer power over an audience, there was none to surpass Dr Kennedy at his best”.

The content of his preaching was predominantly “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”. He made the sinner’s need of Christ starkly clear as he faithfully declared the claims of God’s law and skilfully unveiled the depravity of the human heart and the awful nature of sin. As he demonstrated the glory of Christ as the great and only Saviour, and earnestly commended Him to the acceptance of sinners, “his utterances assumed their greatest power,” wrote Rev John Noble. “Christ was the centre and sun of his preaching”.

That preaching was blessed to many. One man, burdened by sin, walked many miles to hear Dr Kennedy and said later, “He showed me all my heart and into its bleeding wound he poured the oil of consolation”. A Stornoway hearer testified, “The manifestations I had that day of the glorious majesty, worthiness and suitableness of the Lord Jesus Christ in all His mediatorial offices, I never experienced before, nor indeed to the same extent since. I can never forget it”. By divine grace, Dr John Kennedy was second to none in feeding the Lord’s people in his day. An old Christian in Caithness declared, “Mr Kennedy above others is a means of warming my cold heart and reviving something of the love of days gone by”. A Dundee man wrote to Dr Kennedy: “I desire to bless God for having heard you. Your sermon on the electing love of God was a seasonable message to my soul, clearing difficulties and confirming me in the truth.”

While Dr Kennedy was so highly esteemed throughout the country, he was loved especially by his own people in Dingwall. They set a high premium on his preaching, but they also greatly valued his pastoral visits, especially at times of sickness and bereavement when his tender sympathy for them was most evident. The young people of the congregation knew the affectionate interest he had in them, while the poor in the congregation had experience of “his large-hearted liberality”. When someone remonstrated with him on one occasion for being generous to a fault he cheerfully replied, “Freely ye have received, freely give.”

There were others, besides those in particular need, who greatly appreciated his friendship. C. H. Spurgeon, for example, spoke of him as “wonderfully tender and sympathetic”, and when he went north to preach at the opening of Dr Kennedy’s new church in Dingwall, he regarded the short stay he had with him as a “sunny spot” in his life. The Dingwall manse was renowned for its warm hospitality and Dr Kennedy’s “loving nature,” as one visitor noted, “instilled happiness all round.” His vivacious and gentle wife was not a whit behind in generosity, and their unity of mind and action indicated to another visitor that “both alike shared deeply the same great faith in the unstinting liberality of God’s providence”.

Dr Kennedy could be as firm as he was amiable and warm. “This gentle, loving, humble man,” wrote Dr John McEwan, “stood like the rocks of his native mountains when questions of principle were at stake.” He held firmly to the Establishment principle and therefore vigorously opposed the projected union of the Free Church with the United Presbyterian Church – a church which rejected the civil establishment of religion as “injurious” and unscriptural – and in the 1873 Assembly he seconded Dr Begg’s motion against disestablishment with strong and lucid arguments. The Regulative Principle was dear to him also, as was shown by his determined resistance to moves in his Church to introduce uninspired hymns and instrumental music to the public worship of God.

The decline of spirituality among professing Christians was a source of deep concern to him. Writing to a friend in 1878, he said, “There is abroad a widespread interest in religion, and many think that a work of grace is going on among the dry bones in our land. But the more closely we examine it, the more we find it lacks true seriousness and spirituality. Light excitement, produced by unscriptural methods, is what we find instead. The fashionable doctrine, ‘God loved you, Christ died for you, believe that and be happy,’ is but daubing immortal souls with untempered mortar. There is also an independence of the Holy Spirit’s help and power in the manner in which anxious sinners are often dealt with. ‘Believe that you are saved, and go and work for Christ,’ is the antidote for all soul-concern. Oh, the agony of considering such a state of things, the agony of not seeing travail issuing in birth into the Kingdom of God! ‘But,’ you say, ‘may not one’s own coldness and distance from the Lord, make one suspicious as to a work of grace said to be going on around them?’ That indeed is the question that ought first of all to be considered, and often is it pressed on my mind. And yet there are results, injurious to the cause of truth, to church order, and to vital religion, which appear to me most alarming as I see them looming in the future of Scotland.”

What alarmed him most were the growing signs of deviation from Reformed doctrine. About those who pled for modifying Confessional statements, or abolishing them, on the pretence of getting closer to Scripture, he said, “Confessions to them are troublesome things, not because they interpose between them and Scripture but because they show when they depart from it.” He also deplored a presentation of the gospel which ignored or belittled “the sovereignty and power of God in the dispensation of His grace”, and for this reason, among others, he criticised the Moody and Sankey revival movement of the day, in his pamphlet, Hyper-Evangelism, (1874). (See review of Revivals in the Highlands and Islands by Alexander MacRae ). As a result, some charged him with Hyper-Calvinism, but “no man in his generation,” wrote Dr John MacLeod in his Scottish Theology, “made conscience more than he did of proclaiming as the Gospel, a message that was as full as it was free and as free as it was full.”

It was his proclaiming of this full and free message which endeared him to the hearts of the Lord’s people. Dr MacLeod wrote, “There is a book of his sermons1 to tell of the quality of his preaching. . . His old hearers as a rule insist that the written sermons would not compare with his preached ones. . . But the written discourses, set down with the deliberate judgment of his fine mind, give us the doctrine, practice and experience that the preacher meant to lay stress upon. The English style has a decided distinction of its own. The inversion of sentences and the epigrams that often occur are marked features of it. The preacher was a special master in the realm of delicate spiritual analysis.”

What Dr Kennedy left in writing was comparatively limited because of his incessantly busy life. In addition to The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, The Apostle of the North, Man’s Relation to God, and his volume of Sermons, he wrote about a dozen pamphlets and booklets. His Expository Lectures was posthumously published in 1911. His aim in writing The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire was to preserve the memory of the godly ministers and men of Ross-shire at a time when “lifeless formality was taking the place of their godliness”. In the preface to the second edition he wrote: “I expected that many would count me credulous and some call me superstitious and a few denounce me as fanatical, because of some anecdotes I gave, to prove how near to God were the godly of former days.” He refers to instances of intimations of God’s will about certain matters being impressed upon the minds of various godly persons. These “higher attainments of the godly”, he explained, were nothing more than “the operation of the Spirit on the soul and the seasonable presentation and application of the truth”.

When Dr Kennedy’s health markedly deteriorated in the winter of 1883 his many friends prayed fervently that the prescribed holiday in the milder climate of Italy would restore him. But that was not to be. The news of his death, in the spring of 1884, came as a stunning blow, and cast a gloom over the North. The Free Church Assembly of that year recorded in its minutes, “Since the death of Dr MacDonald of Ferintosh, the Apostle of the North, no death caused deeper sorrow throughout the Highlands than that of Dr John Kennedy of Dingwall.” It was the opinion of Dr MacLeod that “Dr Kennedy was a truly great divine. In doctrine he was clear and powerful and at the same time practical. He was tender and judicious in his application of his message, and he was an experimental divine in the best sense of the word. The great Puritans had no more eminent successor in the Scottish ministry in the 19th century.”






1.  Life of John Kennedy, D.D., by the Rev. Alexander Auld, published 1887
2.  The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, by Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., fourth edition, 1897, which contains a memoir of the author by Rev. John Noble, on pages xxix to clxi
3.  Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands by the Rev. Donald. Beaton, pages 271 to 279
4.  Scottish Theology by John MacLeod, pp 327-329