James Alexander Macdonald

Macdonald’s presence exerted a moderating influence on the Globe’s response to the war.

James Alexander Macdonald, editor, Presbyterian minister, school principal, orator, social reformer, and author; b. 22 Jan. 1862 in East Williams Township, Upper Canada, son of John Alexander Macdonald, a farmer, and Jane Grant; m. 11 June 1890 Grace Lumsden Christian in Oil City, Ont., and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 14 May 1923 in Toronto.

James A. Macdonald traced his ancestry to Glen Urquhart in the Highlands of Scotland. His great-great-grandfather had survived the battle of Culloden in 1746, immigrated to North Carolina, and fought with his sons on the side of the British in the American revolution. The family subsequently moved to Pictou County, N.S., and then to East Williams. Gaelic was the first language for many in the community where Macdonald grew up. The congregation he attended was a Free Church that stayed out of the Presbyterian unions of 1861 and 1875 to remain true to the principle of Christ’s headship over both church and state. Throughout his youth Macdonald was nonetheless influenced by the Presbyterian tradition in southwestern Ontario that was closely allied with the political Liberalism of George Brown, Oliver Mowat, and the Toronto Globe.

Macdonald attended school in East Williams and the collegiate institutes in Hamilton and Toronto. In 1878 he entered the University of Toronto, where George Paxton Young, professor of mental and moral philosophy, made the greatest impression on him with his emphasis on critical thinking and Christian belief. From 1883 to 1887 he studied at Knox College in Toronto; its principal, William Caven, also had a lasting influence on Macdonald. In a period of theological turmoil, when men of learning were calling upon the church to prove the fundamental truths of Christianity, Macdonald found in him a mentor who accepted devout biblical criticism and cautious theological reformulation “without either undue elation or anxious fear.” He took from Caven’s teaching “a strong, positive, evangelical Christianity,” whose purpose was to engage the challenge of modern thought. Caven deepened for Macdonald the integration of social and political activism and Christianity that characterized the liberalism of Brown and Mowat.

Macdonald began his career in journalism at Knox. In 1885 he joined the editorial staff of the Knox College Monthly, established in 1883 to disseminate college news and debate the faith. Under Macdonald’s leadership until 1892, the Monthly greatly expanded its size, subscription list, and reputation. He discussed the most pressing questions of biblical and theological thought and modern research methods, and began to pay attention to missions in the Canadian west and overseas. He explored the application of Christian principles to the social problems that were emerging with immigration and urbanization. As well, he reviewed theological and devotional literature and commended those writers who defended traditional doctrines in new ways. After graduating in 1887 and winning the Fischer Scholarship in systematic theology, he continued to edit the Monthly and served as the college’s librarian.

Macdonald’s commitment to a progressive interpretation of evangelicalism was solidified on a visit in 1888–89 to Scotland, where he attracted the notice of newspapers in Edinburgh for his prowess in the pulpit and on the speaker’s platform. Old Testament scholar George Adam Smith, New Testament expert Marcus Dods, theologian Alexander Balmain Bruce, and natural scientist Henry Drummond were particularly influential on him, and their fight for progressive evangelicalism was followed closely in the Monthly and in Macdonald’s subsequent papers. Macdonald’s ardent Scottishness bolstered his interests. A member of the Gaelic Society of Toronto since 1887, he bemoaned the death of the language among ministers. In the Monthly in 1888 he had insisted that the preacher and the orator needed the “mystic element,” a feature he associated with his Celtic heritage. His friend Sir Robert Alexander Falconer would note in an obituary that “Celtic fire” marked his oratory. Alfred Gandier, a room-mate in Edinburgh and a close colleague while principal of Knox, said he had “the Highlander’s mysticism and his deep religious nature.”

In 1891 Macdonald was ordained and appointed to Knox Presbyterian Church in St Thomas, Ont. The following year he resigned from the Monthly, though he continued to write and edit. Most notably, he edited From far Formosa . . . (Toronto, 1896), the biography of missionary George Leslie Mackay. A serious student of preaching, Macdonald had claimed in the Monthly that the early preachers who took their bearings from the doctrine of the Atonement, such as the apostle Paul, Luther, and Calvin, were “the tide-marks of Christian progress.” Preaching combined “a sympathetic soul, the poet’s brooding spirit, [and] the prophet’s master-passion.” In St Thomas his reputation as a speaker grew. The venues for his oratory included congregations throughout the Anglo-American world, church and peace conferences, men’s organizations, business and professional associations, civic and service clubs, and universities. His topic, with a multitude of variations, was the Christianization of civilization. Christ’s love, standard of service, and goal of universal brotherhood, Macdonald would tell the Canadian National Missionary Congress of 1909, would redeem public life from “shoddy sentiment in public speech and from dishonesty in public office and from all forms of graft and malfeasance in public service . . . [and] from the pagan ideals that have made it sordid and mean.” Liberty, democracy, and internationalism would promote these ends. By the time of his death, Macdonald was reputed to have spoken to more people outside the dominion than any other Canadian of his generation.

In 1896 Macdonald returned to Toronto to become principal of the Presbyterian Ladies’ College (a position he would hold for five years) and, more significantly, edit the Westminster, a new Presbyterian monthly that sought to apply Christian principles to every dimension of life. Its publisher, the Westminster Company, was incorporated in 1897 under the presidency of Christopher Blackett Robinson, and by 1902 it had acquired and consolidated a number of smaller journals to create the weekly Presbyterian and to expand the Westminster. In his editorial work on both Macdonald displayed the moral optimism and belief in social renewal that he brought to all his efforts. His enthusiasm and related liberal sentiment are caught in his publication in Westminster in October 1897 of a poem by Presbyterian radical John Wilson Bengough, who saw in the newly elected Liberal prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the “ruling hand of God”

As the tribes of old beheld it
On the wide Egyptian plain,
Bringing gracious peace and union
Out of long-borne strife and pain.

The Westminster Company also began to publish popular fiction and devotional literature. Its most famous author was the Reverend Charles William Gordon of Winnipeg, a Knox classmate and co-editor with Macdonald of the Knox College Monthly in the 1880s. Macdonald encouraged Gordon to rework some of his earlier writings in the Monthly as fiction, to be published in the Westminster to promote the cause of missions in western Canada. The result was the early chapters of Black Rock: a tale of the Selkirks (Toronto, 1898), the first of Gordon’s several best-selling novels under the pen-name Ralph Connor. Its success, and his own writing, may have helped motivate Macdonald to join in the formation of the Canadian Authors’ Club in 1899. Another classmate and Monthly editor who came to work with him was the Reverend Robert Haddow; with western representative Malcolm McGregor, Haddow took over the direction of the Presbyterian and the Westminster when Macdonald accepted the invitation to become managing editor of the Globe on 1 Jan. 1903.

Macdonald’s move to Canada’s largest daily newspaper, and the Liberal party’s chief journal in Ontario, surprised many. The Globe’s board, chaired by owner Robert Jaffray and including Methodist layman Newton Wesley Rowell, felt that Macdonald would uphold the paper’s Liberal and evangelical traditions. In a final editorial in the Presbyterian, on 10 Jan. 1903, Macdonald insisted that the Globe was not simply “a party organ, but also a great paper, true in motive and purpose to the ethical principles and moral truths underlying all sound politics and high service.” One of his models as he moved into secular publishing was British journalist, social reformer, and peace activist William Thomas Stead. The Globe’s directors were undoubtedly aware of Macdonald’s own involvement in public affairs, most recently in support of Prohibition in the provincial referendum of December 1902.

The provincial Liberal government, in power since 1872, was led by an ageing George William Ross. Internal tensions and charges of corruption marked his administration as Macdonald assumed his editorial duties. On 9 Nov. 1903 Macdonald attacked the decay of the ship of state: “There is but one thing open to the Liberals of Ontario, and that thing is their first and most pressing duty. The barnacles on the ship must be treated with an iron hand.” Late in the election campaign that led to the defeat of the government in January 1905, Macdonald articulated his attitudes to party loyalty in another lead editorial. The Globe sought the public good, and supported those men and measures that served it best. These were found most frequently in the Liberal ranks, but the notion that the paper was obligated to support anything done by Liberal leaders was “offensive to every self-respecting newspaperman.” On the federal level, the issue that most strained the bonds of loyalty for Macdonald and the Globe was the Autonomy Bills of 1905 and their educational clauses. Laurier wanted to extend the right of Roman Catholics to separate schools in the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Macdonald and the Globe, speaking for many Ontario Protestants, stood on the Liberal doctrine of provincial rights and insisted that the new provinces should determine their own school policies. Macdonald’s zeal for public and political purity led to what journalist Hector Willoughby Charlesworth described as “slanderous invective,” which resulted in a string of libel suits from Conservative politicians attacked in the Globe. The most celebrated case, that of George Eulas Foster, the veteran mp accused in 1908 of pocketing profits illegally from business dealings, ended with Macdonald’s acquittal in 1910.

His tenure as editor (1903–15) was a period of intense activity and public engagement. He seemed to be constantly writing, speaking, and taking on new responsibilities. In journalism, he served as a director of the Canadian Associated Press and in 1909 he attended the Imperial Press Conference in Britain, where he was most struck by the unemployed and the destitute – the “human sediment” – of the large cities. Appointed in 1906 to the University of Toronto’s newly reorganized board of governors, he helped bring in Falconer as president in 1907; he received honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow (1909) and Edinburgh (1911), as well as Oberlin College in Ohio (1915). By 1912 he was a trustee of the Toronto General Hospital and a vice-president of the Toronto Conservatory of Music; he sat on the board of management of Knox College and the executive committee of the Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic. He also remained active in church affairs within his own denomination and throughout the ecumenical networks. He was a founding member of the Board of Moral and Social Reform of the Presbyterian Church in 1907. That same year, he and C. W. Gordon introduced the Presbyterian Brotherhood to Canada as a means of mobilizing laymen. The same motive prompted Macdonald’s involvement in the Laymen’s Missionary Movement. A strong supporter of church union since the 1880s, he used his papers to further that cause. Such broad engagement could not be sustained without criticism. Some contemporaries found him overbearing. The Methodist Christian Guardian wondered how a Prohibitionist could justify liquor advertising in the Globe. In 1913 Toronto meat packer Joseph Wesley Flavelle, whom Macdonald had once attacked as a monopolist, found in the reverend editor’s support for Laurier’s naval platform a transparently dishonest kind of partisan Christianity. Still, Macdonald’s position at the Globe, convincing oratory, and public involvement made him the most influential clergyman of his generation in Canadian life.

In 1911 the Ontario Liberal leadership had been assumed by N. W. Rowell, a supportive colleague of Macdonald in moral and social reform movements, the promotion of missions, and the church union debate. Rowell in turn enjoyed Macdonald’s backing in his reorganization of the Liberals, his stance on temperance, and his campaign in 1911 for reciprocity, an issue that split Toronto’s Liberals and cost Laurier re-election. Macdonald’s support ended with World War I. While Rowell moved to strengthen the war effort, Macdonald’s moderate pacifism led him to a hesitant support and a critical view of Britain’s role in encouraging militarism. His mild endorsement and peaceful rhetoric sprang from a need to preserve democratic tradition. “At bottom the war now involving all Europe and menacing the world,” he wrote in the Globe on 4 Aug. 1914, “is humanity’s own life struggle, the struggle for freedom, for national integrity, for free citizenship in a free democracy of the nations. It is the old struggle of the spirit of humanity, liberated and impassioned, against arrogant and privileged autocracy.” At the same time, Macdonald’s presence exerted a moderating influence on the Globe’s response to the war; his editorials that fall discouraged the fanning of anti-German sympathies among the dominion’s young people.

Macdonald left the Globe suddenly on 24 Nov. 1915, claiming he wanted freedom to pursue literary and other endeavours. His Democracy and the nations: a Canadian view had come out in Toronto that year; Canadian reviewers found his championship of American democracy “problematical.” His resignation, in fact, came at the end of a heated controversy in the Toronto papers over his participation in peace rallies in the United States and his ties with American leaders who opposed any involvement in the war effort. From 1911 he had been a director of the Boston-based World Peace Foundation, founded by publisher Edwin Ginn. Macdonald’s denunciation of “arrogant Imperialism” in Philadelphia in October 1914 was a typical tirade. His anti-war address in Detroit in April 1915 was met with the “spontaneous” gift of a motor car from automobile giant and anti-war activist Henry Ford. Macdonald’s acceptance of this present, his soft-pedalling in the Globe of Ford’s opposition to American support for the Allied war loan, and his continuing pacifism (at a time of growing war fervour in Canada), combined with discontent among Globe staff and directors over his inattention to business and frequent absences on speaking tours, led to a showdown with the board. Even advertisers were upset. Ford’s rival in the Canadian market, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company [see Robert McLaughlin], was stated by Globe reporter Melvin Ormond Hammond to have pulled its advertising until Macdonald was removed. When he resigned, there was evidently considerable satisfaction among the staff. “Most of them,” Hammond diarized, “dislike if not despise Macdonald for his shirking of work, as it appears to them, and for his hogging of the lime light.” Thomas Stewart Lyon, who had overseen day-to-day operations of the paper during most of Macdonald’s tenure, replaced him.

Macdonald continued to write for the Globe and other publications and speak on a regular basis, frequently in the United States, which would not enter the war until the spring of 1917. At the same time his wife, Grace, was an active participant in Red Cross work and a member of the Ontario Women’s Liberal Association, which in May 1917 passed a motion of no-confidence in the Conservative government’s conduct of the war. Macdonald’s growing conviction that German aggression had to be stopped did not prevent him from constantly emphasizing that the primary purpose of the war effort was to restore peace. He remained critical of the militarism and the jingoism on both sides. He saw peace emerging from a continental war effort. In a speech in New York in January 1916, he had urged such a unified response: “for North America not to rise to the tragic solemnity of the hour – that would be for this generation of Americans to renounce their Pilgrim fathers, to repudiate Washington, to prove unworthy of Montcalm and Wolfe.” In 1917 he delivered the Cole Lectures at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Published that year in Toronto as The North American idea, they expressed his mature thoughts on liberty, democracy, and international peace. He held up the relationship of Canada and the United States as an example of international neighbourliness. The North American “idea” was the right of a free people to govern themselves, and he urged Canadians to enlist and fight in its defence. Macdonald traced the origins of the idea to the Celtic strain in British, American, and Canadian life and found its most valuable quality in loyalty to oaths. Moral obligation in public life was the key issue in the fight against German autocracy and militarism, he argued, just as he had in editorials at the beginning of the war. The conflict had to be joined, he told his audience at Vanderbilt, but the motives had to be clear and pure. Prior to and throughout the war, he had reservations about the motives of Britain as well as Germany. Shortly after speaking at Vanderbilt, he experienced a series of physical and mental breakdowns, which forced his retirement.

Materialism and militarism, in Macdonald’s analysis, were the primary forces impeding the triumph of righteousness in public affairs. His sense of vocation in promoting this goal was shaped by a prophetic moral imagination and a Celtic spirituality. These influences led to his advocacy of a progressive Christianity as the solution to the world’s problems, but the war destroyed the underpinnings and credibility of his ideas. Macdonald’s breakdowns in 1917, which led to his death in 1923, resulted in part from the toll of his travels but also from his despair at the return of barbarism and the failure of his beloved vision of Christianizing civilization through liberty, democracy, and internationalism.

— Text by Brian J. Fraser, “MACDONALD, JAMES ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 27, 2015. For this article's bibliography and other related information, visit Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.