Rev. Robert McDowall, the First Presbyterian Missionary

In Upper Canada -- His Life Work and Memorial Church










   It is now just one hundred years since the first Presbyterian missionary was sent to the Province of Upper Canada.  A considerable number of the United Empire Loyalist pioneers who settled about the shores of the Bay of Quinte in 1784 were Presbyterians, principally from various points along the Hudson River, in New York State, and these appear to have been living in Upper Canada a number of years without once enjoying the opportunity of the ministrations or considerations of their own church.  The leader of the Adolphustown pioneers was Major Vanalstine, a member of the Reformed Dutch Church, and  it is said to have been through his representations and persuasions that the Rev. Robert McDowall was ordained and sent by the then Presbytery of Albany.  He was a native of Saratoga County, New York State,  was educated at William’s College, Schenectady, and immediately after his graduation from the at college was ordained a minister of the Reformed Dutch Church and selected as a missionary to the then almost unbroken wilds of Upper Canada.  He reached Kingston early in the spring of 1798 and found but a small struggling village there at that time, whose spiritual wants were being supplied by the Rev. J. O’Kell Stuart, the first Church of England minister in this Province - a U. E. L. refugee from the Mohawk Valley - and Rev. Darius Dunham, the first ordained Methodist minister in Upper Canada, who made only monthly visits to that locality.  Mr. McDowall appears to have made his headquarters from the first at the Village of Bath, twelve miles farther west of Kingston, on the Bay of Quinte, where the Rev. John Langhorn, Church of England, had been at work for some years and where a pretty substantial church of that denomination had just been built, which is still in use and is now the oldest Anglican church standing in the Province of Ontario.  Darius Dunham was also supplying as a Methodist itinerant there and had a substantial Methodist church a dozen miles farther up, on the shores of Hay Bay, which was the first of that denomination built in Upper Canada;  there was also a Methodist Church at the time in the fourth concession of the “Second town,” now Ernestown, a few miles back of Bath.


   For the first two years of his missionary life in Upper Canada Mr. McDowall was a missionary at large, travelling over extensive distances and finding out here and there all who had been Presbyterians, but not confining his ministration to such.  He was then the only Presbyterian minister from Cornwall on the east to as far west as where London now stands, except one in the Niagara peninsula.  Two years later, in 1800, regular congregations were formed at Bath and “Third Town,” now South Fredericksburgh, a few miles west of Bath, and he was regularly ordained as their minister, yet he always continued his extensive missionary labours, making periodical trips as far east as Elizabethtown, and Brockville, and west to Little York, now Toronto.  Sometimes he followed on up west the pioneer settlers, and in some of these trips is said to have watered his horse - his only travelling companion in all these wilderness journeys - in the waters of the Thames River somewhere in the vicinity of where the City of London now stands.


   What hardships, privations, difficulties and discouragements a horseback journey through that stretch of nearly four hundred miles of Canadian wilderness nearly a century ago really represented few of us can now hardly imagine.  Very few of the rivers had bridges, and could be crossed only by swimming or fording.  There were no roads in many places where flourishing villages and large towns now exist - not always even a “blazed” track through the dense forests - and sometimes for a whole day’s trip only here and there a settler’s log shanty where the barest necessities and shelter could be obtained.  And yet for nearly forty years the Rev. Robert McDowall continued his active ministerial and missionary work, cheerfully enduring his many privations and hardships, not always counting even his life dear unto himself, in order that he might thus finish the work whereunto he was sent.  It was by means like these that the foundations for many of the large, wealthy and prosperous Presbyterian congregations were first laid.  Up to a few months previous to his death, which occurred in 1841, he continued to travel, visit and preach.  An old resident near this locality informs the writer he well remembers hearing him preach his last sermon at Bath, a few months before his death, taking for his text the appropriate and closing words, “The spirit and the bride say come.”


   Mr. McDowall appears to have been a very successful church builder.  His first preaching were necessarily in the rude log homes of the early settlers.  In many cases there was but one room in the house, with the large fireplace across one end and the beds end to end in the other, and the trundles for the children shoved underneath.  The preacher would come some time during the day and get word sent on of his coming.  A horn would be sounded in a particular manner and word sent out to the nearest neighbors, who, in their turn, would send to others, until the news would spread for miles around, and more would sometimes gather in than the house could contain.  It was not an unusual thing for the preacher to stand in an open door and thus preach to those outside and in.  In this way it was often managed to hold services every night during the week for nearly a month’s round trip. As school houses were built nearly every one of them was utilized as a preaching place.  Log barns were used in the summer, and many outdoor services were held when the weather would permit. Sometimes the first sermon Christian families had heard for years would be in connection with such opportunities.  The missionary’s coming was often a veritable “angel visit” to many such.


   The need of churches was, of course, very apparent.  Mr. McDowall managed to have a good substantial one erected near his own home, which is still standing and in use, and probably the oldest one of its kind now in what was the old “Midland District,” which comprised all the Bay of Quinte counties.  Another was built at McIntyre’s Corners, a couple of concessions back from the bay, north of Bath.  That was over 70 years ago, and was at the time probably the most commodious church in these counties.  But it has passed away, and even the burial ground now stands in an open field, with scarcely a vestage of a headstone left.  Another was built at Wilton, some ten or twelve miles further back, but it is gone and a new and modern one has taken its place.  Another was built a Demorestville, in Prince Edward County, which is still standing and in use, and probably others in various sections of these counties.  The Presbyterians were a numerous and influential body in these counties at a very early period in this century, and that fact is largely attributable to the indefatigable efforts of their first Canadian missionary.


   It may be as well to state just here that the first church to which reference has been made was built about 1834 and stands near Sandhurst post office, South Fredericksburgh, in a very pretty situation on the Bay of Quinte shore, commanding a very pretty view not only of the bay but of Lake Ontario, a little beyond.  The waters of the two are united here at the “upper gap,” being separated on the west by the extreme point of Prince Edward County and on the east by Amherst Island.  The history of the building of it was, no doubt similar to most of the others in the early days.  Money was yet very scarce, but the people were liberally inclined and very willing to help as they could.  One member, John Murdoch, cut and dressed out some sticks of timber on his farm nearby and drew them with his oxen for the foundation.  Others, no doubt, gave similar help.  Some who had neither timber nor oxen turned in and helped with their strong arms.  One carpenter, Nicholas Murdoch, traded a young steer for some first-class lumber and made the pulpit as his contribution, which is still in use and is yet a good specimen of the taste and shill of the grandfathers of many of to-day.  Another of the very old residents remembers helping to work and put up the frame, at which men for miles round assisted.  Mrs. McDowall and other women were on hand there, cooking and providing dinner on the ground for all those willing helpers.  One old lady, now in Kingston, remembers helping other women do the inside painting, the men getting on ladders to do those parts beyond their reach.  “The people had a mind to work” then in such matters, and so church after church went up.  A dozen years ago the old church had become a good deal dilapidated, and the families of the first members were much scattered.  The Rev. Mr. Cumberland and a few others took it in hand to have the old church renovated and improved and transformed into a McDowall Memorial Church, in honor of its first pastor, who was buried, with a number of his family, in the yard surrounding.







   The illustrations given herewith represent the church as it now stands.  There has been the addition of the tower in front and a veneering of brick all round.  The old windows were removed and different persons contributed the new ones out of respect to the memory of the founder.  Among those contributors were Sir Oliver Mowat and Sir John Macdonald, both old-time Presbyterians and personal friends of Mr. McDowall, who had been the former minister to their parents.  Sir Richard Cartwright was also a contributor, and so were a number of others whose names I am not in possession of.


   The views of the pulpit and brass memorial tablet inside are just as they are to-day.  It is the same pulpit that Mr. McDowall and other early Presbyterian worthies used for years, but cut down several feet to meet more modern ideas of church architecture.  On the memorial tablet is this inscription: --


In Memoriam

Rev. Robert McDowall,

Ordained by the Dutch Reformed Church

 at Albany.  Came to Upper Canada in 1798

to minister to the U.E. Loyalists.  As pioneer

missionary his labours were of pre-eminent

importance in establishing the church in this Province. 

He was elected first Moderator of the Canadas in 1820.

He was a founder of Queen’s University.  He organized

this congregation in 1800 and remained

its faithful pastor till his death

His remains are interred in this churchyard.


   Just to the left of the views of the church will be seen the headstones of several of the early members, and in that group stand those of the Rev. R. McDowall, Hannah Washburn, his wife. Daniel S., a son, who was in business at Demorestville and died unmarried and two of their children, Jane [Note: should be ‘James’] and Eliza, who died in infancy.  The illustration given here shows these stones as they now stand.  The members of the family are now all gone.  It would now seem a fitting thing, in connection with this anniversary, if a general subscription of, say, $1 each was made among the members all over Ontario to erect a fitting and lasting monument over the last resting-place of one who was so largely instrumental in laying the foundation of one of the largest and most influential of all the Protestant churches of Canada.  We Canadians are too forgetful to commemorate the heroic labours of our grand old pioneers.


   Some years after Mr. McDowall’s settlement as pastor of the Fredericksburgh congregation he was married to Hannah Washburn, a daughter of Ebenezer Washburn, one of the leading U.E.L. settlers on the shores of the bay.  He procured a tract of 400 acres of land near where the church stands and erected a home, and there they both lived and died.  She survived him nearly twelve years, and died in 1852, aged sixty-nine years.  They had eight children, six of whom attained adult years. 


   Two of the sons, John and Ebenezer, became ministers and died in the States.  John spent most of his ministerial life in new York, and was one of the founders of the celebrated Five Points Mission in that city, and assisted in transforming the historic “Old Brewery” into mission premises.  Out of that work grew also a Magdalene Home and later on the American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless, on Twenty-ninth and Thirteenth streets in that city.  These missions are among the more important of their class in New York to-day, accomplishing a vast amount of good.  He died and was buried in one of the quiet old burial grounds off Nassau street in that city.  Ebenezer died and was buried in Michigan. James was a well-known business man in Kingston, where he died some years ago.  Daniel was a successful business man in Demorestville and died unmarried. His last sleeping-place is beside his parents.  Robert, the youngest, inherited the homestead, but was not successful in business and finally died in Montreal.  His body was brought to Fredericksburgh and laid in the same plot with the family.  Sarah, the last survivor of the family, was married to James Carpenter, a well-known business man in Prince Edward County, who died years ago.  She died two or three years ago, and also lies buried in the same historic “God’s acre.”  Not one of the name is now left in this county.  A grandson, H. J. McDowall, is a well-known business man in Kingston.


   For years there was not an ordained Protestant minister, except the Rev. John Langhorn, Anglican, in all the Bay of Quinte counties besides Mr. McDowall, who had the legal right to celebrate marriages.  It was not until in the thirties that the Methodists, Baptists and others were given that legal authority.  Even in Mr. McDowall’s case some raised doubts in the end in regard to the legality of the many marriage ceremonies he performed, and an act was passed by the Upper Canada Legislature validating all such marriages.  As he travelled so extensively and became so widely known and respected, he was in large request for marriages and baptism.  Many of the early families in this and the surrounding counties were married by him.  And in many cases he baptized, first and last, every child of large families.  One old gentleman now a resident here says he married him and baptized fourteen children in his mother’s family.  Many others have similar testimonies.  He kept a register of all these marriages.  It is said there are over a thousand heads of families thus registered.  His grandson, Mr. R. J. McDowall, has presented that historic register to the Library of Queen’s University where it is now kept safely deposited in the vault, among the most precious of all the documents of that valuable collection.


   It is now proposed to hold a centenary celebration at the McDowall Memorial Church this summer - probably early in July.  It should be a time of great historic interest to the Presbyterians and others all over the Province of Ontario.  At the last meeting of the Toronto and Kingston Presbytery the matter was taken up and the centenary fully decided on.  The proceedings were published in The Globe at the time.  The Rev. W. Cumberland, of Stella, Amherst Island, is the Chairman of that committee and is engaged to prepare a suitable paper for the occasion.  It will, no doubt, be of great interest and value.  He has been at great pains to collect information, much of which had been nearly lost.  Sir Oliver Mowat has, we understand, been invited to preside and will no doubt do so with much satisfaction, if circumstances will at all permit.  The centennial ought to be one of the prominent milestones in the history of the great Presbyterian Church in Canada.


Napanee June 3.




Additional Information on the McDowall Church and Cemetery:


McDowall Memorial Cemetery  article


McDowall Memorial Cemetery including Cemetery Photos