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By David G. Pitt
By The Rev. Dr. A. E. Kewley,
When the Sesquicentennial celebration of the constituting of the congregation of Gower Street United Church, St. John's, Newfoundland, was being planned, the committee in charge of local arrangements considered it fitting and essential that a history of the beginnings of this former Methodist church should be written. Although burdened with other duties at the time, the Chairman of the committee, Dr. David G. Pitt, agreed to undertake the preparation of a manuscript for publication a history which would emphasize the lesser known period of the life of the church from 1815-1860. Now, in our one hundred and fifty-first year, a year designated by the Provincial Government of Newfoundland and Labrador as 'Come Home Year"' this important book is available to our former members and friends who, through reading this accurate history, may be led to thank God for His goodness and mercy from generation to generation.
Glower Street Church possesses a rich treasury of oral tradition stories about the location of former buildings, arguments in official board meetings, accounts of fire and rebuilding, great gatherings, and revival meetings. Characterizations of former ministers and laymen abound, as well as highlighted incidents connected with baptisms, weddings and funerals. The congregation has known poverty and tragedy, zealous planning and success. The arguments, heartaches, and dreams of the people have been passec! on from generation to generation, amplified and adjusted to fit the capacity of the storyteller. All these anecdotes form a delightful part of our romantic and imaginative chronicle.
There is also a place for a formal and factual history, the result of careful research amongst documents and verification through reliable sources an account where the emphasis is on the accuracy of recorded events rather than upon the dramatic skill of the narrator. This was the task laid upon Dr. Pitt; to this he has contributed his unique competence in literary style, historical judgement, and personal devotion.
The congregation of Gower Street United Church is fortunate in having as its Recording Steward Dr. D. G. Pitt, a son of the parsonage, and presently Professor of English at Memorial University. In the midst of a year of unusual pressures, he managed to make time to write and prepare for publication this literary and religious history of our beginnings. In so sharing his gifts and devotion he symbolizes the spirit of cheerful dedication that characterized the men and women of this congregation whose story he has recorded.
Today, when the present frequently appears to be at war with the past, we are fortunate in having such a strong inheritance of idealism and action, and a faith that is eternally contemporary, centred in Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Like earth's proud empires, pass away;
Thy Kingdom stands and grows for ever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
The Manse, May, 1966.
This small volume attempts to record, in somewhat more detail than has hitherto been done, the story of the founding and early years of what is now known as Gower Street United Church, in St. John's, Newfoundland. It attempts to picture the old town of St. John's as it was in the early days of Methodism, the social and economic environment into which the early missionaries came, and the difficulties and trials they faced in their struggle to establish a congregation and a church.
The author has, therefore, concentrated his researches and attention upon the first crucial decade of Methodism in St. John's-1815 - 1825-and, using all available documentation, has attempted to give a complete and accurate record of that distant, fateful period in our church history. The period from 1825 to 1860 (when the first brick church building was completed) is also covered, but in less detail. Two appendices contain, first, a diary of events of chief historical interest from 1860 to the present, and, second, a list of the ministers who served the Gower Street circuit from 1815 to 1965.
The publication of this book was intended originally to coincide with the celebration in November, 1965, of the Sesquicentennial of the Gower Street circuit, but circumstances delayed its completion until now. It is hoped by the Official Board of the Church, under whose auspices it was written and published; by the ministers of the Church, whose help and encouragement have kept the project moving; and by the author, who has found the research and writing an illuminating and rewarding experience, that this little volume will be not only of interest to the members of the Gower Street Congregation and their friends, but will also serve to sharpen our awareness and enhance our appreciation of the heritage that is ours, and the debt that we owe to those early pioneers of the Church, who, though "tossed with tempest", bequeathed us truly "windows of agates".
A great many people have helped me in the preparation of this book, and all of them I thank. But I should like to single out for a special word of gratitude those whose help was virtually indispensable in the task of research: The Rev. Naboth Winsor, of George Street United Church in this City, who gave me free access to his own extensive files on church history; Mr. W. F. Butt, Archivist of the Newfoundland Conference of the United Church, who gave me many valuable "leads"; and Mr. Rupert Bartlett, through whom many useful documents came into my hands. Another whose help was invaluable, but who is no longer with us, was the late Mr. H. N. Burt, for many years the historian par excellence of Methodism in this City.
DAVID G. PITT.
The year 1965 marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Gower Street Church and the two hundredth anniversary of Wesleyan-Methodism in Newfoundland.
During the half century following the arrival of Laurence Coughlan, the Irish Wesleyan convert who first brought Methodism to Conception Bay in 1765, the Methodist cause gained a precarious toe-hold in that part of the Island, and also established small societies in Trinity, Bonavista, and Fortune Bays. But St. John's, though it had Methodist settlers, had no stationed missionary and no church or chapel. Small gatherings of Wesleyan converts met for worship and fellowship in private houses, but the Methodist cause was quite unorganized in St. John's up to the year 1814. In that year, however, two decisions were taken that were to have important consequences for Methodism in St. John's. The first of these was the decision of the British Methodist Conference to give serious attention for the first time to the establishment in St. John's of a Methodist Society (to use the prevailing terminology), to list the town as one of its missions, and to begin negotiations with the Government at home for a grant of land on which to build a chapel. The second decision was taken by the St. John's Methodists themselves, and followed the failure of both negotiations in England for a land-grant and those conducted by the Methodists in St. John's with the Governor of the Colony, Sir Richard Keates. This decision was to proceed with the building of a chapel on a plot of land leased from one of their own number. The actual work of construction began in the autumn of the following year, 1815.
At the time neither of these decisions could have seemed to be of much significance for the small colonial fishing outpost that was St. John's in 1815. The Methodists were few in number, a minor religious enclave in a community of more than five thousand persons most of whom were-if of any religious persuasion-either adherents of the Established Church (of England) or Roman Catholics. The Established Church had already a missionary in St. John's, a schoolmaster, and a chapel of long standing. The Roman Catholics had several priests, and a chapel built by Bishop O'Donell in 1755. In addition the Independents or Presbyterians had an organized congregation, and a church founded by John Jones in 1777. The Methodists were largely interlopers from "around the Bay"-Harbour Grace and Carbonear in particular-who had moved in since the turn of the century, and their coming was not the cause of universal rejoicing among the older, more populous, and well-established religious communities. But come they did, and stayed, and grew in numbers; and whether or not their formal organization in 1814 attracted sympathetic notice, if any, their moral and spiritual impact upon the far-from-saintly community into which they had come was not long in being felt.
But what was this community really like a century and a half ago? The question is not, I think, an idle one in the context of this history. Without some idea of the nature and character of St. John's in those days, it is nearly impossible to understand and appreciate either the circumstances or the quality of the early tenuous life of Methodism in St. John's and of the Mother of Methodism, Gower Street Church.
The town of one hundred and fifty years ago was spectacularly different from the city we know today, and not merely in lacking those endowments of modern science and technology that we have come to take for granted. It lacked, indeed, the very form and organization of a settled communitv as these had been known in Europe for centuries. It is perhaps untrue to say that civilization had not really taken root here, but it is no exaggeration to say that its roots were still very near the surface and the plant itself of rather uncertain growth. But let us look in on the ancient port.
In physical appearance it is not greatly unlike the none-too-prosperous outport of sixty or seventy years ago, though somewhat larger in area and population. Its population is perhaps a little more than five thousand, though it is shortly to be swollen to twice this number by hordes of famine stricken Irish immigrants. There are some two thousand buildings - dwellings, stores, fishing-rooms - clustered along the waterfront and up the face of the hill that rings the northern side of the harbour in a much more forbidding and precipitous manner than it will at a later date when blasting and shovelling have softened its features. The main thoroughfare, Lower Path (later to be called Water Street), is a winding, narrow, dirty track that begins at a point near the mouth of the stream called Little Castor's River at the western end of the harbour, and extends eastwards along the irregular shoreline until it disappears amid the flakes and fishing-stages at King's Beach.
All along the waterfront are wharves and fishing-stages. These are of various sizes and descriptions, most of them rickety and insubstantial, and interspersed among them are sheds and linneys from whence arise the mingled odours of salt-cod and cordage, seal-oil and blubber, rum and molasses. Behind these, facing the "street", are shops and stores of many kinds: a chandler's, a haberdasher's, a cooper's, a sailmaker's, a blacksmith's, a cabinet-maker's, an iron-monger's, a saddler's, and so on. Their windows are small, their lintels low, their interiors dark and cluttered. Here and there are coffee-houses, one with a billiard table at the dimly-lit rear. Much more numerous are the taverns, equally dark within, dirty and noisy, where Jamaica and Demerara rum, the cheapest commodity in the town, is always in plentiful supply and the business always brisk. Walking along Lower Path, picking our way through the mud and puddles and horsedung, dodging the carts and drays that pass with loads of fish and kegs of rum, unable to pass each other at many points on the narrow path, we note such popular resorts as "The Jolly Fisherman',, "The Bunch of Grapes", "The Nelson", "The Royal Standard", "The Rose and Crown", "The Duke of York", and many others, there is little but the wooden sign swinging in the north-east breeze to distinguish one from another. Only "The London Tavern" is a cut above the others, a little more imposing architecturally and newly painted. Its clientele are merchants, and the wares include old and expensive wines as well as the cheap Demerara.
Besides the "London" there are some other buildings along the south side of Lower Path that attract our notice by their slightly more imposing structure. These are the domains of the "London's" principal clients, the St. John's merchants -the "Fishocracy", as they are sometimes locally known. Their premises are well kept and neat, and have over the doors brightly painted wooden signs announcing the owners' names: Bulley and Job, Goss and Butler, R. Newman and Co., Robinson and Co., Hart and Epper, Stuart and Rennie, and others. If we step inside to sample the merchandise we find that the prices are high and the quality not the best. Here we find salt pork from Ireland, corned beef and flour from England, bread from Hamburg, locally grown cabbage and potatoes, and, of course, large quantities of salt and smoked fish.
Across the street, on the north or landward side of Lower Path, there are only a few nondescript buildings here and there, mostly fish-sheds and small shops. A few houses stand backed up tightly against the slope, which in places is a sheer precipice. All the rest of the space between the "street" and the ridge of hill that runs eastwards from McBride's Cove to the King's Beach, and which in places juts far out into the narrow thoroughfare itself, is occupied by fish flakes. Flakes too line, for the most part, both sides of Upper Path (later to be widened and named for Governor Duckworth), which runs along the first shelf of the encircling hill. Leaving Lower Path at McBride's Cove we climb by a narrow path up the hill opposite the cove, and crossing Upper Path make our way up the lane that ascends Church Hill, so called because nearby the Established Church has had a chapel for nearly a hundred years At the top of this hill we come upon a street that can properly be called one. It is wide and relatively straight, and though without any sort of hard surfacing is much more substantial and cared-for than anything we have seen in the lower town; here and there new houses have been built, and some of them have small gardens at the back. This is Gower Street, and it is virtually the northern limits of the town. Above, on the I ligher Levels, buildings of any sort are few and scattered, but marry of the open spaces have been enclosed (contrary to law, we may note) and are under cultivation. Some of these are mere gardens, but others are large enough to be called small farms. In tlre centre of this height of land, overlooking the town below and the harbour is Fort Townshend where the Governor of the Colony lives. His residence, too, is in keeping with the rest of the town: a simple, crudely-built, two-storey wooden building containing three rooms, and in 1815 it is badly in need of repair. (In 1819 its occupant, Governor Hamilton, will declare that it is not fit to keep cattle in.)
The only thoroughfare of any consequence on this height of land is a path that connects Fort Townshend with Fort William, a mile to the east. Over this the garrisons parade on foot or on mounts; later they will widen it and make a good road here, which will be named for them, Military Road. To the north of this path in 1815 are the "Barrens", the favourite berry-picking grounds of the townspeople, and in the valley to the north-east is a favourite trouting resort, Quidy-Vidy-Pond. A well-worn path leads to it through the woods behind Fori William. To the south of the path that runs east and west connecting the forts, between it and the shoreline, and covering the sharply inclined face of the hill, is the most populous part of the town. Here the houses-all of wood and small, though many are two-storied-are huddled closely together, the rows separated only by narrow lanes that criss-cross the slope in all directions. Clearly the town is no model of municipal planning. It has grown up untended, like some sort of domestic plant run wild; the wonder is that it is a settled community at all.
Some conception of what life was like in the old town- and in Newfoundland generally-may be formed from the following extracts from the Rev. L. A. Anspach's History of Newfoundland published in 1819. Anspach, a clergyman of the Church of England, spent thirteen years in Newfoundland as Missionary and Magistrate, returning to England in 1812; hence he knew conditions from first-hand observation. On the dwelling-houses in general use among the well-to-do he wrote:
The houses are generally built of wood; the best are two stories high, raised on brick or stone foundations, which include excellent cellars: the boards, planks, and shingles, are imported from other parts of America. These houses are continually wanting repair, and require a coat of paint every twelve months to support a decent appearance. The use of coal has of late years become general in parlours and even in kitchens; it is imported chiefly from Sydney . . . .2
The houses of the others, the greater part of the population, he described as follows:
On diet, he wrote the following:
....Wine is seldom used but by the superior sort of planters, and that only on some particular occasions. Spiritou liquors are in more general use: . . . Bohea tea, hot from the kettle in which it is boiled, is the favourite and universal beverage, even at dinner, particularly during the winter season, as well as at breakfast and supper during the whole year ....
Another beverage in common use there, cheap, pleasant, and very wholesome, is spruce-beer .... Some people of a particular taste use that beer with spirits, instead of water, a mixture which is there called callibogus, and confined to a few amateurs.4
But even these common commodities of diet were often hard to come by. There were times during the period covered by our history, as letters from the Methodist District Meetings to the Committee in London declare, when only salted fish and bad potatoes could be had for any price. Fresh fruit was always an infrequent luxury. Even the cabbage and greens mentioned by Anspach, that accompanied salt pork on "particular days", were the exception rather than the rule even when in season. Needless to say, the Methodist missionary was not in the habit of mixing callibogus, though he probably drank spruce-beer, which, indeed, contained more nourishment than the "universal beverage", bohea tea, to fortify which there was rarely any milk, either cow's or goat's. As Anspach suggests, fresh eggs probably graced the missionary's table throughout most of the year. From the evidence available, however, one is likely to conclude that neither he nor his flock was often tempted in those days to commit the sin of gluttony.
Further insight into conditions in St. John's shortly before the establishment of the Gower Street Mission may be had from the following paragraph from a petition sent in 1812 by a group of merchants and leading householders to the Prince Regent:
The petitioners' fear of fire and the misery that would follow proved to be prophetic, as we shall shortly see. Unfortunately, despite His Royal Highness's promise that the matters mentioned in the petition would not be overlooked, nothing was done to forestall the dreaded catastrophe-at least until it had happened and been repeated twice again.
The consequence of having no regular constabulary in St. John's at this time is attested to by another historian, who drew much of his information from aged residents whose own parents had grown up in the old town we are describing. He writes:
Medical services too were few and of indifferent quality. The first civilian hospital in St. John's, a small wooden building situated in what is now Victoria Park, was opened in 1814, thanks to the energy and initiative of Dr. William Carson. But from the start the hospital was plagued by lack of adequate funds to provide the service that the community needed. In 1820 it was more than £80 in debt.7 There were several doctors in the town, who served the hospital as well as private patients, but they were far too few to provide the medical attention required by a population that was neither well fed nor properly housed in a climate that placed a premium upon physical stamina. Even certain medical services that were available were often roundly rejected. Anspach reports that "The scarlet and putrid fevers, putrid sore throat, and the small-pox, in consequence of their rooted aversion to any kind of inoculation, produce among them a very great mortality ...."8 The town had no pharmacist until the firm of McMurdo opened a small shop in 1823. Early accounts indicate that most remedies employed for ills of all sorts were home-brewed and home-administered - juniper berries, leaves of larch, balsam fir, and the like. It is not surprising to learn that most of the missionaries who came to our shores suffered much from ill-health, many became incapacitated and were forced to go elsewhere, and not a few died before they reached their prime.
It is difficult to find specific and authoritative information on the religious and moral state of the town when the first Wesleyan mission was formed in St. John's. Anspach observes in a passing reference that at the time of his arrival in the island the atheistic writings of Tom Paine were held in higher regard than was either The Bible or the acts of parliament.9 But he makes no derogatory comment on the general moral character and behaviour of the people. Indeed, he remarks that "If the character of the natives of Newfoundland, in general, agrees with that of those of Conception Bay . . . no where can a race be found more remarkable for . . . steadiness of temper and of conduct' sincerity and constancy of attachment, and a strong sense of religious duty."10 The Rev. T. Watson Smith, however, in his History of the Methodist Church in Eastern British America (1877), gives the following gloomy picture of the "religious state of Newfoundland at the beginning of the [nineteenth] century." From the context in which this passage appears, it is evident that he has the town and environs of St. John's particularly in mind:
Such, then, was the town and the conditions of life in the midst of which, a century and a half ago, the new outpost of Wesleyan Methodism began to establish itself. But the physical and social conditions described here must also be seen in terms of the physical and social isolation to which the missionary sent from England committed himself in coming to this island in the early nineteenth century. Not only did he find himself removed from friends and family, and the social and intellectual stimuli of a populous and highly developed cultural community, but he found that his sole life-line with the home-base in London was very tenuous and uncertain. Three centuries after Columbus and Cabot, the North Atlantic took just as. long to cross as it did in the sixteenth century. Letters often took months to reach their destinations, and a reply within a year represented a promptness of service that was more often hoped for than realized. Few, if any, of the young missionaries, had ever before known anything like the conditions that they would have to experience in their distant mission-field. Most of them, too, were of good education, fond of books and intellectual pursuits, and accustomed to the stimulus and sustenance of the conversation of colleagues. In St. John's they were cut off from nearly all such spiritual and intellectual resources, except on the rare occasion of a visit from a colleague (Port de Grave was the nearest mission), or the arrival of a parcel of books from home. The town itself had no library and no book-shop, and the families possessed of such amenities as books and educated conversation were very few and largely inaccessible to the young apostle of a dissenting Protestant sect. That the sojourn in this island of many of these young "fools for Christ's sake" was very brief ought not therefore to be greatly wondered at. Even the burning zeal with which most of them came could hardly be expected to survive the deprivations to which they were with little intermission subjected from the very day they set foot upon our soil. That so many did remain, brave the ordeal, and triumph at last is one of those reckless yet glorious, improbable yet true, testaments of faith by which from time to time in our unhappy history the human spirit has deified itself.
1 For much of the information contained in the account of old St. John's that follows, I am indebted to Edward B. Foran, "St. John's City: Historic Capital of Newfoundland", The Book of Newfoundland" Vol. II, lff.; and Michael P. Murphy, "Glimpses of Old St. John's, op. cit., Vol. II, 26ff.
2 L. A. Anspach, History of Newfoundland, 466-7.
3 Ibid., 467-8.
4 Ibid., 464-6.
5 Foran, op. cit., 6.
6 H. W. LeMessurier, Ancient St. John's, Herald Print, 1915.
7 L. E. Keegan, "Medical History of Newfoundland", Book of Newfoundland, Vol. II, 123.
8 Anspach, op. cit., 469.
9 Ibid., 228.
10 Ibid., 477-8.
11 Smith, Vol. I, 352.
As we have seen, Methodism had come to Newfoundland in 1765 and by 1814 was flourishing, though often feebly, in parts of Conception, Trinity, Bonavista, and Fortune Bays. But St. John's had been almost totally neglected. It had been visited by the Rev. William Black, the Wesleyan "apostle of Nova Scotia", in 1791, but he had stayed only one day. He had arrived by ship from New Brunswick on August 10, almost regretting his decision to come, having suffered much en route from the insolence and blasphemous language of the Newfoundland captain. His experience had, however, convinced him that the Island was badly in need of spiritual ministrations. After conferring with John Jones, the Congregational minister in St. John's, he walked to Portugal Cove and took an open boat to Carbonear, apparently satisfied that Mr. Jones was able to provide for the spiritual needs of the few Dissenters living in St. John's.
What appears to have been the first small Methodist Society in the city was formed in 1809 by the Rev. John Remmington, who called at the port before returning to England after a six-year itinerancy in Conception and Trinity Bays. Remmington was, like Coughlan, an Irishman, who had come to Newfoundland as a Methodist missionary in 1804 and who, during a visit to England in 1808, had enlisted the services of two fellow-Irishmen, Samuel McDowell and William Ellis, in the Methodist cause in the Island. According to a letter sent by Remmington and his two compatriots to the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke, General Superintendent of Wesleyan Missions outside of England, Remmington had called on the governor of the Colony and been "graciously received", after which he had proceeded to form into a small Methodist Society the few Wesleyans then resident in the town.l
After his return to England in 1810 Remmington made to the Methodist Missionary Committee in London what appears to be the first earnest plea that something be done as quickly as possible for the Methodist cause in St. John's. In the report that he sent to the Committee, St. John's is not actually named, but there can be no doubt that it is St. John's he speaks of. His report reads in part as follows:
This will be the first ever done towards the erection of a chapel, and will be the last as all other parts can procure stuff at a cheaper rate because of being much nearer the woods. They have assured me they will support the preacher and chapel afterwards independent of any aid from you or putting you to further expense. They will put the building on the conference plan. Encourage them to begin. I offer myself to go and beg for that purpose if it cannot be raised in any other way. Only, I beseech you by the love of His Spirit that you do not continue to look on it so slightly as heretofore . . . [passage indecipherable]. I think the committee should be called to consider this matter. Please write to the missionaries. Brother McDowell might be appointed superintendent.
I believe on your present determination the salvation or damnation of many souls depend unless the Father of Mercies appoints some other way unknown to us.
It is clearly St. John's he speaks of, for only St. John's of the prospective mission sites at this time was either remote from sources of materials suitable for building a chapel, or likely to be self-supporting in the immediate future. I have not, however, been able to find any evidence that Remmington's plea either for a grant from the Missionary Committee or for permission to canvass for funds himself was heeded by the Committee in London. Shortly after writing this letter (August 23, 1810) he was sent to a station in Ireland, and his name passes from the history of Newfoundland Methodism. But his efforts and those of others did at length bear fruit. On July 28, 1814, the following entry, admittedly very general and inconclusive, appeared in the Minutes of the Missionary Committee: "Our missionaries in Newfoundland shall be instructed to pay particular attention to St. John's."3 So far as I can discover, this is the first reference to St. John's to appear in the Committee's Minutes.
But the St. John's Methodists did not wait for help to come from London. In the autumn of 1814 they began to make plans for building the first chapel in the town. Unfortunately, information about this first chapel is very scanty. Not even its exact site can be established with certainty. Tradition has it that it was situated on what was then McCarthy's Lane, later to be known as Prescott Street, though a search of maps and records at City Hall has failed either to deny or substantiate this belief. But the scanty evidence that there is suggests that the chapel was indeed built somewhere to the east of the present site. It is known that the first chapel was destroyed by fire on February 12, 1816, and that the area ravaged at that time was the higgledy-piggledy warren of wooden hovels south of Military Road that included McCarthy's Lane. Furthermore, a letter written in July, 1819, to the Committee of the Methodist Missionary Society in London by members of the St. John's society, referring to the second chapel states that it was "situated in a part of the town every way convenient, and secure from any future accident of fire."4 It can, therefore, be safely assumed, I believe, that the first chapel was built not on the site of the three subsequent Gower Street churches (as several earlier historians have declared5), but some distance to the east of this, probably on what is now Prescott Street.
There is also some doubt among historians whether this first chapel was ever actually completed. One of them states that it was, and was first opened for public worship on December 26, 1815.6 Another states that it was still unfinished,7 though in use, when it fell victim to the fire of February, 1816. But whether ever finished or not, this first small wooden chapel became the first tangible symbol of the faith and industry of a people whose faith would be tested and whose industry evoked many times in the years ahead. It represented also the advent of a new and powerful influence in a community where at the time influences making for moral and spiritual health were few and feeble. When in October of that year the first minister to the St. John's mission, the Rev. John Pickavant, arrived, he found already a vigorous and growing Methodist Society, for which the building of a chapel had become the cement that bound its members together in a labour of both the spirit and the hand.
The coming of John Pickavant proved to be most propitious in its effect, though it was, in fact, accidental in its cause. Not he but the Rev. Thomas Hickson had been appointed by the Missions Committee in London to be the first minister to the newly founded St. John's congregation. Mr. Hickson and his brother, the Rev. James Hickson, had been "examined respecting their personal experience, doctrines, etc., which were found satisfactory"8 by the Committee on September 11, 1815, and were shortly thereafter ordained and dispatched to Newfoundland, Thomas to St. John's and James to Bonavista. A curious and interesting item appearing in the Committee's Minutes for September 6, 1815, is worth recording here:
Clearly, no chances were to be taken that the Rev. Messrs. Hickson should go inadequately clad into the rigours of the Newfoundland climate.
The Hicksons had been assigned to the Newfoundland District at the annual Conference in July, 1815, and were expected in St. John's by early autumn. But the formalities of examination and ordination, and other preparations, delayed their sailing until late September, and they were looked for at St. John's in vain for many weeks. When they were still missing in October, Rev. William Ellis, Chairman of the newly created District, transferred John Pickavant from Port de Grave to be the first Methodist minister stationed in St. John's. (The case of the missing missionaries ended happily some weeks later, when the brothers Hickson turned up safely. The Rev. James was sent to Bonavista, and the Rev. Thomas to Blackhead.)
The Rev. John Pickavant had been born in Lancashire in 1792, converted to Methodism in 1808, and shortly thereafter had taken up duties as local preacher. In 1813 (or possibly in 1814) he came into the regular work of the Methodist Missionary Society, and was appointed immediately to Newfoundland. Unfortunately, his health was not the best, and his sailing for Newfoundland was delayed for some months.10 He arrived at length in the autumn of 1811 in the company of John Lewis, a fellow missionary of the Methodist cause. Lewis was sent to Island Cove, and John Pickavant to Port de Grave. He had been there barely a year when Mr. Ellis requested him to proceed to St. John's and take charge of the new Methodist mission there. He was then twenty-three years old.
Pickavant's arrival in St. John's consolidated the union of Methodist adherents and communicants in the town and its environs. Young and inexperienced though he was, he combined qualities of leadership with religious zeal and enthusiasm. Moreover, he gave the struggling Methodist society both the example of industry and dedication, and the inspiration of a profound religious faith that were needed to see it through days of grave trial, both physical and spiritual. Besides, he was a preacher of rare evangelical gifts, a man of Wesley's own mold As one of his biographers expresses it, he was "A master in Israel, affectionate, gentle and gentlemanly, and in his own pulpit where he was most at home, an orator at once both charming and subduing".11 The St. John's circuit was fortunate in having him as its minister through four separate pastorates.
But though from its start in October, 1815, John Pickavant's ministry thrived in a spiritual way, it was early marked for physical and material disaster. As already noted, on February 12, 1816, a great fire swept the town of St. John's, destroying the most populous part of it, including the newly constructed Wesleyan chapel, and the homes and possessions of most of its congregation. Anspach gives the following vivid and affecting account of the great conflagration:
Destitute and homeless in the depth of winter, Pickavant's flock can hardly be blamed if they looked upon their prospects for a place of worship in the near future with despair in their hearts.
In view of its own calamitous plight, the beleaguered Mission's best hope for assistance seemed to lie in an appeal for help to the Mother Country. Accordingly, not long after the fire Mr. Pickavant was dispatched to England to solicit funds for the St. John's chapel. This statement is, I realize, at variance with that of earlier historians of Methodism in Newfoundland, who suggest that Pickavant's visit to England occurred sometime after fire destroyed the chapel in Carbonear. Thus, William Wilson (who was assistant missionary in St. John's in 1820-21) in his Newfoundland and Its Missionaries (1866) states that Pickavant went to England in the summer of 1816 "to beg for means to rebuild our chapel in St. John's", and the Carbonear chapel having been destroyed "near the time of the 'great fire' in St. John's . . . Mr. Pickavant, therefore, included both cases in his appeals to the British public."13 D. W. Johnson, likewise, in his Methodism in Eastern British America (1925) states that Pickavant was sent to England after the two fires.14 But both Anspatch and Smith are quite unequivocal in their assertions that the Carbonear chapel burned in June, 1817.15 Thus, if Pickavant went to England in 1816, he could not have gone after the two fires.
The cause of the confusion among historians was probably a statement made in a letter from the Rev. George Cubit to the Secretary of the Missionary Committee, dated from Carbonear on September 6, 1816, and published in the Methodist Magazine. Toward the end of his letter, Cubit writes, "The new chapel in Carbonear is nearly completed. Mr. Busby has already preached in it a few times."18 This, apparently, has been taken as a reference to the chapel built to replace the one destroyed by fire. But such is not the case. In 1815 a new chapel was begun in Carbonear to replace the first, built in 1788, which had become too small to accommodate the greatly increased membership. This chapel was completed in 1816 and opened on Christmas Day of that year.17 It is, clearly, to this second chapel that Mr. Cubit refers. The confusion was probably compounded by the fact that because of the debt still outstanding on the new chapel in Carbonear in the spring of 1816, Mr. Pickavant included that project in his solicitation of funds during his visit to England.
From the evidence now available (chiefly micro-film copies of the minutes of the Methodist Missionary Committee of the British Conference) it is certain that Pickavant was in England in 1816 seeking help chiefly for the St. John's chapel. The Minutes of the Committee for April 8, 1816, contain the following entry:
Resolved that Mr. Pickavant shall immediately go to Manchester carrying a letter from the Committee, containing information concerning the burning of the chapel at St. John's, Newfoundland. Also, that Mr. Bunting [Jabez Bunting, a secretary of the Wesleyan Methodist Society] be authorized to mention this case at the missionary district meetings which he expects shortly to attend, to get pecuniary aid in the way of separate subscriptions. This distressing case shall be mentioned in the magazine Missionary Notices, and in a circular letter forwarded to each circuit.16
On May 10, 1816, the following appears in the Committee's minutes:
It is clear, then, that the collecting of funds in England, under Pickavant's direction, began in the spring of 1816. How long he remained there is not certain, though we know that he was back in St. John's in time for the laying of the cornerstone of the new chapel on September 17, 1816.20 The collection in England was taken over by the Rev. George Smith, who had spent several years as a missionary in Newfoundland in the 1790's.
Without this assistance from British Methodism it is very doubtful whether the St. John's chapel could have been rebuilt for many years. For not only had fire ravaged the community, but economic depression too had begun to cast a dark shadow over it. This was precipitated by two circumstances: an unusually bad fishing season in 1816, and a sudden and severe drop in the price of fish in European markets occasioned by the end of the Napoleonic wars. Some conception of both the prevailing distress, and the struggle of the Methodist community in Newfoundland to replace the chapel, may be formed from the following extracts from letters sent to the Missionary Committee in 1816. The first is dated from St. John's on June 21, and is signed by Messrs. Busby, Ellis, Lewis, and Hickson:
The following is from a letter from the Rev. Thomas Hickson, dated from Adam's Cove on August 16, 1816:
The local circumstances of this country are such that the generality of the people have no money to give, but in the Fall of the year; as that is the time when they settle their accounts with their merchants. I therefore could only take down their names as subscribers, and their promises. We did this, in order that we might know what encouragements we could have from them; and that we might proceed immediately to rebuild, according to the encouragement we met with; . . . I got the promise of £358 - 10s. - 6d. besides what Mr. Busby did on his circuit, which I suppose will in crease the sum to £400. But it is to be feared that half the sum will not be realized, in consequence of the many failures which have since taken place, together with the very much reduced price of fish.
. . . As timber was very cheap in St. John's, when we were attending the District meeting, we ventured to purchase to the amount of £100 and this has been much to our advantage; for I am informed the price is now nearly doubled. We were encouraged to venture thus far, in consequence of a letter from one of my Liverpool friends, which gave us an account of the very kind service that friend of the Missions5 the Rev. Jabez Bunting, had done for us in the last anniversary of the Missionary Society held in Manchester, and likewise of that dear people, who have ever distinguished themselves by an almost unparalleled zeal for the extension of the Redeemer's Kingdom...."22
Finally, there is the following from Mr. Pickavant dated December 2, 1816, from Western Bay:
This great change has been occasioned by the failure of a number of merchants, in whose hands the planters had their money, and thus have lost all they had; and likewise the scarcity and low price of fish. Fish that sold at 2 guineas per quintal, since I came into this country, is now sold at 13s.23
What further use these letters were put to in the cause of St. John's Methodism is indicated by the following entry in the Missionary Committee's Minutes for December 16, 1816:
The St. John's Methodists did not, however, wait for outside help to arrive before beginning to plan for their new chapel. As stated earlier, they chose to build it on a new site in a less populous part of the town, in order to lessen the chances of future destruction by fire that always threatened the crowded area in the vicinity of what is now Prescott Street. The securing of a new site occasioned some delay in the start of building, as new grants for land beyond the settled areas could only be had by special permission of the Governor of the Colony, and in August, 1816, a successor to Governor Keates had not yet arrived. Hickson in his letter of August 16 to the Committee in London substantiates this fact:". . . we thought it imprudent to build on the same spot of ground. We therefore are under the necessity of waiting till we have a grant of another piece, and this cannot be until the arrival of His Excellency the Governor, which is expected every day."26 The Governor's arrival, it appears, was nevertheless too long delayed for the St. John's Methodists to await his coming. They were impatient to get their new chapel started, and to finish it before winter descended upon them. Accordingly, a piece of land already held by grant had to be purchased. It was, however, sufficiently remote from immediate threat of fire, as indicated by the following letter to the Committee written on July 27, 1819, long after the chapel had been finished:
The site of the chapel was a plot of slightly rising ground, on the northern perimeter of the town, overlooking Gower Street, itself just ten years old. It was a commanding site, facing the harbour and Narrows, backed by precipitous hills, and strategically placed in terms of future municipal development and growth. On the same site two subsequent edifices have housed the Mother of Methodism in St. John's, including the present handsome red brick building known as Gower Street United Church.
The "comfortable and commodious chapel", for which the plans were made in the summer of 1816, required no protracted architectural and engineering study. Simplicity and unpretentiousness, compelled by necessity but eloquently expressive of the virtues of the community it was designed to serve, characterized both the idea and the reality. The plans were drawn for a rectangular structure, forty by fifty feet in dimensions to seat about six hundred people. To accomplish this in a building of such size, a narrow gallery accommodating two rows of pews was designed to surround the entire auditorium, in which there would be three blocks of pews divided by three aisles. Underneath, a small Sunday School room was planned, to be entered by steps at the rear, or north, end. At this end too the pulpit was placed, so that the preacher as he stood therein should face both his people and the sea, by which their destinies had been and would continue to be so largely shaped.
While these plans were nearing completion, a new missionary arrived from England, Mr. Pickavant on his return having been transferred to the Blackhead-Western Bay mission. He was the Rev. George Cubit (this is the spelling of his name as it appears in his own correspondence and in the minutes of the Missionary Committee, though in other contexts it is variously given as 'Cubitt' and 'Cubick' ) He was then twenty-five years old, and St. John's was his first mission. It appears that he had originally been assigned to Carbonear, but was posted to St. John's instead, that mission having been without a missionary since Pickavant's departure in the late winter. The Committee's minutes in the spring of that year indicate something of the urgency felt in dispatching him as quickly as possible:
(This entry also provides a penetrating insight into the kind of personal surveillance and control exercised by the powerful and often [as we shall see] high-handed and inclement Missionary Committee in London.) Mr. Cubit's bride having passed muster the following entry appears in the Committee's minutes:
After a passage, which has been on the whole, speedy and comfortable, we are, through the good Providence of God arrived in Newfoundland. We departed from Poole on August 12th. On three Sundays we had service on deck. Generally one of us read part of the Church Service; the other, a sermon. We selected some of Mr. Edmundson's Short Sermons, judging them, from their brevity and plainness, most calculated to be useful to the sailors. The captain obligingly resigned his own cabin to me and Mrs. Cubit, as soon as we left Poole; this, in our sickness, we found very comfortable.29
Cubit threw himself into the work of the mission with great enthusiasm, pushing the plans for the new chapel to rapid fruition. By mid-September all was ready to begin construction. On September 17, 1816, The Royal Gazette (Newfoundland's first newspaper) published the following notice:
It seems, however, that both newspapers were in error on at least one point: the identity of the preacher at the ceremony. Both of them name Mr. Cubit, but we have his own word for it, in a letter published in The Methodist Magazine and dated at St. John's on September 28, 1816, that "The stone was laid by Mr. Ellis, who preached on Ezra 3: 11th verse (latter part)."30 (The words of Mr. Ellis's text, it may be noted, were the following: "And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.") Other reports of the stone-laying ceremony name also among those present and participating, the Rev. Samuel Busby, the missionary at Carbonear, and Mr. Pickavant, lately returned from his quest for funds in England and soon to take up new duties at Blackhead. Mr. Cubit's letter also reports that "His Excellency, the Governor with his Secretary coming by the ground on which we stood, remained near us till the conclusion of the service." This was probably Vice-Admiral Sir Francis Pickmore's first public appearance as Governor of Newfoundland, he having arrived in the Colony only four days before.
The occasion was clearly an auspicious one, and so it proved. Building continued throughout the autumn, so that before writer came the new chapel was ready for use. On Tuesday, December 24, 1816, The Royal Gazette carried the following notice:
The absence from the dedication ceremonies of the Rev. John Bell, the new Chairman of the District, stationed at the Island Cove-Perlican charge, is undoubtedly explained by the fact that travel in Newfoundland a century and a half ago, especially in winter, was extremely hazardous. At the time, there was, of course, no road "around the Bay", the road even .o Topsail being still ten years in the future. For Mr. Bell to have come from Island Cove would have meant a voyage by sail-boat across Conception Bay, and a journey on foot or horse-back along the trail through swamp and woods that connected St. John's with Conception Bay at Portugal Cove. In late December this was hardly an expedition to be undertaken except for very grave reasons. But the new Wesleyan Chapel on Gower Street was well and truly dedicated nevertheless, and launched upon a career of service that it sustained until replaced by a larger, more elegant and substantial edifice some forty years later.
The later church may have been more elegant and substantial, but the wooden chapel of 1816 had its fine appointments too. In general layout it was as has already been described, with a high-peaked roof though without a spire. The windows, of which there were five on either side, were tall and narrow and rounded at the top. Within, as already noted, the pulpit was at the north end, facing the door, which opened on Gower Street. A handsome ornate rail surrounded the pulpit and communion altar. The walls were plastered and, by October, 1817, had been given one coat of paint. At night the auditorium was lit by candles that stood in brass sconces hanging on the walls between the windows. At a later date a small chandelier was acquired and hung from one of the central cross-beams. Unfortunately, the circulation of air in this location was not the most conducive to good combustion, and the candles in the chandelier frequently flared and smoked. One account has it that Mr. Ellis, preaching at some special service or missionary meeting, became so perturbed by the menacing behaviour of these candles that he was constrained to pause in the midst of his sermon and earnestly request the sexton to snuff them at once.31
But the choir, we may be sure, gave him no such anxiety. Occupying the gallery at the south end over the door, it provided not only vocal but also instrumental music of a variety now rarely heard in our churches. In addition to singers of both sexes, it included several violinists and a substantial bass viol played for many years by a gentleman named Amos Perrington, who, because of the importance of his role, occupied the centre front seat above the large clock that surmounted the lintel of the main entrance. The singing and music provided must have been of memorable quality, for old-timers from out of town still alive fifty years ago could still recall how as children visiting St. John's they heard with delight the musical renditions of the Gower Street Chapel choir. As one of them is reported to have remarked, "We never heard the like in the outports in those days."32 For some years also the instrumental section included a seraphine (known locally as a "seraphim"), an early kind of reed-instrument played on a keyboard rather like a reed-organ. Years later this venerable instrument was donated to the chapel built at Long Pond, near Topsail, and in 1880 became the subject of an interesting and curious footnote to local church history. It seems that a member of the Long Pond congregation objected to the presence of the seraphine and attempted to have it removed. The pastor of the chapel, the Rev. Thomas Fox, reported the matter to the Gower Street trustees-the chapel being one of the many subsidiary churches subsequently propagated by Gower Street Church-and the trustees approved his action in procuring and affixing to the church door a large and sturdy lock. But even these preventive measures proved inadequate, for the minutes of the Trustee Board for April 30, 1880, record that "the church at Long Pond had been entered and the Seraphim abstracted". The Board passed a motion to have the matter investigated, but the records do not state whether the ancient "seraphim" was ever recovered.
But this was long in the future when Messrs. Cubit and Ellis opened for public worship the new Methodist Chapel on Gower Street on the day after Christmas, 1816. A hard struggle had been won, but harder times for the community were still ahead. Many who read this history will know what an economic depression is like, but few have known anything approaching the privation and suffering experienced by the people of St. John's in the years 1816-1818. The preceding three or four years had been a period of unprecedented prosperity, stimulated largely by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the American War of 1812-14. Indeed, it was this economic buoyancy that made possible in Newfoundland the great and rapid expansion of Methodism during those years. In 1814 Messrs. Ellis, Busby, and Pickavant reported to the Missionary Committee in London that no fewer than seven Wesleyan churches were under construction in various parts of Newfoundland in November of that year.33 But, as we have already seen, the crest was soon passed, recession having already begun before the fire of February, 1816. As Mr. Pickavant observed in his letter to the Missionary Committee in December, 1816, written from Western Bay, "Such a sudden and effective change that has lately taken place from prosperity to adversity, from affluence to poverty and want is truly affecting.34
In St. John's conditions were even worse. The fire of February, 1816, had fallen upon a community whose population had recently been swollen beyond its power to absorb them into its labour-force, by a large influx of Irish immigrants (some reports place their number near 11,000), driven hence by a disastrous failure of the potato crop. A poor cod-fishery, the loss of markets, and the abysmal drop in fish prices added to the general misery. But the hardy settlers quickly set about to rebuild the town, none more hardy or unbroken in spirit than the Methodist faithful, who managed to rebuild their chapel even while economic depression prevailed. But the worst was not over. The winter of 1817-18 closed in early, with heavy frosts before November, sealing the island in an icy prison that held it unrelentingly until spring. But even this might have been bearable had it not been for two more visitations of fire within two weeks of each other, on November 7 and 21. Wilson reports that the first of these fires "in the short space of nine hours, destroyed thirteen mercantile establishments, well stocked with provisions, one hundred and forty dwelling-houses, and property to the value of £500,000 sterling." In the second fire fifty-six more dwellings were destroyed as well as wharves and stores. In the two fires hundreds of people were left homeless in the midst of the bitterest early winter weather to be recorded in decades. Providentially the new Wesleyan chapel on Gower Street escaped both November scourges, but many of its congregation were financially ruined, and many others, their homes and possessions gone, were scattered to outlying places where refuge might be had, and consequently lost to the Methodist cause in St. John's. The tragic winter of 1817-18 is known in our history as "the Winter of the Rals", the "rals" being rowdies, destitute and starving men and boys, who roamed the streets robbing and terrorizing the already suffering population. So great was the stress on civic and state officials that Governor Pickmore, who had been ordered by the British Government to remain here for the winter, an unprecedented circumstance, threw himself so vigorously into the work of relief and rehabilitation that, weakened by the strain, he fell ill and died early in 1818. The severity of the winter weather is attested to by the fact that workmen took three weeks to cut a channel through the frozen harbour and Narrows of St. John's to enable a ship to pass through conveying the late Governor's body to England for burial.
In the presence of such grave conditions-fire aggravated by economic depression, poverty aggravated by the rigours of climate-it is not surprising that the St. John's Methodists and their minister found themselves in most distressing circumstances. The new chapel had been built and opened, but there was still a large debt on it. In fact, at the time of its opening a debt of £500 (about $2000.00) was still outstanding on the first ill-fated chapel. Up to the end of 1816, so it appears, little financial help had reached the mission from London. The collection started by Pickavant was continued by George Smith, but funds were slow to materialize. The Missionary Committee in its report for 1816 recorded the following:
As we shall see, a great many "benevolent persons" did come to the assistance of the "poor but pious people" of the Gower Street Mission, but for some time to come they had to avail themselves of other means.
One means by which the Missionary Committee in London gave material assistance to its overseas stations was to allow each missionary, responsible for a charge, the right to draw bills of exchange upon the Committee's treasury, which, one may add, was not of unlimited resources. This system apparently led to abuses, so that in 1815 a check was placed upon its use by limiting the bill to £50 "without previous advice and explanation of the extraordinary nature and circumstances of the case."37 In addition each missionary was allowed an amount for board, quarterage (wages or personal allowance), and other expenses, of which a strict account was required by the Committee. For some years these allowances were not fixed in advance, and only items charged could be paid for, and each one paid for had to be ascertained bona fide. William Wilson, who knew the system from first-hand experience, writes of it as follows:
Later a fixed scale of allowances was arrived at for each circuit in the Newfoundland district, so that the brethren knew in advance what monies to expect, and to limit their culinary and sartorial expenses accordingly. It is interesting to note that it was the Rev. John Walsh, while stationed at Gower Street in the early 1820's, who was largely instrumental in having the system regularized.
The members of each society or congregation were also, of course, expected to contribute to the financial support of the mission. This was provided for in several ways: regular collections of subscriptions from the members, special collections, class and ticket money,39 and pew rents. But in spite of these means of raising money locally, it was many years before any of the Newfoundland circuits were self-supporting. Every year bills of varying amounts were drawn on the treasury of the Missionary Committee to enable the circuits to meet their normal operating expenses.
During the difficult years of 1816-18, however, the missionary at the Gower Street chapel frequently found himself compelled to draw on the account of the Missionary Committee to cover capital expenditures. This did not always meet the approval of the Committee, as the following entry in the Committee's minutes indicates:
Meanwhile, the need for additional help in Newfoundland was greatly increased by the burning of the new chapel in Carbonear in June, 1817, and by the two November fires at St. John's in the same year. The collection in England begun by Pickavant continued under George Smith, but the enterprise was a slow and laborious one. On December 19, 1817, the minutes of the Missionary Committee record the following:
The extent of Mr. Smith's "laborious exertions" during the ensuing year is attested to by a resolution of the Committee recorded in its minutes of October 1, 1818:
His exertions had, however, borne fruit: a sum of £2017 5s. 7d. was collected and passed over to the Committee to be divided between St. John's and Carbonear.
Unfortunately, the stresses and strains of the tragic "Winter of the Rals" proved too much for the sensitive and inexperienced George Cubit. Young, unused to the rigours of frontier life, fitted for intellectual pursuits rather than the multifarious enterprises forced upon him by the nature of the missionary's calling in those difficult days, he broke under the strain, in body if not in spirit. Something of the privation suffered by him and his family during the winter of 1817-18 is suggested by T. W. Smith in his Methodism in Eastern British America:
And besides the widespread distress in the community, the financial difficulties of the Gower Street mission, and "the constant state of alarm in which, through their belief in the presence of incendiaries, the inhabitants lived,"44 Mr. Cubit had his own personal disappointments. A scholar of great learning and broad interests, greatly fond of books and literary pursuits, he found that the outlets for his special talents were few in the St. John's of one hundred and fifty years ago, and kindred spirits lacking even among his fellow missionaries. In April, 1818, his distress was deepened by the death of his infant son. The Mercantile Journal records that the child "was buried near the Pulpit in the Methodist chapel" by the Congregational minister, the Rev. James Sabine, who "delivered a feeling and appropriate discourse to a numerous and respectable audience."45 His health having failed, Mr. Cubit requested, at the District Meeting of May, 1818, to be allowed to become a supernumerary for a year, and his request was granted. In spite of his removal from the full-time work his interest in it continued. On July 23, 1818, we find him addressing a letter to the Missionary Committee in London containing a copy of an address by the Methodist missionaries in Newfoundland to the new governor, Sir Charles Hamilton, and a copy of the Governor's reply.46; On September 18, 1818, we find him writing to the Committee earnestly requesting that a missionary be sent to Brigus.
During the autumn of 1818 his health further deteriorated, and on the advice of a medical doctor he decided to return to England. He wrote to the Committee telling of this decision and enclosing the written statement of his "medical attendant," and shortly thereafter embarked for England, arriving on December 7, 1818.47 The Committee, however, were not at first sympathetically disposed toward this action, especially in view of its strict edict that prior permission must be obtained before any missionary might return to England. The subsequent history of Mr. Cubit's case, as gleaned from the Committee's minutes, is both interesting and instructive, revealing as it does something of the relationship that at times existed between the missionary and the august parental Committee in London:
January 20, 1819. Resolved that Mr. Cubit be acquainted that the Committee are not satisfied, from any information at present before them, that he was justified in leaving his station in the Newfoundland mission, without previous leave of the Committee, and that the Committee therefore do not intend to allow anything for the expense of his passage home, and will refer his case to Conference, as one which in their opinion calls for some suitable exercise of discipline.
February 10, 1819. Resolved that Mr. Cubit be informed that it is not the intention of the Committee to report his case with any censure to Conference.
It is also interesting to note that while his case was still on the books of the Committee, he wrote again on behalf of the Brigus Methodists, "pressing the appointment of a missionary", and "a supply of books for the Sunday Schools of the Island."
Whether it was this obviously genuine concern for the mission field that he had left so peremptorily, the account that he had written for the Committee of conditions in Newfoundland, or some other undisclosed reason that caused the Committee to relent toward Mr. Cubit is not apparent. But the Committee's minutes for January 23, 1820, contain the following entry:
Resolved that the following sums be allowed for the present year to superannuated and sick missionaries: George Cubit in addition to Twenty Pounds before voted for himself and child . . . 34 pounds, 16 shillings.
In England his health was restored, and by 1820 he was able to take a circuit again, this time within the British Conference. For sixteen years he continued on circuit, and in 1836 was called to a post for which he was eminently suited: the editor's chair at the Wesleyan Book-room, City Road, London. For many years he continued in this post, presiding over the publication of Methodist literature with great success.
Mr. Cubit was succeeded at the St. John's mission by the Rev. John Bell. Mr. Bell was a Yorkshireman who had served a five-year itinerancy in England before being sent to Newfoundland in 1816 to become Chairman of the Newfoundland District, a post he was to occupy until 1823 when he returned to England. William Wilson, who knew him well, writes of him as follows:
He was very neat and precise in his person. His preaching abilities were not of a high order; still, as a preacher, he was distinguished by his perspicuity and great simplicity.
He was an excellent pastor, and in the sick-chamber and by the bed of the dying his affectionate manner was often made a blessing.48
Mr. Bell's pastorate, like George Cubit's, was much occupied with matters financial, the chapel still being heavily in debt at the time of his arrival. Assistance from British Methodists, however, the fruits of John Pickavant's and George Smith's labours, began to arrive in the autumn of 1818, so that by the summer of 1819 much of the debt on the chapel had been removed, and the erection of a parsonage-or Mission House, as it was called-had begun. Moreover, the economic health of the colony had greatly improved since 1817. The fisheries of 1818 had been highly successful, the prices for cod had risen, and trade generally was good. Nevertheless, the mission and its pastor still had their troubles. Another heavy fire had occurred in St. John's in July, 1819, "by which the principal supporters of the St. John's mission, several of whom had been sufferers by previous fire, had been brought to the verge of ruin."49
Mr. Bell had to cope, too, with many problems arising out of the disbursement of the funds collected in England, the lack of a second missionary to assist him in the heavy duties of the St. John's mission, and the reluctance of the congregation to contribute to the funds through pew rents. An entry in the minutes of the Missionary Committee in London for March 15, 1820, indicates that Mr. Bell was in England at that date on the business of the St. John's mission:
A further entry in the Committee's minutes for December 20, 1820, is also of interest:
But Mr. Bell's pastorate, beset though it was by difficulties of many kinds, was an eminently successful one. Much, though not all, of the debt had been removed from the chapel, and a parsonage had been built; a Sabbath School had been started, and the membership increased to more than sixty communicants. A disaster that might have meant total ruin for the mission was providentially averted: The Mercantile Journal for February 24, 1820, contains the following item:
The wooden chapel, thus miraculously spared, was to serve the St. John's Methodist mission for more than forty years. It survived, too, the great fire of 1846. In 1857 it was "launched" from its site by a captain and his crew to make way for a new church of brick construction, but continued to stand for many years on the site now occupied by Victoria Hall.
1Remmington, McDowell, and Ellis to Dr. Coke, Oct. 21, 1809. Incoming Correspondence to the Missionary Committee, London. (On micro-film, Newfoundland Archives, St. John's.)
3Minutes of the Missions Committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, London, Vol. 1. (In the text this committee is referred to as The Missionary Committee.)
4See letter on page 28.
5For example, Rev. G. J. Bond, "Oration on the Occasion of the Centennial Celebration of St. John's Methodism", J. W. Nichols, ed., A Century of Methodism in St. John's, Newfoundland, Dicks and Co., St. John's, 17.
6D. W. Johnson, History of Methodism in Eastern British America, Tribune Printing Co., Sackville, N.B., n.d., 250.
7For example William Wilson, Newfoundland and Its Missionaries, Cambridge, Mass., 1866, 196.
8Minutes of the Committee. Vol. 1.
10Ibid., Feb. 24, 1815.
11J. W. Nichols, A Century of Methodism in St. John's, 34.
12L. A. Anspach, History of Newfoundland, London, 1819.
13Wilson, op. cit., 198.
14Johnson, op. cit., 251.
15Anspach, op. cit., 269; T. W. Smith, Methodism in Eastern British America, S. F. Huestis, Halifax, Vol. II, 39.
16The Methodist Magazine, 1816, 954.
17Johnson, op. cit., 273.
18Minutes of the Committee, Vol. 1.
20Smith, op. cit., 39.
21The Methodist Magazine, 1816, 878.
23The Methodist Magazine, 1817, 315.
24Minutes of the Committee, Vol. 1.
25The Methodist Magazine, 1816, 952.
26The Methodist Magazine, 1819, 716.
27Minutes of the Committee, Vol. 1.
29A letter to the Secretary for Missions, The Methodist Magazine, 1816, 954.
31Nichols, op. cit., 21.
33The Methodist Magazine, 1815, 396-7.
34Ibid., 1817, 315.
35Wilson, op. cit., 250.
36Quoted by Wilson, op. cit., 198.
37Quoted by Wilson, op. cit., 254.
38Wilson, op. cit., 255-6.
39Class and ticket money" probably requires some explanation. From the beginning of Methodism, "classes" and "class-meetings were regular features of the life and work of the Society, and continued in existence well into the present century. The classes", each with its leader, were groups within the congregation that met weekly for religious instruction, pastoral advice, and devotional exercises. For many years, too, each member of a class was expected to pay a small sum (originally a penny) to the class-leader, who in turn paid the money collected to the Stewards of the congregation for the financial support of the circuit. "Ticket money" was the quarterly fee paid by each member of a Methodist Society for the ticket bearing his name that certified his membership in good standing.
40Minutes of the Committee, Vol. 1.
43Smith, op. cit., 38.
45The Mercantile Journal, April 18, 1818.
46Minutes of the Committee, November 4, 1818.
47This date is authenticated by an entry in the Minutes of the Committee for December 16, 1818. Published accounts that place the date of his return in 1819 are in error.
48Wilson, op. cit., 237.
49Smith, op. cit., 41.
The Wesleyan-Methodist cause in St. John's, born in the midst of economic and social woes, baptized with fire thrice over, and deprived of the neighbourly consolations of sister churches, proved nevertheless to be a hardy infant. Indeed, by the time John Pickavant arrived to take up his second pastorate in 1820 the St. John's Circuit had grown out of infancy and into adulthood, if the presence of a substantial though small chapel at St. John's, a parent society of some eighty members, dependent societies in several nearby places, and a fiercely loyal spirit of devotion amongst the hard core of its supporters may be taken as evidence of a certain maturity.
Mr. Pickavant, during this second pastorate, which lasted for one year, was fortunate in having the assistance of a young missionary newly arrived from England: William Wilson. Born in London in 1799 of Church of England parents, he had become a Methodist at the age of sixteen, and in April, 1820, was ordained a Methodist minister in Chelsea Chapel and immediately dispatched to Newfoundland. St. John's was his first incumbency. For fourteen years he served the Newfoundland District, moving in 1830 to the Maritime Provinces where he served until his death-in the horse-drawn carriage that was conveying him home after a Sunday service-in 1869. But it is as the historian of early Methodism in Newfoundland that Wilson is chiefly remembered. His Newfoundland and Its Missionaries (published in 1866) is still one of the primary sources of information of the early days of the Methodist church in this province. All subsequent historians, including the present writer, are greatly in his debt. From his pen we have many details recorded from personal observation of the actual conditions prevailing in those early, difficult days, not only in the St. John's Circuit but in every circuit in the Newfoundland District.
When Wilson arrived in the early summer of 1820 the circuit included not only St. John's, with its new chapel on Gower Street, but also preaching appointments at Petty Harbour, Quidi Vidi, Torbay, Pouch Cove and Cape St. Francis, Portugal Cove, and Topsail. Here, in part, is his account of the circuit and the conditions in which he and Mr. Pickavant laboured in the years 1820-21:
The District meeting that transferred Mr. Wilson from St. John's to Island Cove moved Mr. Pickavant to the Blackhead-Western Bay circuit, and the Rev. John Walsh to St. John's. John Walsh had already served five years in the Newfoundland Mission, having arrived here in 1816 with five other young missionaries-George Cubitt, John Bell, Ninian Barr, Richard Knight, and John Haigh-all of whom served the St. John's circuit. Walsh had been born at Ormskirk, Lancashire, in 1895 of Roman Catholic parents. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and was educated for the priesthood, but while living in Liverpool he came under the influence of the Rev. Joseph Entwisle, preacher at the Methodist Chapel there, and became a Wesleyan. In 1814 he was accepted on trial as a Wesleyan minister, and, proving himself acceptable, was in 1816 sent to Newfoundland.
John Walsh remained on the St. John's circuit for three years, labouring throughout that whole period without an assistant. As Wilson observed, a consequence of this lack of assistance, it being impossible for one man to visit all the outlying places on the circuit often enough to exert any real influence upon the people, was that several small Wesleyan Societies died out, Torbay and Petty Harbour becoming predominantly Roman Catholic. Pouch Cove, Portugal Cove, Topsail, and Quidi Vidi were, however, maintained as Methodist territories, the Societies at the first three in particular growing steadily though slowly through Mr. Walsh's incumbency.
Mr. Walsh was succeeded in 1824 by the Rev. William Croscombe-Father Croscombe as he came to be called. Published lists of ministers of the St. John's Circuit give the name of Rev. Thomas Hickson as minister for the year 1824-25 and Croscombe as his successor. The present writer can find no evidence that Mr. Hickson ever served the St. John's Circuit as its regular minister. It is known that he was in St. John's for a month or so in the summer of 1824 before undertaking a mission to the Indians of Labrador, and may have preached at the Gower Street Chapel during his visit. He returned to England in the autumn of that year after completing his mission to Labrador. Furthermore, all available records give 1824 as the date of Mr. Walsh's departure and of Mr. Croscombe's appointment to St. John's.
Father Croscombe was one of the most distinguished and interesting ministers to serve the St. John's Circuit in its early years. Born in Tiverton, Devon, in 1789, he had become a Methodist at the age of eighteen and was received into the ministry in 1810. Two years later he had been sent out to the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick-Newfoundland District, as it then was called. En route to Halifax, his ship had put in at St. John's, where he preached to the small company of Methodists that had not yet been organized into a mission. Of this early visit, Wilson writes as follows:
After six years in the Maritime Provinces he returned in ill health to England, serving in Nottingham until early in 1820 when he sailed for Gibraltar. After three years there he requested reappointment to Nova Scotia; the Missions Committee of the Wesleyan Society in London granted his request, but stipulated that he first spend three years in Newfoundland. The Committee was convinced that the time was a crucial one for the St. John's mission. Rival religious denominations were becoming increasingly stronger, particularly in the outports of the circuit; communications were bad and hampered the work of the Missionary there, who, because of the lack of ministers, was still without assistance. The Committee felt that a man of Mr. Croscombe's experience and proven abilities was a vital necessity if St. John's or its outposts was not to be lost to the Wesleyan cause. Croscombe agreed, and in the autumn of 1824 the St. John's congregation welcomed "the eloquent whiteheaded boy" with great enthusiasm. We are told that "a crowded house greeted him on his arrival."3
A week after his arrival in St. John's, two young missionaries landed from England to take up duties in Newfoundland. They were George Ellidge and Simeon Noall, and their arrival was not without significance for Mr. Croscombe; they brought with them a letter appointing him to the Chairmanship of the Newfoundland District. He was not, however, to have the services of either of his young messengers: Ellidge was sent to Trinity and Noall to Island Cove. The following year, however, the District Meeting was able to allow the Rev. Ninian Barr to return to St. John's to assist the Chairman in his arduous duties. But Mr. Barr remained only one year: in 1826, finding the strenuous work of the Mission, particularly trying that rigorous winter, a severe tax upon his health, "the sweet singer of Methodism" returned to England after ten eminently useful years in the Newfoundland District.
Croscombe completed his three-year appointment in the summer of 1827 and moved to Nova Scotia, St. John's being the only circuit in which he served in Newfoundland. He continued in the Methodist ministry for many years in Nova Scotia and in Upper Canada, retiring from the active work because of illness in 1851. He died in 1859 at the age of seventy. One biographer, who knew him personally, writes of him:
Mr. Croscombe was highly respected by the people of St. John's, not only by those of his own religious persuasion but by those of all denominations. He was often called on for guidance and counsel by members of other churches in the town. His friendship with many people in public life and in positions of responsibility and authority, including the Governor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, gave him and his office in the Methodist Church a social standing in the community that his predecessors had not enjoyed, but which from this time on appears to have been generally accorded his successors. One historian records that in after years even Roman Catholics, who had known him in St. John's, meeting him in distant places greeted him "with bright face and cheery remembrance."5
On Mr. Croscombe's departure in 1828 John Pickavant returned to St. John's for his third pastorate, at the same time succeeding him as Chairman of the Newfoundland District. By this date, under the administration of Governor Cochrane, fairly good roads had been built to Topsail and Portugal Cove, so that travelling to these distant outposts of the Mission was much less difficult than it had been hitherto. Nevertheless the work was not easy, and for the first four years of this five-year term of his, Mr. Pickavant had no assistance. The following excerpts from his annual reports to the District meetings will give some conception of the nature and extent, the rewards and disappointments, of his labours in St. John's in those years of struggle and trial:
Their earnest breathing after God-their affection to, and unceasing prayers for their minister, together with a warm and lively zeal for the prosperity of Zion often reminds me of home Methodism, and has led me to sing in my heart,
"Together let us sweetly live,
Together let us die, etc." And may I add,
at no period of Methodism have we had so favourable a prospect as at present. May the little one become a thousand, to which prayers the lovers of Zion will say Amen and Amen.
The school is in a most excellent and improving state. Several of the children have gone through the first and second catechisms and are now making rapid progress in the third, and a marked increasing emulation exists among the children. The last public examination was highly interesting and excite both pleasure and astonishment in the minds of a large and respectable congregation from the noble and correct manner in which the children acquitted themselves. A few days after they were all walked out of town in regular procession attended by attached teachers and a number of respectable friends to a farm house where they sat down to a cup of tea-130 in number. The evening was spent comfortably. The children then sang a hymn and were marched through the town and coming to a fine open place I gave an address when they returned home highly gratified. The present number of teachers and children is as follows, viz, boys 38, girls 40. Male teachers 5, Female teachers 5. I would just add that all our teachers are pious and care for the souls of the children-this lays a foundation for still greater prosperity.
Portugal Cove Sunday School: This school continues to prosper, but suffers much loss from the want of a sufficient number of suitable teachers, nearly the whole care and labour devolves upon Mr. and Mrs. Curtis, which with his other public duties necessarily renders his time with the children short. The school, however, is of great use to this poor people. The number of scholars this year is as follows, viz., Boys 26, Girls 45, total 71. Of these 18 boys and girls read in the Bible-19 in the New Testament. 18 can repeat the 2nd catechism to the end of the fourth section. 13 repeat the whole of the first catechism and most of the children can repeat more or less of it.
Portugal Cove Day School: The present number of scholars is 24, viz. Girls 14, Boys 10; 15 of the number are in arithmetic. 5 in writing only. The school suffers much loss from the poverty of the people, particularly in the winter season, as they are not in circumstances to clothe the children sufficiently warm to enable them to stand the cold. The Committee do well, however, in helping this destitute people, and the small sum allowed Mr. Curtis as master is indeed well spent.
May 20, 1829. J. Pickavant.6
The following year, at the District Meeting of May, 1830, Mr. Pickavant reported on the St. John's Mission as follows:
The society is in a state of the greatest harmony and peace. I know not that we have had a single circumstance -,o give pain during the past year with the exception of two backsliders, but we have had much to comfort and rejoice our hearts and what has contributed greatly to this is that a number of the new members have been brought into the liberty of God's children. May they stand fast in the same and increase with all the increase of God. Amen.
Portugal Cove: We have long had the use of a neat little Chapel in this place, but the Church Clergy (of England) and Dissenters have had an equal right to the use of it so that in one sense the people have been without character and without description their religious views and attachments, but they have now unanimously come to the determination to have the Chapel settled upon the Conference Plan. The Deed is already prepared and will be signed without delay. This circumstance will lay the foundation of more extensive usefulness to us in opening a more wide and effectual door for the introduction of Methodism than we have yet among this people. The people are generally very poor but I believe our members are truly pious. It is here Mr. Curtis resides; he is a good man and a good preacher, but like the people very poor as they are not able to do much towards the support of him and his large family. -John Pickavant.
On the school at St. John's he reported as follows:
The present number of Scholars and Teachers in this school stands as follows: Boys 47, Girls 61. Total 108. Superintendents 1, Male Teachers 4, Female 5. Total 10. More than usual labour and pains have been taken with this school during the past year, and the rapid progress of the children has rendered a full reward to all engaged in this work. At the present time we have in the school 13 children who have committed to memory the 1st and 2nd of our Catechisms and are now considerably advanced in the third. 21 have committed the 1st and 2nd and are going through them a second time so as to fix them more permanently on the mind, and 25 are well on in the first catechism and to me it is amazing how they retain and with what correctness they repeat what they have learnt. At the last public examination in the month of February the congregation was highly gratified at the manner in which the children acquitted themselves, so much so that notice was taken of it in one of the public Journals of the Town to the great credit of both teachers and children. Several highly respectable people have placed their children under our care, among whom are one of the Magistrates of the Town, and the Controller of the Customs. This circumstance is likely to give to the school still higher celebrity and we look forward for a great increase during the present season. In addition to the common course of school instruction much attention has been paid to the souls of the children. I have myself regularly spent one hour every Lord's day during the past winter in assisting the teachers to press home the great truths of our holy Religion upon their tender minds and to spend a part of the hour devoted to this purpose in prayer to God for them. Surely this "Labour shall not be in vain in the Lord." We are highly blessed with pious teachers. We feel for the souls of their little charges.7
Mr. Pickavant, as Chairman of the District, in his "Official Letter" sent to the Committee in London, reported that the year 1829-30 had been one of "unprecedented distress" because of the almost total failure of the codfishery; consequently the collections in most circuits were lower than they had been during the previous year. In St. John's, however, they were slightly higher. Mr. Pickavant took advantage of the occasion offered by reporting this fact to the Committee to answer an implied criticism of the St. John's circuit made in a letter from the Committee earlier that year. Mr. Pickavant wrote:
His hopes were realized: at the next District Meeting, in May, 1831, he was able to report an increase in income from the congregation of more than £26. The Committee in London, however, as they had been in Mr. Bell's time, were concerned about the small amounts derived from the pew-rents appearing in the St. John's financial statements of operating income. In his Official Letter for 1831 Mr. Pickavant gave the following explanation:
"Difficulty", it appears, was the present state of all the Newfoundland circuits in the trying days of the 1830s.
Mr. Pickavant, never of robust health, suffered frequent bouts of severe illness during his third pastorate at St. John's. Indeed, it was his need for frequent medical attention and the difficulty of obtaining this in most of the outport missions that impelled the District at its annual meetings to allow their "beloved and respected Chairman, Brother Pickavant" to remain at the St. John's station longer than the usual three or four years. As early as 1827 he had requested permission from the Committee in London to return home to recover his health. Permission had not then been forthcoming, and he had stayed on at St. John's, his health improving to the point where, in 1829, it could be reported in the Official Letter that "Brother Pickavant's health being considerably better than it was when he wrote for permission to return to England, he has consented to take the St. John's station for the ensuing year."10 The following year, learning of the presence of certain French physicians of note in the White Bay area, he travelled there to consult them. But his health continued poor, and at the District Meeting of 1831 it was decided that he ought to have an assistant on the St. John's circuit. The Official Letter of May, 1831, contains the following reference to Mr. Pickavant's health and his need for assistance:
The assistant appointed to relieve Mr. Pickavant of some of the heavy duties of the St. John's circuit was the Rev. John Tomkins. Tomkins had come to Newfoundland in 1827 and had served at Hant's Harbour, Bonavista, and Trinity before being appointed to St. John's. He remained at St. John's one year (1831-32), which appears to have been a highly successful one. At the District Meeting of 1832, Messrs. Pickavant and Tomkins were able to report an increase in the St. John's circuit from 150 to 200 members, and an increase in subscription of £12. And this after one of the most severe winters in memory.
Mr. Pickavant's Official Letter for 1832, while dealing generally with conditions in the Island, is not without interest for the historian of the St. John's circuit:
This tale of lamentation, almost of despair, is not an isolated one in the early annals of the Methodist Church in Newfoundland. Time and again the inhospitality of the climate, the failure of the fisheries, the poverty of the people, and the prevalence of disease severely tested the faith and dedication of the small company of Wesleyan Missionaries who manned the Newfoundland Mission. Again and again, the official communications to the London Committee tried, without exaggeration or extravagance, to convey some conception of the almost insuperable difficulties and disappointments the Newfoundland missionaries encountered daily. Not always, it appears, were their circumstances appreciated. In particular the Committee was frequently lacking in understanding of the financial plight of the Methodist societies in the Island. Repeatedly the Chairman in his Official Letter was compelled to defend at great length the Brethren whose reports showed excesses of expenditure over income on current accounts, or who failed to subscribe to some special fund. Let us again look over Chairman Pickavant's shoulder as he writes to the Committee in London in June, 1833:
We beg . . . for the information of the Committee to state that our income in this land is raised by three methods. The first is by cash received which is brought to the standard of the Spanish Dollar, which dollar is in current value of five shillings. In this way we raise about £250 of the total sum. The second method is by what is called in the commercial phrase of this Country "turnings in", that is those of our Congregations who have not cash at command give in to the Merchants stores fish or oil and this is transferred to the credit of the Missionaries and as it is produce taken from the Planter in the account current for the year and not at cash prices we cannot demand cash from the Merchant. The Third method (but much more limited than either of the former) is this: the Missionary, ever desirous of augmenting his income to the utmost, takes whatever the Circumstances of the people can bestow, such as potatoes, cabbage, hoops, hay, wood, etc., or indeed anything which he can dispose of. The Committee will see clearly that by the first method alone the Missionary possesses cash. This (which in many of the circuits is inconsiderable) he can lay out to the best advantage which may offer. By the second method he takes up the necessaries of life from the merchants' stores and must pay prices the vendor may choose to charge. By the third method he takes anything he can get at the current prices of such articles, and often have we known that the frost has spoiled his potatoes or he has disposed of his overplus to his disadvantage, yet the accounts have been always presented to the District as bearing the prices of the original purchase. The first method is small and limited, the second is a decided disadvantage, the third sometimes is an actual loss, and in no case do we receive sterling as it respects monies raised on the mission. The only sterling we have is the Grant of the Committee to the Mission; nearly three fourths of the income raised in these Circuits is of the second and third description. Averaging the difference of exchange for the last two years we may place it at 15 per cent, and for the last five about 17 or 17½ .l3
From these entries in the early records of the Church, some idea may be gleaned of the conditions in which the Methodist missionary laboured in St. John's in the early days of the Gower Street circuit. Such entries might be cited at length, but they would merely serve to emphasize what already must be abundantly clear. Yet in spite of these difficulties and trials the mission at Gower Street continued to grow, slowly but steadily, under the successive pastorates of John Haigh (1832-35), John Smithies (1835-37), and William Faulkner (1837-39). By the time Mr. Pickavant returned for his fourth and last pastorate in 1839, the membership had risen to more than one hundred and seventy, and plans for the enlargement of the chapel had to be undertaken. These plans materialized in the form of an extension (measuring fifteen by forty feet) to the chapel, during the pastorate of the Rev. John Snowball, who in 1841 succeeded Mr. Pickavant, he having returned to England to recover his health.14
But even this enlargement to the chapel proved inadequate. By 1846 plans for a new building to replace the old wooden chapel were already under consideration. Unfortunately, these plans had to be suspended for several years because of the great fire in June of that year. The chapel escaped, but so many of the congregation were left homeless and the town so badly ravaged that the venture had to be indefinitely postponed though by no means abandoned. In his annual letter to the Committee in London, written on July 23, 1846, Rev. Richard Williams, Chairman of the District and incumbent at Gower Street, wrote as follows:
No reply having been received by the time of the District Meeting in May, 1847, a further plea was addressed to the Committee in London. It concluded as follows:
The period from 1846 to 1848 was one of great poverty in Newfoundland. Mr. Williams reported in his annual letter of June, 1848, that it had been "a year of poverty, suffering and distress as was never previously known in Newfoundland", and that the membership of the Gower Street Methodist Society had dropped to 172, the lowest figure for nearly a decade. Nevertheless, the plan to build a chapel-or "church" as it soon came to be called-was not forgotten. Through the successive pastorates of William Faulkner, who succeeded Mr. Williams in 1849, and of Edmund Botterill, who followed Faulkner in 185O, building-funds continued to be gathered in bit by bit, until by 1854 Mr. Botterill was able to report that nearly £1500 had been subscribed for the new chapel. Even then prospects were not bright. While Mr. Botterill was able in that year to report that the membership had risen to 220, he was compelled to add that construction might have to be delayed "because of continued emigration of our people." To emigration was added the following year what the Rev. Thomas Angwin, Mr. Botterill's successor, described as "a fearful visitation of mortality (cholera") which carried off many members of the Gower Street congregation.
In spite of such calamities, construction of the new church could be delayed no longer, and in 1856, on July 1, shortly before the new pastor, the Rev. Robert Chesley, arrived to begin his brief ministry in St. John's, the old chapel was "launched" from its site to make room for the new sanctuary. The newspaper Courier reported the event on Wednesday, July 2, as follows:
Other accounts of the "launching" state that the feat was performed by Captain Edward White and the crew from his ship, which was in port at the time. The old chapel continued to be used for public worship until the new church was built; and it was sold by public auction on April 8, 1858, and stood for many years on the spot to which it had been removed-where Victoria Hall now stands.
By August 21, 1856, all was ready for the ceremony of laying the corner-stone of the new church. On this auspicious event The Courier reported on August 23 as follows:
The proceedings were commenced by the Rev. R. A. Chesley, the Superintendent Minister of the Circuit, giving out the 579th hymn in the Wesleyan Collection, the Rev. and Venerable Adam Nightingale then engaged in prayer exceedingly appropriate for the occasion; the Rev. James Dove read the 132nd Psalm and 1 Corinthians, 3rd Chapter, after the 620th hymn was sung by the congregation. At the conclusion of the second hymn the Rev. R. A. Chesley addressed the assembled multitude and eloquently and beautifully adverted to the solemnity and importance of the occasion-the pleasure felt in being allowed to take part in the proceedings-and in having beside him the Ministerial Representatives of several Protestant Church in the City. The Rev. Gentleman then proceeded most impressively to describe the purposes for which the church was to be erected-the extended blessings anticipated to the worshippers through succeeding generations-the advantage of the erection to society generally in promoting morality and peace among it as the Methodist motto from the days of Wesley-"The friends of all, the enemies of none", and concluded the address by reminding those who had worshipped in the old Chapel, of the good which they and their departed friends had there obtained under the Wesleyan Ministry.
A bottle was then deposited in the stone containing the Halifax Provincial Wesleyan, a copy of Missionary Notices, minutes of the Conference of Eastern British America, the Mount Allison Academic Gazette, a Newfoundland paper (Courier), a parchment with a suitable inscription and coins representing the British Empire, France, Spain, and U.S.A. Also copper coins representing Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the West Indies, and also a Newfoundland half penny (Rutherfords).
The Honourable J. J. Rogerson then proceeded to lay the Foundation Stone, which he did with the usual formalities; after which a collection in aid of the building fund was taken up, amounting to £103: the 738th hymn was sung, and the Rev. T. Smith of Bonavista closed the proceedings by a most appropriate prayer and benediction.
The initiative for getting construction under way at last, more than a decade after the idea of a new church was conceived, came largely from the energetic and dedicated young minister who had come to take charge of the Gower Street circuit in July of that year. The minutes of the Trustee Board covering the period from early August to mid-November (no fewer than ten meetings in the space of three months) are a record of business unequalled, for the decisions made and the transactions consummated, by any similar period in the Church's history. And it is clear that it was Mr. Chesley who provided the dynamic power that impelled decisiveness and action when they were needed most. Tragically, he was not to see the fruits of his labour. In November of that same year (1856) a further "visitation of mortality" afflicted St. John's, this time typhus, and Mr. Chesley was among its victims. On November 17 he conducted a meeting of the Gower Street Trustees; on November 27 he was dead at the age of forty years, leaving a widow and five young children. The Public Ledger and Advocate on November 28, reporting his death, added the following:
To fill the vacancy created by Mr. Chesley's untimely death another young man from Nova Scotia, Thomas Harris, who twenty years later became the chief minister of the circuit, was appointed, and with the assistance of the Rev. James Dove, who had been Mr. Chesley's colleague, conducted the affairs of the circuit until the appointment of the Rev. Henry Daniel in 1857.
On the first anniversary of Mr. Chesley's burial, November 29, 1857, the new church, though not yet quite completed, was consecrated and opened for public worship by the Rev. Matthew Richey, President of the newly-created Eastern British America Conference. It was a handsome building, of brick construction with a slate roof, capable of seating one thousand persons. Two features of the building that attracted attention in the local press were the heating and lighting systems. The editor of The Courier considered them sufficiently news-worthy to report on November 25 as follows:
The adoption of Sun lights for lighting the edifice, is owing to Mr. C. R. Ayre, who had noticed with satisfaction the excellence of these lights in some English churches. The light they give is of a beautiful mellow tone, agreeable to the eyes and thoroughly diffused.
Four years later, during the winter of 1861-62, a magnificent pipe-organ was installed, the first pipe-organ to be used by the St. John's Methodists. On April 2, 1862, the first public concert of sacred music in which the new organ was used introduced the instrument to the citizens of St. John's. The Courier reported that it provided them with "a treat not heretofore equalled in the city." Thus was fulfilled the dream of more than a decade: a new, spacious, and handsome edifice to house the "Mother of Methodism" in the city of St. John's, one of which the St. John's Methodists could be-and where- justifiably proud. The new church, which as time went on came to be known as "Old Gower Street Church", continued to serve the circuit and Methodism in St. John's until it was totally destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892.
With the completion of the first church building not of wooden construction, though the third to be built by the Methodists in St. John's, the main part of this chronicle must end. We have now seen from what beginnings Methodism sprang in this city, whaat struggles for survival it passed through, what faith and devotion it evinced, what heroes of the spirit it called up. The story that has been told is not what is usually called a colourful one; it has few elements of the spectacular, little of what history notes as of "great significance" in human affairs. And yet it is a story that has, I think, illustrated the fundamental role in the history of civilization of such peculiarlv human "survival values"-as distinct from those that are merely biological - as self-sacrifice, dedication, service, patience, faith, hope, and love. Perhaps, ultimately, whether a civilization survives or crumbles depends on these rather than others of more spectacular and dramatic manifestation.
4G. O. Huestis, Memorials of Wesleyan Missionaries and Ministers, Halifax, 1872, 39.
5T. W. Smith, Methodism in Eastern British America, Vol. II, 164.
6Minutes, Newfoundland District, Wesleyan Methodist Church, England, 1829 to 1850, 3, 11-12.
7Ibid., 33-35, 47-49.
14Mr. Pickavant returned to England "in a precarious state of health" (District Minutes) in the late summer of 1841, having been advised to do so by the District Meeting. He returned to St. John's in the following May in greatly improved health, and resumed the chairmanship of the District. During the year 1842-43 he was stationed at Brigus, but his health failed again before the year was out, and he returned to England for the last time. He died at Leeds in 1848. The Harbour Grace Herald in April, 1848, reported his death, adding, "The Rev. gentleman was well-known among us as a gifted, amiable, and dignified minister of Christ through a period of nearly thirty years, during twenty of which he was the recognized head of the Wesleyan Church in this colony."
15Minutes, Newfoundland District, 455.
1862: A committee was appointed to look for a site for a second Methodist church in St. John's in the Riverhead area.
1872: The corner-stone of a new church was laid on May 27 hy Stephen Rendell, M.H.A. on a site at the corner of George and Buchanan Streets.
1873: The new church on George Street was dedicated and opened on December 14.
1874: Newfoundland became a separate conference of the Methodist Church of Canada, the first assembly being held in the new George Street Church. Extensive repairs and improvements were made to Gower Street Church.
1876: A committee was appointed by the Quarterly Board of Gower Street Church to look for a site for a school and church in the East-end of the City.
1879: A piece of land on Cochrane Street was secured on which it was planned to build a third Methodist church in St. John's.
1880: The corner-stone of the new church on Cochrane Street was laid on September 7 by Mrs. Shenton, wife of the Rev. Job Shenton, Superintendent of the Gower Street circuit.
1882: The new church on Cochrane Street was dedicated and opened on May 7 by the Rev. Charles Ladner, President of the Newfoundland Conference.
1883: George Street Church became a separate circuit.
1890: Cochrane Street Church became a separate circuit. Plans were made for the enlargement of Gower Street Church.
1891: Special services were held to commemorate the centenary of John Wesley's death.
1892: Gower Street church building and parsonage totally destroyed in the Great Fire of July 8. Services were held in the Fleming Street School Chapel until a temporary wooden structure was erected on Parade Street. This building, known as the "Tabernacle", was erected in a few week's time and was in use by October. Plans were begun for a new church.
1893: Much discussion, debate, and division in the church on plans for a new building.
1894: Following a severe disagreement between the Quarterly and Trustee Boards over plans for a new church building, a move was made by the Quarterly Board to purchase land and build a church on LeMarchant Road near Carter's Hill. The Trustee Board pursued its plans for a new church on the site of the former one, and the corner-stone was laid by the Rev. Dr. A. Carman on July 5. Plans for the rival church collapsed and the breach was healed. A new parsonage was acquired through the purchase of a house situated opposite the site of the new church.
1895: Building of the new church progressed very slowly because of severe financial difficulties. Heavy borrowing was found to be necessary.
1896: The new church building-the present Gower Street Church-was consecrated and opened on October 4 by the Rev. Dr. Potts, Educational Secretary of the Methodist Church, Toronto.
1899: An evangelistic mission was conducted by Evangelists Crossley and Hunter.
1903: Individual cups first used in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
1915: Celebration of the Centenary of Gower Street Church and of Methodism in St. John's.
1916: Debt on the new church building finally liquidated.
1918: Choir gowns worn for the first time on Easter Sunday.
1921: Silver Jubilee of the church building celebrated.
1922: Memorial Tablet commemorating the men of Gower Street Church who died in the Great War of 1914-18 unveiled at a Memorial Service on May 22.
1925: Gower Street Circuit entered the United Church of Canada upon the consummation of Union on June 10. Great mass-meeting held in Gower Street Church to celebrate Church Union.
1928: The Memorial Building completed and occupied.
1941: The One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the founding of Gower Street Church was celebrated.
1959: The old parsonage (purchased in 1894) sold and a new parsonage purchased on Cornwall Heights. Second parsonage purchased on Kent Place.
1964: Ancillary facilities of the church building enlarged by the completion of a structure connecting the Memorial Building with the main building. The General Council of the United Church of Canada met at Gower Street Church in September.
1965: Sesquicentennial of Gower Street Church and Congregation celebrated in November with special services on two Sundays and a mid-week banquet.
1966: Memorial Tablet commemorating the men of Gower Street United Church who died in the Second Great War of 1939-45 unveiled on May 22.
Rev. John Pickavant 1815-16 Rev. George Cubit 1816-18 Rev. Ninian Barr 1816-17 Rev. Richard Knight 1816-17 Rev. John Bell 1818-20 Rev. John Pickavant (second pastorate) 1820-21 Rev. William Wilson 1820-21 Rev. John Walsh 1821-24 Rev. William Croscombe 1824-27 Rev. Ninian Barr 1825-26 Rev. John Pickavant (third pastorate) 1827-32 Rev. John Tomkins 1831-32 Rev. John Haigh 1832-35 Rev. John Smithies 1835-37 Rev. William Faulkner 1837-39 Rev. John Pickavant (fourth pastorate) 1839-41 Rev. James England 1840-41 Rev. John Snowball 1841-43 Rev. Ingham Sutcliffe 1843-44 Rev. Richard Williams 1844-49 Rev. John Brewster 1845-48 Rev. Adam Nightingale 1846-48 Rev. Elias Brettle 1848-51 Rev. William Faulkner (second pastorate)1849-50 Rev. Edmund Botterill 1850-55 Rev. John S. Addy 1851-53 Rev. John S. Phinney 1854-55 Rev. Thomas Angwin 1855-56 Rev. Samuel W. Sprague 1855-56 Rev. James Dove 1855-57 Rev. Robert A. Chesley 1856-Nov. 1856 Rev. Thomas Harris Nov. 1856-1857 Rev. Henry Daniel 1857-60 Rev. Thomas Smith 1857-58 Rev. John Winterbotham 1858-60 Rev. Edmund Botterill (second pastorate)1860-63 Rev. John Waterhouse 1860-62 Rev. Joseph Pascoe 1862-63 Rev. Paul Prestwood 1863-66 Rev. Charles Ladner 1863-64 Rev. Joseph Gaetz 1864-67 Rev. Alfred W. Turner 1864-67 Rev. John Prince 1866-69 Rev. Charles Comben 1867-68 Rev. Samuel R. Ackman 1867-69 Rev. James Dove 1869-72 Rev. Samuel T. Teed 1869-72 Rev. George S. Milligan, M.A. 1872-75 Rev. Henry L. Cranford 1872-73 Rev. Thomas Atkinson 1872-73 Rev. James Nurse 1872-74 Rev. Joseph Lister 1873-75 Rev. Joseph Pascoe 1874-75 Rev. Thomas Harris (second pastorate) 1875-78 Rev. George Bond, B.A. 1874-76 Rev. John Pratt 1875-77 Rev. Simeon B. Dunn 1875-78 Rev. Job Shenton 1878-81 Rev. George Paine 1877-79 Rev. William Kendall 1877-79 Rev. Charles Ladner 1878-81 Rev. George P. Story 1879-80 Rev. James Wilson 1880-81 Rev. William W. Percival 1881-84 Rev. Joseph A. Jackson 1881-82 Rev. George Noble 1882-83 Rev. T. H. James 1881-83 Rev. George Bond, B.A. 1883-84 Rev. George Bond, B.A. 1884-86 Rev. George Vater 1884-86 Rev. George Vater 1886-87 Rev. J. Parkins 1886-89 Rev. George Boyd 1887-90 Rev. F. R. Duffill 1888-90 Rev. H. P. Cowperthwaite, M.A 1890-93 Rev. A. D. Morton, M.A 1893-86 Rev. Levi Curtis, B.A 1896-99 Rev. H. P. Cowperthwaite, M.A., D.D. (second pastorate) 1899-1903 Rev. J. L. Dawson, B.A 1903-06 Rev. W. T. D. Dunn 1906-10 Rev. H. P. Cowperthwaite, M.A., D.D. (third pastorate) 1910-11 Rev. Jabez A. Rogers, D.D 1911-13 Rev. H. P. Cowperthwaite, M.A., D.D. (fourth pastorate) 1913-14 Rev. Mark Fenwick, D.D 1913-14 Rev. D. B. Hemmeon, B.A 1914-18 Rev. E. W. Forbes, M.A., B.D 1918-22 Rev. Hammond Johnson 1922-27 Rev. N. Pavey 1924-25 Rev. S. J. Mathers 1925-26 Rev. Wylie E. Clarke, D.D. 1927-34 Rev. Wilfred Gaetz 1934-37 Rev. John E. Bell, B.A. 1937-41 Rev. Dean K. Burns, M.A., Ph.D. 1941-48 Rev. Francis E. Vipond, B.A., B.D. 1948-Dec. 1958 Rev. W. J. Woolfrey, B.D. 1957-Dec. 1958 Rev. W. J. Woolfrey, B.D. Dec. 1958-July 1959 Rev. R. W. Braine, B.A. 1959-Oct. 1964 Rev. W. J. Woolfrey, B.D. 1959-60 Rev. W. B. Stanford, B.A., B.D. 1960-61 Rev. A. R. Smith, B.A., B.D. 1961-Oct. l964 Rev. A. R. Smith, B.A., B.D. Oct. 1964-Jan. 1965 Rev. D. E. Lovewell Jan.-July 1965 Rev. A. E. Kewley, B.A., B.D., Th.D., D.D. 1965 Rev. L. A. D. Curtis, B.A., B.D., D.D. 1965-
District Journal of the Newfoundland District of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference, Eastern British America, 1851 - 1858. (United Church Conference Archives, St. John's, Newfoundland. )
Incoming Correspondence of the Missions Committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, London, England. (Micro-film.)
Minutes of the Newfound land District of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, 1829-1850. (United Church Conference Archives, St. John's.)
Minutes of the Missions Committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, London, England. (Micro-film.)
Minutes of the St. John's District of the Newfoundland Methodist Conference, 1877-1895. (United Church Conference Archives, St. John's.)
Wesleyan Trustees and Quarterly Minute Book, St. John's Circuit 1840-1878. (United Church Conference Archives, St. John's.)
Anspach, L. A., A History of the Island of Newfoundland, London, 1819.
Courier, (newspaper), St. John's, Newfoundland, files for 1856-62.
Herald, (newspaper), Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, files for 1848.
Huestis, G. O., Memorials of Wesleyan Missionaries and Ministers, Halifax, N.S., 1872.
Johnson, D. W., Methodism in Eastern British America. Sackville, N.B.
LeMessurier, H. W., Ancient St. John's, 1915.
Mercantile Journal, (newspaper), St. John's, Newfoundland, files for 1816-20.
Methodist Magazine, London, England, files for 1815-20.
Nichols, J. W., A Century of Methodism in St. John's, Newfoundland, 1915.
Public Ledger and Advocate, (newspaper), St. John's, Newfoundland, files for 1856-57.
Royal Gazette, (newspaper), St. John's, Newfoundland, files for 1816.
Smallwood, J. R. (ed.), The Book of Newfoundland, 2 vols., St. John's, 1937.
Tocque, Philip, Newfoundland: as it was and as it is in 1877, Toronto, 1878.
Wilson, William, Newfoundland and Its Missionaries, Cambridge, Mass., 1866.
Page transcribed by: Bill Crant May, 2000
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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