Manitoba Historical Society
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Church History Resources of Manitoba

by G. B. King

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1944-45 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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May I state at the beginning - by way of a plea for an interest in Manitoba Church history among the activities of the Historical Society of Manitoba - my belief that religion, or its expression in the Church (using that term in a broad sense) is part and parcel of the life of a people. It is itself acted upon by all the currents - social, economic and political - that determine the complexion of a nation at any time; but, because it is a creative and determinative force in society, it in turn influences them. To neglect the Church, its developments, the lives of its great leaders, is, therefore, to my mind to gain but a partial or emasculated view of the total life of a people.

The history of the Church is, of course, best sought in the records of its courts and boards, in the correspondence that its great men - and its little men - have left behind, in the books and articles they wrote. But it lives too in its church buildings, schools, and other institutions. Our newest and more magnificent church structures are only the latest chapter of a story of church building which goes back to the earliest days of our history as a province and colony. Such churches as the old stone church at St. Andrews, and Kildonan Presbyterian Church, to name but two, are the possession of us all. I would hope that some day in the not too distant future this society, or some committee of it, might undertake a project which would include not only the calling of the attention of the public to our rich heritage in old churches still standing, but also to an identification of the sites of historic churches that have disappeared. Nor should this work be confined to our cities and towns. That little deserted church in the country, with its broken steps and windows gaping wide to the wind and the rain, may have a story to tell of pioneer faith and endeavour which we should do well to preserve. This, however, by the way.

My interest in the Church history of Canada dates a long way back. It became enlarged, and definitely focused upon Manitoba, when a few years ago, upon the retirement of the late Rev. Dr. Andrew B. Baird, it was necessary for me to take over the chair of Church History of the Faculty of Theology, United College. It was then that I began to pay particular attention to the resources available for telling the story of the Church in Manitoba. I speak here particularly of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches that entered into union to form the United Church of Canada.

In any appraisal of our resources, it must be remembered that the administrative centre of the early work begun in this province by these three Churches was Toronto. Necessarily, much of the early records are to be found there. In 1940, for example, there was held at Norway House the centenary of the coming of James Evans to what is now northern Manitoba under the Wesleyan Missionary Society. Evans opened up work among the Cree Indians, but is especially known as the inventor of the syllabic system of writing the Indian sounds, which has given a literature and a means of communication to these first Canadians. Yet the province of Manitoba, where this inventor-missionary did his greatest work, has not a single important memento of him.

I have held in my hands one of the first little birch-bark books which he produced, bearing his syllabic writing. I have handled some of the type with which he printed these books, made from lead melted down from tea chests. But these books and type are treasures of the Library of Victoria University, Toronto. Several years ago I came across the following interesting paragraph in a book entitled Thirty Years in the Canadian North-West, written by the Rev. Dr. James Woodsworth, superintendent of missions in the West of the then Methodist Church, and father of the late James Woodsworth, former leader of the C.C.F. party. It appears in an account of a trip of inspection which Dr. Woodsworth paid to the Methodist Indian missions in Northern Manitoba in July 1893, and runs as follows: "We are bringing with us the slate on which he (James Evans) designed the characters and parts of his printing press, as well as part of a stone used for grinding grain into flour. These are to be placed in the Museum of Wesley College, Winnipeg." All I can say of this paragraph is that, as far as I can find out, Wesley College never had a museum and these relics never reached the college.

From a story which the late James Woodsworth, M.P., once told me, the details of which are rather hazy in my mind, the millstone lay here in Winnipeg in the backyard of the Rev. John Semmens, until one day, possibly after his death, its value being unrecognized, it was handed over to the scavenging department to be taken to the city dump.

One thing only, reminiscent of James Evans, is in the archives of the United Church in Manitoba, and that is a piece of one of the beams which he worked into the first church built at Norway House. Your searcher for cold facts may tell me that that piece of wood does not mean anything by way of historical narrative. I admit that quite readily; yet to me who am sentimental as well as, I hope, a searcher after facts, that fragment of the work of James Evans speaks of sacrifice and faith and courage, expended one hundred years ago freely in this West of ours, and they are the intangibles which produce history. I make no apology, therefore, for a feeling of reverence as I look upon this only relic of James Evans which, so far as I know, remains to Manitoba.

I had not been long engaged in my present task of Church History before I discovered that while something had been done, possibly a great deal, to conserve our Manitoba Church history resources, and to write that history (I refer here more particularly to the former Methodist and Presbyterian Churches), the work was not continuous, its results were not adequately listed, nor was provision made for others to carry on where the originators of the projects left off.

Correspondence, for example, between the late Dr. A. B. Baird and the late Dr. D. A. Stewart of the Sanatarium at Ninette, shows that they had formed a plan by which the history of the former Presbyterian Church in Manitoba should be covered in the work of various writers who had been pioneers in -he fields of which they were to write. It would appear that the project was not carried on to completion. Some very valuable material has come down, such as, for example, a lengthy "Sketch of the History of the Presbyterian Church in the High Bluff or Portage Plains Area," by Rev. Dr. S. C. Murray, at one time the honored superintendent of missions for the Presbyterian Church in Manitoba. Nevertheless, what has come down would appear to be but a small part of the whole that was planned. Time has not permitted me more than a hurried look through the material belonging to Manitoba College or the archives of the United Church in Manitoba gathered mainly through the efforts of Dr. Baird, and it may be that a more leisured search will reveal more.

I have before me a plan devised by the "Historical Department, Theological Institute, Manitoba Conference, 1886-87 which reveals a similar project by the Methodist Church in Manitoba to record its history. It includes a long list of planned articles on the work in various districts and on special phases of the Church's activities. Many of these articles were completed and are at present in the possession of the Library of Victoria University, Toronto, having been inadvertently included among the archives of the United Church of Canada collected for that Church by the late Dr. John Maclean, chief archivist of the United Church for some years previous to his death. We have a promise that this and other material obviously belonging to Manitoba will be returned to us. When it is, our resources bearing upon the beginnings of Methodism in Manitoba and the North-West will be greatly enlarged.

Nevertheless, a good deal of valuable material is available for the study of our Church history. I will refer to this later. In the meantime, may I mention some "finds" which in the course of the last few years have come my way?

A little over a year ago I was examining the contents of a parcel which bore the inconspicuous label, "Manitoba College." There was scarcely anything in the parcel worth preserving except one treasure - a small bundle of letters of John Black, founder of Kildonan Presbyterian Church, the first Presbyterian church in the Canadian West, written to his brother, the Rev. James Black. These letters start back in Upper Canada in 1846, they touch on his work in Quebec, and detail his trip from Upper Canada to the West by way of Minnesota in 1851, They cover something of his early work here. There are later letters, but with large blanks in time. There is probably the last letter that he wrote to his brother, written with an indelible pencil in a trembling hand, in which he says, "I am probably writing on my deathbed. Well if so God's with me." This letter is dated January 19, 1882, On February 12 of that year he died.

My investigations showed that these letters had been secured from Rev. James Black by Dr. George Bryce, probably for the writing of his book, John Black, the Apostle of the Red River. Dr. Bryce makes some small use of them in that book, but here they are in full. Correspondence reveals much of a man. We have so few remains of John Black by which to gather a full and accurate picture of him. Dr. Bryce's book goes only part way in giving us that picture and leaves much in the life and activities of John Black unanswered. These letters - few enough though the number - to a beloved brother, do lead us somewhat further into the intimacies of the man's life.

Among these letters I found one from Rev. James Black, dated from Hamilton September 29, 1897, to Dr. Bryce in which he states that he has "still a large number of my brother's letters, which I missed when I sent the others to Kildonan several years ago, but I do not think that anything contained in them would be of any advantage to you now." Dr. Bryce's book was published in 1898, but the material had appeared or was appearing in The Westminster in 1897, and there is no record that he ever sent for these other letters, or if he did, we cannot be sure that they are included among these that have been found. Dr. Bryce's account of John Black's activities during the political struggle of 1869-70 is obscure, almost deliberately so, it appears to me. No letters from that period appear in this collection. What would we not give if we had his letters to his brother covering that stirring period! They may well have been among those offered in James Black's letter of September 29, 1897.

While I am on the subject of Dr. Bryce's book, may I say that there has also turned up among the archives, an article entitled "Rev. John Black, D.D., Sketch of His Early Life." There is no name attached, but a comparison of the writing with that of James Black's letter shows that it is the work of James Black. The interesting thing is that the material of this article forms the basis of the first two chapters of Dr. Bryce's book, though in the book there is no acknowledgement of that fact.

Several years ago I secured the diary and some correspondence belonging to Rev. John Scott, early Presbyterian missionary of the seventies around Emerson. The correspondence is largely that of friends and from the period of Mr. Scott's life in Upper Canada before he came West. The diary is sketchy and brief, yet contains some few items of value in the building up of the church picture around Emerson in those early days.

A few weeks ago I responded to an invitation over the 'phone to collect a few theological books which were offered to our library. They turned out to be the remains of the library of the Rev. Dr. Hugh Mackay, for over forty years missionary to the Cree Indians at Round Lake in the Qu'Appelle valley. Dr. Mackay died in 1928, but his widow lived on to the end of last year. His niece was down from Edmonton clearing up the estate and she it was who offered us the books. As usual, I enquired if there were any note-books, documents or manuscripts available also. This time I was rewarded, for a note-book of Dr. Mackay's was discovered off to one side. Though Dr. Mackay had been in Saskatchewan only six months before the Indian troubles of 1884-85 broke out, nevertheless in that time he so won the confidence of the Indians as to persuade the tribes about him on the Qu'Appelle to remain neutral. Apparently in the days of his retirement in Winnipeg he began to write the story of his service to the Church. There are only fifty or so pages at the most, the story is not related in order, nevertheless I found in it a narrative with all the marks of drama of a visit he paid to a tent full of warlike Indians whom by his diplomacy he won over to peace.

Other things have turned up, varying in importance, but I must not prolong this part of my paper. This I have found in my search for material bearing on the Church, that nothing should be passed over, however unpromising in its yield of factual matter it may appear. A little pamphlet on "Clearwater 1876-1885," for example, contains the story of a lady who in those early days had on one Sabbath three services in succession in her home - Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist; then the Rev. George Rodgers arrived to hold the Anglican one, but on hearing that the people had had three services already he cancelled his! It was such circumstances as these that set the stage for union churches in the West which in turn resulted in the formation of the United Church of Canada.

Another pamphlet entitled "Stories of Pioneer Days at Killarney" yielded a story of the student mission days of the late Dr. C. W. Gordon at High View. At the house in which he had service a hen used to lay in the house on the bed. One Sunday she was on her nest at church time, so the lady of the house took off her apron and laid it over her. But brave Biddy got up in the middle of the sermon and proclaimed to all the house that she had laid an egg! Such were the difficulties the pioneer preacher in Manitoba met with.

In the note-book of Dr. Hugh Mackay referred to I found a reference to his diary. Of that diary his niece knew nothing and I fear that it is to be in cluded among the things forever lost. The list of such "lost" items in Manitoba is too long a one. May I name a few, in the hope that it may create an interest that will uncover some?

For a brief period around 1892, Rev. G. H. Long, then at Boissevain, and Rev. Henry Lewis, stationed at Killarney, published a little paper called the Methodist Gleaner. That is all I know of it. I have never seen a copy and have been able to locate none. It may be that there are copies of it among the rich archival stores of Victoria University, Toronto, but I have my doubts. We may still have hopes that in some family whose forebears were Methodist, a set of this early venture in religious journalism in Manitoba may yet turn up.

In Dr. George Bryce's John Black, of which I have made mention, there appears, in an account of the first Presbyterian preparatory service held in the Red River settlement, December 13, 1851, this interesting sentence: "Tokens of admission to the Lord's table were cautiously distributed." What was the nature of these tokens - were they of metal (as was usual), cardboard, or just ordinary paper? Is it possible that one is yet, somewhere, in existence? On a wall of my office hangs a frame containing a unique and valuable collection of communion tokens used in an older day by Canadian Presbyterian churches. What would not one give to see one of the original tokens of old Kildonan Presbyterian church added to it! [1]

Among the written Methodist material at present in Toronto there is an article on "Methodism in the Winnipeg District" by Rev. John Semmens, Methodist pioneer minister and Indian missionary in Manitoba, father of J. N. Semmens, the architect. That article is only ten pages in length. I have been told, however, by someone - I am not sure of the name of my informant - that Mr. Semmens once composed a complete history of Methodism in Manitoba, loaned the manuscript for examination to a very well-known Methodist layman of the day in Winnipeg, and never received it back from him. Mr. Semmens had a flair for writing; witness his little book, The Field and the Work: Sketches of Missionary Life in the Far North. He had given the years of his ministry to Manitoba. The loss of this manuscript was a tragedy, for its ever coming to light now is a very remote possibility.

I have seen a letter that reveals the fact that Capt. G. H. Young, son of Rev. Dr. Geo. Young, founder of Grace Methodist (now United) Church of this city had given his papers into the custody of Wesley College, but that no use of them was to be made until his death. Mr. Young had as a young man participated in the events of 1869-70 in this city. He had taken part in the further troubles of 1885. The material has doubtless little or nothing to do with the Church (unless it includes his father's "Journal," mentioned in Dr. Young's Manitoba Memories), but it should be of great value in the additional information it may furnish on those troublous times. It would appear that by Mr. Young's consent the material was loaned to Toronto for a short time, but was to be returned to Winnipeg. I am hoping that it may still lie hidden somewhere in the fastnesses of United College or of Victoria College Library.

And so I could go on. It is to be regretted that so much of Manitoba church history material has been lost, so great an amount never even collected at a time when it was at hand for the gathering. And yet, when one takes into consideration times and circumstances, it could hardly have been otherwise. All honor is due to such men as Dr. A. B. Baird and Dr. John Maclean for the work they did. They worked with few resources and with scarcely any clerical assistance. Space for storage of what they collected was at a premium. They labored against the indifference of contemporaries who were too near the events to see the value of preserving the chronicle of them. The marvel is that they were able to accomplish so much in the face of such handicaps.

The future looks brighter for the preservation of our archives. Means will be at our disposal which were not available earlier. May I suggest that by cooperative endeavor which will gather up the results of all our various Church units - Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, United Church and others - we may be able in the near future to lay before students and any who wish to consult it a great body of Manitoba Church material. I will illustrate what I mean by reference to the problem as I see it of the United Church material.

United College and the Conference of Manitoba have through the years accumulated a large amount of "Minutes" and "Records" and other printed documentary material bearing on the Western Conferences and Synods of the former Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. This needs to be sorted out and listed, so that blanks may be ascertained and some effort made to fill in those blanks. A beginning has been made in this work, but it requires to be carried to completion. Duplicates can then be made available to other libraries requiring them.

Similarly there is a fairly extensive body of written records of Synods, Conferences, Presbyteries, District Meetings and of individual churches scattered over the province. These also await listing.

Much material in the way of pamphlets, printed and written articles, etc. is on hand, which requires sorting and documenting also.

It is impossible for a Western theological professor who must devote so much of his time and energy to lecturing, to find time to do the necessary cataloguing work on this material. It is economically wasteful for him to attempt to do it. What is needed to take care of the situation is a fund which will provide clerical or student assistance or both, whereby such work could be accomplished, under his guidance, but without unnecessary drain upon his time. It would appear to be a field where the donation of a few scholarships over a period of years would help towards the accomplishment of a pressing task.

There are records of individual churches throughout the province, still in the possession of their original owners, which contain historical material of great value. I mention but one such, Little Britain United Church, opened as a Presbyterian Church in 1874. That church has in its possession a session book which records, among other interesting items, an instance of the disciplinary action taken with one of its members for some offence - days which are gone forever, I fear, from our Protestant Churches! It has also a record book of the annual meetings of the church, beginning with the first meeting held under the chairmanship of John Black of the Old Kildonan Presbyterian Church. The minutes of that first meeting are in his handwriting and bear his signature. Necessarily, Little Britain Church values these books. Nevertheless, an effort should be instituted to microfilm the contents of these and similar records and thus make them available for reading and examination by students.

I am thus led to remark that microfilming as applied to library work should make it possible to restore to the West some of the original material that found its way to the East and elsewhere. There is no doubt but that after the War we shall see a great extension of the use of microfilm in our libraries. If we can obtain microfilm copies of records, occupying only a small proportion of the space the original records do, we need not worry much who has the originals, particularly since the microfilms will outlast the originals.

A special project to which United College Library has devoted itself latterly is the building up of a section of the Library devoted to Canadian church history, with particular attention to the West. There is a great deal of this material - straight history, biography, autobiography, narrative, fiction, even the adventure and boys' stories of E. R. Young and John McDougall - but it is fast disappearing or finding a place on booksellers' lists at continually advancing prices (John West's journal, for example, was recently offered, without cover, at $10). A growing body of friends of the library, interested in this project, are helping us in the building up of this Canadian church history collection by gifts from their own libraries. Here too we need a fund upon which we could draw for purchases as opportunity offered to secure wanted titles.

I would, in conclusion, offer the suggestion that the various church bodies in Manitoba pool their resources to the extent of listing and cataloguing, if not already done, the individual resources which each has at hand. As the indexing is done, let an extra card be made, bearing the name of the organization concerned, and let these extra cards be sent to some centre where they could be put together to form one complete index of all church resource material available in Winnipeg. Students or research workers consulting this central index could ascertain every piece of material we have and where it could be found for study.

To accomplish this aim would mean an investment of time, energy and funds on the part of our various organizations and libraries, but an enviable tool would be at our disposal when it was completed.


1 Since writing the above, I have learned that the Kildonan Church at one time made use of communion tokens of pewter. I am reliably informed that the Rev. Samuel Polson, who held charge in several points in Manitoba, used to make his tokens of cardboard. There may have been other instances of their use in the Canadian West. It is interesting that the two monographs on Canadian communion tokens with which I am acquainted - "Canadian Communion Tokens," by R. W. McLachlan, and "The Old-Time Communion Service of the Presbyterian Church in Canada," by Rev. G. A. MacLennan - make no mention of Western tokens.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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