Fergus witnessed a religious battle and debate in 1886

During the 1880s, the church­es of Wellington County occupied a place in daily life that is hard to imagine today. The vast majority of people at­tended church every Sunday, and sometimes for both morn­ing and evening services. Grace was obligatory at meals in most households, as were daily pray­ers.

Society had tamed consid­erably over the course of a gen­eration. Quiet respectable liv­ing had become the norm by 1870 or so, quite a contrast to the wild, rambunctious times of the 1840s and 1850s. The Prot­estant churches had played a large part in that change. As well, they took pride in the temp­erance movement’s suc­ces­ses as just one of the signs that society was making moral progress, as well as material advance. The building boom in churches between 1865 and 1875 was the clearest sign of the supremacy of religion.

By the mid 1880s, not all was as rosy as that picture suggests for organized religion. Rapid advances in science re­lentlessly pushed religion into a corner of life from its previous central place. Materialism and social status seemed to be rising in importance over piety and humility. Aggravating such concerns was the appearance of new religious denominations. Those upstarts seemed a threat to the established churches, and they tended to fragment the Chris­tian message.

The Salvation Army was one of the newcomers. To re­spectable people, the Army seemed a little too anxious to appeal to those at the bottom of society, and their methods were lacking a certain decorum. De­spite contempt from older chur­ch­es, the Army gained a foot­hold in Wellington County. But the Salvation Army was just one of the threats to the old order.

During the spring of 1886, recruiters for the United Breth­ren, led by a man named Sims, from Brantford, held a series of meetings and revivals in Fergus.

They had some suc­cess, and attracted new ad­herents from the Methodist and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian con­gre­gations.

The ministers of the old line churches were soon in fury, over both the loss of portions of their flocks, and over alleged attacks made on their denomi­nations by the Brethren recruit­ers. Their solution to the prob­lem was to bring in a speaker to dissect the Brethren message. They found one in the person of Rev. T.L. Wilkinson, of Park­dale. He agreed to come to Fergus on March 15, 1886. Sims, the Brethren spokesman, asked to be allowed to respond.

Sure of their theological ground, the Fergus ministers read­ily agreed.

Expecting a good crowd, the Fergus ministers moved the talk on “Brethrenism” from the Methodist Church to the Drill Shed on St. Andrew Street. They were not disappointed. The lecture attracted close to a full house. Rev. Wilkinson took to the stage at 8pm, and kept the attention of the audience for two hours with his jabs and barbs at the Brethren and the many errors in their brand of theology. Mr. Sims replied, but rather than respond to the points brought up by his op­po­nent, he launched into a re­vivalist sermon for more than an hour.

Despite the lack of a real debate, the crowd was delight­ed with the evening of more than three hours of religious talk. Rev. J.B. Mullan, of St Andrew’s Church, persuaded the two combatants to return the following night, with a re­vised format. The speakers would alternate every 30 minutes, in order to make the evening more of a debate.

The crowd on Tuesday, March 16 completely filled the hall. The evening was billed as Orthodoxy versus Brethrenism, but the fireworks were still missing. Wilkinson and Sims seemed to be in general agree­ment on every theological issue brought up that evening, other than minuscule differences in details. One man present stated that it would take a powerful microscope to detect any dif­fer­ence between the religious views of the two men. Never­theless, people seemed satis­fied.

Unbelievably, Rev. Mullan and his associates were able to pack the Drill Shed for a third straight night. By then, every­one agreed that the series should continue all week. In that era the Protestant churches often cooperated in offering a week of prayer, with services every night for a week. The debates between Rev. Wilkin­son and Sims had turned out to be much more popular that any Week of Prayer series ever of­fered in Fergus.

The third confrontation had for its subject Christ’s Second Coming. For the first time, there was a major difference be­tween the two. Rev. Wilkin­son argued that Christ will re­turn at the end of the Millen­nium. Sims insisted that the Second Coming would herald the beginning of Christ’s 1,000 year reign over the world, which would end with the Mil­lennium and the eternal judg­ment of everyone.

Wilkinson and Sims seemed to think that their argument over the Second Coming and the Millennium was so riveting that they continued it the fol­low­ing evening. The next night, a Friday, Wilkinson de­fended the Orthodox teachings of Protestantism, and Sims challenged them.

On Saturday, Sims had to return to Brantford. He was the lay preacher in the Brethren church there. There was no debate that evening, but the local Brethren converts assem­bled at the Fergus town hall for a prayer meeting, and a second one on Sunday afternoon. Both attracted quite a few curious visitors. The local Brethren were pleased that Sims had held his own in the week of debates, and that he seemed to be attracting more converts. The strategy of the Fergus min­isters, they believed,  had back­fired.

Rev. J.B. Mullan and his Fer­gus supporters were also pleased with the week, which had produced something of an religious awakening in Fergus. On Sunday evening Mullan held a combined Methodist and Presbyterian service at the Drill Shed. The hall was packed to the rafters.

A full week of well-attended religious debates, even in the 1880s, was some­thing of a novelty. The Fergus events soon attracted attention from other centres, and news­papers across the province re­ported the meetings. Some papers offered the opinion that Fergus people had nothing else to do in the evenings, and were easily amused. Readers also chimed in with letters to the editor.

More than one person argu­ed that the Fergus ministers organized and publicized the debates out of fear of losing members. Smaller congre­ga­tions would have a direct im­pact on their salaries. A significant minority of people in that era, including many devout Christians, did not have a high opinion of minis­ters – they believed that clergymen were too lazy to do real work, and that they jealously guarded their salaries and positions against any interlopers.

With interest in Fergus still at a high pitch, Rev. Mullan began a second week of debat­es on March 22, 1886. Sims did not return from Brantford. In­stead, Rev. Mullan and his colleagues found a man named McCaffrey to argue the side of the Brethren. Wilkinson and Mc­Caffrey battled for two even­ings on the subject of Or­tho­doxy, but they failed to agree on a subject and format for their third encounter.

On March 24, there were two meetings, one held by Mc­Caffrey at the town hall for the Brethren, their supporters, and a generous sprinkling of the curi­ous. Rev. Wilkinson spoke at St. Andrew’s Church, a block away. Both attracted good crowds, though attendance was fading somewhat from the pre­vious week.

So ended one of the most unusual series of religious meet­ings in Wellington Coun­ty’s history. Many observers were hard pressed to explain the interest and enthusiasm for lengthy talks on the most min­ute and insignificant points of Protestant religion. Even the edi­tor of the Fergus Constitu­tion was perplexed. He ascrib­ed the splendid turnouts to the fact that people could hear three or more hours of religion without being asked to drop even a penny on the collection plate.

In the end, Rev. Mullan and the members of the other Prot­estant churches in Fergus need not have worried that the Breth­ren would gain a foothold in their town.

The Brethren were never more than a small minority anywhere in Ontario. There were two Brethren church­es in Wellington, at Mor­riston and Clifford, but they originated with the Evangelical Church, which later merged with the Brethren to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

The 60 Ontario churches in that denomination merged with the United Church in 1968.



Stephen Thorning