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Dr. John Kennedy

An excerpt from John MacLeod's Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History


There was one of [Hugh] Martin's intimate friends that we cannot at all pass by without a special notice. He was the great preacher of his generation in Scotland. This was John Kennedy of Dingwall. He remained to the end of his ministry in the charge which first called him. This was in the county town of a Highland shire far from the busy cities of the country. It was his own choice to stay where he began his work until his sun went down. He was repeatedly approached with a view to taking city charges. Though he laboured in a provincial town his reputation was national. 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. There is a book of his sermons to tell of the quality of his preaching. It is a massive volume and has been issued more than once, but it is exceedingly scarce. In it there are over 50 of his discourses. Almost all of these were written in the last year of his life when he was labouring under the malady that cut him off. His old hearers as a rule insist that the written sermons would not compare with his preached ones. Of course, when they were preached there was to he taken into account the impact upon his hearers of the preacher's striking personality and style and the reflex impact of his audience upon the preacher. 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. In this respect he was even more striking than was his contemporary and friend, Dr. Moody Stuart, who, with Dr. Charles J. Brown, was looked upon as the most outstanding preacher of the introspective school in the contemporary Edinburgh pulpit. To say that they belonged to this school does not at all mean that they were one-sidedly subjective in their themes. They were eminent Evangelical and exegetical preachers who gave, however, a considerable place in their preaching not only to the doctrines of grace, but to the discussion of the inward work of Divine grace; and thus it fell to them to handle cases of conscience that their hearers might have in regard to the reality and value of their experience of the Gospel. They were men sent to bind up the brokenhearted, but they probed the cases with which they dealt.

The fact that Dr. Kennedy was critical at the same time of the type of doctrine preached by Mr. Dwight L. Moody and of the enquiry room methods in dealing with the anxious to which he gave vogue told against his own popularity. He himself, however, was clear as to his duty to sound a warning note. For his criticism was aimed at what he felt convinced was an undesirable novelty in Scottish religious life. Yet, as the time was one of unusual excitement, this criticism created prejudice and nothing could well be further from the mark than the counter criticism which it elicited that dared to say that he himself did not preach the offer of the Gospel. This charge was without a foundation, for no man in his generation 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, however, the day of ebb-tide and the definite out-and-out Calvinism of another day was going out of fashion and yielding place to a presentation of the Gospel which, without being pronouncedly Arminian, avoided the emphasis which the older Evangelicals laid on the New Birth as a Divine intervention. This modified message put its emphasis on the need the sinner has of forgiveness to the eclipse of the equally urgent need that he has of regeneration. It stressed the rectifying of his standing and did not give sufficient prominence to his need of a change of heart. In this connection the newer Evangelicalism said less of the Spirit and His work and of the provision made in Christ for a walk in newness of life than did the fuller message which brought home as equally urgent the need of having a man's nature renewed with that of having acceptance for his person. With this change of emphasis or balance there came to be an insistent demand for such Conventions and Conferences as that of Keswick which sometimes wisely and sometimes unwisely set forth the provision that the Gospel has made for believers in Christ that they may have needed strength and power for a life and walk becoming the name that they profess.

Like his friend Hugh Martin, Dr. Kennedy was a man of the Maclaurin type. Only he was much more richly endowed with the gifts of the orator which enabled him to play upon his audience almost at his will. He was the greatest of them, yet only one of the succession of the Evangelical worthies to the north of the Grampians. In his generation there was a galaxy of great Evangelists, who were also good divines, in the Highlands of Scotland. The life of some of these has been sketched by friendly hands, yet no satisfactory detailed account can now be given of their services in the Gospel. The men of that generation in the northern region were in the succession to a series of excellent predecessors who were champions of the Reformed Faith there during the ascendancy of the Moderates and even before the time of that regime from the days of the Covenanter, Thomas Hog, downwards.


E-mail: Sean Richardson

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