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The Life of James Robertson
PIONEER PRESBYTERIANS IN THE WEST


THE religious history of Western Canada reflects little glory upon Canadian Presbyterianism in the early decades of that history. Indeed, not to any Church in Canada, but to those of the motherland, is largely due the credit for the earliest efforts in evangelizing the native races of the Western half of British America, as well as for the care of the religious life of the early settlements. The great Roman Catholic missionaries were men from the home land, sent forth and supported by the various religious orders of France. The missions of the Anglican Church were to a large extent and to a comparatively late day, manned and supported almost entirely by the great missionary societies of England. Early missions conducted by the Methodist Church were carried on by men sent out by the Wesleyan body of England to the Indian races and to the white settlers. So, too, the Presbyterian Church of Canada was slow to enter in and possess the great land that lay beyond the Lakes. It is not hard to account for this indifference of the Churches in Eastern Canada to the West. These Churches were divided into factions and were absorbed in the struggle for their own existence; the settlements in the West were few, unknown, and insignificant.

Before 1870 the land, as we have seen, was practically unknown to all except the fur trader and the explorer. Along the waterways that led from Fort William to the Red River, were only the fur-trading posts with their dependent groups of natives, half-breeds and whites. Here, but for the occasional ministrations of a Roman priest or Anglican missionary en voyage, there was nothing to suggest religion in any of its forms.

Far away, on the Western Pacific coast, in the few small settlements that were to be found on Vancouver Island, on the mainland coast and along the rivers, the Presbyterian Church of Canada had not a single missionary until the year 1862, when the Canada Presbyterian Church sent out the Rev. Robert Jamieson as their first missionary to British Columbia. On arriving at Victoria he was surprised to find that post occupied by the Rev. John Hall, who had been sent out the year before by the Irish Presbyterian Church. Jamieson went to New Westminster, then the capital of the province, and there for twenty-two years he rendered splendid service to the Church and the cause of religion in British Columbia. Two other men from the Canada Presbyterian Church joined him, Duff in 1864 and Aitken in 1869. It is, however, to the Church of Scotland that the chief credit is due for the early prosecution of Presbyterian missions in British Columbia. Up to the year 1887 work was carried on by that Church at some nine or ten points upon both island and mainland by such men as Nimmo, Somerville, and McGregor. Indeed, the first Presbytery of British Columbia was one formed in connection with the Church of Scotland. In 1887, that Church withdrew, handing over all its work to the Canada Presbyterian Church. But its interest in Western Canada has not ceased, as evidenced by the fact that many of the lead ing congregations of that body in Scotland, in 1894, responded to the appeal of the Canadian Church and undertook the support of missions of their own in British Columbia. It is interesting to note that among those SO contributing was the congregation of the Rev. Mr. Somerville, who, twenty years before, was one of those early missionaries from the Church of Scotland to British Columbia.

In 1872, the Pacific Province had begun to loom somewhat more distinctly above the horizon of the Canadian Church, for at that date the mission was transferred from the Foreign to the Home Mission Committee. But the field was far away, little known and difficult of access, and the work was not pushed with any degree of vigour and enthusiasm. In the coast towns the congregations grew with the growth of population. But far up in the interior were mining and ranching communities almost entirely neglected by the Presbyterian as by the other Churches. It is not strange, therefore, that men mingling with the native races descended to the level and often below the level of those pagan people, and, forgotten by their Church, themselves forgot their fathers’ religion and their fathers’ God. Certain it is that many years after, their Sons were discovered grown to young manhood, who had never heard, except in oaths, the name of Jesus, and knew nothing of the story of man’s redemption.

As the Presbyterian Churches both in Scotland and in Eastern Canada can claim little glory in connection with the planting and nurturing of religion in the Pacific Province, so also the early religious history of the vast provinces lying between British Columbia on the west and that rocky barrier by the Great Lakes on the east, reflects little credit upon these Churches. But while these Churches failed in their duty to their co-religionists in these distant settlements, there remains in the story of that settlement of Scottish people on the banks of the Red River of the North, an example of loyal fidelity to Church and to conscience under specially trying circumstances, not often paralleled in the history of our Church.

The story of the Selkirk settlers has often been told. There are those to whom it is not a tale of unmixed heroism. But it is a tale of which no people need be ashamed. From the Highlands of Scotland they came in various detachments between the years 1812 and 1815 under the auspices of Lord Selkirk, and settled in the tract of land secured for them by purchase from the Hudson’s Bay Company, that lay in the valley of the Red River, reaching southward from the fort that stood at the junction of the Red and the Assiniboine. They were a very small company, in all under three hundred souls, and never at any one time many more than half that number. But they clung to the banks of the Red River, and though harried by a hostile fur-trading company and driven off once and again from their homes, they returned to their place, exhibiting, during those first terrible years of the existence of the colony, a patience and an endurance and a courage that few would fail to call heroic. But none will be found to refuse the claim to heroism to those who, through all trials and discouragements in unceasing struggle with the rigours of climate and stubbornness of soil, their lands devastated by fire and flood, their homes swept by plague, maintained their faith in God and held to their Church with a tenacity and loyalty that could not be shaken. It had been one of the conditions attached by Lord Selkirk to the founding of his colony, that with the Scotch emigrants should be sent a minister of their own Church. For a variety of reasons, some less creditable than others to those concerned with the administration of the colony’s affairs, this promise of Lord Selkirk’s was never kept. Again and again, in one form and then in another, petition was made to the representatives of Lord Selkirk, to the noble earl himself, to the honourable the Hudson’s Bay Company, to the Church of Scotland, but without result. True, for some three years after the colony was founded, a worthy elder of the Church of Scotland with special ordination, Mr. James Sutherland, ministered to the spiritual wants of the settlers. But by the machinations of the Northwest Company, he was removed to Eastern Canada. Thus for nearly forty years these sturdy Presbyterians waited for "a minister of their own," keeping alive the holy flame of true piety by the daily sacrifice of morning and evening worship upon the family altar, the head of each family being priest in his own house.

Presbyterians of the West are not likely to forget the generous and considerate kindness with which the clergy of the Church of England of those days cared for that shepherdless flock. By the descendants of the Selkirk settlers the names of John West, William Cochrane, David Jones will long be cherished, who, with a liberality that may appear strange to rigid Anglican churchmen of to-day, but, happily, characteristic of those primitive times, not only performed for those Presbyterian people all the pastoral functions of which they stood in need, visiting their sick, baptizing, marrying, burying, but even went so far as to adopt at one of the services of the Sabbath, a form of worship more nearly akin to that so dear to Presbyterian hearts. There are not wanting of the Anglican Church to-day some who say that West and his fellow clergymen erred in their liberality and that a more unyielding policy would have resulted in the shepherding of this stubborn flock into the Anglican fold. But they who thus speak know not the love of Church and creed inwrought with the very fibre of Scottish character; and more, they forget that in those primeval days men lived nearer the simple and real things, and that to them religion was more than Church and brotherly love than forms of worship.

At length the petition of the Selkirk settlers reached the ears of the Free Church of Scotland. By that Church it was passed on to the Free Church in Canada. Thereupon the Rev. Dr. Burns, professor in Knox College, acting for the Foreign Mission Committee, laid hands upon a young man who had shown vigour and sense in mission work among the French Canadians, and thrust him forth to be the first Presbyterian missionary to Western Canada. And so one bright September Sabbath morning the forty years of faith-keeping by these Red River Presbyterians were rewarded when three hundred of them gathered to hear the Rev. John Black, from Canada, preach the first Presbyterian sermon delivered in that new land.

That was a notable gathering. The preacher was a great man, though none of them of that day knew just how great. It took thirty years of knowing to reveal that to them, and to many others. They were great men, too, who formed that congregation. They had convictions in them about their Church and the forms of their religion, and while they had gratefully availed themselves of the religious services of their Anglican neighbours, adapted as far as might be with true Christian courtesy to their taste, when John Black appeared, the iron of Calvinism in their blood forbade that there should be any falling away from the faith of their forefathers, and so with one accord and without reproach, they gathered to him to worship according to their ancient ritual.

They were well suited to each other, minister and people, and with the years they grew into each other’s trust and love till a bond was formed between them that neither time nor death itself could snap. Along the banks of the Red River lay John Black’s parish. They loved the river, did those lonely exiles. Every farm, therefore, must have its river front, sometimes three chains, never more than twelve in width, with its rear reaching from two to four miles back on to the prairie, and on every farm front there stood a house overlooking the Red River. Small wonder they loved that river. It was their line of communication by boat and canoe in summer, by snowshoe and skate, dog-sled and toboggan in winter, and it was at all times the bond of their social life. And thus it was that John Black’s parish consisted of a double row of houses, one on either side of that street of tawny flowing water. In and out of these river homes by day and by night, through summer and through winter, faithful, loving and indefatigable, wrought the minister for ten long years alone, but for his band of godly elders and his devoted wife, Henrietta Ross.


The 4th Anglican Church in the Selkirk Settlement near Winnipeg, MB. You will note in the above photo that the Scottish saltire is displayed behind the pulpit in recognition that the early Scots were very much a part of its history back in 1812. Thanks to Doug Ross for sending in this picture.

During these ten years the settlement continued to grow, not only in numbers, but in extent as well, offshoots from the parent colony venturing the daring experiment of farming the bleak and unsheltered prairie back from the river. About the fort, too, a little village was springing up, ambitious, seditious, vicious Winnipeg, requiring constant spiritual oversight and care. Thus the work grew far beyond the strength of even this tireless missionary. But with an apathy inexplicable, the Church in the East remained unmoved, and though year by year Black kept sounding his lonely cry for helpers, he was forced to toil on at his post unaided and alone. But he never faltered, nor did he ever think of retreat. To this work and this land he had given himself, and here he would abide till the call should come which would set him free from all his weary toil and summon him to his larger service and to his reward.


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