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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XLIX - The Presbyterian Church in Saskatchewan


First Presbyterians in West for a Generation Without a Minister-Presbyterian Services Under Lay Leadership, from 1813— Futile Efforts to Secure a Minister—Coming of Rev. John Black, 1851—Rev. Jas. Nisbet, First Presbyterian Missionary in Saskatchewan, 1866—Rev. McKellar—Mr. John MacKay —First Presbytery, 1870—Rev. James Robertson, the Great Pioneer Superintendent — Financing Western Missions —Rev. E. D. McLaren, General Superintendent of Missions— Dr. A. S. Grant—Dr. Carmichael's Great Work—Presbyterian-ism in Saskatchewan in 1913.

The cradle of Presbyterianism in Western Canada was the Parish of Kildonan in the Selkirk Settlement 011 the Red River. A very large proportion of the immigrants brought into the West by Lord Selkirk were Presbyterians from a parish named Kildonan in the north of Scotland, and a minister of their faith. Reverend Mr. Sage, from the same locality, was engaged by the great colonizer to come to Canada as their spiritual advisor. For some reason, however, Mr. Sage did not come out, and for more than a generation the Presbyterian settlers were without a minister of their own. It is a remarkable evidence of the religious tenacity of these hardy pioneers that during this long and disheartening interval they never lost their grip upon the teaching and customs in which they had been indoctrinated by their national church. Their clergy of an earlier date must indeed have performed their functions thoroughly. Meantime, before the Presbyterian settlers had an ordained minister of their own, they much appreciated the Christian courtesy of the Anglican clergymen, especially the Rev. D. T. Jones, with whose congregation the Scottish pioneers worshipped for many years.

Prominent among the settlers was Elder James Sutherland, in whom, though not an ordained minister, was vested special authority to administer baptism, solemnize marriages and expound the Scriptures. To few men in Canada has the Presbyterian Church owed so much. Through the ministration of this devoted layman, the Presbyterian settlers maintained services among themselves from as early as 1813.

Selkirk had definitely promised to send a Presbyterian minister to the settlement, but apparently owing to the stress of his legal difficulties he was unable to fulfil his pledge. After his death the settlers appealed to the authorities of the Hudson's Bay Company to carry out his promises, but without success. At last, in 1846, they laid their case before the authorities of the Church of Scotland, but the Red River was far away and few knew or cared seriously for the needs of the lonely pioneers. Three years elapsed before the petition was even answered, and then no one was sent. The settlers, however, were steadfast in their determination, and in 1850 they took steps to obtain a grant of land for church, school house and glebe purposes, in addition to £150 for the surrender of their claim 011 what was known as the Upper Church. This establishment they held to be theirs by gift of Lord Selkirk, but for many years it had been in the hands of the English Church.

The Presbyterians then appealed to the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and on September 19, 1851, the Reverend John Black was welcomed by the congregation which had been waiting for so many weary years. On his arrival he found three hundred persons ready to take part in his first communion. Speaking of this remarkable man, the Reverend R. G. MacBeth has written as follows:

"John Black, afterwards Doctor Black, was a man of unusual power as a preacher and a theologian. Intense of nature and profound of conviction, his influence on the religious and educational life of the country was tremendous. His parish became the centre: and as new people began to come into the West, they came under the influence of that remarkable community. From that parish men and women scattered over the country, carrying their convictions with them and leavening the incoming settlers with their faith. In that parish plans were made for the planting of missions not only in the settlements near by, but as far northwest as the North Saskatchewan. In that parish Manitoba College was built, as the mission institution from which men have gone by scores out to the fields of the church, both at home and abroad.''

Fifteen years after the formal establishment of the first Presbyterian congregation in Western Canada, the Kildonan settlers sent forth into the western wilderness a missionary party, outfitted largely by the congregation, to carry the Gospel and establish a Presbyterian Church in what is now the Province of Saskatchewan. The Reverend James Nisbet, who had been actively engaged in ministerial work in the settlement since 1862, was at the head of the party. With him went Air. John MacKay, a famous native buffalo hunter, his wife and Mr. Adam MacBeth, in addition to some assistants. The caravan moved with their ox carts across the plains for forty days, and ultimately established a mission at a point which Air. Nisbet, in honour of the Prince Consort, named Prince Albert. This was the nuclcus of the now flourishing city. Mr. Nisbet devoted eight years to unremitting and most successful labours, chiefly among the Crees, at the end of which time the health of both him and his wife had been shattered. He took her home to Kildonan, but the end was near. She died a short time afterwards in her father's house, and a few days later was followed to her rest by her devoted husband.

In the Presbyterian Church at Prince Albert, however, there is a tablet to Nisbet's memory; but shared by Robertson and Carmichael, the real monument to this heroic missionary and his wife is whatever Presbyterianism stands for in the Province of Saskatchewan.

Mr. Nisbet was succeeded at Prince Albert by the Reverend Mr. McKcllar. Mr. Nisbet's devoted companion and assistant, Air. John MacKay, had accompanied him chiefly to act as interpreter, and to supply the mission with food. In time, however, he was ordained to the ministry himself and stationed on the Cree reserve of Mistawasis, near Prince Albert. He performed valuable services in connection with the negotiation of several of the treaties between the Canadian Government and the Indians, and in the troubles of 1885 he restrained the reduce of his district from joining the insurgents.

By 1870 there were five ordained Presbyterian ministers in the West, and the Presbytery of Manitoba was organized, with jurisdiction extending almost indefinitely through the vast interior. It is characteristic of Presbyterianism that even in those early days it was recognized that sound scholarship was an essential qualification for the most successful religious work among the pioneers and even among the native races; in consequence Manitoba College was organized under the aegis of the Presbyterian Church. The Reverend George Bryce, for many years connected with Knox Church, Winnipeg, was in 1871 appointed the first professor.

Knox Church, Winnipeg, becoming vacant, it was bold enough to invite the Reverend William Cochrane, convener of the Home Mission Committee, to himself assume charge of this field. This lie was not able to do, but in his stead he sent the Reverend James Robertson, who for many years was to be the outstanding personality in western Presbyterianism. MacBeth's pen picture of this rugged prophet, statesman and organizer recalls to the mind's eye of many thousands yet living the impression produced by this great Presbyterian Bishop—for Episcopus he was in all reality: "That tall, spare, highland figure with the plain face and the eyes that could melt with sympathy or blaze with righteous indignation haunts us yet; the deep, intensely earnest voice still cries to us, and the strong grip of the sinewy hand still remains to us as assurance of a great genuineness of soul and purpose." The biography of Dr. Robertson as written by his staunch co-worker, the Reverend Charles Gordon ("Ralph Connor") is a hook which no Presbyterian, indeed, no Canadian who respects religious heroism and national righteousness, can afford not to read.

Rev. Canon L. Norman Tucker, General Secretary of the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada, speaking at the Canadian Missionary Congress held in Toronto in 1909, spoke as follows at a great meeting in Massey Hall: "Long before settlement began to pour into the West, there stood a man on the prairie, a prophet, a patriot, a great statesman, a missionary who foresaw the marvellous developments that were coming, who wisely prepared to meet them. Dr. Robertson staked out that great country, occupied its strategic points, early aroused his church to its needs and opportunities and dotted the whole land with Presbyterian Churches and manses, and thus enabled the Presbyterian Church of Canada to work its noble and manly spirit into the very fibre of our national eye.'-This tribute to Robertson brought the whole audience to its feet and precipitated an outburst of unprecedented enthusiasm.

Six years after coming to Knox College, Winnipeg, Robertson was (1881) made Superintendent of Missions for Manitoba and the North West. "His parish," says MacBeth, "was from Lake Superior to the Yukon, but his sphere of operations was everywhere over the East and in the old land, where with resistless power he preached the flaming evangel of western opportunity. I met him in all sorts of places and situations during the great days of his superintendence—in buckboards on the prairie, on trains in the mountains, and in wayside inns where he got his meals, and wrote his letters —sometimes all night long so that he could catch conveyance stage or train, or ride to some farther point in the morning. More than any man of his day, he saw what the West was going to be, and the amazing development of these last few years would not have surprised him, for he saw it coming long ago. I have known personally most of the leading men of the West, splendid men, who developed the unknown resources of the country. I have known the ministers of the Crown who have planned important legislation, the men of business in the growing cities, the railroaders who have gridironed the lonely prairie, and who drove their iron horses over the mountains to drink on the Pacific shore, and I give them the tribute of great respect; but above them all as a real maker of the West I place the great superintendent who laboured to keep vivid in the new land the sense of God, who paid with his life the full price of his devotion to a noble cause." (Our Task in Canada, pages 34-5.)

In 1877 Robertson founded the first railroad missions in connection with the Presbyterian Church in the West. Four years later there were twenty-one ordained missionaries and fifteen catechists maintained by the Manitoba Presbytery. It was at this time that the new office of superintendent was created (largely through the influence of the Reverend Dr. Clack) and Robertson immediately gave up his pastoral charge in Winnipeg and entered upon his new work. His subsequent missionary journeys totalled a distance that would ten times girdle the earth.

In season and out of season, Doctor Robertson emphasized the necessity of giving visibility and prominence to the work of the Church, and of promptly occupying strategic points throughout the mighty region entrusted to his supervision. He accordingly established a special Church and Manse Fund and in the face of enormous difficulties he raised over sixty-three thousand dollars for this purpose within a few months. Through the instrumentality of this fund, four hundred and nineteen churches, ninety manses, and four school houses were erected in the North West before Robertson's death.

The year after the creation of the superintendency a Presbyterian mission was established at Fort Qu'Appelle (1882) and very soon there were flourishing charges in almost all centres of settlement throughout Saskatchewan. In 1883 the Presbytery of Manitoba was divided into three, the Presbytery of Winnipeg, Rock Lake and Brandon, the latter including the North West Territories. Shortly afterwards the first synod came into being. It had within its jurisdiction forty-seven missions with their associated stations. In 1SS5 development justified further subdivision and the Presbytery of Regina was established, with thirty-four congregations and mission stations. It held its first meeting at Regina on July 15, 1885, when Robertson was elected moderator.

Thanks to the influence of such men as Dr. Robertson, Principal John M. Young of Manitoba College, Professors Bryce, Hart, and Baird, Doctor John Campbell, of Victoria, B. C., and their numerous devoted lieutenants, the eyes of the Presbyterian Church in Canada had now been seriously turned towards the opportunity and privilege offered in western Canada, a fact evidenced by the meeting of the General Assembly at Winnipeg in 1887. During the preceding five years mission stations had been created under Robertson's supervision at the rate of one per week, and the churches had increased in number from fifteen to nearly one hundred. The Assembly met in Winnipeg again in 1897, in Vancouver in 1903, and in Edmonton in 1912.

Outside support for Presbyterianism in the Territories prior to 1894 came almost exclusively from eastern Canada. In that year, through the. instrumentality of the Reverend Charles W. Gordon, greatly increased support began to come from the mother church in Scotland. Two years later Robertson himself visited the old land and secured a considerable sum of money and undertaking to support forty missions. It is noteworthy, however, while in certain times of stress appeals have been made to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, these have not been characteristic of Presbyterian methods in meeting the situation in the Canadian West; indeed, thoughtful critics within and without the Presbyterian communion have accounted for the remarkable success of Canadian Presbyterianism by citing the fact that it has been marked by a sturdy independence that has conduced to generous giving both in eastern Canada and in the pioneer districts themselves. Thus in 1913 the Synod of Saskatchewan alone undertook to contribute $80,000 to mission work. For many years no financial aid has been either received or asked by the Canadian Presbyterian Church from beyond the boundaries of Canada.

When the Yukon commenced to attract large immigration (1897-8), Robertson sent into that remote territory a group of missionaries whose names will be forever fragrant. Among these were Mr. R. M. Dickey, a student from Manitoba College; A. S. Grant, who went by the White Pass trail to Dawson along with the miners; the Pringle brothers. John and George; J. J. Wright, of White Horse, and J. A. Sinclair. To record the heroic service rendered by these men, and others who followed them or cooperated with them, would, however, take us too far afield.

In all this mighty enterprise Dr. Robertson, through good report and bad report, had ever been in the forefront of the battle. The degree to which he threw himself into his work is evidenced by the fact that during a period of sixteen years he was home but once for Christmas, and on that occasion he was ill. To a man of his deep family affections such a life was one of continual sacrifice, but in it he was unfailingly supported by the sympathy and encouragement of his noble wife. The task which his genius had created was, however, too great for any one man alone to perform, and doubtless hastened his death, which occurred in 1902. He was succeeded by the Reverend Dr. E. D. McLaren, of Vancouver, who was given the title of General Secretary of Missions, and with whom were associated as field superintendents the Rev. Dr. T. A. Carmichael, of Regina, and the Rev. Dr. J. C. Herdman, of Calgary. Doctor McLaren himself retired eight years later to devote himself to educational work in Vancouver, and Dr. A. S. Grant, formerly of the Yukon, became General Superintendent. With him were associated the Rev. J. H. Edmison as resident secretary at Toronto, and ten district superintendents, three of whom devote their whole time to the work in the Province.

The people of Saskatchewan are most concerned with the labours of Dr. Carmichael. While minister of Knox Church, Regina, he had the general supervision of a large section of the Province as convenor of the Home Mission Committee of Regina Presbytery. When an appointment had to be made after the death of Dr. Robertson it was recognized that Carmichael in a unique degree was conversant with the situation and equal to the undertaking. Accordingly, he was appointed Superintendent of Missions for the Synod of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the year 1902, and from that day forth he gave himself without stint to the furtherance of the missionary cause. He travelled eastern Canada and in Britain in the endeavor to enlist the services of men for this work. Occasionally he had to make special appeal to his Church at large to meet the growing financial obligations. He organized hundreds of fields, visited missionaries in lonely places, and stirred up his Church at large to nobler efforts. During his latter years he came into close touch with what has come to be known as the Independent Greek Church, an institution in the framing of whose constitution the aid of the Presbyterian Home Mission Committee at Winnipeg had been asked and granted. In this way Dr. Carmichael and his associates sought to provide for the religious needs of Ruthenians, large numbers of whom he found destitute all over the prairie, and whose representatives appealed for guidance to Carmichael and the authorities of Manitoba College.

Owing in a great degree to the lasting and growing success of the work-inaugurated by Dr. Robertson, Dr. Carmichael within Saskatchewan alone had oversight over far more fields than Dr. Robertson had at the time of his death, in the undivided North West. Tireless in his work, he left it all too soon, and when he died, in 1911, it was no small tribute to him that the Church for which he toiled was, as shown bv the Dominion census, numerically the largest Christian denomination in Saskatchewan, and had contributed to the educational and political life of the Province even more generously than its membership would warrant.

Between 1904 and 1912 the gifts of the Presbyterian Church to Home Missions, chiefly for expenditure in the North West, have increased tenfold, largely through the influence of the Women's Home Mission Society, the Laymen's Missionary Movement, and the leadership of ecclesiastical statesmen like Dr. A. S. Grant. Schools and missions have been established among Indians of Saskatchewan at File Hills, Mistawasis, Prince Albert. Hurricane, Moose Mountain, Round Lake and elsewhere. Among the best known of the pioneer missionaries have been the Rev. Hugh McKay and Miss Baker, who have laboured heroically among the Sioux Indians of the Prince Albert district. Hospitals are supported by the Woman's Home Mission Society, which are devoted to the care of non-English-speaking people who otherwise would have no medical assistance. One of these institutions is situated at Wakaw, near Humboldt.


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