Intelligent and popular, seventeen-year-old William Mackay was about to leave his home in Montrose, Scotland. The year was 1856 and William was due to begin medical studies in Edinburgh.
As she helped her son pack his belongings, his anxious mother slipped a parting gift into William’s trunk: a Bible.
Inscribing it carefully with both her son’s name and her own, Mrs Mackay added a verse of Scripture: a beacon to guide the young man through the maze of temptations and snares which might otherwise entangle a youth from a sheltered and godly home.
Quickly absorbed with his new surroundings and studies, William paid scant attention to his mother’s gift. Neglected, it lay among his belongings gradually gathering dust.
The friends he made were far different from the company he remembered from his childhood days. Unbelieving and cynical, they had little time for the truths and principles that William had been taught to respect.
Soon the young man cast aside any lingering pangs of conscience, and spurned the faith he had learnt at home. A tot of whisky became an invariable companion as William studied or socialised.
But gradually alcohol became his master, and his slim student finances could not stretch to indulge his craving.
In a half-drunken stupor he glanced round his room one day. What could he pawn to buy a little more whisky? His eye fell on the Bible.
Little used, it should fetch a good price and meet his present needs. Hardening his mind against any remembrance of the hand that had inscribed both his name and hers in its flyleaf, William Mackay took the Bible to the local pawn shop.
All thoughts of the Bible soon faded as William became engrossed with his work, his friends and his prospects. The years passed and eventually, despite his whisky addiction, the young man graduated with high honours in his medical studies, and eventually gained a prominent position in an Edinburgh hospital.
Now he openly disparaged the faith he had been taught in his youth. The God in whom his mother trusted became a subject for ridicule and unbelieving innuendo. More than this, Mackay became a leading member of a society known as the Infidel Club.
Rejection of God quickly led to rejection of the moral standards that his Word demands. William Mackay, yielding to the pressures of youth, became dissolute and profligate.
One aspect of his work, however, gave the young doctor unusual satisfaction, but not for the right reasons.
With no belief in God, he pitted his medical skill against man’s last enemy: death itself. Whenever, against all odds, he could drag a patient back from the very gates of death, he would revel in his conquest.
It proved, so he thought, that man can master his own destiny by his innate ability. Whenever he heard the rattle of a cart turning into the hospital gates, bringing yet another victim of some tragic accident, the adrenaline began to flow.
William Mackay gloried in a further opportunity to demonstrate his superior powers over the course of nature. Once more he would be the centre of an admiring circle of colleagues, all congratulating him on his incredible achievement.
Life or death
Again there was a flurry of activity in the hospital as a young man, critically injured probably in some industrial accident, was admitted to the hospital. The lower half of his body was horribly crushed: he could not have many hours to live.
William Mackay hurried to the scene – surely he was the right man to deal with such a situation. The victim was in desperate pain, but one thing startled the doctor.
He had observed the faces of many as they lay wracked with agony from multiple injuries. But there was a strange look on this man’s face – a serenity that defied explanation.
‘What’s the diagnosis, Doctor?’ asked the injured man.
‘Oh, I guess we will pull you through’, replied Mackay cheerily. ‘No, Doctor, I don’t want any guess. I want to know if it is life or death’.
Mackay looked at his patient with astonishment as he continued: ‘Just lay me down easy. Anywhere, Doctor. I am ready. I am not afraid to die. I trust in the precious shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. If I have to die, I know I am going to be with him. But I would like to know the truth; just what is my condition?’
Able to cope with most contingencies, William Mackay scarcely knew how to answer this calm-faced man. Then he said: ‘You have at the most three hours to live’.
‘Thank you, doctor’, replied the dying man quietly. Even the hardened and cynical medic was suddenly touched. ‘Is there anything special you would like us to do for you?’ he asked kindly.
‘In one of my pockets is a two-week’s pay packet’, replied his patient. ‘Please could someone take it at once to my landlady to pay for my lodgings. And, yes, there is one more thing. Could they ask her to send me the book?’
‘What book is that?’ asked the surprised doctor.
‘Oh, just the book’, the man replied. ‘She will know’.
As he carried on his duties around the hospital, William Mackay could not erase the sight of that calm face. Nor could he shut out the sound of those words, ‘I am ready, Doctor. Just lay me down easy. Anywhere. I am ready’.
Ready for death? This was a concept that Mackay had long since rejected from his code of life. Normally able to shrug off the most appalling scenes of human suffering, the doctor felt he must know what had happened to his patient. Did he get his book before he died?
Returning to the ward, he surprised the nurse in charge by asking after the casualty placed under her care. ‘He died a few minutes ago’, was her simple reply.
‘And did he get his book?’ enquired the doctor. ‘What was it? A bank book?’
‘Yes, he got his book’, assured the nurse. ‘It arrived shortly before he died. But no, it wasn’t his bank book. It is still there, under his pillow if you want to look at it.’
Reaching the dead man’s bedside, Dr Mackay felt under his pillow and pulled out the book. It was a Bible. It looked strangely familiar.
He opened it. And there on the flyleaf he was startled to read his own name, and the name of his mother, together with the Scripture text she had given him so long ago. This was the very Bible he had pawned for whisky as a student.
A man in debt
With shocked shame, Mackay put the Bible under his coat and hurried to his private office. Choking with emotion he fell on his knees and begged God to forgive his sins and have mercy upon him.
William Mackay was a man in debt – a debt to the unexpected mercy of God – a debt to the men and women of his generation. Shortly after this he gave up his medical career and entered the Christian ministry, accepting a pastorate in Hull.
With a zeal born of gratitude, and a desire to make good the wasted years, Mackay also travelled the length and breadth of the country, preaching the gospel he had once despised. Before his own premature death in 1885, he published acollection of his sermons in a book entitled Grace and Truth.
The messages breathed the same spirit that characterised his life from that moment onwards. These sermons were widely used by God. Grace and Truth would eventually run to at least fifty-eight editions and through it many others were drawn to the Saviour who alone can conquer the power of death.
Words of a hymn written by William Mackay, and still sung today, express his own gratitude to the saving mercy of God.
All glory and praise to the Lamb that was slain,
Who has borne all our sins and has cleansed every stain.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory, hallelujah we sing;
Hallelujah! Thine the glory, our praise now we bring!