By Gordon L. Heath
“Who are some heroes among the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ)”?
That was a question asked at a recent presentation I was making on the subject of Baptist history and polity. I was not happy with my weak answer, and since that time I wondered how I could redeem myself. Lo and behold, the other day I came across an image of “Baptist Heroes of Canada” and thought my moment of redemption had come!
The CBOQ was formed in 1888,1 but its roots in central Canada go back to the planting of churches in the late-eighteenth century. The history of the CBOQ has a mix of saints and sinners – something all denominations experience. However, my point here is to draw attention to some heroes, those instrumental and inspiring figures whose impact was stellar.
There are various categories of Baptist heroes, such as full-time church planters, colporteurs, evangelists, builders, pastors, missionaries, administrators, and educators in the church. There are also those whose Christian calling was played out primarily as lay leaders or in the workforce or at home. In all those cases there have been striking examples of what it means to be a Christ follower.
That being said, what I want to identify here is just a few names of some early Baptist leaders that have been coined “heroes” by those of a previous generation. The source of the names and images is a small book published in 1939 entitled Our Baptist Fellowship: Our History, Our Faith and Polity, Our Life and Work.2
The book contained images of William Fraser, John Gilmour,3 Daniel McPhail, Robert Fyfe,4 and Alexander Stewart,5 all church planters in Quebec or southern and/or eastern Ontario in the early/mid nineteenth century. Gilmour and Stewart also worked among the First Nations peoples around Hamilton and Peterborough. All men braved the boat ride across the Atlantic from Britain to pursue God’s call on their lives. Some subsequently travelled back and forth from Canada to Britain to gain financial support for ministry efforts in the colony. John Gilmour and Robert Fyfe were also educators who sought to establish a system of instruction for Baptists. Their tireless work in Quebec and Ontario is part of the rich Baptist DNA of education that eventually led to the founding of McMaster University in 1887.
In sum, those “Baptist Heroes of Canada” struggled through poverty, loneliness, criticism, health issues, and a lack of resources, but their life-long commitment to establish Baptist churches and organizational structures in harsh frontier conditions laid important foundations for the future of Baptist life in central Canada.
Fortunately, the same small book provided a sense of what Baptist women have accomplished. The images provide a glimpse of some key women leaders within the CBOQ in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. Fortunately, each photo has a brief description of the leader’s title and years of service (but unfortunately the first name of some has been eclipsed by the style of identification of that day). Note how women were organized around missions, both home and foreign. Their contributions to the life of the denomination – including foreign missions in the heyday of nineteenth-century Protestant missions – was vital to the success of the CBOQ. And if you are looking for a roster of heroes of the faith, your quest will be fulfilled by looking at the history of women in the CBOQ.6
While Baptists would not have called such people in the past “saints” they did recognize the value of knowing about the lives of those heroes of previous generations. Lawrence S. Cunningham writes that the lives of the saints (or heroes) “were part and parcel of the spiritual formation of serious Christians from the time of antiquity.”7 Baptists would have agreed with that conviction, for looking back was a way to gain wisdom for today but also inspiration for the future.
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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.
- It was called the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec (BCOQ) at that time.
- http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fyfe_robert_alexander_10E.html; Theo T. Gibson, Robert Alexander Fyfe: His Contemporaries and His Influence(Welch, 1988).
- Sharon Bowler, ed., Canadian Baptist Women(Eugene: Pickwick, 2016); Esther Barnes, Our Heritage Becomes Our Challenge – A Scrapbook History of the Baptist Women’s Movement in Ontario and Quebec (Etobicoke, ON: Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec, 2013).
- Lawrence S. Cunningham, A Brief History of Saints(Malden: Blackwell, 2005), 136.
**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**