Quarrelling Presbyterians of Fergus set new standards

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.

People in the 19th century regarded religion – or more accurately, their church – with a degree of ardor that is both strange and fascinating as the increasingly secular 21st century begins.

The old-timers of a century ago found in their church a sense of identity and veracity. Often, they were prepared to defend their church, and their personal view of its proper form and function, to extraordinary lengths.

Wellington County’s religious history is littered with defections of people from one church to another after something had caused them offence. Major rifts resulted in the creation of new church congregations, or the crippling of old ones, when a significant portion of the members exited.

Trouble could result from disputed theological points, but most often the source of difficulty can be found in church management or personal animosity.

Perhaps the most fractious of Wellington County’s churches was St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Fergus. The senior religious institution in that town, it first ran into difficulty in 1844, when the dissident Free Church movement spread to Canada from Scotland. These were reformers who sought a complete separation of church and state, specifically the Church of Scotland.

In Fergus, a group of insurgents literally seized the original St. Andrew’s church building, and occupied it day and night for a couple of weeks. Resolution of the confrontation came with the creation of the Melville church congregation. The fiery young minister, George Smellie, supported the defectors. He became Melville’s first minister, and remained there for some 45 years.

That situation was part of a Canada-wide movement, and is less interesting than a later episode at St. Andrew’s that continued for fully two years, beginning in the summer of 1869. 

The official records show that St. Andrew’s had no minister between 1869 and 1871.  I have always found this to be rather strange for the oldest Presbyterian Church in a very Presbyterian town. Both the printed histories of St. Andrew’s allude to a quarrel in the congregation during this period, but are rather short on details. There had to be more. There certainly was.

As far as can be determined 132 years after the fact, the trouble began with some animosity between George Macdonnell, the St. Andrew’s minister, and a faction within the congregation. Whatever the real reason, Macdonnell resigned, perhaps under pressure, in August 1869.

Trouble continued to simmer through the rest of 1869 and into 1870. A succession of ministers, on both a supply and trial basis, stood at the pulpit and then passed on. No minister, it seems, came even close to satisfying everyone’s expectations.

Rev. Macdonnell, meanwhile, pressed for his 1869 salary, which had not been paid. The congregation could hardly plead poverty: they had constructed the impressive church building seven years before, and their numbers included most of the well-to-do lairds of Fergus. Nevertheless, the finances of the church were not in a healthy condition, and communication from Macdonnell to St. Andrew’s on the matter went unanswered for months.

Macdonnell, when he had come to Fergus in 1855, had secured a bond, signed by several of the elders, personally guaranteeing his salary. The signature of A.D. Fordyce Jr. appeared first on the bond. On Feb. 15, 1870, Fordyce received a letter from the high-profile legal firm of Campbell, Mowat and Macdonnell of Kingston, demanding payment of $320 salary plus accrued interest from the beginning of 1869. The lawyers promised a lawsuit if the money did not come at once.

The Fordyce family had been associated with St. Andrew’s from its beginning 35 years earlier. A. Dingwall Fordyce, as he signed his name, saw himself in the role of a pacifier and guardian of the church. To deal with this matter as simply as possible, and not let it further complicate the search for a new minister, he offered to donate the amount of the unpaid back salary. He made the offer with a condition: that the managers of St. Andrew’s must find a new minister agreeable to all before he signed the cheque.

To resolve the matter quickly, before legal costs started to mount, Fordyce relented a few days later, before a minister was found. He passed $320 to James Watt, secretary of the Board of Managers, in late February 1870. A week later it came back, with an explanation that the managers considered the affair to be one between Macdonnell and those who had signed the bond, “… and that the managers deem it advisable not to interfere in the matter.”

After further correspondence with the lawyers, Fordyce sent the money to the Kingston legal firm directly a few weeks later. Macdonnell, for his part, agreed to forego the accrued interest.

Now the shoe was on the other foot. Fordyce wanted the bond returned to him. He had no luck getting it from either the Kingston lawyers or from Macdonnell. Frustrated, he took the matter to a meeting of the Hamilton Presbytery in April 1870.

Here he found a sympathetic ear. The Presbytery passed a resolution regretting the “improper course pursued towards Mr. Fordyce,” and went on “to record their entire disapproval of the conduct of Rev. George Macdonnell … and instruct him forthwith to cause to be delivered up to this Presbytery the bond in question.”

Macdonnell, who was not present, seethed when he heard of the proceedings. He had been in the process of moving to Milton at the time in question. His possessions had been stored in various places, and mail was not yet reaching him at his new address.

He was so furious he went to the meeting of the Presbyterian Synod (the governing body of the Church of Scotland in Canada) in Montreal the following June. Here he successfully pleaded with the Synod to remove the offending resolution and remarks from the minutes of the Hamilton Presbytery.

This put the shoe back on the other foot. When the Hamilton Presbytery met again, this time in Guelph in December 1870, a more rabid group of clerics could not be found anywhere. They passed a resolution condemning the Synod for interfering in matters entirely out of its jurisdiction, and they summoned Macdonnell to appear before the body with an explanation.

Macdonnell further inflamed the Presbytery by strolling in late, and then refusing to answer any questions or give any explanations, stating that the matter had been dealt with by the Synod and was now entirely resolved – he had returned the bond as soon as he could get his hands on it.

As well as the Macdonnell business, the Presbytery meeting also wrestled with the increasingly troublesome group of dissidents at St. Andrew’s. They had now organized themselves into a committee, led by L.C. Munro, the Fergus druggist.

The Presbytery appointed J.B. Muir as the new minister at St. Andrew’s in July 1870. He preached for a couple of weeks, then received a letter stating that his services would no longer be required.

Munro’s committee met at the end of August 1870, and decided that they would receive no more supply ministers sent by the Hamilton Presbytery. They claimed, obviously falsely, that they had the unanimous consent of the congregation in this action.

A month later, Munro sent another letter to the Presbytery, sarcastic in tone, stating that he would leave the appointment of a new minister entirely to the Presbytery. The secretary of the Presbytery acknowledged it tersely: “Your funny letter of the 28th inst. has been received. Yours truly, (Rev.) Robert Burnet.”

L.C. Munro cranked up the animosity and sarcasm another notch with his reply: “Sir: Your impertinent letter of the 30th inst. has been received. I will have much pleasure in placing it along with the rest of your valuable correspondence, in the hands of the clerk of the Synod.”

Despite the total breakdown in communications, the Presbytery continued to send supply ministers to Fergus. A succession of them, named Edmison, Campbell, Herald and Livingstone, tested the waters through the fall of 1870. 

Munro’s group permitted a couple of them to preach. The others presided over services in the Fergus Congregational church, which the old-guard St. Andrew’s members borrowed for their services. A.D. Fordyce personally paid most of these ministers for their work and expenses.

On several Sundays, the dissidents allowed a Free Church minister to preach in St. Andrew’s, in direct competition with the other service at the Congregational church.

In an attempt to consolidate their hold on St. Andrew’s, Munro and his associates voted for the removal of John Brockie, Alex Cadenhead and James Rettie as elders. Brockie and Cadenhead presented an appeal to the Presbytery meeting of December 1870. That body restored their names to the rolls.

The dissidents of St. Andrew’s, who now controlled the Board of Managers, were, by this time, severely trying the patience of the Presbytery. 

The Presbytery had endured enough. They decided that the key to the church should be put in the hands of A.D. Fordyce rather than the managers.

Rev. Robert Burnet wrote an official letter to L.C. Munro with the news. The stage was set for a major confrontation. 

It was not long in coming.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 20, 2001.

Thorning Revisited