What comes to mind when you think of McMaster University? Great med school? Decent football team? Large, sprawling campus? Whatever image you have of McMaster University, you probably weren’t aware that, more than anything else, it was the thing that drew baptists in central Canada together, and then split them apart. Understanding how is an important part of the history of our church tradition. Last week I attended a workshop by church historian, Dr. Michael Haykin, and learned about the history of the Fellowship, our church association.

While Ontario baptist churches thrived in many ways throughout the 1800s, it was a centre of theological and literary studies called the Canadian Literary Institute that would give unity to them. In 1860, Robert Alexander Fyfe, who had pastored what is now known as Jarvis Street Baptist Church became the school’s first principal and it thrived under his leadership. After his death though, it was relocated to a building in Toronto, funded by a millionaire baptist senator named William McMaster, and renamed Toronto Baptist College. When McMaster died, he left sufficient funds to start a baptist university. Toronto Baptist College thus became McMaster University in 1887. The unifying force of the university and the theological education it provided, gave the baptists in Ontario and Quebec the unity and motivation they needed to come together and in 1888, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec was formed.

McMaster University provided for the theological education of many young pastors but in the 1920s, it fell prey to what is known as the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy. A popular professor named Laurance Henry Marshall was at the centre of the storm. He voiced his belief in evolution, rejected the infallibility of God’s Word and the belief that Jesus in dying on the cross bore the punishment for our sins to satisfy God’s righteous anger. While there were Bible-believing men leading the McMaster administration, many of the university’s donors supported the new liberal theology and so it seemed to them fair to give voice to liberal teachings in the classroom. Many were convinced otherwise.

At the forefront of opposition to Marshall and the liberal teachings that had crept into McMaster was a gifted preacher and pastor named T.T. Shields. He led Jarvis Street Baptist Church, the largest baptist church in the country at the time, and his newspaper, the Gospel Witness, reached 30,000 subscribers in 16 countries. He was vocal in his criticism of liberal theology and McMaster University, and in 1926 was eventually expelled from the Baptist Convention. Seventy churches followed his exit and a year later, he opened a new school, Toronto Baptist Seminary, which became their symbol of unity. In 1928, the Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec was formed with 77 member churches.

The newly-formed group had high hopes for growth and unity but these hopes were short-lived. In 1931, T.T. Shields insisted that the youth association and the women’s missionary society needed to be under the authority of Union churches and when some of the other pastors disagreed, they were expelled from the Union. Nine churches were forced out and two years later, the expelled pastors joined with other evangelical baptist churches which had never been a part of the Union and they formed the Fellowship of Independent Baptist Churches of Canada. They were baptists united in their opposition to liberalism, but also in their dislike of the abrasive and often authoritarian leadership of Shields. From 1933 to 1950, the Fellowship grew from twenty-seven churches to one hundred twenty-four.

Meanwhile, T.T. Shields caused more and more dissent within the Union. The final straw came when Shields fired the President of Toronto Baptist Seminary, W. Gordon Brown. Shields was against allowing students from Fellowship churches into Toronto Baptist Seminary while Brown actively developed greater cooperation. Upon Brown’s removal, a majority of teachers as well as fifty of the seventy-five students left Toronto Baptist Seminary and in 1949 formed Central Baptist Seminary, which would later become Heritage College and Theological Seminary. Frustrated with the dissent, Shields pulled his church out of the Union and a small group of churches formed the Association of Regular Baptist Churches, a group which dwindled to ten or so churches in the early 2000s and eventually disbanded.

In 1953, the Union of Regular Baptists (now free from the leadership of T.T. Shields) and the Fellowship of Independent Baptists (which had originally been expelled from the Union by T.T. Shields) formed the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada. They were joined in 1965 by the Regular Baptists of British Columbia and the baptist congregations in the Prairie Provinces Convention and became a national fellowship.

Jack Scott, then pastor of Forward Baptist Church in Toronto, summarized well the spirit of the Fellowship’s founders: “There should be a spirit among the churches of evangelical Baptists that we should go out and preach the gospel, build churches, get souls saved, get involved in missions and not spend our time wrangling.” May that spirit characterize our witness today!

In awe of Him,