From time to time this column features a Wellington County native who has achieved success and renown elsewhere. This week another has surfaced on top of my huge stack of historical notes.
Hugh Thomson Kerr spent his adult life in the United States as a Presbyterian minister, culminating in 1930 and 1931 with a term as moderator of the American Presbyterian Church. By then, he was well known over the eastern part of the continent. He was the first minister to broadcast regularly over the radio.
His origins were very modest. He was born in Elora on Feb. 11, 1871, to William and Ann Kerr. William was a shoemaker in the village. The couple eventually had eight children, of whom Hugh was the third youngest.
Young Hugh spent his first decade in Elora. He attended the Elora Public School during the tenure of principal David Boyle, and was confirmed by Dr James Middlemiss, of Elora’s Chalmers Presbyterian Church. To the delight of his parents, he was an excellent student. William Kerr valued education above all else. Of his family of seven sons, four became medical doctors and two trained as ministers. Mary, the only daughter, married a clergyman.
William Kerr abandoned his Mill Street shoe store in Elora in 1877. He farmed for a while on the outskirts of Elora, then moved to a farm in Minto in 1880, taking the family with him. Hugh spent his early teenage years doing farm work, and absorbing the thrifty habits of his parents while completing his high school education in Harriston.
Hugh Kerr had saved every cent he could during his youth. That money, supplemented by his father, put him through the University of Toronto. On graduation as a Presbyterian minister he travelled to the United States. For a while he was the minister at a church in Hutchinson, Kansas, and then in Chicago for several years. In 1913, he moved to Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. He would remain there the rest of his life.
Rev. Kerr might be described as a progressive minister. He was a compelling speaker, and saw his role as an interpreter of the Christian message for the coming generations. Six volumes of his sermons would be published in book form. For years he served as Chairman of the American Presbyterian Church’s Christian education committee.
As a diversion, he authored a number of hymns. For some, he penned music and words, and for others the words only. By far the best known of them is God of Our Life, which he produced in 1916, to a melody composed in 1857 by C.H. Purday.
Rev. Kerr became intrigued with radio from the first time he heard a broadcast. By chance, the first commercial station in the United States, KDKA, was located in Pittsburgh. Some 18 months after the station went on the air, Kerr convinced management to broadcast his weekly Vesper services. Soon he had a small but widely dispersed following over half the continent. It was probably the first regular church radio program, and its audience grew week by week as more people acquired radio receivers. He continued the weekly broadcast until the mid 1940s.
In 1930, the American Presbyterian Church elected Rev. Hugh T. Kerr to a term as moderator. The position entailed much travel. He spent the following year visiting congregations all over the United States.
In the spring of 1931, near the end of his term, he came to Canada, and scheduled a visit to his old home town. He arrived in Elora on the morning of April 29.
By then, Elora’s Chalmers Church, the church of Rev. Kerr’s youth, had been closed a decade and a half, and the members had been absorbed into the Knox congregation. Rev. E.A. Thomson, of Knox, was delighted to welcome the distinguished visitor, as was the Guelph Presbytery, which met in a special session at the church to honour Rev. Kerr on the morning of his arrival.
In the evening, the ladies of Knox spread out a huge banquet in the church basement. The hall was packed with ministers, guests from the other churches in the area, members of the Knox congregation, and various special guests. Among the latter were Rev. Kerr’s five surviving brothers and his sister. For several, it was their first return to Elora in several decades.
At the head table, along with Rev. Kerr and Rev. Thomson, were Elora reeve R.E. Mills and Dr. McGillivray, of Guelph, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. A dozen men, ministers and prominent businessmen of Elora, rose to express a few words of greeting and goodwill.
After the meal, the assembly moved upstairs for a service. Reeve Mills gave a short address of welcome. N.D. Hall, on behalf of the Knox Session, presented Rev. Kerr with some gifts: a communion token from Chalmers Church, a copy of John Connon’s recently published History of Elora, and a walnut table, a gift of the J.C. Mundell Furniture Company.
Organist and choirmaster H.M. Paton had spent many hours rehearsing the choir, which provided excellent music, including solos by Ida Cromar and Cora Scott.
The chief part of the service was the address by Rev. Kerr. Rather than preach a sermon, he spent about half his time relating his tales of the Elora of his youth. Overcome with sentiment, he claimed that at least half his memories came from the first decade of his life, the years he lived in Elora. Though he been in the United States more than 30 years, he still regarded Canada as his home. Some of the stories he related were humorous, and several were at his own expense.
He stressed the debt he owed his parents for their sacrifices so that he and his brothers could be well educated and useful members of society, and that many of the basic values he held were ones he learned from his mother.
The second half of his talk adhered more closely to his chosen topic, The Faith of Our Fathers. Rev. Kerr stressed that the Christian message, while timeless, must be interpreted in terms that each generation can comprehend.
“If we believe that God reigns, we must believe that everything in the world is under his guiding hand.” He embraced material progress, and welcomed scientific discovery.
His ideas echoed those of his first mentor, Rev. James Middlemiss, of Chalmers Church.
Radio, he noted, was bringing people closer together, and scientific discovery was making life better for everyone. The great problem for the Christian Church is “to make the transfer from the present to future generations – to transmit the faith of our fathers.” That problem, he noted, was not a new one.
He concluded by noting that the Presbyterian Church has always been a family church, and placed responsibility for bringing up children “on the parents and not on the priest.” It was a rebuke to the Catholic Church, and reflected a strain of anti-Romanism and xenophobia that surfaced several times during his remarks.
Like many and perhaps most people of his generation, Hugh Kerr believed that the Protestant church and the Anglo-Saxon race represented the pinnacle of civilization, and that they were gradually achieving ascendancy over much of the world.
At the end of the service, Rev. Kerr enjoyed a lengthy social hour, exchanging anecdotes with Elora people, some of whom he had known as a child.
Hugh T. Kerr retired from his church in 1945, “to make way for a younger man,” he said, and preferably one who had served overseas as a chaplain. He died in 1950.
Rev. Kerr’s son, Hugh T. Kerr, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps as a churchman. He graduated from Princeton in theology in 1931, and went on to the University of Edinburgh for a PhD. On graduation, he joined the theology department of Princeton University, and authored several books on religion.
He was one of the founders of the journal Theology Today, and became its editor in 1951. He remained associated with the magazine until his death in 1992, at the age of 83.
Rev. Hugh T. Kerr was widely regarded at the time of his visit as Elora’s most notable expatriate. It is regrettable that he is so little known today.