Friday, September 02, 2011

John McNeill, The Scotch Spurgeon - "A Shaggy Master of Pathos"

John McNeill (7 July 1854 - 19 April 1933) is someone I have just recently discovered. Through most of his preaching career he was nicknamed 'The Scotch Spurgeon', a name which was used as the subtitle for his 1895 book 'Popular Sermons' (click here to buy from

His father, also called John, was born in Lisnagunogue (pronounced Lis-na-gun-yug) between Bushmills and Ballintoy. He was a quarry worker, and left Ulster for Scotland (described as 'the land of his forefathers' in his son's biography). He settled near Houston in Renfrewshire and married Katie McTaggart. A neighbour once said to John Jr. 'Yer faither's the best man o' oor sort I ever kent; but, Johnnie, he has just yae faut. He's far ower ootspoken for a puir man.' No wonder his son became a famous preacher.

Here is a short timeline of his life:

1854: Born in Houston in Renfrewshire.
1866: Family moved to Inverkip
1869: Began working at the local railway
Was promoted and moved to Edinburgh, joined the YMCA. Began to study for the ministry
1886: ordination, became a minister of McCrie-Roxburgh Free Church in a poor district of Edinburgh. Crowds in the church grew so big that he had to hire a circus tent with 3000 seats.
1889: became minister at Regent Square Presbyterian Church, London.
December 1891: McNeill's wife (Susan Spiers Scott) died just 3 weeks after giving birth to their 4th child; he resigned from the church to become a travelling evangelist
January 1892: preached with D.L. Moody in Aberdeen. Moody's assessment of McNeill was that "He is the greatest preacher in the world."
1893: Preached at the World's Fair in Chicago (as assistant to Moody).
1894 - 1908: McNeill spent many years as a travelling evangelist preaching at many US churches inc Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (where Armagh-born Rev Dr John Hall was minister. Hall was a leading figure in the founding of the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA) and Central Presbyterian Church, New York City, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
1908: Became pastor of Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, London
1910: Became minister of Free St George's Presbyterian Church, Liverpool
1912: Minister of Cooke's Church in Toronto
1914: Minister of Central Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado
1916: Takes up a wartime role with the YMCA, serving in France, Egypt and Malta
1919: Back to the USA to become minister of South Highlands Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama
1920: Fort Washington Presbyterian Church (Broadway & 174th St, New York City)
1928: returns to Britain
1933: Died on 19 April, aged 79. Buried at Inverkip old churchyard, alongside his parents.

"...low-browed, shock-haired, stocky, he would arrest attention anywhere as a man of force and indomitable will. He is nearly six feet tall, and when he stamps his foot the very platform quivers... [he speaks with a] delicious Scottish burr which graces his speech..."

• A quote sometimes attributed to McNeill is "Salvation is perfume, religion smells, hypocrisy stinks."

James H. Burke (1858-1901) travelled with McNeill around the world, as his musical partner, Burke had been the Minister of Music at the New York Gospel Tabernacle from 1889-1891. Burke wrote the tune for the world famous hymn 'Yesterday, Today, Forever - Jesus is the Same'. (listen here on

• In his published sermon 'Marah Better than Elim', Spurgeon said of McNeill: "I noticed some of the papers writing unkindly of our dear friend, John McNeill, and saying all manner of hard things of him — and I rejoiced in my heart! I hoped that they would go ahead at that work. I remember how they did it to me — all the bitterness they could invent, in years gone by. Every form and fashion of abuse was heaped upon me — and what a wonderful advertisement it was! What a kindness they were doing me without intending it!"

• I know of some folk called McNeill who still live in the Lisnagunogue area, they are more than likely somehow related to the John McNeill who left for Scotland.

Further Reading:
Rev John McNeill: His Life and Work by Alexander Gammie (Pickering & Inglis, 1934)
• 1897 Article from the New York Times entitled "A Shaggy Master of Pathos"
• His brother Will McNeill was also a preacher (1894 article here about Will's role in the Brooklyn Revival)