John Duncan Missionary to the Hungarian Jews

John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan died, on February 26, 1870. He was not really a rabbi, but such was the nickname by which he became known.

John Duncan was born to humble, pious parents, in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1796, his father, John, being a shoemaker. Young John was the only child of his parents to survive infancy. He was a sickly child and a bout of smallpox rendered him permanently blind in one eye. His biographer describes him as “a delicate, dreamy, clever, engaging, affectionate, high-spirited and occasionally passionate boy, sometimes crying bitterly under the severity of paternal discipline, sometimes abruptly laughing aloud at the brightness, or at the humour, of his own hidden thoughts”.

Duncan spent time in atheism, despite the faith of his parents. The cogent reasoning and prayers to the “Great King” by his lecturer, Dr Mearns, gave Duncan a logical acceptance of the existence of God.

Trained for the Presbyterian ministry, and licensed to preach on June 24, 1825, it was not until the following year that he was genuinely converted, due to the personal work of Rev Dr Caesar Malan of Geneva, who visited Aberdeen on an evangelistic tour. Duncan was at that time in a state of mental depression.

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In 1828 Duncan enjoyed an additional spiritual touch on his life, which he referred to as his “second conversion”, due to its profound impact. He had become stale in his faith and struggled with that until he came again to strong conviction and soundness of belief.

In 1830 he was given 10 months as minister at the Chapel of Persie, from which his reputation as a profound, deeply-taught preacher of God’s Word began to spread. Thus he was given the post of English Assistant to the Rev Robert Clark of the Duke Street Gaelic Chapel with the duty of leading an English-speaking congregation on Sunday afternoons. And from there he was promoted to his own church, Milton Parish Church, which was built for him through a Church Building Association which had started in Glasgow.

Duncan married Janet Tower, of Aberdeen, in 1837, and she proved a valuable helpmate. However, just over two years later she died in 1840, following the premature birth of their child.

There was great interest in Scotland at that time for the winning of Jews to Christ. Duncan was strongly motivated in that direction and so, after about a decade of ministry in Glasgow, Duncan was selected to mount an evangelistic endeavour to the Jews in Budapest, Hungary. He attended to that task in the years 1841-42, ably assisted by his second wife. The Archduchess of Hungary had long been praying for the help of a man of God in her city, so was delighted to have Duncan at his work.

This was the most fruitful and happy season of Duncan’s life and ministry. Duncan’s excellent knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, customs and beliefs fascinated the Jewish community and gave him ready access to them. Among his converts were Alfred Edersheim and Adolph Saphir; both of whom became outstanding Presbyterian theologians.

Duncan later became Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages in New College, Edinburgh. Previously, in 1839, he had applied for the post of Dean of the Hebrew Chair of the University of Glasgow, but was unsuccessful. Dr Duncan occupied this chair for twenty-seven years from 1843 till his death in 1870.

“His students did not get much Hebrew instruction, but they were inspired by his spirit, so eminently godly” (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia, page 673).

Biographer A. Moody-Stuart tells of Duncan’s strong Calvinistic views – “his aversion to Arminianism was intense” (page 192).

And the rather quaint story is told of his second marriage. Some years following the death of his first wife, Duncan married a widow named Mrs Torrance. But it nearly misfired. When the cab arrived to take him to the wedding, he was not to be found. “His niece found him in bed sound asleep with a Hebrew book in his hand” (Moody-Stuart, page 118).

And another story of his eccentricities (of which there are many) is that when asked if he would like another cup of tea – “having drained his cup 14 times, he replied, ‘No, thank you, I never take more than two cups of tea’” (page 117).

His strength waned in his later years and in January, 1870 his heart weakness significantly reduced his strength. From that time he ceased to attend the College. He passed away peacefully on the morning of February 26.

On his deathbed he said to his biographer, “I have been at the point of death. But I found that the one great mysterious death of Calvary was all I needed” (page 151).

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at:

The Cambuslang Revival Comes in Response to Prayer

The Cambuslang Revival commenced on the outskirts of Glasgow, February 15, in the year 1742.

“On Monday, 15 February, and again on Tuesday and Wednesday, a band of intercessors gathered at the manse,” writes John Shearer in his exciting book Old Time Revivals (page 33). The minister of the Parish Church was Rev William McCulloch. There had already been a touch of revival in the area the year previous, when George Whitefield came a-preaching in Glasgow. But now it broke out afresh under this humble, godly minister.

“For 12 weeks he preached daily to stricken people. The life of the community was transformed. Drunkenness and blasphemy ceased. Faults were confessed … restitution was eagerly made. Family worship was revived” (page 34).

And it all began with “a band of intercessors …”

“If My people, which are called by My Name, shall humble themselves, and pray…” (II Chronicles 7:14).

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In the 1740’s Cambuslang was a farming, mining and weaving community 5 miles south west of Glasgow. The faithful parish minister, William McCulloch, was of no special quality, but he earnestly desired to see his people come to genuine faith. Upon hearing of the George Whitefield revivals in America he began to preach gospel messages about what it is to be saved. This awakened the congregation to spiritual concerns.

A prayer movement of sorts was spreading through Britain and McCulloch authorised special prayer meetings in the parish, but only for those who were approved by the sincerity and consistency of their commitment. He was afraid of emotion and sensationalism, teaching his congregation to maintain decency in all matters, especially within the church.

As the fervour of the congregation rose, so too did the fervour of McCulloch’s preaching, until on Sunday February 14, 1742 a woman came under extreme conviction in the morning meeting. She was carried to the parsonage and there McCulloch answered her anguished cries of despair with promises from the Bible. McCulloch kept the event as orderly as possible by having those gathered at the parsonage sing psalms from time to time to settle the atmosphere. Note that psalms were the only approved songs for singing in Presbyterian churches. At the end of an extended and exhausting time of despair, exhortation and response the woman came to a glorious conviction of salvation.

That woman’s conversion popped the cork on the revival that had been brewing for many months and which had been bathed in earnest prayer. Word spread like wild-fire and crowds were drawn from far and wide. Ministers were called in to meet the needs of the ever growing crowds. Tents were erected near a spacious natural amphitheatre close to the church, as well as in the church yard and a nearby field.

McCulloch called upon George Whitefield to come and preach and when he arrived Whitefield declared that this was the most profound expression of revival he had seen anywhere in the world.

Over the previous century a tradition of special outdoor meetings focused on the Lord’s Table had been built up. Sacramental gatherings would run for four days or so and culminate in the serving of communion to the believers. Revivals had previously been associated with such events. McCulloch called for two such sacramental events in the months that followed. The second such gathering brought together over 30,000 people, some say as many as 50,000.

Hundreds were saved, piety and transformation was abundantly evident and uncontrolled weeping was widespread, despite the calls for decorum. This was the highlight of Scottish revivalism.

Opponents, mostly those of Deist persuasion, who did not believe in a present God who touched the hearts and lives of men, accused the revival of shallow emotionalism and ignorant sentimentality. And though the revival fires and the sacramental gatherings spread to other communities and touched many more lives, the revival was effectively doused by its opposition. Shortly thereafter the rising tide of reformed thinking extinguished the revivalist elements within the Scottish Presbyterian church.

But Cambuslang still stands as testimony to what can happen when humble souls preach the true gospel and willing hearts pray for revival.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: