As Anglicanism veered sharply away from Catholicism, so too did several religious groups diverge from Anglicanism. Two such groups were coined ideologies of “old dissent” and “new dissent.” Forms of old dissent included philosophies of Congregationalists, and Anabaptists (modern day Baptists). These forms of old dissent represented more of a distancing from the Roman Catholic faith than actual dissent from Anglicanism. The new dissent lead to the religion which became known as Methodism.
Methodism began as a movement within the Church of England led by John Wesley. Wesley promoted personal holiness and encouraged his followers to live a methodically disciplined Christian life. Methodism made its way to Canada in 1765, when Laurence Coughlan, one of Wesley’s followers, began preaching in Newfoundland. The first substantial group of Methodists in the Maritimes was pioneers from Yorkshire who settled near Chignecto, Nova Scotia during the 1770s.
Quite possibly the greatest Methodist organizer and preacher who served in the Maritimes was William Black. He worked closely with the American Episcopal Church shortly after the American Revolution, while loyalist Methodists were still moving north. Before long however, Black began recruiting preachers from England, and by 1800, Methodists in the Maritimes had joined the Wesleyan Conference.
By the early 1800s, many Maritime settlers could trace their family tree, not directly overseas to England, but south through the American colonies. As many American Episcopal Methodist preachers were moving north, English authorities feared that certain pulpits manned by Episcopals could be focal points of attempted subversion. This fear was experienced primarily with Methodist ministers, as they tended to preach in a dramatic, lively, and convincing manner.
Continuing English immigration strengthened the already present bond with England, and served to assuage some of the fear felt by English authorities and loyalists in British North America.
With the ever increasing flow of English settlers entering Upper Canada, came more evangelical groups, such as Primitive Methodists in 1829, the Bible Christian Church in 1831, and New Connexion Methodists in 1837.
Methodism was also brought into Flamborough by some of the founding families of the area, most notably the Griffin family. Ebenezer Culver Griffin served as Superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School in Waterdown, and was also “instrumental” in the founding of other Methodist congregations in the area. One of his sons, William Smith Griffin would go on to become a Methodist Minister for seventy years.
Born in Waterdown, W. S. Griffin enjoyed a distinguished career as a Methodist preacher. With charges at Hamilton, Chatham, St. Catharines, Guelph, Stratford, Brantford and Toronto, it was said of him that, “… Dr. Griffin had, without a doubt, the most remarkable career of any minister in the Methodist church…”
Waterdown was awarded to Rev. Samuel Belton as a preaching appointment in 1828, with services held in the village school house built on the corner of James Grierson’s farm. The schoolhouse was used by the Methodists on Sunday morning and by the Presbyterian church in the afternoons. When the American Methodist Episcopal and British Wesleyan Methodist Churches merged in 1833, the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Canada was formed, and in 1838, a small congregation in Waterdown chose to erect a church at 25 Mill Street North, presently the home of the Waterdown Alliance Church.*
The growing population and prosperity of Waterdown, and its recently granted status as head of the new preaching circuit (with Rev. James Messmore presiding) led to the decision to renovate the church on Mill Street.
The fact that the church was in far from pristine condition also contributed to the need for renovation. During the work, the building was also enlarged (at a cost of about $1000) in order to satisfy the demand of the growing population. Upon completion, the opening ceremonies were conducted by Rev. Egerton Ryerson and E. Jeffers, and attended by a crowd of 400-500 people. As Waterdown’s population in 1865 was less then 800, this turn out demonstrated an enormous amount of community support, and provided visual testimony to the strength of the Methodist Church in the Flamborough area.
Inspired partially by the same forces which saw Confederation become a reality, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Conference of Eastern British America and the New Connexion Church united in 1874, and in 1884, the remnants of the Methodist Episcopal Church and other smaller Methodist bodies all merged in to what became known as the Methodist Church.
When the union of 1874 spread to Waterdown, the New Connexion and the Wesleyan Methodist congregations joined, and the resulting union was known simply as “The Methodist Church.” The New Connexion building was used as a Sunday School, while the Wesleyan building was used for services.
During the next few years, several societies emerged from the church, among which were: the Epworth League of the Young People’s Society, the Women’s Missionary Society, the Mission Band, and the Willing Workers Class. Each of these groups was dedicated to Christian education and community work.
Methodists were committed to education, as can be seen by such groups as: the Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, Mount Allison Academy, Wesley College, and the several secondary schools established under Methodist overseers. The original site for Victoria College was to have been Waterdown. However it was later decided that it should be built in Cobourg – today it is part of the University of Toronto.
In 1925 another church union saw the Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches merge to become the United Church of Canada. In Waterdown, little changed. The former Wesleyan building on Mill St. was renamed “United” and served the community till 1957, when the congregation moved to its new location at St. James United Church on Parkside Drive. The original Methodist Church was sold, and is now the home of the Waterdown Alliance Church.*
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 2003, 2023.
*Editor’s Note:Waterdown Alliance Church (21 Mill St N) was deconsecrated and became a commercial space.