The Wesleyan Tradition’s Eastern Ontario Roots

I grew up north of Kingston, near the village of Sunbury, and I was raised in a church that is part of the Wesleyan family of denominations – The Salvation Army.  Most of my life, however, I had no idea that there was any significant connection between my geographical roots and my ecclesial roots.  As I’ve gone on to study Wesleyan history and theology, however, I’ve come to see that the historical roots of Wesleyan Christianity in Eastern Ontario are very deep indeed.

This has come home to me in a number of ways in recent months.

This summer, Tyndale Seminary received a generous bequest from Rev. Bill Lamb, who passed away in June.  Bill was a United Church minister and a historian of Canadian Methodism.  He left an amazing collection of historical literature to Tyndale’s library, and I was able to go to his home and help our head librarian, Hugh Rendle, sort through the materials.  Because the earliest Methodist churches in Canada were established in Eastern Ontario, Bill was also a student of Eastern Ontario history.

in 1925 the main Methodist body in Canada united with many Presbyterians and the Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada – and that means that many of the United Church congregations that pre-date 1925 were in fact Methodist congregations.  Bill had written books on the history of two such congregations – Bridge Street Church in Belleville (Bridging the Years), and Wall Street Church in Brockville (The Meaning of the Stones).  He’d also written a book on the Old Hay Bay Church (The Founders), the first Methodist Church building in Canada, which still stands as a National Historic Site.  At the time of his death, he was working on books on two of the most important figures in Canadian Methodist history, William Case and William Losee.  Therefore he had amassed a very significant body of literature and archival material on Methodism’s spread in Eastern Ontario.

The fact that most Methodists joined the United Church in 1925 means that much of this Methodist history is not immediately apparent to a casual observer today.  People do not realize, for example, that churches like Bridge Street Church in Belleville, Wall Street Church in Brockville, and Sydenham Street Church  in Kingston are monuments to Methodist history.  All Belleville residents are familiar with Albert College and its beautiful campus, but most have no idea that this private school began as Belleville Seminary – a Methodist theological college.

Albert College interior by tjchampagne via flickr

But it is not only the mainline Methodist tradition that has strong Eastern Ontario roots.  The late nineteenth century holiness movement also had a significant impact on this part of Canada, especially in the legacy of Ralph Horner, whose biography I read and blogged about earlier this year.  Horner was from the Ottawa Valley, and had a ministry as an evangelist which centred around Eastern Ontario.   Originally serving with the Methodist Church of Canada, Horner eventually went on to found two holiness denominations: the Holiness Movement Church and the Standard Church of America.  Many of the churches that emerged out of the Hornerite revival in Eastern Ontario are still around today, although these two denominations also merged with others (HMC joined the Free Methodist Church in 1958 and the SCA merged with the Wesleyan Church in 2003).

Holiness Movement Church Hymnal via internet archiveIn addition to the fact that the Holiness churches have historically had a significant concentration of their congregations in Eastern Ontario cities and towns, there is also a rich history of revivals through camp meetings in rural locations.  Almost every little village was impacted.   Even Sunbury, where I grew up, had a Salvation Army corps at one time, and the Hornerite movement impacted nearby Inverary.   In Hastings County today, Ivanhoe may be known today as a place with a cheese factory along Hwy 62, but a century ago it was known as one of the most important holiness revival sites in Canada.  It was at the Ivanhoe camp meeting that Ralph Horner died in 1921, not long after preaching his last sermon.

The surprising thing for me has been the way that my life has now come full circle.  As a professor Wesley Studies at Canada’s largest seminary, my teaching and research interests now coincide with my personal history in a way I never thought they would.   The connection between between my geographical roots and my ecclesial roots, of which I was unaware for most of my life, now seems to have been established by providential design.

16 thoughts on “The Wesleyan Tradition’s Eastern Ontario Roots

  1. A year ago we moved onto Hwy 62, about 10-15 kilometers south of Ivanhoe, and what a delight to hear the history and connection to John Wesley, whose hymns touched my heart and spirit as a child in the Anglican church! Of British and Scottish heritage, I was always drawn to the church history in the British Isles. I will certainly pray for more revelation to the people of this area, of their rich Christian heritage!!!
    May God bless you deeply, your interest and love of the local history shines through!

    • That’s great Sandra – I’m glad to hear about your personal connection to the area. It is a lovely place to live. Canadians do not have much of a historical consciousness in general, but this is especially so in relation to religious history! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I just recently became aware of Rev. Bill Lamb’s passing. I came to know him through his help in the last few years with my geneological research of one of my ancestors, an 1870’s Ontario Methodist ‘Circuit Rider’, Rev. Almon Perry Lyons. Rev. Lamb was very generous with his advice to me through email and even took the time to guide me in person, through my visit to the United Church Archives. He even invited me home to share a meal with him and his lovely wife. His kindness to a stranger touched me deeply. I also have a deep respect for him for his service to the Hay Bay Methodist Church preservation. I am saddened at his loss and my sympathies go out to his family.

  3. I remember the old campground at Ivanhoe, just east of where the old railway tracks were. There was a similar campground over near Roblin or Marlbank. I visited both when I was a child, with my grandparents. I remember people wailing and going up to the front and being very emotional, which was scary to me. And there was a Standard Church on Coleman Street, Belleville, just across from the Christ Church (Anglican).

    • Thanks for sharing those personal memories – these places are forgotten by many and often invisible. I didn’t know about the former Standard Church location on Coleman – that’s very close to the location of the Belleville Wesleyan church.

      • You’re welcome. There is an empty lot on Coleman Street (used for parking now) just across from Christ Church. That’s where the Standard Church was. It was a small white building. I’m afraid I don’t remember when it was demolished, or why. I see the Wesleyan Church is on Everett Street, just a few doors up from Christ Church and now I remember that one of my school-mates attended service there. I remember the campground visit at Roblin quite well even though it’s well over 50 years ago. We went for a Sunday afternoon, and we took a picnic supper, so we were at both the afternoon and evening service. It might have been the same for the Ivanhoe campground, but I know we were there for the evening, at least. It seems odd driving down Highway 62 and not getting the “bump” as the car goes over the old track area.

  4. Thanks for sharing. As a former student from Albert College, it is wonderful to see a post like this. May I use the picture of Albert College’s church on my facebook and send it to my school?

  5. Hello James, I too am finding my roots culturally and theologically in Eastern Ont. and Eastern Canada – first with my father’s pioneer Irish settlers, the Moores of Maberly near Perth, Lanark County, then called South Sherbrooke Township/Bathurst. They had one of the first “cedar chapels” in 1840s, which was later replaced by the United tradition.

    On my mother’s side we have Salvation Army in Botwood, Ont. and her deep leanings toward evangelicals like the Pentecostals.

    I see where this is going! I am now delving in to religious/theological study, soon at Emmanuel College U of T, and so would love to learn more about my history and the history of church in Canada.

    (I also have Quakers on my father’s maternal side in the U.S. who came to Ontario, I believe they were Empire Loyalists).

    Thank you for your work.

    Krista Moore
    Toronto Canada

    • Thanks Krista – that’s fascinating family history, and good for you for following it up! You’ve got connections to quite a number of significant religious traditions. Keep pursuing those leads and I’m glad to hear you’ll be studying theology. You’ll find lots to keep you busy in the church history collections at the UofT libraries.

  6. My family was in Belleville for my mother’s 100th birthday celebration, and passed along Coleman Street several times. Strange to think we passed by a Standard Church site. I heard on the weekend that there used to be a Standard Church in Bloomfield, where my mother now lives. Your blog of 2013 clued me in that the Standard Church merged with the Wesleyan Church in 2003! I have been quite out of touch with these traditions obviously, though I wrote a paper for Dr Rennie on the smaller Methodist churches of Canada at OTS in 1987 or 88. I’m glad the Standard Church found a church to join–they seemed like such orphans. I am ordained in the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada and curator for our eastern Canadian archive in Kitchener.

  7. Thank you for visiting the site, James. Glad to know you are caring for those archives – that is important work! Hopefully we can meet in person some day. I have an annual Wesley Studies Symposium at Tyndale each April and I would be glad to have a presentation on any aspect of EMCC history or theology, if you know of anyone who might be interested (yourself included).

  8. James, this is all fascinating stuff. Seems like the Standard American Church was at its peak in the 1920-1930’s. We are in Stowe, VT and heard from an older neighbor (we just moved to this location) that a church may have existed on our street. Do you know the range of locations– how far south/north/east/West? and did the movement transform entirely when the leadership passed? There is no evidence of it now, but it would be nice to know. . . Another commenter said she recalled wailing and going up to the front and being very emotional. . . what were the traditions? If there was such a church ion our street, it would be nice to know more about what happened there – only 100 years ago! any resources would be appreciated. Kindly, Ryan– and thank you for posting/sharing

    • Great questions, Ryan…I don’t know how far it extended into the US. I think the first place I would look is Crosswell’s book on Ralph Horner (Lift Up a Standard, ISBN 9780898277258). My copy is at the office and I won’t be there for several days. I will email you contact info for the authors – they might be able to help!

Leave a Reply to James Clare Fuller Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s