“A Feast of Fat Things”: The 1928 BWA World Congress in Toronto, 90 Years in Retrospect

By Karl Armstrong

This summer (June 23 to 29) marks the 90th anniversary of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) congress that was held at Exhibition Park in Toronto, Canada. 

Princes’ Gate at the Canadian National Exhibition

It is hard to grasp the excitement that Canadian Baptists must have felt with the privilege of hosting the “greatest gathering of Baptists ever held anywhere in the world.”1 The big day was fast approaching and at home the preparations were in full swing.2 The appeal from the executive of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec (BCOQ) was both eloquent and direct: “Very soon, far sooner than we realize, we are to play our part in one of the greatest spiritual feasts in the history of our Convention. Yes, it will indeed, be a feast of fat things for all those who are present.”3 They went on to say that our “Baptist people ought to flock to this great gathering from every part of our Convention.”4

And flock they did. They came from—“well everywhere” and sixty-five countries were “represented” with each delegate “drawn to his brother by a community of belief in the Christ who died for sinners.”5 They came by “steamboat loads” from the British Isles and by “special trains” from the Maritimes and Detroit—one report claimed the U.S. roads were “black with cars all headed this way.”6

Congress Hall

The great day was “at hand.”7 The addresses were of “superb order; the spirit of fellowship and cheer was wonderful”—while it is “doubtful if any communion at any time has held a more inspiring gathering.”8 It was a peaceful gathering: “A glimpse at Congress Hall or the Park made one proud to be a Baptist. No controversy and wrangling, no bitterness or mud-slinging—just the happiest of fellowship with brethren from far and near.”9

Albert Matthews, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1937 to 1946

The first welcome was given by Mr. Albert Matthews: “You have come to this lakeside place for rest and refreshment of body, mind and spirit, to join hands and hearts with those of your own faith in this the fourth world congress of our people.”10 Afterwards, Rev. Dr. W. H Langton expressed his “gladness of the organization for the presence of the throngs.”11 The Rt. Hon N. W. Rowell welcomed the delegates in the absence of the Prime Minister of Canada, W. L. Mackenzie King. King “heartily commended” the Baptists and applauded the relocation of McMaster to Hamilton. He hoped the Congress would lend towards “truth and justice, unity and concord among the nations of the earth—a consummation which all men of vision, ‘whate’er our name or sign,’ contend for and earnestly desire.”12 In the afternoon, Controller Hackett (on behalf of Mayor McBride) greeted the visitors but “greater than all these officials words were the greetings from thousands privately expressed and with absolute sincerity.”13

There was, however, a “shadow over the sessions” because the “great and good Dr. E. Y. Mullins” the current president of the BWA, lay “sick at home.”14 Dr. Truett (president of the SBC) took his place and “no finer choice could have been made for the emergency. He was a master on the platform and kept the programme running in fine shape throughout the week.”15 All told, “Enormous crowds were at all gatherings” and “Ontario pastors were there in large numbers. Almost every church sent its pastor.”16 Meanwhile, the Daily Star radio (CFCA) broadcasted a “great many sessions” so that “thousands who were unable to attend heard all the addresses in their own homes.”17

Bunyan Window

Many did their part to “make the guests happy in their new surroundings,” but it was the Rev. Dr. George T. Webb who was given the “chief honors for long hours and heavy toil in connection with the task of entertainment and arrangements. He was everywhere all the time—when he ate or slept is a mystery.”18

On the Monday, McMaster University received the famous “Bunyan window.” Mrs. J. W. H. Bunyan Bromley, of England, who was a descendant of the “Bedford tinker” was the honoured guest for the occasion. She was given a “tremendous welcome” where “hundreds sought to speak to her.”19 Rev. Dr. Clifton C. Gray, while referring to the twelve million Baptists told his audience: “We claim to be the spiritual sons of Bunyan.”20 Chancellor H. P. Whidden accepted the gift on behalf of the University. Another highlight of the day was McMaster’s Convocation (held at Yorkminster Church) where one of the honorary degrees was given to Professor J. H. MacDonald of Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S.

Chancellor of McMaster, Dr. H. P. Whidden

At the Thursday session Rev. Prof. M. L. Orchard of McMaster gave a “ringing address on Frontier work.”21 While the subject of militarism was discussed (among others) by the Col. Rev. J. H. MacDonald, C.B.E., of Wolfville, N.S. and Rev W. A. White of Halifax, N.S., they considered Canada to be the “most disarmed country in the world, with a permanent force of less than 3,500 men and a ‘tin-teapot navy,’ of two cruisers and two mine-sweepers.”22

John MacNeill, President of the BWA, 1928 – 1933

And yet, not all of the conference was business as usual with a fun trip to Niagara Falls by “Steamer to Queenston, and trolley for the remainder of the journey.”23 There was also a trip to Hamilton by automobile to “visit the beauty spots of the city, including the new site of McMaster University, and the wonderful Dundas valley.”24

Last, the delegates were thrilled with the naming of their new incoming president, Canadian born and McMaster trained: John MacNeill of Walmer Road Toronto. With over seven thousand gathered, “it was the greatest gathering of Baptists ever held in the world” and “the spirit of fellowship and cheer was wonderful.”25

 

Karl Armstrong is a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies at McMaster Divinity College. Previously, he studied at Acadia Divinity College, where he earned his MDiv and MA in Theology. This past year he worked as a Graduate Assistant for the Canadian Baptist Archives.

Endnotes

  1. Canadian Baptist, 14 June 1928, 1.
  2. “Arrangements are being made to supply the pulpits of practically all the Baptist churches of Toronto, and many of other denominations with visiting preachers on Congress Sunday.” Canadian Baptist, 12 April 1928, 10.
  3. Canadian Baptist, 31 May 1928, 1.
  4. Canadian Baptist, 31 May 1928, 1.
  5. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  6. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1. The Railroad Passenger Associations gave “a special rate” for those travelling to the conference (Canadian Baptist, 16 February 1928, 2).
  7. Canadian Baptist, 14 June 1928, 1.
  8. Canadian Baptist, 5 July 1928, 4.
  9. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  10. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1. Matthews was the Chair of the Board of Governors of McMaster University and Chairman of the Canadian Committee for the BWA.
  11. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1. Langton was the President of the BCOQ.
  12. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 2. King was originally slated to personally address the convention but other duties prevented him.
  13. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  14. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  15. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  16. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  17. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 1.
  18. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 2. Webb was the Superintendent of the Board of Religious Education for the BCOQ and Secretary of the Congress Committee.
  19. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 4. In 1928, the only other window could be found in Westminster Abbey.
  20. Canadian Baptist, 28 June 1928, 4.
  21. Canadian Baptist, 5 July 1928, 5. Prof. M. L. Orchard taught at McMaster and was originally from New Brunswick.
  22. Canadian Baptist, 5 July 1928, 5.
  23. Canadian Baptist, 21 June 1928, 3.Those going on this trip were “advised to take their noonday meal with them owing to the congestion that would otherwise be caused in the eating places at the Falls” (p. 3).
  24. Canadian Baptist, 21 June 1928, 3.
  25. Canadian Baptist, 5 July 1928, 4.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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