A Review of Early Ministers in Perth — Men of Remarkable Spiritual Fervor — Scott Act Campaign — A keen Sense of Humor.
(By Rev. James Ross, D.D., London, Ont.)
It seems but yesterday since I became minister of Knox church and formed my first acquaintance with the people of the old town. Many of the original settlers were then living and I recall quite vividly their oft-repeated references to early days, so that my recollections of the community as I knew it are interwoven with memories which go back to the beginning. The neighborhood had been colonized by men and women of strong character, whose individuality was developed by the hardships and peculiar conditions of their life in the bush. There was a genial neighborliness and a warmth of comradeship about the older people which one often misses in Canadians of more recent years. They remembered how happy they were when they had only privations and a daily struggle with hard conditions. They were happy because they had such confidence in one another and were so ready to help each other, and because they had such unwavering hope in the country’s future. They never quite lost the cheery tone or the hearty hospitality of the first days.
Naturally my interest lay largely in the moral life and church work of the community. There are still some things in Perth which show the moral progress of the last seventy or eighty years. One of the most interesting of those milestones of spiritual advancement, is the gravestone in the old cemetery over the remains of Mr. L. Lyon, who was shot in a duel with a fellow student-at-law, by the name of Wilson. It was, I think, the last duel in Ontario. Some of the old men of my time remember the impassioned and successful defence which Wilson made at his trial, when he was pleading for his life, and the still more touching address, in reference to that memorable experience, which he delivered from the bench, the first time that he visited Perth as a judge.
The religious life of the founders of my congregation, had been moulded by the Rev. Thomas C. Wilson, the first minister of St. Andrew’s church. He was a man far in advance of his time and under him a genuine revival of religion visited the neighborbood. Many of the most devout men in various congregations, some of whom still survive in old age, dated their conversion from that awakening. Mr. Wilson was also an ardent champion of temperance and called the drinking places of that time “breathing holes of hell.” One of the taverns put up a sign with an agricultural emblem on it, and the motto “Peace and Plenty.” This furnished him with a text, on which he thundered from the pulpit of St. Andrew’s, denunciations of the traffic which made men’s flesh creep and their ears tingle.
Dr. Bain, who succeeded Mr. Wilson, and who was retiring about the time I was settled, spent a life-time in the congregation, and was much beloved and trusted by everyone. He had a special gift of interpreting the heart and the purposes of God to persons in affliction and he was sent for in certain cases by many outside his own congregation. The people of Perth had a habit of sending for a minister who might have the reputation of being gifted in dealing with the sick, just as they got a medical specialist for obstinate diseases, and the situations created by the custom were sometimes a little embarrassing.
The Rev. R. L. Stephenson had been rector of St. James’ church for more than a generation, when I became acquainted with him. His somewhat brusque and military exterior covered a warm and genial Irish heart. Some people in every denomination will say they belong to a certain church and yet will never go near it. An amusing instance of this occurred near Perth, when one who prided himself on belonging to the Church of England, asked a neighbor what Mr. Stephenson looked like — and he had then been rector nearly forty years.
In the Methodist church the pastors are like birds of passage and do not leave the same permanent impression on the memory. Still I had very pleasant intercourse with the Revs. George McRitchie, R. Whiting, W.G. Henderson, William Jackson and the Blands, father and son. The Rev. Salem G. Bland, now professor in Winnipeg, is a man of fine culture and beautiful sensitive spirit. Some of the laymen of that communion stand out clearly. George Kerr, a Methodist of the old school, was secretary of the Bible Society and often led in prayer at our union meetings. His petitions beginning almost in a whisper, rose by ever increasing degrees in rapidity and volume till they ended in a vehement hurricane of appeal.
Among the pastors of the Baptist Church, I found the Revs. J.W. Thorne, and his successor Douglas Laing, especially congenial spirits with whom I had much profitable fellowship. Among the outstanding members I loved Dr. Kellock as a brother. His addresses and prayers at our general meetings were always out of the common and lifted us to a higher spiritual level. We had no controversy of any kind among the denominations during the eleven years of my sojourn in Knox church. We each pursued his work in his own way and communed in common things. The churches of that time had union meetings during the week of prayer, and they not unfrequently united for evangelistic work on other occasions. These times of mutual conferences and common devotion are pleasant memories. It was a powerful sermon to some nondescripts to see all the pastors of the town on one platform and working for one end.
When Knox church was first formed it drew those who sympathized with the Disruption not only from St. Andrew’s church, but also from the First church, whose minister, the Rev. William Bell, was the pioneer of Presbyterianism, having arrived in 1817. One family that came over had a dog that scorned to leave his own church, and continued as long as he was able to travel to leave the family rig at the outskirts of the town, and to sleep under the old seat in the First church until the service was over, when he rejoined his own people.
In those early days there were a number of men of remarkable spiritual fervor, and of a mystic type, which has not almost wholly passed away. To them the spiritual realm was more real than the material and it penetrated their common life at every point. One of these, Ralph Smith, an elder in Knox church, originally a shepherd on the Chevriot Hills, communed with a personal Redeemer on every page of the Old and New Testaments, and heard an audible voice at the communion saying “Take and eat.” In some secluded spot in his fields, he might have been found at five o’clock on a summer Sabbath morning, pleading for a blessing on the word that day. It was from such men that the power of the pulpit of the past age proceeded. Mr. Smith was one of a considerable number of persons all over eighty years of age, and some of them over ninety, who attended for a time on my early ministry, and whose remains I accompanied to the grave.
The Scott Act campaign was one of the stirring episodes which moved the quiet life of the place out of its accustomed rut. We held meetings in some place almost every night, and feeling ran high. Some who previously had been quite ignorant of the politician’s art, developed great skill in canvassing for votes. There was a certain exhiliration in feeling the swing and movement of a great contest. Speaking at a small country school house with a handful of pepper on the top of a hot stove was a new experience. A reference in a sermon which was afterwards published to a case which I and many others considered a scandalous perversion of justice, brought a libel suit for $10,000 damages. I determined to defend my action, and thoroughly ventilate the whole matter, and retained the best legal talent in Canada, for that purpose, but the case was dropped. After the act was adopted Perth was really “dry” for some time, and more thirst was then endured than at any period in the history of the burgh.
The old people had a keen sense of humor and retailed with great relish the odd incidents which sometimes transpired among them. A Borderer not long from the old land, and somewhat at sea, regarding articles of food in Canada, asked after dinner, “What ca’ve yon reed things ye war eatin’?” “Oh, those were beets,” was the reply. “Od,” he said, “you fowk care nae mair what ye eat than gin ye war kye.” At another threshing he was asked by one preparing to feed his horses how much oats he would give them. The canny Scot replied, “Man, lat’s fin them.” After he had felt the grain, so much lighter than that to which he had been accustomed, he remarked with fine scorn. “Od ye may safely gi’ them a bushel !”
A lady of very economical habits was entertaining at tea one of my predecessors, who was very fond of sugar. He passed up his cup twice more and a small dole was grudgingly given each time. But when he passed it the third time with the same request, “A little more sugar if you please, Mrs. O——,” prudence overcame politeness and she exclaimed with some heat,”Hoot mon, steer it, steer it.” The same thrifty housewife was extravagant enough to call in a doctor to see a sick member of the family and he prescribed an emetic for the patient, which, however, was not needed. The old lady feeling very sorry that it should be lost took it herself!
Many of the early settlers were men with a pension or on a stated income, which they quietly enjoyed, and they seldom took risks in the way of investment. To this has been attributed that strange lack of enterprise which dwarfed the town at the period during which it ought to have grown, so that its small neighbors passed one by one. It boomed a little in 1883, when the through railroad was completed, but it soon dropped back again. During the time that the roadbed was being constructed, I had the privilege of preaching a number of Sabbaths in the bush to the men who were working on it. They were most attentive and appreciative and while the church relations of some of them would not permit them to attend formally, they generally happened to be sitting on stumps or logs not far away where they could see and hear all that was going on.
It is a matter of deep regret to all its old citizens that the town’s somewhat belated and spasmodic efforts to recover the lost ground have not met with the same success they deserved. The trend of modern business towards centralization, is telling on nearly all towns, and the outlook is somewhat depressing. But at the same time testimony must be borne to the improvements of recent years, which do credit to the younger men who carried them through. And the memories of the old grey town will long have a firm hold on every former citizen’s heart.