Religious holy war was waged at Conn in 1920s

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.

It is more than 90 years since the Methodist Church of Canada united with the Congregationalists and a good portion of the Presbyterian Church to form the United Church of Canada.

Methodists overwhelmingly supported church union, but the proposal split the Presbyterians in two. Consequently, the members of each Presbyterian congregation voted on whether or not to join the United Church.

Rarely was the exercise entirely smooth and without animosity, but in most of cases, in Wellington at least, the situation soon settled down after a period of turmoil.

For example, Knox Presbyterian in Elora voted by a two-to-one majority to stay out of the union in February 1925; a further complication was the fact that the minister favoured union.

The minority simply departed and joined the Methodists down the street. Knox had a new minister in the pulpit by July, and serenity returned.

In towns with two Presbyterian churches, such as Fergus, a resolution could be easier. There, Melville Presbyterian voted in favour of union. The Methodists closed their church and joined the renamed Melville United Church. Anti-unionist Presbyterians walked up the hill to St. Andrews, which remained Presbyterian. Three congregations became reconstituted as two very strong ones.

The hamlet of Conn, eight miles east of Mount Forest, had small and struggling congregations of Methodists and Presbyterians. It was here, surprisingly, that the church union movement resulted in the most fractious situation in Wellington.

Regular church services began in Conn in a log church built by the Presbyterians in 1867, and known as Knox Church, North Luther. One of the bush fires of the 1870s claimed this building. The replacement was a frame structure, and it in turn gave way to a modest brick church in 1892, with pews for 175 people.

Methodism at Conn dates back almost as far. The congregation formed in 1872 as a mission. Their church building went up in 1891. This was never a large or prosperous congregation, and it suffered badly because of rural depopulation in the early years of the 20th century.

The church union that came about in 1925 had been a major national subject of discussion for more than a decade. It seemed, at first, that Conn would be a leader in the movement.

When the Methodist congregation dropped below 50 members in 1922, the ministers in charge of the two Conn churches worked out what they called “a co-operative union.”

A year later, when the details had supposedly been worked out, the Methodists closed their church, which was in a poor state of repair despite being only 32 years old, and attended services at Knox. The Presbyterians had about 140 members, almost three times as many as the Methodists.

For more than a year it seemed that things worked out well. Four Presbyterian and four former Methodists made up the session.

The treasurer consolidated the accounts of the two churches, and the Methodists rented out their manse as a residence, turning over the income to Knox.

The Methodists believed that there had been a complete union, with the new combined congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Canada. The Presbyterians did not share this opinion. When the question of complete church union came up, the goodwill soon evaporated.

The minister, Rev. W.J. Walker, maintained separate Presbyterian and Methodist membership rolls. When new members joined the church, they had a choice of being listed on one or the other. Knox Church was to vote on church union in March, 1925, and some old-line Presbyterians raised the question of who would be entitled to vote.

Anti-union Presbyterians, led by Peter Coutts, an elder, realized that a majority in favour of union was a certainty, given the large number of former Methodists in the church.

The Presbyterian hierarchy ruled that all members of the church would have a vote. Coutts and his anti-unionist associates then requested that the returning officer sent in to supervise the vote have two ballot boxes: one for Presbyterians, the other for former Methodists. The returning officer showed up on March 21, 1923 with only one ballot box.

The final tally confirmed the earlier predictions. Knox in Conn voted to join the United Church by a vote of 99 to 67. Had the former Methodist votes been excluded, there would have been a small margin against union.

These results infuriated the anti-unionists.

Immediately, Coutts and his followers withdrew from the congregation, and began holding their own services in the dining room of the Conn hotel. They claimed they had been refused the use of the church, but they never made a formal application to the session for permission. In due course they protested the whole matter to the provincial Commission on Church Property, which had been set up to sort out difficult situations resulting from the union.

The Commission ruled that the dissident Presbyterians should be allowed to use the church. Beginning in December 1925, they started holding their services Sunday afternoons in the church, paying the session $4 per week in rent.

There followed a two-year guerrilla battle. It brought sadness to several long-standing supporters of the church. E.C. Robson had been clerk of the session for years, and associated with the church since the 1890s. He believed that the initial union in 1923 had been a total one, and that the original vote should stand. Many families, with representation on both sides, had to endure strained relationships. Friends of decades-long standing now spat on the ground as they passed one another in silence.

Sitting at Owen Sound on Nov. 13, 1926, Justice Orde heard the appeal against the vote of March 1923. Peter Coutts and the dissidents convinced him of the soundness of their case.

He ruled that a new vote must be held. He struck off the names of all former Methodists as qualified voters, and added all those who had joined the offshoot Presbyterian congregation since the split.

Voting opened following a meeting of the Presbyterians on Dec. 7. The result this time was 84 against union, and none in favour. The unionists boycotted the vote. They also held a meeting prior to the voting, where they decided to have nothing to do with the exercise.

Forced to give up the church, the Unionists spent the Christmas season making arrangements for alternate quarters. The old Methodist Church still stood, but was in such poor repair that it was unusable. They found a temporary home in the old creamery building.

Fortunately, neither side in the dispute wasted time on recriminations.

Rather, each saw a bright future. The triumphant Presbyterians made plans for renovations to the church, and negotiated an agreement to share a minister with the Presbyterians in Mount Forest. They boasted that their membership had increased from about 90 to 120 during the interval they had been dispossessed of the building, and they anticipated further recruits.

As well, they began legal proceedings for the church funds and those of the Ladies Aid.

The Unionists moved their minister, Rev. W.A. Westcott, from the Presbyterian manse to the former Methodist manse after evicting the rent-paying tenant who was living there. Rev. Westcott had come to Conn in July 1925, following the first vote. He and the now-churchless Unionists also had plans.

Rather than renovate the old Methodist edifice, they purchased a building lot from Jim Spicer for $150 and prepared to construct a new church, using a loan of $5,000 from the United Home Mission Board to start the project. It would have pews for 175 – the same as the Presbyterian church, with a total construction budget of some $14,000.

To cut down on costs, the building committee salvaged what they could from the old building. The congregation claimed to have 121 members, and saw a potential for more amongst the farm population in every direction.

Under Rev. Westcott’s youthful enthusiasm, the new brick church went up over the summer of 1927 and opened for services on Sept. 18 of that year. The congregation named the church Westcott United in honour of their minister.

Pundits at the time predicted a short life for the Conn United Church and its small congregation.

Time proved them wrong.

Dozens of country churches in Wellington County have closed over the past 75 years, but Westcott United still welcomes worshipers each week.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 25, 2002.

Thorning Revisited