Eminent Christians: 8. William Fraser

In an article that appeared in a 1999 issue of the National Post entitled “Scotland’s Gifts to Canada,” author David Olive noted that “few countries have felt the impact of the Scottish diaspora more powerfully than Canada.” He went on to list sixteen Scottish pioneers who came to Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries and made enormous contributions to this country. What is striking about Olive’s list, though, is the omission of any Christian leaders. And yet the majority of the Scottish emigrants who crossed the Atlantic were deeply religious individuals and passionate about their Christian faith. Consider the eminent Gaelic-speaking Highlander William Fraser (1801-1883), who emigrated to Glengarry County, Ontario, in 1831. Converted in 1817 in the Scottish Highlands, Fraser had studied for a couple of years in the 1820s, and then became for a period of time an itinerant preacher. He appears to have had “a herculean physical frame.” Trekking over the wildest of hillsides in all types of weather would have built up further reserves of physical fortitude and stamina, which would serve Fraser in good stead later during his pastorate in the Ottawa Valley.

Between the last quarter of the eighteenth century and 1870 various waves of emigration swept over the Gaelic-speaking Highlands which transplanted entire communities of Highlanders to the American continent. It has been estimated that during this period some 185,000 Scots left their homeland for Canada. Among them was William Fraser. While many of those who emigrated did so for land and worldly aspirations, the motivation that led Fraser to Canada was the opportunity to expand the Kingdom of Christ.

Fraser arrived at Breadalbane Baptist Church in the Ottawa Valley in the summer of 1831. But things were not well in the church and by 1834 Fraser had become quite despondent. A fellow Scotsman and Baptist minister by the name of John Gilmour visited him in the summer of 1834 and sought to encourage him. There must be fire in the pulpit, Gilmour admonished his friend, before there will be a blaze among the congregation. Fraser evidently took this admonition to heart. Fraser threw himself back into the work at Breadlabane. That fall and winter, the year 1834, there was a large-scale awakening throughout the region around Breadalbane. Between August and December, 1834, Fraser baptized fifty-eight new converts. By the fall of 1835 over one hundred had been converted and brought into the membership of the Breadalbane church.

Fraser also took extensive preaching tours throughout Glengarry county, often preaching in Gaelic since many of the settlers in this region were from the Highlands. In the Breadalbane church itself Sunday services were held in both Gaelic and English, the services following each other with only a few minutes’ interval. Both services together would take three hours, and sometimes more on special occasions.

Ever the pioneer church planter, Fraser made the decision to leave Breadalbane in 1850 and head west to Illinois. But he got no further than Bruce County. Initially, he lived on a farm adjoining Kincardine, where he held services in his own home in Gaelic and English. Eventually he moved to Tiverton, where he gathered a congregation of Baptists. When Fraser resigned this pastorate due to age and infirmity in October, 1875, the church membership stood at 354, a figure which would not have included members dismissed to form other Baptist churches in the area or those who might either have died or moved away from the district altogether. It is an amazing feat given the fact that Tiverton at the time was but a small village. About twenty years later, T.T. Shields preached some of his first sermons in this church.

Fraser died in 1883 after he had gone out to Manitoba to evangelize a community of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. The trip proved too much for the old man. To his last breath the kingdom of Christ and its extension were his passion.