The congregation in the village of Chesley, Ontario owed much to the efforts of Adam Scott Elliott, who was born at Hawick in the Scottish Lowlands in 1807, and came to Canada with his father at the age of ten. They were among the families brought over by a British government eager to settle loyalists in southern Ontario, as a buffer against American encroachment in the period after the War of 1812. The Elliotts resided at Perth, Ontario, where already in 1827 Elliott’s father was protesting the introduction of uninspired hymns alongside the Psalms in the worship of the local Presbyterian church.
In 1858 Elliott purchased two hundred acres where Chesley now stands, and established a saw mill and a grist mill on the North Saugeen River. His family and other families of Scottish descent were visited frequently by Reformed Presbyterian ministers. In 1873 Rev. Thomas Hannah organized a congregation of the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at nearby Williamsford, where Elliott was then living. The congregation and its families relocated to Chesley, and Elliott served as an elder. At Chesley in 1880, Elliott reprinted the classic critique of Isaac Watts’ hymns: An Essay on Psalmody, by William Romaine, eighteenth-century leader of the Evangelical party in the Church of England.
In the years that followed, the Chesley congregation changed its affiliation in order to find pastoral care. The present church building in Chesley was constructed in 1904. In 1912 the congregation was received into the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and called a minister from Scotland to be their pastor. Already in 1901 several groups of Presbyterians in the nearby Ontario communities of Lochalsh, Kincardine, East Williams and Brucefield, petitioned the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland to be recognized as a part of the mission field under its care and jurisdiction. By 1918 the congregations at Chesley and the other villages had come to operate under one kirk session, and were known as the Ontario congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
The pastorate of William Matheson in this far-flung congregation commenced in 1919. Matheson was a native of Lochalsh, Ontario, but went to Scotland to train for the ministry, under the auspices of the Free Presbyterian Church. During his years in Scotland one of those who responded warmly to his preaching in the Highlands was a young Free Presbyterian named John Murray. Murray went to Princeton Seminary in 1924 to study theology. In preaching visits to Canada during his student days the friendship with Matheson continued to grow. Both men were eventually caught up in a controversy within the Free Presbyterian Church, when its Synod determined that use of public transport on the Lord’s Day for the purpose of attending worship services was grounds for debarring church members from the sacraments. The result was that by 1931 the Synod had broken its ties with Matheson and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ontario. And when Murray completed his studies at Princeton and returned to Scotland, he found that the door to ordination in the Free Presbyterian Church was closed to him, because his views coincided with Matheson’s. In these circumstances Murray accepted a call to teach at Princeton, soon became an instructor at Westminster Theological Seminary, and in 1937 was ordained to the gospel ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
William Matheson ministered to the Chesley and Lochalsh congregations, and to extensions elsewhere in Bruce, Huron and Elgin counties, Ontario, until his death in 1957. Murray traveled to Chesley to conduct Matheson’s funeral, and to pay tribute to him as his dearest friend. Murray continued to preach at Chesley and Lochalsh from time to time until his retirement from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1968. Writing after a communion season at Lochalsh, Murray said, “I think I feel most at home here and at Chesley of all the places I visit.” There had been some consideration that upon leaving the seminary, Murray might take a pastorate in the newly-formed Presbyterian Reformed Church, but the infirmity of his aged sisters at the home place necessitated his return to Ross-shire, Scotland. Murray died in Scotland in 1975.
The second congregation involved in the formation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church was constituted in 1881 when a group left Cooke’s Presbyterian Church on Queen Street, Toronto, and created the Presbyterian Church Defense Association. Among the reasons given for their action was the introduction into the church’s worship of instrumental music and hymns of human composition. Later that year they organized the Carlton Street Presbyterian
Church. In 1886 the congregation left the Presbyterian Church in Canada and allied itself with a Reformed Presbyterian presbytery based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Henceforth, they called themselves the First Reformed Presbyterian Church, Carlton Street, the name engraved on the silver communion pitcher and chalices the congregation still uses.
The most significant of their early pastors was Samuel Dempster, who was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1869. Dempster was ordained in 1897, never married, and served the church until his death in 1922. Before Dempster died at the close of a twenty-five year ministry, the Reformed Presbytery of Pittsburgh and Ontario had ceased to exist, and the Toronto church was on its own. After 1910 the church was known as the Bloor East Presbyterian Church, because of its location on Toronto’s main thoroughfare. Later the congregation left their premises in the business district, and relocated on the north side of the city, becoming known as the Victoria Park Presbyterian Church.
Creation of the Presbytery
Professor Murray directed two of his students at Westminster Seminary to the vacant pulpits in Chesley and Toronto. In January 1963 a temporary presbytery was created in order to ordain and induct R. Quincy Caldwell as pastor of the Chesley church, and Gerald Hamstra as pastor at Bloor East in Toronto. The presbyters who participated in the ordinations were John Murray of the O.P.C., and ministers from the Free Church of Scotland and the Old Christian Reformed Church.
Already in 1960 the session of the Chesley church had made an overture to the Toronto session, with a view to negotiating an organic association through the erection of a permanent presbytery. In 1965, with both churches having settled pastors, Murray was successful in bringing the two congregations together as a presbytery, so that the unity which belongs to the body of Christ might come to expression in the government of the church. Murray composed the proposals leading to the union, and also the constitution which served as the basis of union. One of the addresses which he delivered to the parties was entitled “The Biblical Basis for Ecclesiastical Union,” which is printed in volume one of the Collected Writings of John Murray.
In 1974 both congregations in the presbytery were without pastors. The Toronto congregation left the presbytery to join the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Growth of the Presbytery
Finlay A. McCormick was inducted to the Chesley pastorate in 1975. A native of New York, McCormick was a student under John Murray at Westminster Seminary, and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church of Canada in 1957.
In 1976 Dr. William Young joined the presbytery. Young grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and as a college student at Columbia University became involved in J. Gresham Machen’s League of Evangelical Students. Acquaintance with John Murray during his college years persuaded him of regulative principle worship, and he subsequently studied for the ministry at Westminster Seminary, graduating in 1941. He was ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1942, and in 1944-1946 was the stated supply at Bloor East Presbyterian Church in Toronto. Later he joined with Murray in signing a minority report advocating canonical psalmody at the 1947 General Assembly of the O.P.C. Young was a teaching colleague of Gordon H. Clark at Butler College, and in 1960 became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rhode Island. He soon began serving as pulpit supply for a Presbyterian Fellowship which was meeting at Seekonk, Massachusetts. This group was organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Reformed Church in 1978, and now meets in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Early in the 1970’s preaching supply was also provided at Seekonk and at Chesley by Dr. David Freeman. From 1949 to 1962 he was the pastor of Knox O.P.C. in Philadelphia, where John Murray worshipped. Knox O.P.C. practiced the unaccompanied singing of the Psalms. Freeman was born in Poland in 1901, the son of Orthodox Jewish parents. When as a school boy in America he came to faith in Christ, he was ostracized by his family. He studied at Princeton Seminary before its reorganization, and was a constituting member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936.
In 1979 the presbytery organized a congregation which now meets in Warrenton, VA. Pastor Harry Grimes, a retired Presbyterian Church in America pastor, supplies the pulpit for this congregation. In 1992 the Trinity Reformed Church of Des Moines, Iowa was received into the presbytery. Hitherto unaffiliated, this congregation was formed in 1985. In 2001 Michael J. Ericson, formerly of the PCA was installed as pastor. In 1996 a congregation was organized at Portland, Oregon, with D. Douglas Gebbie, a graduate of the Free Church of Scotland College, as the minister. A congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina was formed in 1998. Timothy J. Worrell, a graduate of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, was inducted as the first pastor.
A mission was created at Stockton-on-Tees, England in 1996, with Roy Mohon as the minister. The presbytery declared its intention to endeavor, by God’s help, to establish a presbytery in England which would become an indigenous English denomination committed to the constitutional principles of the Presbyterian Reformed Church. Fifteen years earlier, Mohon had introduced many British Christians to home schooling. Mohon prepared for the ministry at the theological hall of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
In 1996 the presbytery adopted The Form of Government and Book of Discipline, a book of church order which the presbytery had drafted, drawing upon the classic Presbyterian manuals from Scotland and the Westminster Assembly.