One bitterly cold morning in the winter of 1883, a stranger alighted from a train in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Upon arriving, the burden of his prayer was that God would make his coming a blessing to many. Little did he realize that his name was to become a household word throughout the province of “New Scotland.” This stranger, John Knox McEwen, had left the land of his forebears to bring the message of God’s great salvation to the vast country across the sea. In tracing his past, we find much in his godly heritage to lead to his present path of service for the Lord.
Early in the nineteenth century, a family named McEwen lived in Dromore, County Down, Northern Ireland. These were honorable people with high ideals as to conduct of life. They were by persuasion “Covenanters,” a denomination which in earlier times had suffered bitter persecution because of their loyalty to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. The truth of being born again was preached by them with no uncertainty as was Godly living.
At that time there was at least one son in the McEwen family in Dromore. His parents had taken the solemn vows that were required when they presented him to be christened, to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Being serious and devout, they sought to fulfill their obligation to the best of their ability. His given name was John and early in life he manifested the same honest and devout characteristics as his forebears.
The Lord’s Day, mostly called “the Sabbath Day,” was held in high esteem among the Covenanters. Children were taught early in life to refrain from all games on that day. Likewise the adults were to abstain from manual labor, except work of necessity and mercy. Even conversation about business was eliminated by those who were in Christ. In place of this, the Scriptures were read in the family circle, Psalms were sung, and the Catechism was expounded. All this as well as attendance at the regular church services gave them a full day in a religious atmosphere. Truly in these days of great laxity regarding the Lord’s Day, when it is being used by the world as a day of pleasure and riotous living, and when some christians at times seem to have little regard for the resurrection day, there ought to be exercise of heart in this respect. The law of the land has made it a day of freedom from the usual employment and our opportunities are great for serving the Lord in the Gospel and in ministering the Word to fellow-believers. But especially is it the day when believers assemble together to show forth the Lord’s death till He come. “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” Psalm 118:24.
John grew up to young manhood in such surroundings, was evidently of a serious mind and subject to parental authority. He was gifted above many as a singer and acquired an education in music. He rejoiced greatly when the elders of the congregation asked him to sing in the choir.
His father sent him to a tailor shop to become an apprentice and after some years he started a business of his own. John McEwen was very honest and conscientious in dealing with the public. One of his relatives said, “John would walk for miles if he owed a man a penny to pay that debt,” and was just as exacting the other way.
It was to him a day of high honor when he was chosen to become Precentor in the choir, a position which he held for many years. He also gave singing lessons in the area.
John married Anne Graham, and she was at one with her young husband in his religious convictions and also in his business undertakings. He inherited much of the strict and religious training of his forebears. This was seen in the discipline he established in his own home. He held the outstanding, early preachers of Scotland in high esteem and more than one of his sons bore the name of some distinguished divine.
The long line bearing the family name who were Covenanters gave him no little pleasure as he and his wife presented their first born to be christened in the church according to the usual custom. He was named William Renwick and, like their forefathers, Mr. and Mrs. McEwen took the vows that were required at such a time, and they earnestly desired to fulfill the solemn obligations they had taken that day.
In 1853 another son was born in the McEwen family and the usual baptismal service was performed. He was given the name John Knox. If this name had been given by prophecy it could not have been more appropriate because, in the long years that followed his conversion, John Knox McEwen bore many marks of his illustrious namesake—bold and fearless in his testimony for God.
The family circle consisted of seven sons and two daughters, but John Knox was the close companion of his oldest brother. Mr. McEwen was very exacting and his word of authority was felt in the household. William seemed to have had wayward inclinations and often disobeyed his father’s rigorous rule. The drums had a special charm for him. When a procession went down the village street in the summer evenings making that familiar sound, crowds gathered from all directions. William, like many other boys, forgot all about the lectures he had received and the threats of severe punishment if found disobeying the parental command to stay away from such gatherings. William was off at the first sound and John Knox followed, fully enjoying all that was to be heard and seen with the fife and drum. But when the excitement was over and the two boys started for home knowing well what was in store, gloom would spread over their hilarious adventure.