Through my series of articles on pandemics it has made me realize more than ever that we are overlooking and forgetting some of our greatest Canadian heroes. I want this article directed toward them, hopefully to stir some interest in us to remember and realize why we live in such a rich, blessed country. We have a long list of forefathers who helped settle this country, who lived according to an important biblical principle. This principle is from two verses in the New Testament: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3). “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).
These verses teach a principle of self-sacrifice for the good of others. People who came and settled our country 150 to 200 years ago were that kind of people. They believed strongly in this principle of self-sacrifice. The Christian life is about sacrifice and, with study about Canadian history, you quickly realize that many who came to the western parts of Canada did so because they purposed to lay their life on the line for their Saviour and for others.
This principle of self-sacrifice was taught during what is known as the Last Supper or Passover Super where Jesus was teaching the men who were going to take over from him when he was gone. There were only eleven men because that very night one showed his true colours and left the supper with a subtle agenda to betray his master and cash in for himself. This was the traitor, Judas. It’s interesting that many parents give their children names like John, James, Peter, Andrew, Philip, but I don’t know any boys with the name Judas. From that day of betrayal his name was cursed. Judas committed suicide when he realized the enormity of what he had done. Jesus sadly said, “It would be better for this person had he never been born.”
Jesus urgently taught this principle to this group of future eleven preacher missionaries, who were going to carry on what he had started, because he knew he was going to be murdered the next day. The dark cloud of Calvary hung over him. These eleven men did not know until some 24 hours later when it was demonstrated at the cross what laying your life down really would mean. Jesus told them it was going to take sacrifice and hard work for them to do what he was calling them to do. It still does! It requires laying your life on the line. That night eleven men took the baton and, eventually, every one of them paid the ultimate price of laying down their lives. Every one of them died as martyrs, carrying out the commission of sacrifice for the good of others, of which we, 2000 years later, still reap the benefits. John was the only one of the eleven who probably died a natural death in a prison on the Greek prison island of Patmos.
Over the last 2000 years, the baton of gospel responsibility from that upper room lesson has been passed from generation to generation to hundreds of thousands of men and women who have given their lives in sacrifice for the Christian calling of laying down their life. The sacrificial life of service is the very foundational principle that makes our country special and the envy of the world. It was not just preachers and missionaries but teachers, politicians, university professors, soldiers, RCMP officers and community leaders who saw their post in life as a calling from the great Master Teacher, Jesus, who laid down his life for the good of others. It was this very principle and example of sacrificial living that caused thousands of soldiers to die in other lands defending our freedoms from tyrants over the last century and a half. The outcome of men and women living this principle has freed slaves, built free countries filled with churches from coast to coast. These churches preach a free salvation purchased by the Saviour himself on the cross the day after he told his faithful eleven, “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” Christ, by laying down his life, provided for us an opportunity to receive a salvation by grace through faith. Every principle he taught he lived out as an example. He did not have to lay down his life but because of his great love for us he did it. It was the only way to purchase a salvation for a lost, condemned world of sinners like we all are. I finally realized this amazing truth at 21 years of age when I heard Billy Graham preach a gospel message that brought me to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour. I vaguely knew before that he was known as the Saviour of mankind but, that night in 1977, he became my personal Saviour. I was born again that night and have never been the same since. In order to see or experience the kingdom of God, we’re told in John 3:3-7, we must be born again.
There is one man who, in my opinion, is a hero of Prince Albert. Sadly, he does not receive just recognition for all that he and his wife did for the beginning of our city and community. He is the man who started the settlement of Prince Albert: Rev. James Nesbit. It is an honour for our present church to carry on the gospel legacy that he initiated in 1866 in our city in the church that he started. He and his wife Mary arrived in Prince Albert after a gruelling six-week trip by ox cart from Winnipeg (Fort Garry), which was the closest settlement of any size. His large portrait still graces the back of our auditorium along with Lucy Baker who came to teach in Prince Albert in 1879. The portrait of Rev James Nesbit reminds me so much of the portraits I’ve seen of Abraham Lincoln. These two men have very similar features, probably because they both lived according to the principle of “giving and sacrificing for others.”
Nesbit and his small group came to a place on the shore of the North Saskatchewan River and decided this would be the place to start a mission to bring the gospel to the native populations. A log builder by trade, he first built a small building out of logs. This shelter for him and his wife later became a schoolhouse and church building. It is very sad that the city of Prince Albert has decided to no longer have this building in Kinsmen Park. The Nesbits’ ministry in our area only lasted fifteen years but they were very busy years. Within a few years of his arrival, James Nesbit was bombarded with the deadliest plague of smallpox that ever affected the northwest. He ministered to and buried many First Nation’s people. His diary reveals that he shared the gospel of salvation to many and led many to faith in the Saviour before they died. Rev. Nesbit also was able to obtain smallpox vaccine kits that saved many lives, which won him the respect of the Cree people in the area. He, with the help of Mr. Mackay, also started a church in what is now Mistawasis Reserve. This church exists to this day.
The workload this couple carried day after day was astronomical. They cared for the sick and the dying and worked to provide buildings to house people needing help. They carried this burden basically alone. They pled for help from the churches in the East but no help came until 1779 when Lucy Baker was sent out two years before the Nesbits would both die. In 1881, with Mrs. Nesbit suffering a lingering sickness, Rev. Nesbit decided they needed to make the long trek by oxcart to Fort Garry for medical help for his wife. At the end of this trip, in Fort Garry, Mrs. Nesbit died. Eleven days later Mr. Nesbit died. They were both buried there but their legacy lives on. They demonstrated to all of us that “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” These early missionary preachers gave their all. Mr. and Mrs. Nesbit are just two of many who have similar stories of sacrifice and service to their fellow man, and to Jesus Christ, who gave us the perfect example that we should follow.
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