Like the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church (and all other reformed Christian churches for that matter) stems from the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation created an atmosphere ripe with possibilities of change, which resulted in the creation and evolution of many different religions, of which Presbyterianism was one. This is the third in a series of Heritage Papers designed to probe the origins, and intertwined nature of the town of Flamborough and its respective religious groups.
Presbyterianism began in Scotland, and was brought to Canada in the late 18th Century by way of European settlers. Calvinism, a denomination similar to the Presbyterian faith and also spawned by Reformation came to Canada, but many of its adherents were of French descent. Although small pockets of these French Calvinists (or Huguenots) were present in the Maritimes as early as 1604, few embarked upon the journey to the New World, as non-Catholics were typically not permitted in New France. This situation persisted in New France until the British conquest. Presbyterianism was first introduced to the Natives, from where it crept consistently west into Upper Canada.
Prior to the 19th century, there were only five Presbyterian clergymen at Upper Canada, and they were scattered between Glengarry County and York (present day Toronto). At the Head-of-the-Lake area between 1800 and 1820, only itinerant ministers were available. Most notable among these were Daniel Ward Eastman, John Burns and Lewis Williams. The arrival of ministers such as William King, George Sheed and Thomas Christie after 1820 saw the development of congregations and permanent charges.
By 1821 the areas of present day Burlington and Waterdown saw an ever growing number of settlers. Many of these were Presbyterians, and many were without a proper place of worship. Presbyterians in Waterdown were forced to venture to neighbouring Nelson where a group of Presbyterians had been gathering under the guidance of Rev. William King since 1819.
Born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, King emigrated to Canada after the hostilities of 1812 had ceased, purchasing a farm in Nelson Township. In 1822 he organized a secession congregation at Nelson under the United Synod of Upper Canada. After travelling to Nelson for almost a decade, the Presbyterian population of Waterdown requested King to organize a congregation in their own community. King accepted, and ordained Hugh Creen and James Glasgow as elders of the Church. Like most early ministers, Rev. King was not provided with a stipend by the church, rather it was his farm which allowed him to meet all financial obligations. In 1840 the congregation of Waterdown and Nelson were received into the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, in connection with the Church of Scotland. Three years after the 1843 disruption in Scotland which gave rise to the formation of the Free Church, King and the majority of his congregation continued to maintain their affiliation with the Church of Scotland. In 1852 King resigned his commission on account of ill health. He died seven years later in London, Ontario.
A minority withdrew and were assigned two ministers. This new congregation of the Free Church received services in Waterdown and Wellington Square. The Waterdown congregation of the Free Church held services on the site of the present day Knox Church. The group petitioned the Hamilton Presbytery to send them a minister. Rev. Alexander MacLean was appointed to meet the needs of the Knox Church congregation. Born in 1815 in the vicinity of Brockville, MacLean completed his studies in Scotland and was ordained in 1843. He joined the Free Church the following year. Also included in his charge of Waterdown and Wellington Square was a mission Church at Cumminsville near Kilbride. The Cumminsville congregation later separated and merged with Nairn (present day Strabane). Out of all Flamborough Presbyterian Churches, the congregation at Strabane was the only one to follow suit with the Methodist Churches and enter into the United Church in 1925. All other Presbyterian Churches in Flamborough have continued to stalwartly represent their faith.
Rev. King’s work was taken up by Rev. George MacDonnell, and it was during his tenure that a frame church was erected on Main Street in Waterdown on land purchased from Absalom Griffin. Born in Fifeshire, Scotland, MacDonnell came to Canada as a child, returning to become a minister. Following his ordination, he travelled back to Canada and was inducted into the Waterdown congregation of the Church of Scotland. Shortly after the construction of a place of worship, called St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, MacDonnell left, accepting a call to Fergus.
Rev. Thomas Christie arrived in West Flamborough in 1832, where he proceeded to continue the work of Rev. Sheed of Ancaster. Services were held in a schoolhouse slightly south of the present stone church at the aptly named Christie’s Corners. In addition to his work in West Flamborough, Christie also had a charge in nearby Beverly. In 1833 Christie organized a congregation, and shortly after a log structure was erected for the purpose of worship. Later, another church for Presbyterians of the West Flamborough-Beverly area was erected at Kirkwall. This congregation has endured and presently forms a dyadic charge with Knox Church in Sheffield.
By the middle of the 19th century the Presbyterian Church had undergone a considerable amount of restructuring, but there was more looming on the horizon. During July 1877, a meeting was held, the outcome of which would determine the future of the Presbyterian Church in Upper Canada. After much debate it was decided that the two congregations in Waterdown should become a united charge. Both the Church of Scotland and the Canadian Presbyterian Church (modelled after the Free Church) merged into one entity. It was decided that the ministers at the Church of Scotland (St. Andrews) and Canadian Presbyterian Church (Knox) should resign and make way for a new minister. Ireland/Irish native Rev. John MacMeachan answered the call and became the first Waterdown minister to serve the newly formed united Presbyterian Church which became known as the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Knox Church was to be the primary place of worship for the new congregation, while St. Andrews would temporarily be used as a Sunday School Hall, until it was sold to Dr. John Owen McGregor.
The Presbyterian Church played a key role in shaping the collective character and spirit of the Flamborough community. Throughout its presence in Flamborough, the Presbyterian Church has exuded a tangible sense of community. The church’s promotion of various groups and clubs and its ambition to educate and sponsor youth also demonstrates its commitment to its community. Knox student Rev. Robert Neil Grant was ordained and inducted into Knox Presbyterian Church Waterdown in 1866. He was one of four men credited with bringing a secondary school to the village of Waterdown. In addition to its role in promoting education, the Presbyterian Church also founded men’s organizations. These groups addressed recreational needs and also served to bring matters of faith into daily life and recreation, thus ensuring a complete blend of church and private life.
Women also had their respective gatherings, and it is in this way that the early Presbyterian church made considerable headway in matters of gender equality, and became a bastion and model for women of the future. In 1878 a Women’s Board for Foreign Missions was being discussed, and one year later it became a reality. Never before had women been given an opportunity to manage and organize a group such as this. The Women’s Missionary Society (WMS) has been operating since this time, and continues to provide aid and service. The Presbyterian Church emphasized the importance of comradery and community living by organizing celebrations and other public events, thus allowing people to get to know on another, subsequently prompting spiritual and physical contributions to the neighbourhood and town.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 2003, 2023.