Church dissidents tried to smoke out minister

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week’s column covered the events at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Fergus following the resignation of Rev. George Macdonnell in 1869.

A group of dissidents, led by druggist L.C.Munro, took control of the congregation, alienated the incumbent minister, who resigned, frustrated all attempts to get a new minister, and caused a long series of headaches to the Hamilton Presbytery and the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. 

Their mischief and antics alternately entertained and appalled the general public.

The story picks up this week at the beginning of 1871, when relations between St. Andrew’s and the Hamilton Presbytery were at their lowest.

Following the decision of the Hamilton Presbytery, at its December 1870 meeting, to reinstate Alex Cadenhead and John Brockie as elders at St. Andrew’s, and to put the keys to the building in the hands of A.D. Fordyce Jr., the rebellious faction assumed a defiant stance, determined to exercise their independence. The two elders were not welcomed back, and Fordyce didn’t get the keys.

Nevertheless, the Presbytery continued to send supply ministers to fill the pulpit at St. Andrew’s, vacant since 1869. All preached, without incident, until the infamous Sunday of Jan. 22, 1871. The Hamilton Presbytery sent Rev. Robert Burnet to Fergus for that day. This decision was a red flag to a bull. L.C. Munro and his associates had no intention of allowing Burnet to occupy the pulpit.

Robert Burnet was clerk of the Hamilton Presbytery, and in that capacity had tangled with the Fergus dissidents continually over the previous year. He had further ruffled Fergus feathers a few weeks before Christmas in 1870 by calling a meeting of the St. Andrew’s Kirk Session and presiding over it himself.

Munro and his associates, who included miller James Wilson, blacksmith Matthew Anderson, and storekeeper John Watt, dominated the Board of Management. They called a special meeting for the Friday before Burnet was scheduled to preach, and passed a resolution that the church would be closed to him.

The next afternoon, caretaker Alex Hamilton dropped by the News Record printing office, and had Robert Craig print up some signs reading, “Notice – The Church is closed today, by authority, against the Rev’d. Robt. Burnet. Fergus, Jan. 22, 1871.” The managers tacked these signs to the church door and elsewhere in town.

Robert Burnet arrived in Fergus on the evening train on Saturday. Munro, Wilson and the others were not there to greet him. They were participating in a curling bonspiel on the river, which, with the aid of lanterns and flagons of cheap whiskey, carried on until late into the night.

Early risers on Sunday morning scratched their heads. The signs had said the service at St. Andrew’s was cancelled that day, but there was smoke coming from the church’s chimney. Later came the unmistakable sound of the St. Andrew’s bell, summoning worshipers. Obviously there had been a change in plans.

It is not certain whether Munro and the others were sleeping off the excesses of the night before, or continuing their revelry. In any case, the bell brought them to the church, where they found that the lock had been removed from the door. Inside, none other than Robert Burnet was personally tolling the bell as the pews slowly filled with the devout of St. Andrew’s.

When L.C. Munro showed up, he made a spectacle of himself by shouting and gesticulating, accusing the caretaker of opening the door, and then threatening Burnet with a charge of break and enter. Getting nowhere, Munro sent the caretaker to get James Wilson and Matthew Anderson.

Disheveled and staggering, those two gentleman arrived within minutes. Seeing that Burnet had possession of the church, they decided at once to make things uncomfortable for him. They grabbed a couple of shovels and carried heaps of snow into the basement to extinguish the fire in the furnace.

Heat or no, Burnet commenced the service promptly at 11. He was about to deliver the Psalm when James Wilson and Matthew Anderson, with several others, stumbled noisily to the front of the church. Those nearest the aisle sniffed the air and whispered, “They’re drunk!” 

In front of the pulpit, Wilson slurred out a protest against Burnet holding a service. The reverend gentleman smiled, and then said, “I will listen to your protest, sir, but notwithstanding that, I will now proceed to discharge the duty imposed upon me by the Presbytery.”

When no one in the church rose to support Wilson and the others, they skulked to the back of the church. A few minutes later they went down to the basement. Burnet was about 10 minutes into the service when a loud commotion from the basement drowned out his words. First there was scuffling and foot stomping. 

The dissidents followed this with banging on the hot air pipes, and then hooting and hollering. Then they opened the doors and windows, letting in the biting cold of late January.

All this had no effect on Burnet, other than to prompt him to raise his booming voice even louder.

When he offered a prayer, the unmistakable maniacal laughter of James Wilson could be heard as a background, emanating from the basement.

Frustrated by their attempts to disrupt the service, Wilson, Anderson, Munro and the others disconnected the furnace’s smoke pipe from the chimney flue, and connected it to the hot air pipe leading upstairs. This soon filled the church with reeking clouds of eye-watering smoke and steam from the snow that the rebels had previously tossed onto the fire in the furnace.

But it was all in vain. The congregation dabbed at their eyes, but stayed in their pews. The choir coughed out a hymn, then Burnet hacked and rasped his way through his sermon. Following the Benediction, he most certainly offered a silent prayer of thanks that the ordeal was over.

The next day, Alex Cadenhead laid a complaint against the seven men who had disrupted the service. Nine justices of the peace, from Fergus, Elora and the adjoining townships, presided at the trial. The infamous church service had received wide publicity, not only locally, but in papers across the province. The proceedings had to be moved from the Commercial Hotel to the fire hall due to lack of standing room for the large crowd of spectators.

The trial provided a rare chance to see the high and mighty before the bench. Three of the accused – Matthew Anderson, James Wilson and John Watt – were themselves JPs. And there were some raised eyebrows: Samuel Broadfoot, one of the magistrates, was the father-in-law of Matthew Anderson.

A series of witnesses related the events of the infamous Sunday. The name of A.D. Fordyce, the patriarch of St. Andrew’s, came up several times, but he was not called as a witness, and his role in the affair must remain a matter of conjecture. Prosecuting attorney Alex Goforth had more witnesses on his list, but the magistrates soon decided they had heard enough. Likewise, they refused a motion of adjournment to allow Robert Burnet to come to Fergus to testify.

After deliberating a few minutes, the magistrates dismissed the case. Acting as their spokesman, George Barron explained the prosecution had not proved the defendants used force against Burnet. Further, they had not prevented the service from taking place. Barron believed them guilty of disorderly conduct, but that was not the charge.

The dissidents won their battle in court, but they lost the war. Their conduct on Jan. 22, 1871 had alienated the rest of the congregation, embarrassed the church, and disgraced the town. The Hamilton Presbytery scheduled more supply ministers for Fergus in February and March, with services every second week. All preached without incident.

The Hamilton Presbytery met again on April 19, 1871. George Macdonnell, the former St. Andrew’s minister who had resigned in 1869, filed a pile of correspondence, attempting to reopen old issues with Fergus. These were filed without action. A.D. Fordyce provided an account of all that had occurred at St. Andrew’s over the previous 12 months. The Presbytery decided to forward this to the next meeting of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

The Synod dealt with the Fergus affairs at a meeting in Montreal in June. By a close vote, a majority of two, they resolved to take no action. Near the end of the meeting, after Burnet and others had left to return home, the Synod reopened the Fergus matter.

With Burnet gone, the Synod approved a motion of censure against Burnet for calling the meeting of the St. Andrew’s Kirk Session in December 1870 and presiding over it.

More importantly, the Synod appointed a committee of three neutral ministers – they were from the Montreal area – to go to Fergus and sort out the affairs at St. Andrew’s. The Synod gave them wide powers, including the authority to move St. Andrew’s from the Hamilton to the Toronto Presbytery.

The committee proceeded at once to Fergus. They listened patiently to everyone, then convinced them to forget everything that had happened in the past. The committee was particularly impressed with the most recent supply minister sent by the Hamilton Presbytery, J.B. Mullen, a lively 35-year-old Irishman. Mullen was astute. When in Fergus, he decided to stay with John Watt, one of the dissidents, rather than a hotel or with A.D. Fordyce. While staying with Watt, Mullen was able to calm much of the tension and animosity that had been building for two years.

The committee recommended that Mullen be appointed permanently. To prevent further trouble, they also transferred St. Andrew’s to the Toronto Presbytery. St. Andrew’s would never need to deal with Rev. Robert Burnet again.

With great reluctance and after much persuasion – St. Andrew’s had earned a notorious reputation by this point – Mullen agreed to the appointment in early July 1871. He stayed for 36 years.

J.B. Mullen’s appointment ended the trouble at St. Andrew’s. The petty origins of the conflict had been overtaken by personalities and the division of the congregation into rival camps, to the point were the confrontation had taken on a self-sustaining life. Mullen, aided by the committee from Montreal, quickly focused St. Andrew’s on a more appropriate course for the senior Presbyterian congregation in the area.

In the succeeding decades, St. Andrew’s made the news columns again, but these times for reports of special services and the progress of the Sunday school.

The elders were not unhappy to see the two years of animosity, and the infamous January 1871 church service, pass into the mists of history.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 27, 2001.

Thorning Revisited