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Streams of Water in the North

The Presbyterian Reformed Church begins at the confluence of two streams. Usually, it is thought of as the coming together of two congregations, Chesley and Bloor Street, but that leaves Lochalsh out of the equation; and to leave out Lochalsh is to leave out much of what makes the PRC what it is. There is a third stream, a prior fork, the flow of which is at least as strong as the others.

1. The Highland Fork

This third stream has its origin in

the 1844 Synod of the (Free) Presbyterian Church of Canada: the Canadian body in connection with the Free Church of Scotland. Because of that connection, it was popularly known as either the Free Church of Canada or the Free Presbyterian Church of Canada. In 1861, this Church joined with the United Presbyterian Church in Canada to form the Canada Presbyterian Church. And then, in 1875, the Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces, the Synod of the Maritime Provinces, the Presbyterian Church of Canada in Connection with the Church of Scotland, and the Canada Presbyterian Church united to form the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

This third stream is made of those who remained out of these unions. They are the Revs Lachlan Macpherson of East Williams, John Ross of Brucefield, and Robert D. Mackay, together with those who adhered to them. Macpherson stayed out of the 1861 union. Ross and Mackay, although not happy with the terms of that union, did go in, but remained out in 1875. The issue at stake in 1861 was the Establishment Principle. In 1875, the issues were the Headship of Christ over the church and innovations in public worship.

The Free Church of Scotland held to the Establishment Principle and the United Presbyterians in Scotland were Voluntaries. The Canadians shared the principles of their parent bodies. So, someone had to give. In the terms of union, there was a positive statement to satisfy the Free Kirkers and in the preamble to the terms there was an equal and opposite exception allowed to satisfy the Seceders. The effective removal of the principle from the testimony of the Church was sufficient for Macpherson to be unable to enter the union at that time. He was persuaded to join later, but he was not destined to stay.

The defining Free Church principle was the Headship of Christ over His church. That principle was excluded from the 1875 terms of union as a condition of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland taking part. There was also included in the list of terms one which allowed congregations which used musical instruments and hymns prior to the union to continue their use. These were things with which Macpherson, Ross, and Mackay could not agree. So, they, along with their ruling elders, dissented and did not enter the union.

There is something remarkable about the separation of these men. It brought little or no rancour. In their interaction with their friends who went into the unions, nothing much seems to have changed. There was, however, a growing isolation as these relationships were dissolved by death, and a new generation of ministers who had no patience with denominational distinctives took the place of old friends.

From 1875 until their respective deaths in 1886 and 1887, Macpherson and Ross maintained their separate witness, preaching in Gaelic and English to scattered groups throughout Midwestern Ontario. For a time, they had the help of the Rev. Daniel Allan; and, after the death of Lachlan Macpherson, Robert Mackay took over the work at East Williams, where he laboured until about 1897. For a short time in the early 1890s, the East Williams congregation was associated with the Pittsburgh and Ontario Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery, a breakaway from the New Light Reformed Presbyterians which was led by the Rev. Nevin Woodside; however, before Mackay left at the age of 90, it was back in the old paths. After the death of John Ross, the other groups carried on without a regular ministry until George Forrest, Ross’s elder and one of the 1875 dissenters, contacted the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1896.

In 1893, events in Scotland opened the possibility of these groups finding an ecclesiastical home and ministerial supply. From the 1860s, the subject of union was in the minds of the Presbyterian denominations in Scotland as well as in Canada. The Free Church of Scotland and most of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland united in 1876. Inspired by this success, the talks between the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which foundered in the 1860s, were taken up again. As union plans developed, it became clear that the Free Church would have to slacken its commitment to the Westminster Confession of Faith. This was achieved when the Declaratory Act was passed in 1892. In protest, two ministers and several divinity students left the Free Church the following year and formed the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Seeing an affinity between the experience of Macpherson and Ross and that of the Free Presbyterians, Forrest began a correspondence in 1896 which resulted in a 1901 petition from the Canadians for a minister to visit them for the following summer. Their request was granted, and the Free Presbyterian Synod sent out Rev. Neil Cameron, the first of many deputies to visit under the auspices of its Canadian Mission Committee. The deputies met with groups in Brucefield, Newton, East Williams, Lochalsh (Ashfield), North Line of Kincardine, and Egmondville (Seaforth). In 1912, the Associate Presbyterian Church congregation in Chesley petitioned to be received into the Synod and was accepted. All were united to form the Ontario Congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Their first minister was the Rev. Walter Scott who was with them from 1912 until his death four years later.

Although Gaelic is no longer the language of any PRC pulpit, these Highland immigrants with their Disruption Principles have left their mark on the denomination.

2. The Lowland Fork

The second branch of the previous fork is Chesley. This story begins in Lanark County, Upper Canada, in the 1820s.

In the years following the War of 1812, many Scottish immigrants came into what is now Ontario and settled slightly west of where Ottawa now is. Ecclesiastically, they looked for help from home. In 1817, the Rev. William Bell went out from the New Light Burger branch of the Secession Churches; the Rev. John Gemmill went out from the London Missionary Society in 1821; and in 1822, the Rev. George Buchanan of the Relief Church began his ministry among them. However, as both the New Light Burgers and the Relief Church allowed hymns in public worship and this became an issue among the people in the later 1820s.

A small group of Reformed Presbyterians also immigrated to the area. In 1828, the Rev. James Milligan visited from the United States and preached to them. While it was Covenanter ministers from the States who organised them into a congregation, it was to Scotland that they looked for a minister. However, about the same time as the Rev. James McLachlane arrived from Scotland in the summer of 1833, the Covenanter Church in America divided almost equally into Old Light and New Light Synods. As a result of the split, the congregation lost most of its members and its connections. So, McLachlane had to reorganise the congregation under the care of the Scottish Synod; and to this congregation came those who had been dissatisfied with the direction that the Seceder groups had been taking in worship practice and denominational affiliation. Among them were the Halliday, Dobie, and Elliot families.

In the early 1850s, members of those families moved from Lanark County to Grey County and opened mills and other stores on the North Fork of Saugeen River. Adam Elliot also took up a land grant further down the river in the adjacent county of Bruce.

The newcomers seem to have found a home in the existing Presbyterian Churches in Grey County until the union of 1861. At that time, they, and another extended family, the Rammages, stayed out and were soon visited by representatives of the Old Light Reformed Presbyterian Church. Nothing was settled until the Rev. Thomas Hannah visited in 1872. He had been in the Old Light Reformed Presbyterian Church but had left at the time of their Covenant Renewal in 1871. He and the people petitioned the United Presbyterian Church of North America to be organised as a congregation of that denomination.

The congregation was erected in 1872 and in 1875 moved its centre to the site in Bruce County which would become the town of Chesley. This was a period of difficulties. For a time, the congregation grew, but it was vacant from 1879 when the pastoral tie of the Rev. William Finlay was dissolved. In 1882, Adam Elliot opposed the moves in the United Presbyterian Church to allow the introduction of musical instruments in public worship. Then in 1884, there was a dispute over family secular matters which divided the Session and which resulted in the congregation being dropped from the roll of the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1886.

During the vacancy, the Rev. J. C. K. Faris of the Old Light Reformed Presbyterian Church visited for some months in 1885. However, the congregation was unwilling to follow him because of his insistence that it adopt the Reformed Presbyterian position on political dissent.

A year later, the Rev. S. H. McNeel of the Associate Presbyterian Church in North America visited in response to a request made to the Associate Presbyterian Synod, but no action came out of the interaction at that time.

In the same year, 1886, the Rev. G. P. Raitt of the United Presbyterian Church came to Chesley for two years. During his stay, he was able to restore the congregation to fellowship in the Church. However, in 1889, the congregation petitioned the Associate Presbyterian Church in North America to join it, citing declension in worship practice in the United Presbyterian Church as its reason for wishing to change affiliation.

The Rev. S. H. McNeel came to Chesley in 1890. During his ministry, the congregation took part in both Presbytery and Synod. The Associate Presbyterian Synod met at Chesley in 1892 and 1899. Also, in this period, several people joined the congregation from the Presbyterian Church in Canada over changes in worship practice there. A new church building was erected in 1904. Alas, this time of prosperity ended with McNeel’s sudden death in 1907.

In the wake of the bereavement, the congregation received regular supply and extended several calls. The calls were declined, and the supply became less frequent until, in the year following the 1911 Synod, the congregation had only six days of pulpit supply.

In 1912, the Associate Presbyterian Church congregation in Chesley petitioned to be received into the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and was accepted. It was united with the old Free Church groups in midwestern Ontario to form the Ontario Congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The first minister was the Rev. Walter Scott who was with them from 1912 until his death four years later.

Details of the ecclesiastical and ecclesiological distinctives owned by the people who would and did make up the Chesley congregation are difficult to discern. They seem to have been happiest among those whose lines can be drawn from the Secession of 1733. The principle on which they would not move was purity of worship: they would not countenance the inclusion of uninspired materials of praise nor the use of musical instruments in public worship.

3. The Ulster Fork

Sometime around 1880, several members of the Presbyterian Church in Canada formed an organisation called The Toronto Presbyterian Church Defence Committee. Its 1881 declaration of principles lists among its concerns the introduction of musical instruments, non-scriptural hymns, choirs, and the practice of sitting to pray to public worship.

In 1880, trouble arose in Cooke’s Church, Toronto, a congregation of people from the north of Ireland. A small group of protesters physically removed the organ from the basement choir room. As a result of their action, not only were they suspended from the Sacraments by the Session, but the local magistrate imposed on them a penalty of a $50 fine or 20 days in gaol. This led to a division in the congregation; and those sympathetic to the protesters were formed into the Carleton Street Presbyterian Church within the Toronto Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

For five months around the turn of 1881, the congregation had supply from a licentiate of the New Light Reformed Presbyterians named David Murdock. However, after his departure, things declined until, in March 1886, the congregation was formally dissolved by the Presbytery and the church property was sold to some of the congregation who began looking for another denomination with which to affiliate. They approached the Rev. Nevin Woodside who, in 1880, had left the New Light Reformed Presbyterians over a disputed call to a congregation in Pittsburgh and then, in 1883, had formed a presbytery with another minister. On the 3rd of August 1886, the Toronto group was constituted as the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Toronto and the presbytery became the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and Ontario.

The Rev. David Mann was with the Toronto congregation for a year, followed by Rev. Andrew Thomas who stayed for about the same length of time. Its next minister, the Rev. Stuart Acheson, came in 1889 and was with them until 1894.

During his time in Toronto, Acheson met, in 1891, with a few families from Teeswater, in Midwestern Ontario, who had left the Presbyterian Church in Canada over the introduction of hymns and organs. These families were joined by William Elliot from Chesley who had been a member of the Toronto congregation since 1890. Together they were constituted a congregation of the Presbytery.

Acheson also approached the Old Light Reformed Presbyterians in Toronto with a view to a local union. Even though the Old Light group had had no success in maintaining a viable congregation, the talks failed.

The new Teeswater congregation called the Rev. H. W. Reed. He was one of the ministers deposed by the Old Light Reformed Presbyterian Synod for his part in the attempted merger with the New Light Reformed Presbyterians known as the East End Meeting and Platform. He brought with him some of his Old Light positions, one of which was to ban the use of wine in communion. At this, William Elliot withdrew from the congregation until Reed left in 1898.

In 1892, some families from Ripley, about sixteen miles from Teeswater, left their local Presbyterian Church over worship changes and asked to be made a congregation of the Presbytery. Their petition was granted, yet the congregation was effectively a preaching station of Teeswater and eventually merged with it two or three years later.

Reed’s departure in 1898 shook the congregation and brought division. A minority struggled on until the early 1920s when the Toronto congregation was no longer able to send out even occasional supply.

For a short time in the early 1890s, the congregation at East Williams, of which the late Rev. Lachlan Macpherson had been minister, was associated with the Pittsburgh and Ontario Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery.

The Toronto congregation called the Rev. Samuel Dempster in 1896. In 1910, the Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery of Pittsburgh and Ontario dissolved due to difficulties in Pittsburgh; and in 1911, the congregation moved from Carlton Street to Bloor Street and was rename Bloor East Presbyterian Church (Unaffiliated). After Dempster died in 1922, the congregation had to rely for many years on occasional supply.

Bloor East Presbyterian Church would later join Chesley to form the Presbyterian Reformed Church.

The Ontario congregations of the Reformed Presbyterian Presbytery of Pittsburgh and Ontario were, in the beginning, mostly made up of those who had left the Presbyterian Church in Canada over changes in worship practice. The extent to which either they or some of the ministers who supplied them adopted even New Light Reformed Presbyterian distinctives is not clear. Those who left did not remain in those circles.

The Toronto congregation was joined by people from Midwestern Ontario who moved to the city for work and by immigrants from Scotland looking for a Psalm-singing church. Because it was unaffiliated, it was a neutral place for people from Psalm-singing denominations not formally represented in the city to gather. By 1925, because of the number of members of the Free Presbyterian Congregation of Ontario, formed in 1912, and Free Presbyterians directly from Scotland, the congregation took on much of that denomination’s distinctives, even though it remained unaffiliated.

4. The Canadian River

Of all the dates which have been mentioned thus far, 1912 is, perhaps, the most significant. It was the year when the Associate Presbyterian Church in Chesley and the old Disruption groups in Midwestern Ontario were united to form the Ontario Congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It was the year when one of the streams which would flow into the Presbyterian Reformed Church came into its own.

The congregation’s first minister was the Rev. Walter Scott. A native of Scotland, he traveled to Australia for his health, and while there joined the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria, a daughter Church of the Free Church of Scotland. He was ordained as a home missionary and, in 1895, inducted to a congregation in New South Wales. Changes in the denomination caused him to return to Scotland in 1909, where he applied for admission to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

In April 1912, he was sent to visit the Canadian Mission, as it was called at that time, and was present at the meeting when the motion to seek admission to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland was unanimously carried. He returned to Canada in November of that year as the new congregation’s minister. However, his ministry ended suddenly after a severe illness in 1915. He died on the 18th of January 1916.

The congregation’s second minister was the Rev. William Matheson. His family came from Lochalsh and often provided hospitality to the visiting Free Presbyterian ministers who came to Canada to serve the groups in Ontario and elsewhere. In 1907, during his undergraduate studies, Matheson was engaged to provide summer pulpit supply in his home congregation. From 1909 to 1913, he supplied the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland congregation in Winnipeg which became dependent upon him. In 1914, he was released from this commitment and sailed to Scotland for theological studies. He returned as an ordained missionary to the Free Presbyterian Mission in Canada at the end of 1917.

The early 1920s were a time of change, connection, and reconnection. In 1922, the Rev. Samuel Dempster of the Bloor Street congregation died, and Matheson took the funeral. William Elliot, also of the Toronto congregation, died the following year; and with his passing, went the family troubles of the previous century and some of his now-adult children made Chesley their home. In the summer of 1925, a Free Presbyterian divinity student who was studying at Princeton Seminary came for the first time to supply the Bloor East Presbyterian Church (Unaffiliated) pulpit. His name was John Murray; and this was the beginning of a long and most meaningful connection.

In 1927, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church expressed its strong disapproval of William Matheson’s conduct in admitting to the Sacraments members of the Winnipeg congregation who had used public transport on the Lord’s Day in contravention of a 1921 Synod resolution and issued a warning to all concerned. In 1928, the regulation was extended to cover adherents also. As there was limited public transport in the parts of Midwestern Ontario where congregants lived, the matter was moot. However, whether seen as an infringement on liberty of conscience or as an overreach of church power, the Session saw the resolutions as a change in the Church’s terms of communion and the minister and elders considered themselves not bound by them. Matheson expressed his views in his 1936 book May Sabbath Keeping Prevent Church Going?. The Synod issued an ultimatum to the Session in 1929, and to the congregation in 1930, that if they did not conform to the resolutions that they would no longer be considered a part of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Neither did and they reconstituted themselves as the Free Presbyterian Church of Ontario.

These events affected others beyond the congregation. John Murray expressed some agreement with Matheson’s position and set himself on a path which would see him leave the Church of his birth. Bloor Street was not part of the Free Presbyterian Church, but many of its members had strong family ties to that denomination. Whatever the members' private thoughts were, corporately, they continued to invite Murray to supply the pulpit.

While Matheson preached in Chesley and the other part of the congregation until his death in 1957, Bloor Street relied upon supply preachers, many of whom were arranged by Murray. In the early 1960s with both pulpits vacant, calls were issued to Messrs. R. Quincy Caldwell and Gerald Hamstra. An ad hoc Presbytery comprised of Prof. John Murray, OPC, the Rev. John Macsween, Toronto Free Church of Scotland, and the Rev. Hamstra (Gerald’s Father), Old Christian Reformed Church, was created to examine, ordain, and induct them. Gerald Hamstra was inducted to, or installed in, Bloor Street on one evening in January 1963, and Quincy Caldwell to Chesley the following evening.

Both congregations being settled, John Murray presented them with a draft basis of union. On the 17th of November 1965, that basis of union was ratified, and the Presbyterian Reformed Church was constituted.

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