By Gordon L. Heath
On my trips to various archives I am often pleasantly surprised by unexpected discoveries. My recent excursion to the Baptist archives at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, UK, did not disappoint in that respect.1
As I was searching through the pages of The Freeman for British Baptist commentary on the Indian Rebellion (1857–58) and the Opium Wars in China (1839–42; 55–60) I noticed in the 2 November 1859 issue a letter to the editor from Robert A. Fyfe, a renowned Canadian Baptist pastor and educator and the “leading Baptist of his time in Ontario and Quebec.”2
Fyfe pastored in Ontario and the US, and served as principle of Canada Baptist College in Montreal and the Canadian Literary Institute (later Woodstock College). He was also involved in the development of the Canadian Baptist. That said, he was a significant figure in Baptist life in Canada, and he was upset. To use his words: “I have been pained by Mr. Green’s letter on many accounts.”
His reason for writing across the Atlantic to The Freeman was to address what he felt were “representations of New England Baptists…[that were] absolutely false, from top to bottom, from centre to circumference.”3 The characterizations so infuriating to Fyfe were made by a Mr. Green a few months previously in The Freeman. Mr. Green had portrayed New England “Regular” Baptists in a negative light in regards to the issue of communion, ordination, and administration.
The following months saw some letters to the editor for and against Fyfe.4 My interest in this blog is not who was right in the argument, but what the dispute reveals about Baptist life in the mid-1800s. There is much that could be said, but the following three points provide a quick summary:
First, the back-and-forth exchange is an example of the interconnectedness of the global Baptist community. They may have been separated by thousands of miles, and a lot of water as well, but in the middle of the nineteenth century Baptists were quite cognisant of what other Baptists were thinking and doing on various matters.
Second, as I argue elsewhere, the role of religious periodicals played a crucial role in nurturing (or exacerbating) those Baptist relations.5 The development of the undersea cable would eventually allow for an immediacy of news from the Old Country, and further connect the various colonies in the far-flung regions of empire. But even with such “modern” developments, the weekly Baptist newspapers were a vital source in ensuring the global Baptist community was interconnected.
Third, there was an element of insecurity among colonial Baptists that made them sensitive to any negative press originating from the Old Country. Fyfe stated that he was concerned that “Old Country Baptists” would have a biased and erroneous view of Baptists in America, leading to less “cordial [feelings] toward their American brethren.” No doubt his concern for good relations was rooted in a desire for Christian unity, but his sensitivity to any negative portrayals of North American Baptists also reveals a colonial mindset highly sensitive to any British commentary that implied an inferiority of Baptist life in the New World.
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Gordon L. Heath, PhD, is Professor of Christian History, holds the Centenary Chair in World Christianity, and is Director of the Canadian Baptist Archives, all at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, ON. He is also Secretary of the CBHS.
- Thanks to archivist Emily Burgoyne for her assistance at the archives.
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Online: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=4991
- The Freeman, 2 November 1859, 666.
- For instance, see The Freeman, 28 December 1859, 794; The Freeman, 4 January 1860, 6; The Freeman, 11 January 1860.
- Gordon L. Heath, The British Nation is Our Nation: The BACSANZ Baptist Press and the South African War, 1899-1902 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2017). http://www.authenticmedia.co.uk/search/product/sbht-british-nation-is-our-nation-the-gordon/9781842279366.jhtml
**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**