1949 and Ontario Baptist roots

Warning: read with generosity, that essential attribute of all good history-writing. And read with Christian love, for I am sure this will annoy some. Roots: historians and quasi-historians are deeply interested in roots. And not without good reason: the past has shaped us and without a history and memory of the past, we have no idea who we are or where we are going. As an Ontario Baptist I have spent much time thinking about my roots in this province. Those thoughts were rekindled when I read a recent ad for Heritage College & Seminary, where I taught in the 1990s and which was the successor to Central Baptist Seminary, where I taught from 1982 to 1993. In the ad, it was stated that Heritage had “roots in Ontario dating back to 1949” [Options (Fall 2010), 42].

1949: a fateful year for Baptists in Ontario.

When I first taught Baptist History at Central Baptist Seminary, Toronto, in the mid-1980s, I realized that my roots as a Baptist had to have a deeper stretch than the origins of the school where I was serving. That school had been formed in 1949 in a break in fellowship between a number of prominent of evangelical Baptists, primarily T.T. Shields (1873–1955) and some of his key lieutenants, men like W. Gordon Brown (1904–75). These men had stood shoulder to shoulder in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in Baptist circles in Ontario in the 1920s, standing for key truths of the Gospel, but twenty years later they parted company.

The reasons for the break were complex as all such schisms are and involved ecclesiological differences as well as personality clashes and issues of power and that old bugbear of human existence, sin—and not just on one side! It may well have been a necessary break, but it was very regrettable and left me, as I researched it, with a bad taste in the mouth. Honestly, I felt our roots had to be more positive than this quarrel.

I loved, and still do, the Baptist body, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada—formed in 1953 as a result of the fallout between Shields and his lieutenants—in which my Christian faith had been nurtured and given room to flourish. But I came to see that my roots had a deeper reach, well beyond the frost of controversy. In Ontario they went back to the Old Baptist Convention and remarkable Christians like John Gilmour, William Fraser, Daniel McPhail—the Elijah of the Ottawa Valley—R.A. Fyfe, Henrietta Feller, A.V. Timpany, Benjamin D. Thomas (or "Thomas of Toronto" as he is known in Carmathenshire, South Wales), and D.A. McGregor. Does anyone remember these saints?

But even with such Canadian Baptist pioneers, I had not yet gotten to the foundation of my Baptist faith (which, from a biblical standpoint, is, of course, Holy Scripture—but I was looking for the recent historical manifestation of those convictions). It was in the mid-1980s that I discovered the Baptist saints of the 17th century, men like William Kiffin and Hanserd Knollys and Benjamin Keach, and to my lifelong delight, that 18th century band of brothers that were Andrew Fuller, John Ryland, John Sutcliff, William Carey, Samuel Pearce, and their contemporaries, believers like Benjamin Beddome, Benjamin Francis, William Steadman, Joseph Kinghorn, the Stennetts, Coxe Feary, John Fawcett, Anne Steele and Anne Dutton—time would fail me to write of others.

I shall ever be thankful to God for that three-volume 1845 set of Fuller’s works that I pulled off the shelf of the library in the Jonesville Crescent campus of Central Baptist Seminary in 1985 or thereabouts. I had found my roots. Fuller et al. were not perfect, but what a remarkable group of men: truly heroes à la Hebrews 13:7.

1949? No, I am sorry, too shallow for this Baptist who longed for greater depth. 1949? No, I am sorry, too compromised with sin for this romantic! (And, please, I mean no offence to the tremendous leaders who founded the Fellowship).

Now, this is ressourcement.