Harriston’s Guthrie Church rejected use of Gaelic in services

In the 20th century the majority of Canadian Presbyterians supported the establishment of the United Church in Canada.

But that event caused much animosity among some Presbyterians, who were determined to maintain their own denomination.

The controversy over the formation of the United Church in 1925 was the last of many major disruptions that had plagued Canadian Presbyterianism beginning in the 1840s.

The differences between the major factors, from the perspective of the 21st century, seem insignificant, but at the time and in the eyes of Presbyterians, they were major ones.

The best known of the disruptions among Presbyterians occurred in the 1840s, when the Free Church faction broke away from the main body of Presbyterians, but there were others.

Canadian Church history is much more interesting than most people today realize.

In Wellington County, Harriston’s Presbyterians have perhaps the most interesting history. That denomination dates formal activities there to 1857, with a series of informal services. A formal Presbyterian Church was organized there in 1861.

In that year a young man named George McLennan came to Harriston as a student missionary. A church building had not yet been erected, and McLennan conducted services wherever he could, using crammed settlers’ houses, barns and occasionally a school house.

McLennan preached in both English and Gaelic in order to suit all the Scottish settlers in Minto. Lowland Scots preferred to use English, but Highlanders, who initially comprised the majority of Scottish settlers, remained loyal to Gaelic, some extremely so.

A few, in fact, knew only rudimentary English. The controversy over language emerged early in the history of the congregation.

In 1864 the Harrison family, who were influential settlers and the founders of Harriston, donated a piece of land for the construction of a church building, and a frame structure went up with donated labour later in the year.

On Nov. 9 of that year George McLennan was inducted as the resident minister of what was named Knox Church. Church membership was a serious business for the settlers in Harriston and Minto.

Rev. McLennan supported measures to ensure high moral standards among the members of the congregation, and on occasion was prepared to suspend those whose conduct did not measure up.

He frowned especially on gossip and slander, and took a very dim view of theft and public drunkenness.

Like many Presbyterians of the time, McLennan frowned on the singing of hymns, and considered music of any kind in the church to be sacrilegious. The latter was an issue in Harriston, as in most congregations. In 1867 the members divided over a proposal to acquire an organ, and in the end, rejected the idea.

By then, in 1867, the membership of the church numbered about 200 families. The language issue continued to be a controversial matter.

In 1869 the church reached a compromise at the Easter season. Services on Good Friday were in English, but on Sunday the Gaelic supporters worshipped in the basement Sunday School, occasionally drowned out by the English supporters and their services upstairs in the main body of the church.

Supporters of English in church services grew increasingly frustrated during the early 1870s with their failed attempts to eliminate Gaelic entirely from the services. By 1875 they had suffered enough.

A group of them broke away from the Knox congregation and established Guthrie Church, giving Harriston a second Presbyterian congregation. They formed a building committee, and eventually erected their own church at a cost of $12,000, equivalent to more than a million dollars in today’s purchasing power. The bulk of the cost came from a loan through the British Canadian Loan and Investment Company.

The land, at the corner of Queen and Maitland Streets, was donated by the locally prominent Meiklejohn family. The name for the church honoured Thomas Guthrie, a noted Scottish preacher who died in 1873. The building itself was in the gothic style, built of yellow brick made at the brickyards in Drew.

Meanwhile, Knox Church, in a defiant move, thumbed their noses at the breakaway dissidents by starting construction on a new church in 1877.

Considering the loss of a significant portion of their membership to the new Guthrie Church, construction at that time was probably unwise. Soon their was a financial crisis at Knox, and the financial strain remained a burden on the congregation for years.

The situation for Knox improved somewhat when the church at Cotswold became part of the Harriston charge.

Despite adhering to the Gaelic language, and continuing to frown on the use of music, Knox Church enjoyed a growth spurt during the 1880s, growing by almost 50 per cent in membership.

Knox also supported the temperance movement strongly, unlike many Presbyterians, who were lukewarm or neutral on the issue.

A major change came in 1899, when the Knox congregation approved the purchase of a pipe organ, replacing the use of a tuning fork that had been used to try to keep everyone on pitch. In 1908 there were further capital expenditures, when the entrance way was reconstructed. The main entrance was now at ground level on the side of the building on Raglan Street.

Two years later came a significant change for Knox Church. The use of Gaelic, which had been so important a generation earlier, was eliminated from services. In truth, there was little choice. By then only a few very old people maintained any sort of fluency in Gaelic, and incorporating Gaelic into the services had become impossible.

The end of Gaelic removed the significant difference between the Knox and Guthrie congregations.

In 1919 the first Guthrie members transferred their membership to Knox, and over the next five years the defectors began to leave in a steady stream. Church attendance everywhere eroded during the 1920s, and soon Guthrie became unviable. In November of 1923 Guthrie Church disbanded, after 48 years.

The Presbytery of Saugeen met on Oct. 15, 1923 at a special meeting, where the only agenda item was a presentation from a delegation from Guthrie Church asking for permission to disband. The delegates explained that it had become impossible financially for them to continue, as a result of defections to Knox and declining support from nominal adherents.

As well, the coming merger of the Methodist and many Presbyterians to form the United Church was expected to have a further negative impact on Guthrie Church.

The Presbytery, regretfully, acknowledged the wisdom of the request, and granted permission to disband. They recognized the faithfulness and sacrifice of those who had supported Guthrie through the years, and noted that several dedicated ministers had served there.

Perhaps the last outstanding issue was what to do with the Guthrie church building. The Presbytery thought the wise step would be to appoint a group of local trustees to hold the property, and to work with the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The committee sold some the pews and other furnishing to other churches in the area. The organ went to a church in Palmerston, and some of the furnishings were moved to Knox Church in Harriston.

Joseph J. Pritchard purchased the church building when it was stripped of most of its furnishings for $500, a pittance compared to its original cost. He soon demolished the structure, and used the lot for new houses.

So ended the history of Guthrie Church in Harriston.


Stephen Thorning