As a youth, Donald was "as proud as a peacock, and as
empty as a drum," and yet he "said" prayers night and morning, for fear
that God would smite him if he didn't. Then one day while Ross was
walking alone among the mountain heather, returning home after visiting
a dying brother, he saw the light of the gospel in John 18:8: "If ye
seek Me, let these go their way."
Ross was born in Rosshire, Scotland in 1823. Twice each day his
God-fearing parents gathered the family to read Scripture and pray for
God's blessing. Ross was the fruit of their prayers. For the first five
years following his conversion, Ross was a member of the Church of
Scotland. He left during what was later known as "The Disruption of
1843," when Thomas Chalmers split from the mainstream Presbyterians to
start the Free Church of Scotland.
In 1847, Donald married Margaret Leslie. He moved his new family to
Edinburgh a few years later. There Donald and Margaret heard Mr. Tasker
ministering God's Word. After work, he engaged in evangelistic work. It
was during this time that Tasker urged Ross to superintend a mission to
coal miners in Lanarkshire. "This," say his biographers, "he positively
refused to do--not from unwillingness to serve the Lord with all his
might--but because he did not wish to be dependent on preaching for his
support." But Ross changed his mind a while later, when his employer
terminated his position, He did not know how to preach. Tasker said,
"You preach into your own heart, and you will be surprised how many
other hearts your preaching will fit." And so it was that Ross, from
1858 to l860 preached the gospel to the miners.
In 1859, Thomas Rosie began a gospel outreach called the "North East
Coast Mission" to reach the 57 Scottish fishing villages between Thurso
in the north down to Ferryden in the south. From these villages, the
fishermen sailed and rowed boats that were little improved from
previous centuries. Their livelihood was always tough, and occasionally
dangerous. The men who would preach Christ among these fishermen, said
Rosie, needed to be no-nonsense people.
Rosie asked Ross to be his secretary and superintendent of The North
East Coast Mission. The Mission had no money and little manpower. So
Ross started from the ground up, making the city of Aberdeen his
In his first annual report for the Mission, Ross wrote, "At Bervie,
Gourdon, Downes, Cove, St. Comb's, Inverallochy, Cairnbulg and
Broadsea, the blessing has descended. Waters have broken out in the
wilderness and streams in the desert." Ross soon had a band of twenty
aggressive evangelists helping him in the work. Those interested in
joining the Mission had to pass an interview with Ross. He asked all
candidates the same opening question: "When and where were you born
again?" If the candidate could not give an immediate, certain answer,
the interview ended. Ross had high standards for his preachers. "Were
they godly? Had their preaching 'teeth'? Had they the power of God with
it?" If a man's preaching lacked "the revival fire" it was "neither
good for man nor beast." Of weak preaching, Ross would remark, "It
wouldn't kill a mosquito," and of weak preachers, "He has not the smell
of God." He talked about "feeling a preacher's pulse" by his prayers,
and enjoyed hearing a message that "shaved close."
John Ritchie, one of Ross' biographers, sums up Ross' view on
preaching and preachers: "It is necessary to emphasize the need of
godly care in encouraging or authenticating as preachers all who may
wish to leave their employment to go out as evangelists or missionaries
at home or abroad, lest those uncalled and unsent, be helped into a
path that they have neither gift nor grace to fill. The Scriptural
principle in all such public service is, 'Let these first be proved' (1
Tim. 3:10), which can be best done in the sphere in which they live by
those who see their lives and have their testimony and service before
them from day to day. Being 'well spoken of' (Acts 16:1-2) by those who
know them best, and with the fellowship of the assembly in which they
are (Acts 13:1-4), they may then be heartily commended to the Lord, and
go forth followed by the prayers of His people. Very different is the
not uncommon practice of restive, often unspiritual young men, who have
no great love for honest labour 'becoming evangelists,' and setting
forth in their self-chosen path, only to do mischief, until they break
down and dishonour the Name of the Lord."
Ross' letters to younger workers were sometimes harsh. But if he saw
the right attitude, he became a father to them. John Campbell, James
Dewar, John Gill, Donald Munro, and John Smith all had Ross as their
mentor. Ross said, "All were not equal in gifts and graces, but there
were in the Mission the choicest spirits and most devoted men we ever
met--godly, self-denying, and successful."
From 1859 until 1870, a great reaping of souls occurred, especially
in the villages along the Moray Firth and the Aberdeenshire coast. The
work in Ferryden, Cairnbulg and Inverallochy was remarkable. In 1869 at
Footdee "the power of God was so manifest, that for many weeks no
fishing boats went to sea. Meetings were continued day and night."
"Men, women, and children were seen at all times of the day dropping on
their knees--on the snow-covered ground, crying for mercy." Six hundred
professed to be saved at Footdee. The evangelists did not know of any
holdouts in the town.
Alexander Marshall said, "Duncan Matheson and Donald Ross gathered
numerous sheaves of golden grain for the Lord of the harvest. Duncan
Matheson and Donald Ross were men of kindred spirits, and were splendid
Gospel pioneers. Matheson spoke of his friend as 'that Caledonian
warrior.'" Matheson (1824-1869) was Ross' mentor, and closest friend.
Matheson called him "the walking Shorter Catechism" and would say,
"I have given you the stories; he will give you the doctrine. His name
is Donald Ross."
Ross always spoke of him as "dear Duncan Matheson." They were both
Presbyterians, and Mathesan sympathized with Ross' grief over the
clergymen. But until his death in 1869, he advised Ross to endure the
Free Church denomination. Ross said, "As a rule, we could get the
people of the coast to hear us, but this aroused the jealousy of the
clergy, to a fearful exent in some cases. Then their complaints poured
into headquarters of the sayings and doings of the missionaries in
their parishes and districts." As long as drunkards were reformed and
church membership increased, Ross' society was a true "auxiliary of the
But Ross was not content to only warn the disreputable. He wrote,
"Gradually it became our settled conviction that the clergy were the
greatest hindrances in the country to the people's salvation. This
staggered us, and we often asked ourselves--'Can this be they that
Christ ordered?' Another thing was made plain to us then, that is, that
nearly all the church members in the Established Church were absolutely
unconverted, and that only a sprinkling of the Free Church people were
born again. We were convinced that something was radically wrong with
the churches. For ourselves we were beginning to think over the
question whether it was our duty to have no more fellowship with that
which was simply an agency for the devil to deceive souls. This
gradually ripened into positive conviction and led to the first steps
on the way to a complete separation."
As Ross searched his Bible, he decided to end his service in the
North East Coast Mission. In 1870, he started the Northern Evangelistic
Association. Some evangelists joined him, but soon afterwards that
society dissolved, and Ross ceased being connected with any society or
denomination. This was a frightening step for a husband and father. He
knew it might bring privation and loneliness. But the thing he feared
more than the frown of his peers was the frown of God. Was he a clean
vessel? He felt sure that if he walked with God, "there would be
porridge in the bowl." These situations helped him see that God does
not measure out His grace in ounces and small measures. "No, no;" Ross
said, "God is a great God, and must act like Himself in all the
greatness of His character."
During the summer of 1870, Ross studied baptism. "What about
baptism?" he asked himself. "If you saw it in the Word of God, would
you be willing to obey?" Ross had been a proponent of infant
sprinkling. All his thirteen children were "christened." But now his
Bible reading did not back up his opinion. And so it was that, not long
afterwards, Ross was baptized in the River Dee at five o'clock on a
Saturday morning, at the Public Baths in Crooked Lane, Aberdeen. His
obedience influenced many others, and the baths were used to baptize
large numbers of believers for many Lord's Days following. That summer
many of Ross' religious prejudices were overturned.
At this time, a Mr. M'Intosh, a licensed minister in the Free
Church, was commissioned to warn the people about this heretical
movement. A booklet, The New Prophets, was published and widely
circulated. The newspapers echoed the misrepresentations in the
booklet, and the villages around Aberdeenshire received such slanderous
reports that the evangelists needed next to no advertising for their
meetings. Ross and his co-workers and converts were gradually "squeezed
In 1871, he started a monthly paper, the Northern Evangelist and
Intelligencer, afterwards called the Northern Witness. After 1888, it
became The Witness, and had a worldwide circulation of 30,000 monthly.
In August of 1871, he was invited to the shipbuilding town of Jarrow to
"sound an alarm."
There he met James McGregor, an upstanding churchgoer who had for
five years been "troubled about his soul." Ross listened at length
while McGregor discussed his many merits. Then interrupted, "James, if
that is all you have, you may consider yourself on the road to hell."
James was the first one to be saved that fall.
By November of 1871, "the table of the Lord was spread in the
simplicity of early times." James Campbell joined the meeting at that
time. "It was a beautiful sight to us indeed. We had never heard of
such a meeting until we saw it with our own eyes." Several New
Testament styled gatherings sprang up. Ross had his mandate: Preach the
gospel, baptize, and see the saints gathered into assemblies. Ross did
not realize the reaction these new steps would bring. Under pressure,
Ross moved his family to Edinburgh, where "the work was carried on
amidst much to discourage."
In 1876, he visited the United States. He often said the Lord never
got anything out of him except by squeezing. God squeezed him into
repentance, squeezed him into going into the Lord's work among the coal
miners, squeezed him out of the Free Church, and now squeezed him out
of Scotland into America. Upon his arrival, Ross evangelized in Boston,
New York and in country districts in Canada. In 1879, he moved his
family to Chicago. There he and three other men began to remember the
Lord in the breaking of bread in a tent, also used for evangelistic
purposes. That assembly grew so that several others in the Chicago area
hived off from it.
Caleb Jason Baker worked with Ross in planning the first Chicago
area Bible conference with Ross. Baker cautioned Ross about the expense
of the conference, but Ross was undaunted. Baker described Ross'
reaction: "'Oh,' he said, 'do it for God, man; do it for God.' 'Do you
mean,' I said, 'that you would not charge anything?' 'That is just what
I mean,' he replied. 'But,' I said, 'This would cost about $200 for the
four days.' His reply was, 'I never knew anything undertaken for God in
God's way, but He would look after the expense. Invite everyone to
come; let there be the regular collection at the breaking of bread, and
let each give as the Lord may lead.' This was somewhat startling to me,
and I said I would have to pray and think more about it before I could
decide. I did pray, and it seemed to me that it would be honoring to
God, and a great blessing to the poor of the flock...the expenses were
$199, but the collection was $204. Since then, all, or nearly all, of
the numerous conferences on this western continent have been run on
this plan, and always with the most satisfactory results."
While in Chicago, Ross started a tract depot in his own house,
keeping a stock of tracts, Bibles, and books for Christians. For some
twenty years he issued the monthly magazine, Our Record, and for a
number of years edited a gospel paper.
In 1887, he visited California with James Goodfellow to labor in San
Francisco and Oakland in tent meetings and home visitation. By the end
of that summer, fifteen were baptized and an assembly of thirty begun.
That October they held their first Annual Bible Conference. Donald
Munro often spoke at that conference, and during one visit had a direct
hand in leading to Christ a teenager named Henry Allan Ironside.
In 1894, Ross made Kansas City his base. From there his gospel
campaigns ranged in all directions. He wrote, edited periodicals, and
preached there until 1901 when he returned to Chicago, to be with his
son C. W. Ross.
Alexander Marshall described Ross "as essentially a gospel preacher.
He was more than a preacher and an exhorter. He was a laborer, and he
toiled for the perishing; at fairs and races, in tents and halls, in
barns and chapels, in music halls and theaters, in cottages and in the
open air, he sounded out the wondrous story." Ross was fearless. He led
by example. With his co-workers, Campbell, Gill, Marshall, Munro, and
Smith, they saw about 400 assemblies established in the US and Canada.
Ross moved to Savannah, GA, shortly before he was promoted to higher
service on February, 13, 1903. Near the end, he said: "I will be eighty
on the 11th February, and if I had other eighty before me I would spend
them in this gospel of God's grace. There is no other work of such
importance in the whole world. All other investments amount to nothing
compared with this."
Materials for this article taken from:
1. Hy. Pickering, Chief Men Among the Brethren, Loizeaux
2. C. W. Ross editor, Donald Ross, Gospel Tract Publ.
3. J. Ritchie editor, Donald Munro, GTP
4. J. Ritchie editor, James Campbell, GTP
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