When the Lord Jesus arose from the dead He gave “commandments unto the apostles whom He had chosen: to whom He shewed Himself alive after His passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” He instructed them to wait for “the promise of the Father” after which they were to be witnesses unto Him, and in all Judea, in Jerusalem, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
The promise was made good at Pentecost, and their witnessing began in Jerusalem. This was their home town, while Judea took them further away, and Samaria more distant still. Their testimony for Christ went out into every land. In the days of the Apostle Paul, he could say, “be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel … which was preached to every creature which is under heaven,” Colossians 1:23. In those few short years the fame of Jesus had found its way not only to every land but to every creature under heaven.
John Knox McEwen was only five years saved. He had labored abundantly to win souls for Christ, first in his hometown, next in many places in Ireland, then to the far north of Scotland. He began to be exercised about the United States and Canada. To many in those days the USA appeared as it did to Wesley when he wrote from Georgia, “What have I discovered at the ends of the earth,” and then related his conversion.
Few young men ever left their native land more devoted to Christ, more courageous, or with more energy and zeal in the work of the Lord. The Lord’s people and his fellow-laborers commended him to God and to the work of His grace. He set sail for New York on May 31, 1879, on board the S.S. Pennsylvania. The vessel was small and it took fourteen days for the trip. Our brother had the feelings of Psalm 107 where seasickness is fully described—“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.” So he passed through this harrowing experience. The fifth day he was better and ready for his usual work. The captain granted his permission to preach in the saloon morning and evening of the second Lord’s Day. He went through every part of the ship from stem to stern and gave crew and passengers gospel tracts.
His bags were so well covered with Scripture texts that he had little trouble with the custom officers. They merely asked if he had anything dutiable.
He arrived in New York City and his brother William Renwick, who had preceded him to the west by a few years, was on hand to meet him. Anxious to attack the strongholds of the devil in that large city, he showed William an address that a christian had given him of an unsaved relative who lived in New York. William and he set off to find the street and they discovered the address was upstairs over a barroom. William remained outside while he paid the visit. After walking around the block, he returned to the saloon door and heard loud talking inside. He thought it was a drunken brawl, but going near the door he beheld the big saloon keeper in the middle of the floor in a very threatening attitude with a pitcher over his brother’s head, and John Knox was telling him, “Man, if you die in your sins, you will be in hell.” His elder brother thought it would be better to give him some wise counsel seeing he was a stranger in New York. When he came out William R. said, “John, this is a different country from Ireland and you can’t do these things here.” He listened until the lecture was finished and merely replied, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
He was entertained in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Owens. There was only one assembly in the city at that time which he felt was very formal. He rented a store on a corner and also sixty chairs. He began nightly meetings which grew in numbers and interest. Two young men attended who were also young in the faith. They got a great lift spiritually from the stirring Bible messages every night. These two men were Alex Virtue and W. P. Douglas. The former was taken to heaven early in life and his deep piety had an influence on Mr. McEwen. The latter, of whom Mr. McEwen often said, “his open beaming face was a great encouragement,” went forth the next year to preach the gospel and in that glorious work he continued winning many souls to Christ for seventy years. He was called home to heaven in 1946, and was mourned for as a father.
Leaving New York, Mr. McEwen went to the state of Indiana and on the invitation of Mrs. Simpson he paid a visit to Valparaiso. She told him of the deep need in that part where there were no Gospel preachers. The first meeting he attended was a Bible reading on Ephesians, chapter one. Judge Gillith and Dr. Sayles (both in the little assembly) were present. When the hour had come to leave, the doctor sighed and said, “What a pity we have to leave this.” His visit was short but fruitful.
He had a pressing invitation to join Mr. T. D. W. Muir in Toronto, Canada in tent work. The English Christians had bought a Gospel tent for the Canadian assemblies, which were few in number at that time. This was the first tent pitched by the assemblies on the continent. The Lord gave blessing with His work and they baptized the converts in Lake Ontario. It was the beginning of a great work that was carried on later by Mr. Donald Munro. The work flourished in Toronto and today there are many large assemblies carrying on a very aggressive work in that city.
When the tent season was over, Mr. McEwen was exercised about visiting some of the small assemblies. There were only ten in the Dominion and they sorely needed help. Mr. John Smith encouraged him to visit one place where the brethren were not all of one mind. He felt this to be an important work. When he arrived he found two leaders were very much estranged. He began to cry to God in private as he felt that if these brethren were restored it would be an easy matter for the other members to become reconciled to one another.
Mr. McEwen spent some hours in prayer one Saturday night and in the morning he felt constrained to visit brother G. N. As he approached the house he saw G. coming to meet him with such a strange look in his eye and, putting his arm around the preacher, he said, “John, I have seen the face of God. I thought I was the best man in the meeting but I have discovered that I am the worst. I am going now to see Jimmy B. Come with me.” Together that Lord’s Day morning they went to Jimmy’s and found him at home. Mr. McEwen described that scene of G. pouring out such a confession that must have given joy to the heart of God, and of the readiness on Jimmy’s part to do likewise. They went from one to another, and then they gathered around the Lord’s table where tears of contrition poured down their faces. The Lord must have smelled a sweet savour that day as from broken hearts, melted under the subduing power of God, they had gotten right with God and with one another. Now the praise and worship mingled with tears had gone up to God. In the evening time of life, Mr. McEwen spoke of the sweet memory of that morning as something cherished by him all those long years.
We who live only half a century later and with added light from the Holy Scriptures might all reflect over that reconciliation and the blessing that followed. Was this broken spirit God’s way of healing that breach among His own? If so, why is this same tenderness of heart and yearning for restored fellowship not in evidence today? How many heart-rending scenes which have led to the spiritual destruction of individuals, of families, yea, at times of assemblies, could have been averted. That root of bitterness, so deadly, has worked the will of the flesh; whereas, if the Holy Spirit had been allowed to work unhindered what triumphs for God might have been seen instead of the pitiable sight of weakness and division.
He remained around that district for some time and saw the good hand of God. As usual there was much opposition. On one occasion the school chimney was filled with sods and smoke filled the room so that all had to leave. Then another time cayenne pods were put into the stove with a more severe effect. Nevertheless, souls were won for Christ.
In Ontario a Union Church was opened to him. After a few nights this door was closed but there were tokens of blessing and, moving to another part, an effectual door was opened. A brother joined him there who was a fine preacher. Mr. McEwen said of him, “His thundering tones of judgment made many a sinner to tremble.”
The preachers boarded with an old English family whose children were very ungodly. On Saturday night before retiring, the preachers sang a number of hymns. This seemed to annoy the oldest boy very much. Mr. McEwen placed his foot on the last step of the stairs and, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder, said, “Willie, if you are found dead tomorrow in your present state your soul will be in hell.” To his surprise, the boy’s mother, a professing christian, resented his message and passing through the room, she never even said good night. On retiring, Mr. McEwen said to his companion, “If God does not come in and display His power here, we may be put out of the house.”
The next morning the preachers were down early and sat in the front room reading their Bibles. Their hostess came downstairs and passed through the room in silence. Presently they heard Willie’s footsteps on the stairs, and then noticed the marks of tears on his cheek. Holding out his hand, Mr. McEwen said, “How are you this morning?” With trembling voice Willie said, “Thank God, I am well. God saved me at two o’clock this morning.” His mother happened to open the door at that moment and she began to weep. Indeed they all wept for joy.
A horse and buggy appeared in the yard and Willie said, “That is my brother and we were not expecting him.” However, the purposes of God are wonderful; yea, His ways are past finding out. That evening that young man listened to the gospel. In deep soul trouble after the meeting, he literally pulled Mr. McEwen to the back of the building saying, “I want to get saved.” Taking out his Bible and reading John 3:36, Mr. McEwen had the joy of pointing another soul to Christ.
Several other towns were visited and one in particular where there was an assembly. Evidently a number of young men and maidens were reasoned into profession and were in the assembly but had no evidence of divine life. Three leading brethren were deeply exercised about conditions and together they sought to lay hold on God in prayer. At the end of a few weeks God came in, broke down quite a number, and gave the Lord’s servant much joy as he saw the grace of God manifested in them. Some gave up their professions and went back into the world. One young man died wailing out, “I’m dying and I’m not prepared.”
Bay City, Michigan was upon his heart in 1882 and he pitched a large tent for nightly meetings. The opposition became very intense and at times the preacher was handled roughly by some of the rowdies. During that series of meetings a child in the neighborhood died and Mr. McEwen was asked to take the service. As he ministered the Word he could see his audience did not relish it (as Spurgeon called it, “the unpalatable gospel”), for there is something about God’s Gospel that the natural man hates. Mr. McEwen’s allotted place was beside the hearse driver as the procession began. In his usual manner he began to speak to the driver about his soul and he resented it very much. He got angry and said, “If you don’t stop preaching to me, I’ll pull up the horses and stop the procession.” Mr. McEwen replied, “Whether you pull up the horses or not, it won’t alter it. If you die as you are, you will be in hell.” True to his word, he pulled up the horses and Mr. McEwen had to walk the rest of the way.
Ten years later Mr. McEwen attended a conference and while there he met two sisters from Bay City. One of them said, “Mr. McEwen, I know you! Do you remember the man who put you off the hearse at the funeral in Bay City?” “Yes,” was the reply. “I am his daughter and we are all saved now, praise God.” That day this young sister met James Kay, a faithful servant of God, and in course of time they were married. On another visit Mr. McEwen had the joy of pointing one of their sons, Harold Kay, to Christ.
Mr. McEwen took down his tent in Bay City, having a great desire to pitch it in the New England States. He packed seats, poles, canvas, and ropes into a trunk and then sent them by rail to Massachusetts. He pitched it in a town where the noted George Whitfield had preached long years before.
A woman drove in a buggy six miles every night to these meetings. She always seemed restless and disinterested so that Mr. McEwen was often upset while preaching. One night as he watched her come along he said to himself, “How shall I preach with that woman in the tent?” While he was preaching she turned to her uncle beside her and, laying hold of his shoulder, she called out loud, “Oh, Uncle, I’m saved just now.” Her uncle, who had passed through the Civil War, wept like a child. As Mr. McEwen spoke of her long afterwards, he said, “She developed into a lovely christian.” Later on some of her family were saved and her son, Joseph S. Pearson, became a well-known Gospel preacher in United States and Canada.
When the tent was taken down he secured an upper room some miles from there. There was an unusual stir and the soul-searching preaching of the Lord’s servant was felt by all classes, and more especially when a religious leader was awakened and saved. He baptized the young converts and taught them the New Testament order of church truth.
The opposition grew and the religious opponents knew no bounds. A minister, who was an aged man, preached from Isaiah 50:10, and sought to prove through it that there were many saved and did not know it. Mr. McEwen had a friend who could write well with a wooden pen and he got him to print in large letters that he would preach from the same verse. This was displayed in the Post Office with the result that the place was packed that night. Feelings for and against ran high, but the truth proclaimed in fellowship with God by His servant found its way into many hearts and there was joy in heaven over sinners being saved.
A strong plot like some in olden times was planned against the preacher. He was to be tarred, feathered, and put on a rail out of town on a certain night. The sisters as well as the brethren stood nobly by the messenger of God and even unsaved men resolved to defend him. The night came for the attack and special police were sworn in for duty. The crowd began to march up and down the street outside the hall making an awful noise by blowing ram’s horns and beating a big drum. One special policeman put his foot through the drum saying, “This man has as good a right to be heard as you have.” He did not preach that night but they sang hymns all the time.
It was getting late and he thought he ought to leave for his lodgings and, although several begged him not to go, he started off. The night was dark and just as he left the hall he could see the forms of about thirty men standing around the door. A tall man, whom he could discern as the leader, stepped up to him and, looking into his face, said, “Is that you, Mr. McEwen?” Trembling, he replied, “Yes.” “Fall in, men,” he cried. Every man seemed to know his allotted place and the preacher found himself in the center. The policemen marched him to his lodging and said heartily, “Good night.” God had protected his servant as he had done many others on similar occasions and, by having such a harrowing experience, fitted him to be a more fully devoted soldier of Jesus Christ.
Reflecting on that night’s experience in later years, Mr. McEwen said, “The memory of the love and courage manifested by God’s people that night shall never be effaced,” and he added, “We shall meet again in the land of fadeless day.”
The assembly in Boston was small in those days but he paid them a visit and found some stalwarts who had a real heart for the Gospel and were real students of the Word. One night he took up Job 11:12, but the Boston audience did not appreciate being likened to a donkey. As soon as he finished, John Gill, a very noted character and open air preacher on Boston Common, rose up and said, “I see, dear friends, you don’t like to be put on par with a donkey but if we put out the “D” and put in an “M”—born like a monkey—you will receive it.”
He went on to Philadelphia to visit his brother William who had moved there from New York. He found one small meeting there—cold, formal, and doing no aggressive work. This itinerating preacher seemed to possess more than many the gift of discernment. He knew the voice of God and he despised any sham imitation.
His brother had opened a tailor shop and there was a large room above it that he did not require. He said, “John, why not have some meetings here? You can have the room upstairs.” He began there and soon got to know quite a number from England, Ireland, and Scotland who knew the Lord and who longed for better things. He wrote to Mr. Campbell and Mr. Matthews often for three years telling of that large city and that he was sure there was an open door. In 1884 Mr. Campbell pitched a tent in the city. A great work was done and an assembly was formed according to New Testament order.
The first conference in Philadelphia was over a blacksmith’s shop. Messrs. McEwen, Campbell, and Matthews were present and God gave them a wonderful time. Faces beamed and tears were shed in abundance under the ministry of God’s Word. The conference lasted three days. All were freely entertained, no mention was made of money, no pre-arrangements as regards ministry, and there was no chairman. He adds, “Surely if God was enough in primitive times, He is enough now.”
He met one of his oldest friends in Philadelphia, John Greer, who later lived in New York. Although Mr. Greer was a hard working man with a large family, Mr. McEwen was heartily entertained in his home and many servants of Christ enjoyed the hospitality of that home in the years that followed. The work flourished and now there are quite a number of assemblies in that city. There was a small assembly in the city of Harrisburg and our brother paid them a visit and then went on to the Hamilton, Ontario conference which was one of the largest centers at that time. It was like a family re-union as the preachers were mostly brethren who had known and esteemed each other highly in the old land, including D. Ross, J. Smith, J. Campbell, Alexander Marshall, John Martin, and John Grimason.
The first two days of ministry, brother McEwen described as heart-searching and humbling, but this was God’s way of preparing for blessing. On Lord’s Day morning as they sat around the Lord’s table, hearts were bowed and broken under a sense of their own failure and of His love and faithfulness. Men and women sobbed and wept as the bread was passing from one to the other. The ministry was not only searching but it was Christ exalting. Building up, stirring up, and comforting the hearts of the people of God, and the gospel, which had a large share also, produced precious fruit in salvation.