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MacGregor, James


Presbyterian minister, theologian

This biography, written by Ian Breward, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

James MacGregor was born on 6 January 1829 in Callander, in the Gaelic-speaking area of Perthshire, Scotland. He and his twin brother were the last of 10 children born to Duncan MacGregor, a builder, and his wife, Helen Macpherson. After attending the parish school, he was educated at the University of Edinburgh, completing an MA in 1851 and his theological course at New College, Edinburgh, in 1855. He then became assistant minister at Uddingston, near Glasgow. On 7 July 1857, at Callander, he married Grace Campbell Maclean. The same year he was called to the Free Church in Barry, Forfarshire, where, about 1861, he wrote Christian doctrine, a skilful popularisation of Calvinist theology.

In 1861 MacGregor became minister of the Free High Church, Paisley, where he was involved in controversy over sabbath observance with Dr Norman Macleod of Glasgow; he demonstrated theological abilities of a high order in his defence of classical Calvinism. In 1868 he was inducted to a theological chair at New College in Edinburgh, and in 1871 was awarded a DD by the university. His teaching was influential and between 1877 and 1881 he played an important part in defending Professor William Robertson Smith of Aberdeen, whose article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the Bible had drawn on recent continental scholarship.

The ill health of their children persuaded the MacGregors to emigrate to New Zealand, and they arrived on the Jessie Readman in 1881. James MacGregor became the first minister of Columba Presbyterian Church, Ōamaru, on 23 March 1882. He made a lasting impression throughout Otago because of his remarkable gifts. He had a rugged strength of personality and could be a formidable controversialist. Corresponding widely with overseas theologians, he played an important part in debates in internationally read journals, as well as writing frequently for local newspapers and religious periodicals. In addition to polemical tracts, he wrote a commentary on Exodus and a notable apologetical trilogy which enhanced his reputation internationally. For his family, he wrote poetry and droll letters.

MacGregor fought for a variety of conservative causes in the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland and in the columns of the New Zealand Presbyterian: he opposed union with the northern Presbyterian church, deplored attempts to weaken the authority of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and in his 1888 pamphlet, The day of salvation, led the attack on Professor William Salmond's The reign of grace. He was deeply interested in land reform and was very active in educational issues, wanting New Zealand's youth to have the same opportunities for education as he had had.

However, James MacGregor was not concerned exclusively with church affairs. The opening of Waitaki High School for boys in 1883 led the Otago Education Board to decide that the existing Ōamaru District High School would lose its secondary element. Access to secondary education for girls would thus be restricted; MacGregor campaigned against the new school for this reason, and because of its exclusive nature. In 1884 he was elected to the Otago Education Board which, in 1886, appointed him to the board of governors of Waitaki High School. He successfully petitioned Parliament for a commission of inquiry into secondary education in North Otago; the commission found in favour of the high school and MacGregor's campaign ended. Waitaki Girls' High School was established in 1887, and two of his daughters were later dux. MacGregor was also very active in the campaign for the introduction of the Bible into schools, for he believed that faith was the foundation for rationality.

MacGregor's work as a minister was hampered by the debt on the fine new Columba Presbyterian Church which was opened on 15 June 1883; it was to seat 800 but only 189 sittings were let. Ōamaru did not grow as expected, economic depression hit and in 1888 MacGregor's stipend was cut from £300 to £250. Nevertheless, he gathered a fiercely loyal congregation whose members were very active in the town's life. He could play very effectively on Scottish patriotism and was an active member of the Gaelic Society in Dunedin, yet was deeply committed to the British Empire as a divinely appointed agent for Christian civilisation. Like many Presbyterian ministers he combined conscientious commitment to Scripture with a willingness to support many liberal reforms, although he stopped short of socialism.

James MacGregor was, in his time, the best-known Presbyterian theologian in Australasia. After a stroke, he died in Ōamaru on 8 October 1894 and was buried there at a large funeral. He was survived by his wife, six daughters and a son.

How to cite this page:

Ian Breward. 'MacGregor, James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2m8/macgregor-james (accessed 2 June 2023)