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Pioneer Life in Zorra
Chapter XXIII. Pioneer Methodism in Zorra


"Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; they alone will shake the gates of hell, and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth." —JOHN WESLEY.

IT was in the year 1823, early in the spring, before the trees had burst into bud, or the song of birds heard in the silent forest, that a Methodist first set foot in Zorra. Not long after came those brave pioneers, Robert Ford, Wm. Land, Peter Alyea, Henry Larue, Barnabas Ford, David Ford, Isaac Burdick, Alexander Sweet, John Gordon, Thomas Piper, Grout, and Jacobs. A few years later Christopher Williams, Ira Day, Benjamin Thornton, Eldridge Gee, with their families, entered; and about the year 1830, George H. Harris, Thomas Couke, John Couke, John Wilkerson, Joshua Youngs, Ralph Kent, Levi Warren, Horace Dean, and John McDonald. They had come, some from the land of heather, and some from the United States, but all set bravely to work to hew out for themselves homes in the wilds of Zorra.

Their religion they brought with them, and morning and night the Bible was read and the Wesleyan Hymns were sung with as much fervor as in the days, when, in the old land, John Wesley held sway over the multitude.

Once in two weeks, the circuit minister arrived, and service was held in school-houses, dwelling-houses, or even in barns, where logs cut and rolled there for the purpose, made substantial, if not very comfortable seats. Besides these fortnightly meetings the scattered Methodist families would, on stated Sunday afternoons, join in a "love feast," followed by a class meeting, at which one of the class leaders presided.

On one of these occasions, a young man, a stranger to the ways of Methodism, was present. The good woman who sat next to him at the head of the class, was of an emotional temperament. When addressed by the leader she burst into tears and answered his kindly questioning only with sobs. The young man, expecting that his turn would come next, and fearful lest he might be expected to follow his neighbor's example, became visibly embarrassed. His confusion increased when the leader, turning to him, gravely enquired of him how he felt. Blushing violently, the youth stammered forth, "Very well, thank you, sir; how are you?"

The difficulties under which the minister labored few now can realize. The circuit embraced a district extending from Ingersoll to St. Marys—towns which were then in size scarcely worthy of a name, and the only approaches to which were by Indian trails. A circuit of about forty miles, he covered in two weeks, preaching usually in two places in one day. In his saddlebags he carried Bibles, Testaments, hymn books, and such other books as "The Memoirs of Dr. Adam Clarke" and "Guide to Truth," which he sold or gave to people along the way. His was a life of hardship and self-denial. His salary of twelve dollars a month admitted of few luxuries, and neither man nor horse fared sumptuously on such food as the settler could provide. During the cold weather the minister slept rolled in a home-spun blanket in front of the log fire of his cabin; the one room of which served as parlor, kitchen, and bedroom for the entire family; but during the summer months his nights were spent in the hay mow in the barn, where, with the stars gleaming through chinks in the roof, and often with the four-footed beasts of the field for company, he slept the sleep which only the toilers of earth can know.

Rev. Mr. Corson was the pioneer Methodist preacher of Zorra. A man of Pauline type, he counted it no hardship to journey from dawn till dark in the bitter cold of a Canadian winter, making his way through unbroken country, often with no path but a forest "blaze," that he might speak a few words of cheer to the handful of people eagerly awaiting him at his next appointment.

Following Mr. Corson, came Rev. Edmund Stoney, a faithful preacher, in whose earnest nature ran a quaint vein of humor. "What do you think," he enquired once of one of his hearers, "of that old prophet in Bethel, right where the wicked king Jeroboam had established the worship of the golden calf, and never opened his mouth against it. He was an old backslider. But the death of the good prophet from Judah, caused by the old Bethel prophet lying to him, may have brought him to repentance." It was an attractive way of telling the story.

Rev. Mr. Armstrong, the third regular minister, was of a deeply spiritual mind. Often the congregation waited within, while he, outside on his knees, pleaded for the Spirit's presence, without which he could never preach. Then when his prayer was answered and he re-entered the building, it is said that none could listen unmoved as, with his heart burning with love to God and man, and his face all aglow with the very light of heaven, he told the story of Jesus and His love.

He was succeeded by Rev. Mr. Pettit, and later Rev. Mr. Holtby, Rev. Mr. Gray, Rev. Mr. Wakefield, Rev. Mr. Kennedy, had in turn charge of the circuit.

Zealously as these devoted Christians worked, so large was the field and so scattered the people that little could have been accomplished had it not been for the help given by the local preachers, or class leaders as they were more familiarly called. Prominent among these was Thomas Brown, of East Nissouri. His was a peculiarly joyful nature, ever living on Pisgah's height, and commonly known as "Great Heart." At the love-feast, it is said, his voice was always raised in thanksgiving. He was a universal favorite, and so successful was he as a preacher that at length he was ordained. After his death a memoir of his life was published in book form.

Another highly esteemed class leader was George H. Harris. He was specially gifted with the Spirit, and this appeared in his prayers. It is said by one who can recall his teaching that "at prayer meeting he seemed to be in the immediate presence of the Holy One and to lift others with him."

Frequently on the Sabbath, Mr. Harris preached on the 16th line, East Zorra, riding in one day the entire distance there and back to his home, a distance of about forty miles. Once when asked by a friend if he did not feel the journey wearisome, "Long!" he exclaimed, "I never find it so; I spend the time in prayer and meditation, and the distance seems as nothing."

Other local preachers were Isaac Burdick, John Symons, Horace Dean (who afterwards entered the ministry), Alexander Nasmyth. The latter while serving his country as one of the Edinburgh militia in England during the Napoleonic war, owed his conversion, under God's grace, to the preaching of a Methodist layman, who was the sergeant-major of another regiment. An extract from a biographical sketch of Mr. Nasmyth, written by Rev. Matthew Holtby, which appeared at the time of his death in the Christian Guardian of December, 1846, gives some conception of the spirit of Methodism as evinced in its early followers:

"About fourteen years ago, he emigrated from Scotland to this country and settled at Embro. He invited the Methodist people to his place. A small class was formed of which he was the leader; every Sabbath he held a meeting among the society and others, and read, sang, and prayed, and made such remarks as he thought likely to be useful; and these services were rendered a blessing to his hearers. He had remarkably clear views of truth, a ready utterance and a concise, pointed manner of expression. Few, indeed, could remain unmoved while, with a heart flaming with love to God and man, he would pray them "in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." Influenced by this great principle, love, he was a stranger to sectarian bigotry; he was constant in his attendance on the means of grace in the Presbyterian Church, of which he was a member to the day of his death. He was a man of much prayer, and his stated times of private retirement were indeed times of refreshing."

His house was a home for the preachers who travelled the circuit.

There were other influences at work at the same time, moulding the character of the rising generation. One of the first, if not the first school teacher in Zorra, Miss Nancy Brink, was an earnest, active young Christian, a member of the Methodist Church, who, in the year 1824, taught in a log school-house on the side-line south of where Embro now stands. She would at times, after school hours, plead with tears for her pupils to come to the Saviour. A hoary-headed man of God, still living says: "My first religious convictions were through her influence.

During a religious revival which was due chiefly to the labors of Horace Dean, the girls and young women who had been converted and who were attending the day school south of Embro, where the meetings were held, would go at the noon recess down the hill to the edge of the woods, and there hold a prayer meeting.

With rare exceptions, the Methodists were on terms of only cool friendship with their Presbyterian brethren. Between the two denominations there existed a certain rivalry which often made itself apparent at unexpected times, and sometimes under rather amusing circumstances.

Among the Lowland Scotch who came to Zorra in the early thirties was a pious, liberal- minded Wesleyan, who, in order that he and his family might enjoy regular church privileges, united with the Presbyterians, and became a zealous worker in that church, although at the same time actively employed, as opportunity offered, in supporting Methodism. The Presbyterians viewed this course of action with silent disapprobation for some time. Finally one of the elders, also a Lowland Scotchman, decided to put an end to this state of affairs. Cautiously he approached the subject, "We've been think- in', sir, a good time back o' makin' you an elder, Mr.-, but," with an ominous shake of the head, "if so be that you become one, it'll na do to be encouragin' they Methody folk aroun'. Maun, maun," in a sudden burst of indignation, "they're na fit for the like o' you!"

A Methodist minister found occasion once to reprove his people for their irregular attendance at divine service. Unconsciously he paid a tribute to Presbyterianism. "You want the gospel peddled to your firesides," he said, "while the Presbyterians, who don't claim to have half of your religion, will walk ten miles to listen to their dry preachers."

Dating from the visit of Rev. W. C. Burns to Zorra, this feeling of rivalry gradually disappeared, until now perfect friendship and harmony exist between the two denominations.

Slowly the little band of Methodists increased in numbers. Other names, such as Father Allan, John Adams, John F. Matheson, John McCombs, the Rusts, Hallacks, and Dixons were added to the roll.

For many years the old school-house at Cody's Corners was used as a meeting-place. Three services, Episcopal Methodist, Wesleyan, and Baptist, were held each Sunday.

There was one of these early preachers who, although not a Methodist, but a Baptist, must not be overlooked here. This was "Father Beardsall," as he was commonly called. He was a man of strong personality, and great devotedness to his work. His home was south of Ingersoll, but for twenty years he drove regularly to Cody's Corners, and preached, with no reward but the consciousness of doing his duty and seeing the Lord's blessing upon his labors.

On one memorable occasion, Rev. Mr. Calla- more, an Episcopal Methodist, was drawn into a controversy with Elder Wilson of the Baptist denomination. For three days the subject of infant or adult baptism was debated in the meeting-house, while people of all denominations flocked to hear the disputants, many travelling considerable distances.

The Wesleyans were the first to enter Embro, meeting in the school-house which was situated very near the site of the present building; afterwards meeting in the Temperance Hall, the upper storey of a frame building, situated on the corner of Commissioner and Argyle Streets.

In 1854 the Episcopal Methodists erected the first Methodist chapel in the township. It stood on the summit of the hill south of Embro, a little frame building capable of holding not more than two hundred people, but it represented the loving toil of many days. Twenty years later a comfortable brick church was erected in the village, and the old building was removed. The cemetery which surrounded the little frame chapel is still occasionally used for the interment of some aged member of a family, whose desire it was to be placed beside the honored dead of long ago. The hillock with its many marble slabs with quaint inscriptions, sometimes overgrown with moss or hidden by the roses which have clambered over them, is a place of interest to visitors to the village.

In the month of February, 1856, Rev. Mr. Huntsburgher, who had come to Embro during the previous year, began a series of revival services in the Youngsville school-house. The whole township became interested, and it was soon found necessary to change the place of meeting to Embro, where for six weeks services were held. A number of the Presbyterian elders joined heartily in the work, and many people of all denominations experienced a change of heart.

Among these were the late Joseph Laycock, and wife, parents of the Rev. John Laycock, now actively engaged in Christian work as a minister of the Methodist Church in the North-west Territories.

The above short and necessarily imperfect sketch of "Pioneer Methodism in Zorra" will show that while this Church was not, for evident reasons, the strongest numerically, yet she was the first to enter the field; and to-day she can point with laudable pride to her brave men and women who "loved God and feared sin, and set up the kingdom of heaven" in Zorra.


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