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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter X - Religious Life


WHEN we write a separate chapter on the religious life of the early settlers, we would not imply that these old people severed the sacred from the secular, for never has there been in our land a more conspicuous consecration of the whole sweep of life than in their case. One of the strongest points in their theology was their clear conception of the immanence and sovereignty of God; hence they never considered themselves beyond His presence or outside His control. When we write a chapter on their religions life, we simply desire to indicate the manner and custom of their religious services as well as to sketch in some degree the story of how they kept the faith during the long years of their isolation. It is quite clear that their training in Scotland had been of such a kind as to lead them to feel that the exercises of religion must form an integral part of life in the new land, for they made special stipulations before they sailed for a minister of their own Church, and they arranged that an elder who accompanied them should have authority to baptize aud to marry. From that time on till the day on which John Black, their first minister, was in their midst, nearly forty years afterwards, they never ceased to importune the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, on the subject of their own Presbyterian creed, and in their allegiance to that faith they never once failed or faltered. We are not to infer from the mention of this long period without a minister of their own, that they were without settled services during all that time.

It goes without saying that with such a people the sacred fire of worship would be kept burning on family altars, and that their cottage prayer-meetings would be held; but in addition, the Anglican Church (partly through the enterprise of their Missionary Society, and partly because favored by certain of the Hudsonís Bay authorities) had a minister upon the ground as early as 1820, and of the services of this Church the Scotch settlers availed themselves. But while doing so these settlers never absolutely gave their adherence to that Church, nor accepted the situation as a fulfilment of the promise made them as to church privileges. All honor, however, ought to be given to the Church of England for the manner in which they accommodated their form of service to meet the known opinions of the colonists on such matters. In their regular worship they omitted largely the use of the Liturgy and Prayer-book, and the psalms were sung in the metre and tune to which the settlers had been accustomed. It has been said by some that the Anglican Church expected by this course ultimately to win these people over to their Church, and thus become the sole Protestant organization in the country, but we could have no sympathy with that view, for several reasons. To begin with, it would be clear to any one acquainted with the nationality and character of the colonists that any such course, instead of winning them over, would utterly estrange their sympathies. Moreover, the early pastors of the Church of England, meeting the older people in daily converse, would feel they were immovable as rock in the matter of their creed, and that ere the younger generation grew up there would certainly be a minister of their own faith amongst them. Besides all this, the uniformly kind and grateful manner in which the old settlers always spoke of the Anglican clergy leads us to feel that those early pastors were godly men who sought unselfishly to guide and comfort a shepherdless flock in the way of the Cross of Christ.

The settlers were not apt to forget their own creed, because they were diligent students of its standard theology. The libraries in the old houses, circulating libraries truly, were not large but weighty. Besides the Bible, the Catechism and Confession of Faith, there were a few leading books of the strongest Puritan flavor, and these were pored over and afterwards discussed with the ease that many people seem now able to bring to bear only on current gossip. People who thus drank from the fountain-head gained a strength which enabled them to conquer the difficulties of their wilderness life and hold steadfastly the tenets of their own Church with its simple form of worship. Many an incident might be recorded to show the depth and reality of their religious life, and we relate one in the face of present day views of Sabbath observance. A small party of them who had left their families with scanty supply of food, and had gone out on a winter buffalo hunt, were camping one Saturday night along the Pembina Mountains. They had their poor meal of what they brought with them; and gave all they could to their faithful train dogs. Then before retiring to rest under the lee of their toboggans, with the dogs crouched around them in the snow, they held a prayer-meeting to ask Him for food who fed Israel with manna. When they awoke three buffaloes were in the valley below, but it was not until after another prayer-meeting for guidance as to their course on the Sabbath day that, in view of the necessity and the evident providence, one of their number (an elder in the Church) was appointed by the rest to procure for the party a present food supply. He approached the buffaloes without difficulty, shot one, and though the others remained for a time, as they sometimes will in such a case, he did not shoot again, holding that he was only justified in taking what was actually necessary on the Lordís Day. Some people would describe such conduct as extreme, but that God approves of action true to conscience as the needle to the pole, is evidenced by the signal way in which He was with them through all their trials, even unto a peaceful and prosperous old age.

We have said that the settlers never ceased to importune the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, for a minister of their own faith; and any one who studies the history of the time will see that they sent petition after petition to the Church at home (some of them never received), showered them upon the Hudsonís Bay Company, and incessantly bombarded every prominent officer of that corporation who visited the settlement with reminders of the promise made them. At last the Church in Scotland referred the matter to the Rev. Dr. Burns, pastor of Knox Church in Toronto; and Mr. Ballenden, then the local governor of the Hudsonís Bay Company, urged the matter in the same quarter about the same time, with the result that Dr. Burns secured the appointment of John Black, a graduate of Knox College, then working as a missionary in Lower Canada. After some hesitation as to his duty in the matter, Mr. Black finally accepted the appointment, and after a long and arduous journey, via St. Paul, Minnesota, reached Red River in the autumn of 1851, and on his arrival three hundred of the Scotch settlers severed their nominal connection with the Church of England and rallied around the young missionary. Physically, mentally and spiritually, Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Black was the man for the place. No other than a man of great physical endurance could have stood the strain of frontier work as he did for thirty years, and judging from what he was, as I remember him, his compact and strenuous frame gave every indication of his physical strength. Many years after his coming, and when his dark locks were plentifully whitened with the snows that never melt, we used to supply him at times with hay for winter use (he always kept a few horses and cows), and when we (I was little more than a child helping my brother, or professing to do so) went to deliver the hay, Dr. Black invariably came out from his study and took a hand in unloading the carts to the stack. My brother always gave him the strongest fork, for he would snap the handle of an ordinary one; and it was my delight to see how the minister would bend the fork-handle, and when he had "landed" an exceptionally heavy load, to hear him say that it was a "noble fork," and that the handle was "good stuff."

From the beginning of his ministry he was a man of exceptional mental vigor and of intense spiritual power. With all this he had a vivid imagination and the free use of language, so that his preaching was full of the fire and eloquence so characteristic of the followers of Knox. Like Knox, too, he would sometimes well-nigh "ding the pulpit into blads," for his strong hand could well emphasize upon the boards of the high desk the vigorous language of his discourse. His voice was clear, strong and full of rcsonant force, while his accent, once understood, added a rich flavor to every word. As to the subject-matter of his preaching, my whole recollection of it is that above all things else the doctrine of the Blood was made prominent, and that his constant aim was to turn sinners from the error of their way, and build up Christians in the most holy Faith. There was no glossing over of sin, no endeavor to blacken into harmless embers the thunderóbolts of Gods wrath against iniquity, and no other hope of salvation held out but that by way of the vicarious Cross of Christ. Boy as I was, and too little disposed to appreciate their power, I remember especially his communion services, and to-day I can see his swaying figure and hear the echoing question, "Who can pay that debt?" as in one of them he elaborated the idea of humanityís debt under the law, and the coming of the rescuing Christ to provide for us a ransom. No one could grow up under that ministry without a creed, unless he threw away his opportunity and trampled underfoot privileges of an exceeding greatness; and however little I may have, evidenced benefit received from it at the time, he stood before me as a man whose righteousness I honored, whose memory I revere, and whose influence upon his own and these succeeding days beside the western sun no man with a merely ethical gospel could ever have exerted.


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