A few blogs ago, Wendy Robicheau (Archivist, Acadia University) wrote about World War One military chaplains. At the end of her article, she called for more research and recognition of their good work. This blog post will give the reader a brief introduction to the life and words of one chaplain from the Atlantic region, John Howard MacDonald—known affectionately as “The Cardinal.”
Thanks to the good work of the late Roger H. Prentice, there is much we know about this important Baptist leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. MacDonald was born in Cape Breton on 12 February 1863. He would go on to become a member of the local Baptist church in the Margaree Valley. His education would eventually take him to the Annapolis Valley, where he studied at both Horton Academy and Acadia University. He was then ordained to the ministry on 6 August 1891 and would go on to serve several pastorates in the Atlantic region and beyond, including a lengthy tenure at the Fredericton Baptist Church (1901–1913).
In addition to pastoral ministry, MacDonald also used his gifts in the field of education (the Acadia Ladies’ Seminary and the Acadia School of Theology) and as the editor of the denominational newspaper, The Maritime Baptist. As MacDonald went about his work as the pastor of the Fredericton Baptist Church, he did what many pastors before him and after him have done: he become a militia chaplain, serving the men of the 71st York Regiment in Fredericton. I suspect that given this background with the military, it was no surprise that MacDonald decided to enlist as a chaplain not long after the outbreak of World War One. It is from this time in his life—his time on the front lines with the fighting men—that we have a record of what he saw and experienced.
Tucked away in the pages of The Maritime Baptist are a series of letters that MacDonald wrote from the front. There are at least fourteen of these letters, and there are also various other entries in the newspaper pertaining to his service as a chaplain overseas. In his first letter, which appeared in The Maritime Baptist on 13 October 1915, MacDonald writes about a service he led just prior to leaving England for France, a service that included communion, or the Lord’s Supper. His lines give the reader a glimpse of the work of the chaplain and how he was trying to make sense of the war. It is worth noting how MacDonald interprets the war through a spiritual lens:
At the parade service which I held Sunday before last there were no less than 2,000 men present and a more earnest and responsive audience could not be found. I brought to them a message on the subject of Hope and took a peculiar pleasure in pointing out that the only sure foundation of our hope, alike of salvation and of the ultimate issue of this and every other conflict was in Jesus Christ the unseen and determining Ally. At the close of the service no less than one hundred and ninety-four men remained to the communion service, nine of whom partook of the sacred emblems for the first time. It was the perfect September morning and never did I realize more the presence of Christ breathing forth His benediction or peace as those men were soon to go out to drink of His cup and tread with Him once more a new “via dolorosa.”
What a scene this would have been: thousands of men preparing to embark on a life-and-death journey, not knowing when or if they would ever return. And there, with the men, is the chaplain, doing what he can to give them hope. One additional item worth pointing out for the reader is this: in the quotation above, MacDonald mentions how he led in a communion service for the fighting men, and, amazingly, our own Acadia Archives contains MacDonald’s field service communion kit from his time overseas (pictured below). Now, this may not have been the one he used in the specific service he describes, but it is certainly a communion kit that would have seen service overseas in World War One.
Earlier in this letter, MacDonald states how he was originally “slated for a staff position in London…But a happy turn of the wheel at the last moment” saw him to the frontlines with the fighting men. After some time at the front, however, he was indeed put to work as a staff officer in London. By the war’s end, MacDonald had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (LCol), no small feat for a Baptist minister during that time. Upon his return to Canadian soil, he continued to take an active role in Atlantic Baptist life until his death on 23 June 1946.
MacDonald is an Atlantic Baptist leader whose name deserves to be better known, not least for his war-time service. And Wendy is right: the work of World War One military chaplains needs more research and recognition. More work could be done on MacDonald, which is an area I hope to contribute to by publishing all of MacDonald’s letters from the front, thus making them easily available for the interested reader. And finally, for the military chaplain who currently serves, like me, MacDonald serves as an historical example from whom lessons can be learned.
Captain Evan L. Colford
Chaplain, West Nova Scotia Regiment
For those interested in learning more, here is a link to the booklet ACBAS-Booklet-3-The-Cardinal-A-Chronicle-of-The-Revd-John-Howard-MacDOnald that Roger Prentice wrote on John Howard MacDonald. This is the source for the biographical information presented above, and it was through Roger’s work that I was introduced to MacDonald.