Church union in 1925 caused turmoil amongst Presbyterians

In 1925, the Canadian Methodist Church amalgamated with the Congregational Church and most of the Presbyterian Church to form the United Church of Canada.

The change was not especially controversial in most of Canada. In Ontario, though, the situation was different. A significant number of Presbyterians resisted and fought the union, insisting on retaining their independence. Some 340 congregations in this province opposed union. In the rest of the country the number opposed totalled fewer than 100.

Many Presbyterian congregations in rural areas welcomed the union. Small churches were struggling in the 1920s, and the union of two denominations promised a solid future for those that remained. By the 1920s, the Presbyterians and Methodists differed on little other than some points of church organization and governance. In the view of many, those differences could be easily resolved.

In the larger picture, the union of 1925 was the culmination of a process that began more than a half century earlier. In the mid 19th century there were a half dozen brands of Presbyterianism and several brands of Methodism in Canada.

Over time, most of those factions united until there were single Presbyterian and Methodist national organizations. Methodists, with very few exceptions, embraced church union. On the other side, the union split Ontario Presbyterianism in two.

In Wellington County, two of the most adamant anti-union congregations were St. Andrew’s in Fergus and Knox in Elora.

The members of Knox Church in Elora voted on the question for the first time in 1918. Members overwhelmingly wanted to remain independent. There was another vote in 1923, resulting in 45 members opting for union and 204 opposed.

In 1924, Rev. Alex Donaldson became the minister at Knox. Initially he was an able and popular preacher, but he soon found difficulties with his outspoken advocacy of church union. Within months it was clear that Rev. Donaldson was a poor choice for minister, in view of the growing controversy over union. He annoyed many members of Knox by persuading several prominent church goers to change their stance on the issue of union. He talked the local church leaders into a third vote on the question.

Knox members had three weeks to vote, and the results were announced in February of 1925.

This time the totals were 125 in favour of union, and 261 against. Though the church tried to keep the controversy an internal matter, it became general knowledge in the early weeks of 1925 that Elora’s Presbyterians were at one another’s throats.

The vote at St. Andrew’s in Fergus was even more lop-sided, with 47 favouring union and 199 against. Animosity there was much less than at Elora.

More than 100 of the Elora pro-union faction, outraged at the insults and snubs of the opposite side, held a meeting in the basement of the library three days after the results of the voting were announced. Speaker after speaker rose to describe the insults they had received, and how they were being made unwelcome at Knox. Elora’s Methodist Church had moved quickly, issuing invitations to the pro-union Presbyterians and to Rev. Donaldson to join them at once.

The day before the meeting, David Scott, who had been Sunday School superintendent for more than 20 years and an elder for 37, resigned his positions and announced he was leaving Knox. Those at the meeting voted to accept the invitation from the Methodists, and to attend the Methodist service two days later.

Those leaving totalled more than 100, and included all the Sunday School teachers but three, and 14 members of the choir. A few days later, another elder, R.J. McQueen, joined the exodus.

Rev. Donaldson conducted services the following Sunday, Feb. 8, as usual, but to a diminished crowd. As he concluded the evening service he pulled an announcement from his pocket and read it. He stated that he was resigning as minister, effective at the conclusion of the service that night.

He also announced the following Sunday he would enter a dual pastorate at the Methodist Church, and that the arrangement would remain in force until the formal union took place on June 10.

After the service, he told one reporter who had attended the service that he had nothing further to add to his statement. He said, “I could have preached a red hot sermon on union tonight, but I didn’t.” He said he had no regrets that he had conducted his last service at Knox, and that “when I walk out of this place tonight, I will feel a great burden lifted off my shoulders.”

 The following day reporters from the Guelph and Toronto papers sought interviews with Rev. Donaldson. Though he said little that he had not read in his statement the evening previous, his bitterness was evident. He said that Knox “was now at liberty to select one to occupy their pulpit whose ministrations would probably suit them better than his.”

He reasserted that he had no knowledge of arrangements that Knox might make to continue its ministry, adding that “They could do as they please.”

He spent that Monday afternoon renting another house, and vacated the Presbyterian manse a day later. He had led the Knox congregation for only 10 months, the shortest tenure in its history up to that point.

The uproar at Knox rated barely a mention in the centennial history of the church, published 12 years later 1937. The Elora Express also ignored the controversy, announcing Rev. Donaldson’s resignation with a single short sentence.

As is the case in many controversial stories, press coverage increased with distance from Elora.

The Fergus News Record reported the major developments at Knox during January and February of 1925, and the Guelph Mercury and the Toronto papers were much more complete in their articles. Other Wellington County weeklies copied stories from those sources. Knox loyalists portrayed themselves as victims of the controversy, persecuted because they sought to defend their rights.

Knox Church carried on with lay ministers and visitors until Rev. E.A. Thompson took over in July 1925. He continued in the pulpit until 1941, guiding the diminished congregation through difficult times.

Rev. Alex Donaldson left Elora following the official union in June. He eventually moved to Scotland and returned to the Presbyterian Church. He became minister at the church at Hawick, Scotland, early in 1930.

Publicly, the church controversy in Elora ended quickly, but there were bitter feelings that persisted quietly for decades. Feeling were less intense in Fergus. Some of those favouring union left St. Andrew’s.

At Melville Church the vote was 211 in favour of Union, and 107 against. Rev. R.W. Craw, aware of the ill feelings in Elora and elsewhere, requested no cheering or demonstration prior to the announcement, which was followed with prayers and hymns.

The number of Presbyterians leaving Melville outnumbered those who came from St. Andrew’s. But that total was dwarfed by the decision of the Fergus Methodists to close their own church and join the Melville congregation in the union.

There was some animosity in Fergus in 1925, but nothing like the situation in Elora, where a few oldtimers retained ill feelings for a half century, demonstrating that nothing equals religious difference and loyalty in producing strong and heartfelt opinion.


Stephen Thorning