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Memoir of the Rev James MacGregor D.D.
Chapter X. - First Journey to Prince Edward Island with an Account of that Colony 1791


“The Isles shall wait for his law.”—Isa. xlii. 4.

The nest and one of his most important missionary journeys was to Prince Edward Island, and as that portion of the church enjoyed a larger share of his missionary labours, than any other place, except Pictou, as he was the means of planting the gospel through a very large portion of it, and as the cause of religion throughout its extent is deeply indebted to him, we shall give a brief account of its history and physical features.

Prince Edward Island, formerly called St. Johns, lies to the south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and intervening between it and the Coasts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, from which it is separated by the Straits of Northumberland, a channel varying in width from nine to forty miles. In its general form it resembles a crescent, lying in a direction from North West, to South East, with its hollow part toward the Gulf. Its greatest length is about 134 miles, and its greatest breadth about 34. But it is throughout so deeply indebted by bays and inlets of the sea, that scarcely any part is distant more than seven or eight miles from the influx of the tide. It contains an area of 2,134 square miles, or 1,360,000 acres.

The surface presents a very different aspect from the adjoining portions of the main land, being generally level, scarcely ever rising to any great elevation. The central portions, which are the most uneven, never rise into mountains, but form a succession of ridges, which present an agreeable variety of hill and dale. Nowhere is the scenery grand, but every where it is picturesque and beautiful.

The soil is light and sandy, upon a stiff clay subsoil, which again rests on a very soft sandstone. It is generally of a light red colour, is remarkably free from stones, and is every where fertile, while it is never interrupted by those rocky tracts, which abound in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It is peculiarly adapted for the raising of grain, but is not so well adapted for grazing purposes, as some portions of the neighbouring colonies.

This island was first colonized by the French, a number of whose descendants remain on it till the present day. But at the capitulation of Louisburg in 1758, it fell into the possession of the British, to whom it was confirmed by the treaty of 17G3. It continued part of the Government of Nova Scotia till the year 1770, when it obtained a government of its own. In its early history a fatal error was committed, which has ever since been a cause of discontent, and which has materially retarded its prosperity to the present day. In one day in the year 1767, the whole soil of the Island, with some inconsiderable exceptions, was granted by the Home Government, in 67 townships, of about 20,000 acres each, to individuals supposed to possess claims upon it, chiefly officers of the army and navy, who had served in the preceding war. But what has chiefly hindered the settlement of the country, has been the terms upon which the proprietors have given their land to settlers. They in general have refused to give freehold titles, or if they did, the prices were entirely too high. But commonly they have given only leaseholds, a system against which there is in America an invincible repugnance, so that the best class of British emigrants have been attracted to other colonies.

By the terms of their grants, the proprietors were bound to settle their lots within ten years, to the extent of at least one person for every two hundred acres. Little, however was done to fulfil this obligation, and in the instances in which proprietors made an effort to do so, their arrangements were so badly made, that settlers were landed in a state of entire destitution, and sometimes almost perished with hunger. It is even said that there were cases where in their extremity individuals had eaten human flesh. About the year 1771, some settlers arrived from Argyleshire, who settled on the west side of Richmond Bay. A year later a few more from the same quarter settled at Princetown. About the same time, a considerable body of Highland Catholics, brought out by Capt. MacDonald, settled at Tracadie. About the year 1774 and 1775, a number of others from Perthshire settled at Cove Head, St. Peters, &c., and a few from Morayshire at Cavendish, and a number from Pumfrieshire at Georgetown, and other places in its neighbourhood. At the peace of 1784, a number of Loyalists arrived, who settled principally at Bedeque. These were the principal settlements that had been made up till the time of the Doctor’s first visit. The number of inhabitants at that time was small, and these were widely scattered. We may remark that, notwithstanding the disadvantages under which the island has been placed, it has in subsequent years rapidly increased in wealth and population. .

Our readers, however, may suppose that at that time the country was both physically and socially in a very backward condition. There was not a road on the island, with the exception of one between Charlotte Town and Cove Head. There was scarcely even a blaze between other settlements. The greater part of the travelling was along shore, and there is one peculiarity of the island, which rendered this particularly difficult, viz., the number of deep creeks and inlets of the sea, which either rendered a long circuit necessary to go round them, or else must be crossed in canoes. Thus from Charlotte Town to Princetown, the course was to proceed up the banks of the Hillsborough, then cross to Cove Head, and thence to proceed along the north shore of the island. The physical appearance of the country, and the social state of the inhabitants will more particularly appear from his own narrative, to which we now return.

“I think it was this summer, (1790,)1 that I paid the first visit to (St. John) Prince Edward Island. The session appointed me two Sabbaths to St. Peter’s and two to Cove Head. Having taken a passage to Charlotte Town, the metropolis, sixty miles from Pictou harbour, I landed next day, after an agreeable passage. In a few minutes I found Charlotte Town to be wicked enough for a far larger town. Swearing and drunkenness abounded. I was directed to a Mr. Pae, a Scotch merchant, a sober man, with whom I lodged agreeably.

“Next day, I hired a horse, and rode out to Cove Head, sixteen miles, on an agreeable road. Near the end of my journey I missed my way, and calling at a house for information, met the landlord at the door, and asked him to show me the way to Mr. Millar’s. Pointing with his hand across a creek or small bay, he said, ‘There is Mr. Millar’s. You have missed your way a little; but I will send a boy round with the horse, and put you across the creek in a canoe, and your way will be shorter than if you had not missed it. Please to walk in, and rest a little.' I thanked him for his kindness, accepted his invitation, and he gave my horse to a boy to take to Mr. Millar’s. I found the inside of the house well furnished, and much more handsome and genteel than the outside warranted one to expect. I was quite surprised at seeing a good-like library, and a large one, considering the place. I was most agreeably entertained while I stayed. The gentleman easily found out what I was, and expressed his happiness that a Presbyterian minister had come to visit the Presbyterians there; but I had no courage to attempt ascertaining what he was. He accompanied me to Mr. Millar’s, and addressed him thus: ‘Mr. Millar, I have brought you what you have been long wishing for, a Presbyterian minister, and I hope he will do you much good.' Mr. Millar thanked him affectionately, and after a little conversation the gentleman returned home. After a cordial welcome from Mr. Millar, and mutual inquiries after one another’s health, I asked who the gentleman might be? He replied, ‘It is parson Des Brisay, the Church of England clergyman of the island, a Calvinistic preacher, a man of liberal sentiments, and of a benevolent disposition.' ‘And where does he preach? 'He rides every Sabbath to Charlotte Town, and preaches in the church there.'

‘And why does he not reside in town?‘ 'It is a wicked place, and he is more retired and happy in the country.' I afterwards became acquainted with him, and was always welcome to preach in his church, which I uniformly did when I could make it convenient. His kindness ended not—but with his life.’

This gentleman is worthy of more particular notice. He was a descendant of the exiled Huguenots of France, and had been originally a Presbyterian. When called upon to baptize the children of Presbyterians, he performed the service according to their mode, omitting the sign of the cross and praying extempore. He had entered the ministry with no just impressions of its duties and responsibilities. Describing to Doctor Keir afterward his state at that time, he said, “The Bishop asked me whether I had received the Holy Ghost,—poor Des Brisay had not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost.” He, however, became a devoted Christian, and decidedly evangelical and Calvinistic in his views, through the reading of the works of John Brown of Haddington, lent him by Mr. Millar. He then preached boldly and faithfully—preached.“ the truth as it is in Jesus and Charlotte Town, as the Doctor remarks, at that time abounding in wickedness, he faithfully reproved the prevailing sins in the highest as well as the lowest, even when his doing so gave great offence in high quarters, and among his own relatives.

But he was particularly distinguished by his catholicity of spirit. All the ministers of our church, who visited the island in his time, were welcome to the use of his church to preach in, and they frequently availed themselves of the privilege. He even invited them to preach for him, he going through the Church of England service, while they preached afterwards. On one occasion the late Bev. Duncan Boss was in Charlotte Town, in company with Bobert Marshall. At the end of the week, having failed in obtaining a passage home, Mr. Des Brisay asked him to preach fur him on Sabbath. Mr. Boss consented, and asked at what time the service would begin ? “Oh !” said Mr. D., “you may come about 12 o’clock; I begin my services at 11, but 1 know that you don’t care for them, and Deacon Marshall hates them.” The late Doctor Iveir mentioned to the author, that on his arrival on the island, Mr. D. had treated him with great kindness, and continued to do so as long as he lived. We feel it due to his memory in this connection to bear this testimony to his liberality of spirit and kindness of heart.

“I found that Mr. Millar was from the parish of Muthil, twelve miles from Loch Earne, where I was born. He told me of Mr. Lawson, MacEwan, and others, who came out at the same time. At hearing Mr. Lawson’s name, I instantly recollected that when I was a little boy, I heard much talk of a Mr. Lawson and others going out to America. They were decoyed out by one of the great proprietors to settle his land. They were to pay a shilling of rent per acre, and they thought it cheap till they came out and saw it; but then they found it dear enough. After them came a number from Dumfriesshire, who settled here and in St. Peter’s. On their first arrival they were like to perish with hunger, as the few settlers who were before them had little enough for themselves; and they could not all have lived, had not a number of them got over to Pictou, and obtained relief there from the old settlers.”

The intercourse with these people was peculiarly pleasant, as they were from the neighbourhood of his native parish. This itself afforded the means of much interesting and pleasing conference, particularly as the instances were very few, after his arrival in this country, where he met with any such. But in addition, he met with some who were acquainted with his relatives. We have seen a spinning-wheel which was one of a number brought out by them, made by an uncle of his, and which though now about a century old is still fit for service. And in one instance, if not more, he met with an old school-fellow. The following used to be related by the late Mr. John Anderson, who lived at the east point of Prince Edward Island. On the Doctor’s first visit to Prince Edward Island, after Mr. Anderson’s arrival in the country, the latter having heard that a Presbyterian minister had come to Charlotte Town, proceeded thither to meet him. At that time there was no road through the country; but all who travelled had to keep along shore, and cross the rivers and bays at the outlet, (for there were no bridges,) in canoes or boats, till they came to Cove Head. Then they came across the portage to the Hillsborough, and down along its banks to Charlotte Town. So eager was he to have an interview with a minister, that he set out on foot, and travelled on as rapidly as he could till he reached town, which he did early in the morning. On inquiring for the minister, he was told that he had not yet risen, being wearied with his labours. The Doctor on learning that a person wished to see him, sent for him to his bed-room. On comparing notes, they found that they had lived at the same place in Scotland, and attended the same school. The Doctor at first could not make him understand who he was. At last he asked, “Do you not mind a little boy called Jemmy Drummond?” “Oh yes, and are you Jemmy Drummond?” This the old man used to relate with a glistening eye and a full heart.

The Mr. Millar mentioned above was a very pious and intelligent man. He was one of the few out and out Seceders then in the country, having been a member of Mr. Barlas’ congregation in Crieff, iu whieh the Doctor was brought up, and was well versed iu Theology. The Doctor and he became great friends, but they differed widely on the New Light question; Mr. Millar being a strong Old Light man, and a vehement advocate for the employment of the power of the civil Magistrate in the suppression of heresy. On one occasion when the Doctor was at his house, they got into conversation on the subject. While the Doctor was shaving, Millar spoke for some time with considerable vehemence on the subject. It seemed to excite the Doctor a little, for he said, “Stop, stop, you have made me cut myself. Let us talk of those things about Christ in which we agree till our hearts yet meet, and then we will discuss these points afterwards,”—a good advice in reference to all discussions among professing Christians regarding the course they should pursue as to those points on which they differ.

“The people of Cove Head and St. Peter’s were not without knowledge, for they had good books, which they lent to one another, and the roads to Charlotte Town being tolerable, they had opportunities at times of hearing Mr. Des Brisay. Nevertheless, they rejoiced greatly in the visit of a Presbyterian minister, and heard the gospel with every appearance of delight. Some of them got their children baptized regularly by Mr. Des Brisay; some would not employ him on any account; and others did not know what to do. Some, after waiting for the chance of a Presbyterian minister till they had four children, gave up hopes and applied to him. To some I baptized two, three, four, and to one man sis children. These two settlements, which are sixteen miles apart, united in a petition to the Synod for a minister, which I undertook to forward, telling them at the same time that there were two applications before theirs unanswered. I preached two Sabbaths at each of the places; the first and last at Cove Head, because it was nearest Charlotte Town, whence I expected to sail for Pictou, and I wished to be at Charlotte Town as soon as possible after my work was done, that I might not miss a passage, as one was seldom to be found.

“After sermon the fourth Sabbath, a man from Princetown, thirty miles west of Cove-llcad, waited on me with a petition from the people of Princetown to visit them, and spend a few Sabbaths among them, as they had not seen a minister since their first settlement there. This petition involved me in a great dilemma, as the time allowed me by the Session was now out, and if I went at all, I could not decently give them less than two Sabbaths more, and 1 did not know how many weeks more I might have to wait for a passage. On weighing the case, I judged it my duty to comply, and set off with the man on Monday morning, sometimes walking, sometimes riding, and sometimes sailing. Our way was chiefly along shore, at times on a beautiful beach of fine sand, and at times among rocks and stones almost impassable; while at the ferries we had to venture in small canoes, and tow the horse after us. The island horses are used to swimming, and in this manner often cross ferries half a mile wide. One horse swam across Richmond Bay, which is six miles over. The man informed me that the Princetown people had mostly emigrated from Cantyre in Argyleshire, nearly twenty years before, and had been all that time destitute of the gospel: that ignorance abounded; that secret and family prayer was generally, if not universally, neglected; and that there were about sixty unbaptized children in the settlement; and that the common way of obtaining baptism was by carrying the children to Charlotte Town to Mr. Des Brisay, who, according to the custom of the Church of England, made no difference between the children of the most profane and of the most holy, but baptized them all. Thinking upon these things I was brought to my wit’s end, for I could not baptize the children of people so ignorant and negligent; yet, if I refused to baptize them they would not believe me to be a true minister, or to know anything about the gospel. But I had one great comfort:—‘Go disciple them, baptizing them—teaching them; and, lo ! I am with you/

“We reached Princetown on Monday evening, and I lodged with Donald Montgomery all the time I stayed. I do not know if I took the best way for doing good to the people, but I took the way I thought best. I preached only the Sabbath-days, and employed all the week-days in conversation, especially with those who had children to baptize. I sent information through the settlement that I would baptize no children till I had conversed with their parents, and was convinced that they meant to live like good Christians, and bring up their children as such, I concerted with Donald Montgomery to divide the settlement into two parts, one for each week, and each part into five sub-divisions for five days of each week, directing each sub-division to come as regularly as matters would allow. By a little conversation I generally found out what instruction they most needed. Though sometimes three or four were with me at once, I gave le>s or more instruction to every individual. They were especially deficient in their views of the odiousness of sin before God, of their guilt and defilement by it, of the danger of depending on their own righteousness (indeed, this was their main trust, though they would instantly agree that their good works could not save them), and in their knowledge of the character, offices, and work of Christ, and of the nature of his salvation; as also of the office and work of the Holy Spirit. Prayer was neglected. They did not work on Sabbath, but it was not kept holy to the Lord. Few were guilty of any flagrant violation of the duties of the second table of the law, yet few had any just conceptions of them.

“I admitted to baptism all who agreed to the following things:—First, That as sin, death, and the curse came into the world by Adam; so pardon, life, and the blessing came by Christ. Secondly, That they renounced all dependence upon their own righteousness, and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation from sin and misery. Thirdly, That as they had been hitherto careless and ignorant, they must henceforth be diligent to grow up in religious knowledge. Fourthly, That as they depended on God for every blessing for themselves and their families, so they purposed to pray to him, and worship him every morning and evening in the family and closet.

“Also, I made inquiry of neighbours, as circumstances would allow, concerning the moral conduct of each applicant, and where there were particular exceptions, I exacted a promise of reformation. This was all the preparation for baptism to which I thought I could attain, and of some I had good hopes; but of others I bad great reason for fears. Indeed, the two weeks which I passed at Princetown, were the two most anxious which I ever passed in this world; to which the following incident greatly contributed.

"When I came to the tent on Sabbath, I found a crowd of people (not a large assembly), all standing and talking, as I had seen in the fairs of Scotland, as if they had met on a weekday for some secular business. I desired them to sit down and be silent, as we were to begin the public worship of God. Some obeyed, but the greater part continued standing and talking. I called to silence a second and a third time, and some more obeyed; but others did not. The only plan I could then think of was to read the psalm so loud as to drown their voices, and after a little it had the desired effect. The first sermon was in Gaelic, and at the end of it I baptized the children of the Highlanders. In the afternoon the talk was not so loud nor so stubborn; it was, however, sufficiently discouraging, though an evident reformation had taken place. At the close of the sermon I baptized a number of children in English—in all, about thirty.

“I spent the second week much as the first, and on the second Sabbath I baptized about thirty more children. Between the Sabbaths I rode to a neighbouring settlement, and baptized six children to one man. Of all that applied for baptism about Princetown, I rejected only one man, who absolutely refused to keep up the worship of God in his family, and he went the next day and got his child baptized by a Popish priest. I believe numbers more would have done the same bad they been refused.

“I had great fears that many of them would turn out a disgrace to religion and to me; but herein I have been happily disappointed. During the week several came to me, inquiring if I could direct them how to get a minister to Princetown. I desired them to consult among themselves, and promised, that if they agreed about it, I would write a petition for them, and forward it home. I wrote it, accordingly, and it was subscribed after sermon; but I had to tell them that I was afraid it would not be soon answered, as there were two others besides—from Cove Head and St. Peter’s—that should be answered before it, and that I perceived that young ministers were backward to come to this country. I promised; however, to do my best for them.

“When I was at Princetown I went, by invitation, to a neighbour’s house to breakfast; and when it was over, I told them that, as they had been so long without a minister to tell them their duty, I was afraid they neglected the worship of God. The head of the family replied that they did. I said that it was not enough that every individual in the family worshipped God in secret—the family should worship God together, because they committed many family sins, and enjoyed many family mercies, and needed many more; and that, if they had no objection, I would perform it on this occasion, as a directory for them. He replied, that they would be much obliged to me. Having got the Bible, I sung a short psalm, read a chapter, kneeled and prayed; but none of the family either sung or kneeled — whence I inferred that they had never seen family worship before, and, of course, that it was not common in the country. But I had not confidence to tell them of it.

“I took an opportunity to ask of Donald Montgomery how it happened that there was so much gabbling at the beginning of public worship on the first Sabbath, and not on the second. He replied that he and others were ashamed of it; and that it was owing, in part, to some Roman Catholics that were there, and in part to their youngsters born there; for none of them ever heard a sermon, and some of them were nineteen years of age.”

The only other fact worthy of mention that we have been able to gather regarding his first visit to Princetown, is that at the time there was a malignant fever prevailing there, afterward called the Highland fever, so called because it bad been introduced by a number of Highland emigrants that had arrived shortly before. They were landed on the beach, and placed in a shed, where they were much exposed to the inclemencies of the weather. It proved very fatal among them, and also extended to the families already residing iu the place. The Doctor visited them, prayed with them, and he also exhorted the people to take them into their houses, which at his request, some of them did.

“I was so concerned for my passage home, all the time I was at Princetown that I seldom neglected, in my addresses at the throne of grace, to beg of my heavenly Father, that if it was agreeable to his will he would provide me a passage, so that I could be home the following Sabbath; and, accordingly, I resolved to leave Princetown early on Monday morning, lest, by a little delay, I should lose a passage; but before I got ready, numbers came to bid me farewell, so that I was detained a while, and could hardly tear myself from them and, having to call at some houses in Cove Head, I was obliged to stay there all night, and heard nothing of a passage. Early on Tuesday morning I set off for Charlotte Town; and about a mile from it met Mr. Rae, going to the country, of whom I asked if he knew of any vessel going soon to Nova Scotia. He replied, ‘What a pity that you are so late! it is not an hour since a schooner sailed for Pictou.' ‘ Oh, I cannot believe you/ said I; she could not go without me, when I was so near. But I cannot stay to talk: can you tell me the captain’s name, and where he lodged?' ‘Worth is his name, and he lodged with Brecon.' I hastened to Brecon’s, and asked if Captain Worth was there. The answer was, ‘ Yes/ I thanked the God of heaven, and asked if I might see him. Being introduced to him I asked, ‘Can you give me a passage to Nova Scotia?' ‘Yes, if you will be content with the accommodation which I have.' ‘ It will be very poor unless I be content with it. When do you sail?' ‘In ten minutes’ time.' ‘Very good, that answers me well. I have to call for a gentleman, and I will be back within ten minutes.’ In fifteen minutes we were on board Captain Worth’s vessel, and I felt very happy and thankful.

“When the anchor was weighed, and the sails set, Captain Worth said to me, ‘Well, Mr. MacGregor, I was as ready to sail yesterday at this time as I am now, and the wind has been fair all the time, and I could not go; but I know not what kept me.’ ‘That is strange/ said I; ‘what could hinder you?’ ‘I cannot tell; I had nothing to do, and I wished to go; but it seems I could not.' ‘Why?' said I, ‘it seems you had to wait for me.‘ 'I believe' said he, ‘that is the very thing, whatever be in it'. I told him my detention, by going to Princetown, and my anxiety about a passage, when be said he was happy in being the instrument, in the hand of Providence, to give me a passage. We had a prosperous voyage; and I saw not Captain Worth again till after thirty years, when he reminded me of the above, and more conversation which we had on board. I got home on Thursday to my own people, who were sorry at my long absence, but satisfied with the reason of it.

“As soon as I got the things that were behind iu the congregation, by my absence, brought to their place, I set about writing a pressing letter to the Synod, urging the sending out of four young ministers, or if they could not send them all, some at least, to those congregations that were perishing for lack of knowledge.

“I represented the destitute state of Prince Edward Island in general; that I had not preached in Charlotte Town, nor in a number of other small settlements, who never had the gospel preached to them; that Mr. Des Brisay seldom preached but in town; that the only other clergyman in the island was a Catholic priest; and that the most gospel they got was from Methodists. But all the answer that I got next summer was, that the Synod sympathized with me, but could find no one willing to come to my assistance.

“I had this year applications to preach at Onslow, where I had preached once before, and from Stewiacke, where I had not; but I could not answer them. Six weeks was a long time for my congregation in the best time of the year, considering that I had to preach in two languages, and in two places far distant from one another.


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