The need only glance at the book of Acts to find the miraculous at every preaching point. Scoffers were forced to confess, “This is the finger of God.” Unlikely conversions, riots and assassination plots awaited the apostles at each new port. In the centuries since, how often we have noticed that when the gospel first entered a district, it came through unusual messengers and that unusual things happened. The work of John Knox McEwen (1853-1944) in pioneering the Maritimes fits this pattern.
McEwen had been raised in the God-fearing home of Presbyterian “Covenanters” in Northern Ireland. In 1874, John was twenty-one years old and “well satisfied with his religious attainments but still a stranger to God.” With the work of American evangelist, D. L. Moody, that year saw a special visitation of God in the city of Belfast. James Campbell and James W. Smith had also seen the power of God in many places, including Dromore, the home of the McEwen family. As gospel meetings began, so did the opposition. “An uproar was heard all over the village; stones and mud flew in all directions.” Still many believed, confessing Christ by publicly burning a heap of evil books. “So mightily grew the Word of God and prevailed” (Acts 19:20).
The presence of God was not theoretical in those gospel meetings. It was felt. John attended, and there he had a terrible awakening. “I began to examine the foundation on which I was resting my soul for eternity and found it nothing but sinking, shifting sand. The Word of God took every prop from me and I was left without a shred to hide me from a sin-hating God. Standing on the brink of an eternal hell, with nothing but the thread of life to keep me out of it, not knowing what to do or where to turn, I was pointed to the verse which has given many a poor sinner rest to their weary soul — John 3:16.” This transaction occurred in a farmer’s cottage. The newborn soul rose and marched around the kitchen singing:
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast;
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
The next night, James W. Smith was speaking to a large crowd in a barn when John entered. The preacher stopped and spoke to the young man: “John, are you saved yet?”
Startled, he replied, “Yes, Mr. Smith, thank God I am saved.”
“Come up here and tell us about it,” the preacher responded.
And so a newborn John Knox McEwen ascended the platform and, between tremors, told how God had saved him.
Soon it was evident that God had gifted Mr. McEwen with the ability to preach the Word. Within a few years, John was devoting the bulk of his time to the ministry of the Word, speaking to anxious listeners nightly. One assembly had formed amid fierce opposition. Orangemen and Romanists for a time laid aside their differences in order to fight the new “heresy.” After the baptism of thirteen converts, two men stormed the meeting one Saturday night and demanded Mr. McEwen to “put on his coat for the last time and come out!” Brother McEwen was a slight, small man but with a strong personality and a sharp wit. That night he did not comply with the invitation from the mob outside, but instead was spirited away by two friends.
With the encouragement of brothers Campbell and Smith, he went out “not on faith lines, but on the faithfulness of God.” Indeed John often had practical illustrations of what that verse means: “Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” Despite the spiritual revival, strangely few of the young assemblies in the country were concerned about helping gospel preachers. But these privations were only considered tokens of God’s approval. Passages such as 2 Corinthians 6:4-10 became more familiar than foreign. The Apostle Paul did not specifically mention having rotten eggs strike his forehead and run down his face and into his beard, or being threatened with tar and feathers. But we are convinced he would have been alongside our brother McEwen had they been contemporaries. That McEwen’s ministry was marked by violent persecution stems from two things: his message and his method. Contrary to popular manuals of evangelism, McEwen felt it quite appropriate to “buttonhole” people and to let people hear the offense of the Cross. And offended they were. It is striking how many accounts there are in his biography of people becoming uncontrollably irate by brother McEwen’s manner and then shortly thereafter being converted.
On May 31, 1879 he left for America “not strong in body, and with little money in my pocket.” His older brother, William Renwick McEwen, had preceded him to America by a few years, and met him in New York. A telling incident occurred there. They went to visit a man who happened to live above a saloon. The two were split up. William passed near the saloon door and heard loud talk inside. Thinking it was a drunken brawl, but going near the door, William saw the big saloon keeper in the middle of the floor in a menacing posture with a pitcher over his brother’s head. John was telling him, “Man, if you die in your sins, you will be in hell.” Later William tried to moderate his brother’s methods. John listened to the lecture; and then replied, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
In 1883 he arrived by train in Amherst, Nova Scotia. It was an austere winter day. John tells us, “I had my breakfast in my pocket. At that hour few people were about and I had a great desire to pray. I spied an old stable near the station. The entrance to my first sanctum in Nova Scotia was very low and, getting down on all fours on the snow, which was frozen hard as a rock, I cried to God to make my coming to Nova Scotia a blessing to many.” In later years his name would become a household word in “New Scotland” and the believers would be called McEwenites. Hundreds were saved and assemblies planted, the first being in Port Howe in 1885. The testimony spread to Pugwash Junction, New Glasgow, Sydney Mines and elsewhere. In Mount Pleasant, a former boxer by the name of Jim Mattinson with a clenched fist had vowed to his friends that “If he ever tells me I’m going to hell, I’ll fell him like an ox.” When Jim was converted a week and a half later, the entire community said, “We have seen strange things today.”
Noticeably, John Knox McEwen was no lone ranger. This work was pursued in concert with many able co-laborers. This includes the one he found in 1889 when he married Miss Alice Fowler, a woman of God and true helpmeet. She passed into the presence of Christ in 1950.
The life and times of McEwen can be expressed by his introduction to a medical doctor who was shortly thereafter saved. He gripped his hand and asked, “Whither bound, doctor? Heaven or hell?” It is a question that should haunt men still.
Irish Evangelists Now with the Lord. Published by John Ritchie. pp. 225-229.
John Knox McEwen and Pioneer Work in the Maritimes, by John T. Dickson, Good News Publishers.