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An "Ordinary" Church Member

Christian biographies tend to focus on missionaries, ministers and others who have played prominent roles. A partial exception is Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by Don Carson. Carson is a prominent author and conference speaker – but his father wasn’t. Tom Carson was simply an ordinary minister who none of us would have heard of his more famous son hadn’t written his biography.

Yet if a book entitled Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is unusual, books containing the memoirs of ordinary church members must be rare indeed. (The exception might be if they end up being killed for their faith. But what about folk who have served away for decades in some hidden corner of God's kingdom?). Being a missionary or minister doesn’t make anyone more valuable in God’s sight, and so surely it is right to also celebrate those who have played less upfront roles.

What the storm brought to light

Given that background, I was delighted recently to be given an insight into the life of an ordinary church member from my own congregation who lived two hundred years ago.

The information came to light in January after Storm Isha blew the roof off a garage belonging to a descendant of John Milroy (1770-1847). Milroy was an ancestor of the Scottish Rugby captain Eric Milroy, who was killed in action during WWI. John himself however was simply, according to his obituary, ‘late tenant, Freugh, Stoneykirk’.

That obituary appeared in the Galloway Advertiser and Wigtownshire Free Press of 13th January, 1848. There is also a transcript of a letter which he wrote from ‘Clayhole, Stranraer’ to his daughter and son who had emigrated to Ontario.

The Grace of God that was in him

His obituary described him as ‘a man distinguished for moral courage and decision, for sincerity, uprightness, generosity and a deep-rooted aversion to anything bad in principle, or mean or dishonourable in conduct’.

We also read that: ‘He was also distinguished for the strict observance of the duties of family instruction and worship, for the great interest he took in the weekly prayer meetings, and for the undeviating regularity of his attendance on the public ordinances of religion’.

Milroy may not have been called to ‘full time gospel work’ (a dubious phrase in itself), but he was an encourager and financial supporter of those who were. ‘By his private and public conduct he proved himself to be the warm and generous friend of the faithful ministers and missionaries of the church, and of the efficient maintenance and diffusion of the gospel at home and abroad’.

When he died, he had been a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Stranraer for around 60 years, and for the furtherance of its principles and interests ‘he made no small sacrifices’. In his surviving letter, written in 1847, he expressed concern that the congregation had only had a few members added in the previous six months.

He was, however, encouraged that the congregation had reduced the debt owed on their new church building and manse from £920 to £280. His obituary noted that the day before his illness began had been devoted to a scheme he had organised to see the remaining debt paid off, to which he himself contributed £60.

He knew what it was to sacrificially support the spread of the gospel in his own community and farther afield.

In his letter of 5th June 1847, John Milroy told his children: ‘My days is near a close: I feel myself done’. Six months later he was dead, and is long forgotten even in the congregation to which he contributed so much. 

An unworthy servant now enjoying his reward

The Christian does not live for adulation on earth. For a start, no matter how glowing our obituaries may be, we (and those closest to us!) know that we’re far from perfect. Our hope is not that our lives will have earned us God’s favour; I’m sure John Milroy would have been the first to testify of his reliance for salvation on Jesus Christ alone. The most we can do is simply what was our duty to do – we are ‘unworthy servants’ (Luke 17:10). And yet Jesus also promises that we will not lose our reward (Mark 9:41).

I for one am thankful that God has brought to light the life of this, in one sense very ordinary, ‘Clayholer’. May his example be an encouragement and a challenge to many. It’s hard to overestimate the impact it would have on church and community if, by God’s grace, we had more people like John Milroy today.

Originally published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 28th March 2024.

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

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