MACNEIL, John (1854-1896)

Malcolm D. Prentis

MACNEIL, JOHN (b. Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland, 19 Oct 1854; d. Brisbane, Qld, 27 Aug 1896). Presbyterian evangelist and minister.

Born into a Free Church highland family which emigrated to Vic in about 1860, John MacNeil grew up in Ballarat, from where his father worked in railway construction. He was educated at Ballarat College, and Melbourne University (BA, 1874). As a student he was a member of the old Gaelic-speaking Free Church-founded congregation of St Andrew's, Carlton and there found assurance of faith under the preaching of the Rev Duncan McEachran.

MacNeil worked as an engine-driver for his father in vacations and through this happened to hear and be inspired by the Rev J G Paton (q.v.), visiting preacher at Dandenong in 1875. He travelled to New College, Edinburgh, for his theological studies, 1876-79. He was already burning with zeal to take the gospel to as many people as possible. That zeal, and pulmonary problems, dictated a return to Australia.

He went to SA, and was sent to Belalie and Jamestown where he was inducted on 1 Oct 1879. His freshness and enthusiasm were remarkable, and the charge flourished and raised money to send the first two SA missionaries to the New Hebrides. Though a Calvinist, he was happy to cooperate with his Methodist colleague in an evangelistic mission in Jamestown. This experience led to his experiencing a call to evangelistic work. Through the Methodist colleague, he was introduced to the Keswick movement. About the same time, he also experienced the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Released from his pastoral tie, MacNeil began his career as an evangelist in February 1881. For the next four years he travelled through SA, NSW, Vic and WA conducting evangelistic missions in which many thousands heard the gospel. He married Hannah Thomas on 23 April 1884, having met her during a Bendigo mission. Hannah sang on some of his missions. A stomach condition and general exhaustion dictated a return to a more sedentary ministry in 1885.

The NSW church sent him to start a cause in Waverley, in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. His visiting and outreach were thorough and enthusiastic and Waverley church flourished, but his health did not. At the hands of an Anglican minister, he received lasting spiritual healing, and grew restless once more for roving evangelism, for which he was released in July 1888. After six months, he returned to Vic and spent most of 1889 rebuilding the Abbotsford congregation. While there, he continued to hold rallies, and at the end of the year became the Vic Church's full-time evangelist.

From 1890 until his death MacNeil was constantly on the move. He visited every colony, and became very well-known as an American-style revivalist. This engendered some jealousy among fellow-ministers, but he also had strong support. He was part of 'The Band' of ministers who began the Geelong Convention in 1890, in imitation of Keswick.

Three missions in New Zealand brought mixed results. Seven weeks in Otago 1890 were very successful, but an almost complete ministerial boycott in Wellington in 1894 left him feeling deserted. The response of the laity was more positive, and a mission which followed in Auckland was most fruitful. In 1892 and 1893 he was working in Tas and Vic. In 1894 and 1895, MacNeil again visited WA, where he endured the rigours of the eastern gold fields (Coolgardie), and laid the foundations of the Presbyterian Church there, and also toured Perth and environs. He (and Hannah, when she accompanied him) used singing in these missions.

In 1894 MacNeil conducted a very successful mission in Qld at the invitation of that church. He dealt individually with over 1200 professions of faith in ten weeks. From June to August 1896, he and his family toured north and central Queensland, speaking to all manner of persons, including Pacific Island labourers. This tour was not always a success: for three weeks he had a relatively slight response. At the end of the tour, he dropped dead in a Brisbane shop.

John MacNeil left his widow and five children. Hannah wrote his biography. His son Neil was a flying ace in World War One and later the first Headmaster of Knox Grammar School. Collections of sermons, Someone is Coming and Honey Gathered and Stored were published posthumously.

J G Miller, 'Evangelist John MacNeil of Australia', Australian Presbyterian Living Today August 1990, 2223; H MacNeil John MacNeil: Late Evangelist in Australia (London, 1897)



Electronic Version © Southern Cross College, 2004

Content © Evangelical History Association of Australia and the author, 2004