Alexander Mackay: The Childhood of a Missionary Engineer

by plenteousredemption
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Plenteous Redemption

Truth For Children: Young Alexander Mackay

Plenteous redemption

The “Dark Continent” has had no lack of Bible-believing missionaries since the inception of modern missions. Uganda, located in central Africa, dubbed “The Pearl of Africa” by H.M. Stanley when he arrived in the 1870s. In another article, we’ll examine a letter written by Stanley that greatly influenced the future of Uganda. The contents of this letter inspired Christians in England to send missionaries to Uganda to preach the gospel of Christ. One young man responded to Stanley’s letter, Alexander Mackay also known as God’s missionary engineer. Mackay proved to be a talented man full of potential and surrendered to the Lord’s control. He resolved from an early age to be both God’s missionary and engineer. Mackay did not separate career from service to God, he preferred reconciling the two for the Lord’s use. He ordered his life in such a way as to train to be both a missionary and an engineer. It’s my hope this article and the subsequent articles to follow will inspire young people in two ways. First, there still exists a great need for missionaries in East Africa, I hope to inform and stir young hearts to the reality of that need. Second, my hope is that young people will be encouraged to, from a very young age, dedicate their lives to become skillful artisans as well as trained missionaries. 


Rhynie of Aberdeenshire

Alexander Mackay was born October 13th, 1849 in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire of Scotland. Rhynie is a small village on the western border of Aberdeenshire. Alexander Mackay and a statue called “Rhynie Man” are the only claims to fame for this village. Aberdeenshire is a county in western Scotland, commonly called Aberdeen. This area is an agricultural lowland with dry climate along with an occasional harsh winter. Rhynie is small and quiet, but Aberdeenshire has a long and distinguished history. This would be the scene of Mackay’s early training and education.  

As young Alexander and his father passed through the village streets their surroundings became spontaneous teaching opportunities. Local plants and animals became subjects for science class. Young Mackay would learn by way of observation in the shops of the local merchants. Ministry was part of daily training as he followed his father, the local Free Church minister, around town. Alexander Mackay was an intelligent young man and Rhynie was his classroom.  


The son of a Free Church Minister

Alexander Mackay inherited the better attributes of his father, including his good name. Mackay’s father proved himself a highly capable and diligent man in all he set himself to accomplish. He was the beloved minister of Rhynie, this made a great impression on his son. Alexander Mackay Sr. was a Free Church pastor. The Free Church of Scotland was formed when a certain schism arose in the government-run Church of Scotland. This schism came to exist over debates concerning the relationship between the church and the state. The trouble was the state claimed the right to choose the ministers of local churches. Hundreds of men within the Church of Scotland held the idea their independence and separation from state influence was essential.  

The Free Church of Scotland formed when these men separated from the state-controlled churches of Scotland. Alexander Mackay Sr was the pastor of the Free Church of Scotland in the village Rhynie of Aberdeenshire. Pastor Mackay was a well-studied man, with keen insight he was able to manipulate the tough scientific questions of his day. His intelligence was notable, he frequently corresponded with great scientific minds of his day. His intellect and scholarly friendships didn’t hinder his ability to teach in a way children could understand. He became known for his ability to effectively express knowledge to young people. He was pleased to pass such knowledge and learning on to his intelligent young son. It seems parents in our modern age rely heavily on the services of others to teach their children. This reliance on others, or on devices of sorts, to teach children seems to have created generations of young people resentful of responsibility and comfortable with bondage. 

The father of young Alexander Mackay took this matter seriously, the education of his son was his personal responsibility. As a result, he diligently trained up his son in the way he should go. Young Mackay also took learning and preparation for life seriously, he was diligent to study. Often young people in America are encouraged to live useless and flippant lives for eighteen years, then suddenly they are expected to make adult decisions. Mackay and his father took spiritual and temporal development seriously. This brought about the production of a brilliant young mind dedicated to serving the Lord Jesus Christ. The time young Mackay’s father spent with him further inspired in him a desire to be both missionary and engineer. Each day of his young life was seen as an opportunity to prepare for the Master’s use. 


The desire of a mother’s heart

Alexander Mackay also grew under the admonition of a God-fearing mother. As his father diligently trained him, his mother faithfully prayed for him. Her earnest desire was for her son to grow up to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. The Mackay home was well balanced, he experienced the strength of his father and the affection of his mother. She encouraged him to shun the course of this world and stay clear of the prince of the power of the air. Tragedy struck when Mackay was fifteen years old, his mother suddenly passed. She left for Mackay a Bagster’s Bible along with her request that he spend life searching the scriptures and living its precepts. 

It’s believed his mother inspired the desire in him to be a missionary. During long harsh winter nights, she spent the evening with her children telling stories of William Carey, Robert Moffat, and David Livingstone. These missionary pioneers of Africa would become his heroes. Mackay was particularly fond of David Livingstone. This invaluable time with his father along with the encouragement of his mother greatly shaped the future of God’s missionary engineer. The loss of his mother was a painful event that did more to inspire Mackay than to discourage him. 


Ambitions of a missionary engineer

Mackay’s desire to learn carried over into his spiritual life. The bulk of his education was Bible-based, he was easily reading the Bible by the age of three. We, of course, consider this amazing, but this type of behavior is widely reported of young people growing up in the seventeen-hundreds and eighteen-hundreds. I wonder if this is attainable today? What would become of children if they were challenged to reach their full potential? The children of the past who accomplished such feats had parents intimately involved in their lives establishing high expectations of them. Modern parenting and philosophies encourage young people to think highly of themselves without accomplishing anything to merit such high thought. It’s my hope this article along with its follow up topics will encourage parents to embolden their children to be diligent in spiritual and temporal matters. 

Considering the King James Bible is written at the comprehension level of a fourth-grade child in the sixteen hundreds, Mackay didn’t stop there. By age seven he was reading complex books such as “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Paradise Lost.” Taking his brilliant young mind into account, how far could children today go if proper support was in place? The future desperately needs parents willing to train up children in the way they should go. 

Mackay was highly interested in books, he read incessantly. While his friends lived the typical child’s life of play and frolic he would study and read. When not reading, he could be found at the printer’s shop learning to operate printing machinery. Mackay could also be found at the blacksmith’s learning the fundamentals of engineering. He would frequent the joiners shop learning to shape wood into furniture. All the study did not stifle his love for the outdoors, he enjoyed riding horseback, gardening and outdoor life in general. Rather than playing, he was encouraged to enjoy learning and personal development. He would walk with his father daily to the village church where he learned much about service to Christ. Such diligent concern in his younger years prepared him for the difficult ministry to come in Buganda, Africa. 

Mackay’s father was his teacher until he was about fourteen years old. He came to the realization that his son’s ability to learn had surpassed his ability to teach him. In order to continue to challenge him and keep his young mind engaged, he was enrolled in the Aberdeen Grammar school. While in school, as expected, he excelled in his studies. Furthermore, in keeping with the diligence he learned at home, he took up shipbuilding and photography in his spare time. The pattern of his learning through life developed in him a passion for engineering and missionary service. He was faithful to develop both disciplines, determined to become an expert in each respectively. The idea of combining the two fields, a missionary that could use the skills of an engineer, began to consume his thoughts.  

When the Free Church of Scotland at Rhynie began work on a new building, Mackay could be found laying brick with the masons. He arrived to work with them, they would ask him for a sermon before he began. Mackay responded by grabbing a trowel and preaching his sermons while laying brick. It may seem his childhood was stifling and laborious, but his early training prepared him for a godly life of great responsibility. He was a happy and sociable young man that greatly benefited later in life from the high demands placed upon his early life. Mackay would go on to face great challenges in Africa, it seems that to whom much is given, much is expected. 

More articles about the life of God’s missionary engineer will be made available soon.   

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