Manitoba History: McKee of Brandon College

by Tommy McLeod
Victoria, BC

Number 40, Autumn / Winter 2000-2001

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The termination of Hudson’s Bay Company hegemony over the British North American territory extending from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, taken together with the new nation of Canada’s pledge to build a steel-rail bridge connecting east to west, brought an interest on the part of the Eastern establishment in the economic possibilities of lands hitherto regarded as unproductive (save for furs) and uninhabitable. In a comparatively short time the surge of westward migration was on and settlement was pushed out of the Red River Valley, moving ever farther on to the plains. Some enthusiasts saw the promise of a new day for the infant nation. At the same time, some saw the realization of any such promise to be contingent upon the energy expended by those of the established provinces in providing for the conditions under which the developing territory, as a de facto colony, might best be influenced to mirror the moral, social and political norms of the earlier Canada. Such considerations prompted the influential Baptist churchman, Dr. Robert Alexander Fyfe, president both of the denomination’s Canadian Literary Institute and its Foreign Mission Society, to strongly urge his brethren “to bestir themselves” and meet both the evangelical and educational challenges the new order had opened to them.

A somewhat belated response to Fyfe’s urging and influence brought to the prairies some of the brethren to whom the appeal was addressed. Among those answering the call was Samuel James McKee, whose twin dedication to his church and to its responsibilities in the field of post-secondary education was to set his course for more than five decades of service. Four of those decades were to be lived in Manitoba.

Prior to the day when the Western territories were incorporated in the formal structure of the new Dominion, “main-line” religious denominations (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist) had become ensconced in the Red River Valley, had established their denominational schools and colleges, and had assumed, in fact if not in law, responsibility for providing for higher education. At the time of the opening of the West, the Baptists were virtually non-existent. Now, as the “odd men out” in a time of promised growth, they were to seek the realization of their missionary-educational hopes in the lands opening beyond the established settlement, free both of competition and the distractions of urban life.

McKee was not the first of the Baptists to respond to Fyfe’s challenge, though he was early on the scene. He arrived in Western Canada before the transcontinental railway reached the Assiniboine river. By the time of his retirement from active duty in the Baptist cause of higher education some four decades later, he was firmly set in the folk lore of Brandon College as that institution’s founding father. It is something of a coincidence that both his own life and that of the institution he had fathered closed in the same year.

In the beginning

The roots of Brandon College may be traced back to the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, and to the birth of John Gilmour’s short-lived Canada Baptist College in Montreal. Nearly a century separated the birth of the latter institution and the passing, in 1938, of its lineal descendant. Though Gilmour’s experiment survived for only eleven years before closing for financial reasons in 1849, its existence, though brief, is relevant to the story to be told here.

Samuel James McKee (second row, centre-right) with Brandon Academy students, 1892.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

It was Gilmour’s intention to counter the influence of the then-prevailing “closed communion” commitment derived from the American Baptists. His was an ecumenical approach which welcomed to his College “persons of good moral character of all classes and persuasions.” [1] Such apparent “unorthodoxy,” resisted as it was by those firmly committed to closed communion, provoked among the brethren a doctrinal rift. This, in turn, led some to withhold sorely needed financial support from his institution. In some measure, it was a scene to be reenacted years later in the affairs of the Brandon successor.

However, the doctrinal disquiet of the time is less relevant to this narrative than is Gilmour’s approach to the conduct of church sponsored institutions of higher education. It was an approach which was later to characterize the conduct of similar Baptist institutions. Gilmour’s ecumenism, contentious as it proved to be, was coupled with a new insistence on the preparation of a broadly educated clergy, one with a capacity to go beyond “answering the call.” This, too, was resisted by those who denied the need for, if not the acceptability, of what they saw as a “man-made ministry.” The question of the relationship between godless secular education, and God-inspired theological training, (to say nothing of the coupling of the two) remained within some elements of the Christian communion (and certainly within its Baptist Element) a smoldering issue over the ensuing century.

A further significant connecting link between the Montreal venture and its prairie counterpart of later days is found in the fact that within the short life span of Canada Baptist College, one of its Principals was Dr. R. A. Fyfe. Fyfe would later become a dominant influence in the evolution of the Baptist contribution to higher education. He was not only a highly regarded teacher, but a churchman of constantly growing stature within his denomination. Some twelve years after the Montreal college closed its doors, Fyfe founded the Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, Ontario. Over the following years, his Institute provided the root-stock for two full-fledged institutions of higher learning, McMaster University and Brandon College. Not only did the Institute, later as Woodstock College, provide much of the inspiration and the educational philosophy that was to be built in to Brandon College, it provided the original leaders who saw to its “building-in.” One such leader was Samuel James McKee.

The roots of one critical element of the educational policies of Canadian Baptists is to be found in eighteenth century Canada when the Executive Committee of the Canadian Baptist Union petitioned against the provision of state financial support for denominational educational institutions. The issue burned most brightly among the Baptists of Canada West following 1854, at the time when funds accruing from the sale of the Clergy Reserves were distributed to the “established” denominations in support of their educational ventures. Not only was the Baptist denomination not “established,” it also was committed to the separation of the affairs of church and state. Its good works, including any incursion into the field of higher education, must rest on a base of voluntary support. Beyond this principle of “voluntarism,” Fyfe saw a need to develop an educational program and an institutional environment that would go beyond the limits of the theological seminary envisioned by others. He was convinced that theological training should not be divorced from, but should be set within, a solid background of appropriate studies in the arts and humanities. As well, he envisioned a student body comprising not only those preparing for a life in the ministry, but as well, others seeking educational opportunities in a Christian environment. His objective in establishing the Canadian Literary Institute was to establish “a high-grade school with literary and theological departments.” [2] It is also to be noted that Fyfe’s Institute, when it came into being, was the first co-educational institution of higher learning in Canada.

It is to be noted, too, that the considerations governing the selection of a location for the Institute are of more than passing interest when reviewed in the light of discussions which took place later in the Canadian North-West. Fyfe and his associates eschewed association with the established theological seminaries, huddled within the confines of the Province’s metropolis. They sought, rather, what they conceived to be the purer atmosphere, physically and morally, of small town Canada West. Then too, it may be suspected that the lure of a $10,000 grant proffered by the community of Woodstock had some bearing on the final decision. The scenario, enacted with only a changed cast, was in most essentials replayed some years later in Manitoba.

Over time, Fyfe, not only through his Literary Institute, but as well through other leadership roles played within the Baptist Community of the East, exerted considerable influence on denominational decisions. C. C. McLaurin, in his Pioneering in Western Canada, portrays him as “the most trusted leader of the Baptist denomination that Canada has yet produced.” [3] This leadership was to be most evident in the development of a denominational presence in Western Canada.

With the coming into being of a new Dominion, now to absorb the vast territories of the North-West, and sustained in the venture by the promise of a transcontinental railway, the vision of a dominion from sea to sea approached reality. In the prairie West, the historic pattern of settlement spilled out of the Red River Valley on to the open plains of Manitoba and, in time, well beyond. A great wave of colonization was begun. Few grasped as quickly as Fyfe the prospective challenges that this implied for the Protestant denominations, in particular his own.

Within two years of Canada’s dispossession of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Fyfe proposed at a meeting of the Ontario Home Missions committee that “a [Baptist] delegation should visit the northwest, and learn of the conditions of the country and the possibility of establishing a Baptist church or churches in that new land.” [4] A delegation was dispatched, and on its return reported that of the fourteen thousand inhabitants (of Winnipeg and environs ) not less than five or six thousand were Roman Catholic; about equal in numbers were the Episcopalians; Presbyterians and their adherents were counted to be about eight hundred. As for their own denomination, the delegations reported: “we are sorry to say we did not find any Baptists.”

To Fyfe, the noted absence of a Baptist constituency in the opening territory seems to have appeared as a challenge. The Baptist Convention of 1871 was informed by its Committee on Missions, of which Fyfe was a member, if not chairman, that “a committee [has] been struck to consider the duty of the Baptists of Ontario to send a missionary or missionaries to Manitoba as soon as possible.” [5] Two years later, the first of the Baptist missionaries, Alexander MacDonald, was on his way west, charged with establishing a foothold for the denomination. Of tangential interest to the record of the particular mission, but quite relevant to this chronicle is the fact that accompanying MacDonald on this  trip, from Sarnia westward, was Professor S. J. McKee of Woodstock College, who, in McLaurin’s words, was “going west to see the country”.

Brandon College, circa 1908.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Samuel James McKee was born of Irish parentage in Wellesley, Waterloo County in Canada West. He attended schools in Stratford and Brantford, and in 1868 entered the University of Toronto. In 1872, he graduated from that institution with Honors in mathematics, classics and English. He was presented with a silver medal in metaphysics. Despite an initial reluctance to enter the teaching profession, he succumbed to the considerable persuasions of Dr. Fyfe, and joined the staff of the Institute as a teacher of mathematics. This appointment launched him on a career that was to be continued with increasing distinction, broken only briefly, over a period of fifty years. He retired from the faculty of Brandon College in 1922.

The Baptist historian, McLaurin, who had been a student at Woodstock in McKee’s time, remembered him as one who, “from the first was respected as a capable teacher, and friend and helper to the students.” In 1876, McKee married Laura Harris, a student at the Institute. Like McKee, she was a native of Eastern Canada, having been born in Ingersoll. In 1881, McKee’s health required that he leave his teaching post. The McKees, no doubt caught up in the enthusiasms of Fyfe, headed west to Rapid City, Manitoba, to start a new life as western homesteaders. It was a life which, as will be shown later, did not remain long undisturbed.

Prairie College

Inevitably, Principal Fyfe’s zeal for pressing the Baptist cause spread to some of his immediate associates, and his admonition “to bestir themselves” evoked a positive response. It is no coincidence that the first of the Baptist missionary forays into the new land, wholly in keeping with Fyfe’s objectives, was launched from his College. Leading the mission was Rev John Crawford, professor of New Testament and Hebrew. Crawford had emigrated to Canada from Ireland, and at the time of his venture into the new West was over sixty years of age. Associated with Crawford was a Baptist pastor and former Woodstock student, Rev. G. B. Davis.

Although the source of the inspiration for the mission was undoubtedly Fyfe, it is equally certain that the practical vision was Crawford’s. A letter in the Baptist archives succinctly sets out that vision: Dr. Crawford, convinced that the northwest was to become one of the most important sections of the Dominion, “resolved to plant a college there for the training, especially of young men, for the ministry .The college was to have both a literary and a theological department.” [6] It is significant that in successive Baptist institutions that followed from the beginnings made in Crawford’s Prairie College, the Woodstock philosophy which he carried west was over time to prevail, though not without some dissension and discord.

In Crawford’s mind, his venture was to be, in all of its practical aspects, in keeping with the conditions of a pioneering community. In a letter to the Canadian Baptist written in October of 1879, Crawford stated, “... we must have no class feeling. We want to prove in a practical manner that thorough mental culture and even accomplishment are perfectly compatible with habits of industry ... No servants are to be employed and all work is to be done by students.” In a similar vein, Crawford wrote later in the same month, “... It is the intention that the students, when they have completed their studies, shall take up farms in the midst of their flocks, and support themselves pretty much by the labour of their own hands, and whatever assistance the people can afford, until their churches be strong enough to support them altogether.” [7]

The westward trek, ending a mile north of the settlement of Rapid City, Manitoba, took place in the summer of 1879. It was led by Davis, accompanied by nine students. There, in McLaurin’s words, “Living in a tent, they went to work to do some cultivation. With their own hands and a yoke of oxen, they gathered native stone and erected a college.” Crawford arrived in Rapid City in March, 1880, and his Prairie College offered its first classes in the same year.

Despite this heroic start, Crawford’s dreams were not to be realized. The site had been chosen in the belief that Rapid City would become Manitoba’s second city with the completion of the transcontinental railway. The prospect vanished with the CPR’s decision to follow a more southerly route across Manitoba. As well, by 1883 the Prairie College was bankrupt. The financial support which it was believed would come from Eastern donors failed to materialize. Crawford, who had dedicated virtually everything he owned to establishing the college was financially ruined. His relationship with Davis dissolved amidst bitter dissension. The doors of Crawford’s dream house were permanently closed.

Rapid City Academy

Davis’s disagreement with Crawford on financial matters led him to withdraw from the College even before it closed. On a site within Rapid City he began to construct an academy of his own. It was at this time that the figure of the teacher, now homesteader, S. J. McKee entered the local picture. Davis was McKee’s brother-in-law. It is in no way surprising that, when facing the problems of setting up a new institution, he would seek McKee’s participation in the project. In the event, whatever McKee’s original commitment to Davis’s project may have been, he was soon involved well beyond his likely expectations. Before arrangements for opening the new academy were completed, Davis responded to a call to the pastorate of a new Baptist church in Moose Jaw. McKee inherited the responsibility for the future of the new school. The commitment did not demand that McKee abandon his homestead, and for the remainder of his Rapid City years, he farmed during the summer and directed the work of his academy in the winter.

The Rapid City Standard, in its November 2nd 1883 edition, carried the announcement: “the Rapid City Academy will open October 23 [1884]” The announcement also listed the programs to be offered: Preparatory Course (leading to matriculation standing); Academic Course; Teacher’s Course; Commercial Course; Fine Art. The following statement was appended: “A full slate of teachers to teach the above classes thoroughly will be provided, but it will not be necessary to teach any course unless at least five pupils require it.” [8] Although the press report had set an opening date of October 23, 1884, the record indicates that McKee launched his venture in late 1883. The Standard , January 4, 1884 carried under the headline “Entertainment at the Academy” the story of “a complimentary concert given by Mr. and Mrs. McKee, assisted by other teachers and pupils of the Academy, and some of the town talent.” [9]

After the fashion of Woodstock, McKee’s Academy was, from the outset, coeducational. The announcement carried in a September, 1885 edition of the Standard stated that, “While the school is specially arranged to meet the needs of older students, boys and girls who are well advanced may be admitted at the age of 12.” The announcement concluded with the afterthought, “ Fees are moderate.” [10]

The record of McKee’s Rapid City years is, at best, sketchy. There is, however, further evidence of his dedication to the principles of Dr. Fyfe and the Canadian Literary Institute (Woodstock College). The announcement issued for 1888-89, the last year in the life of the Rapid City Academy, set out McKee’s ideals for his institution:

To gather together in a first class boarding school those young men and women who desire in the highest sense to make the most of themselves, to throw around them such moral and Christian influences as will help to develop manly and upright lives, to extend to them at all times such sympathetic help as the student is ever in need of, and to send them home after each year’s work capable of proving themselves more useful members of their own families and in the communities from which they come. [11]

It is indicated, too, that McKee gave more than lip service to such hopes and ideals. McLaurin tells us that McKee was “an illuminating teacher, and was thoroughly prepared for his task. He was always ready, night and day, and even on Sundays, to help over any difficulty, and won the appreciation of all of his students. [12]

McKee’s Brandon Academy

At the end of the academic year 1888-89, the Academy closed, and McKee returned to Ontario, where he remained for more than a year. However, the record makes it clear that in closing the Academy and returning to Eastern Canada., he had not abandoned hope for establishing a Baptist college in Manitoba. Discussions of the need for a denominational school in the Canadian West, though fitful, had continued throughout the years, seemingly becoming somewhat more clearly focussed after 1885. Though such issues as physical location and teaching program remained unresolved, the project moved slowly forward. In 1889, at a meeting of the Manitoba Mission Board, the Brandon members of that body submitted written pledges in the amount of $7,000 in support of the development of the sought after institution, conditional on it being located in their city. A further $3,000 was to be sought to bring the total pledge to $10,000—an amount identical to what was made available in earlier years to bring the Canadian Literary Institute to Woodstock. To extend the fund raising campaign to Ontario and Quebec, McKee, now residing in Ontario, was appointed for one month to canvass for possible support. At the same time, the cry for support of a Baptist college in Brandon was taken up in the local press, with great emphasis being placed on the economic benefits to the community that would come from an investment in this institution of higher learning. [13]

Rev. A. P. McDiarmid (far left) with Tug-O’-War team,
Brandon College, 1910-11.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In October, 1889, McKee reported success in his canvassing efforts sufficient to lead the Board to re-appoint him to continue his work through the winter of 1889-90. A newspaper report of the Board’s meeting concluded on an overly optimistic note. “A canvass will be made of the province, and work placed in a position for building operations to go forward in the spring.” [14] Another decade was to pass before this dream would become a reality. The financial support which McKee worked to secure failed to materialize in the face of other eastern denominational preoccupations.

Undaunted, McKee, having turned down the offer of the principalship of a United States college, returned to Manitoba to establish his own institution. He settled in Brandon, having selected that community as “the most suitable place to commence the work he had laid out for himself.” [15] It might be suspected that his move was something of a pre-emptive strike, based on a conviction that Brandon remained the most likely location for any prospective Baptist college in the opening West. From here, he might seek to influence any decision that might ultimately be taken in the matter by the denomination. If such was indeed his purpose, subsequent events were to prove his proficiency as a prophet.

In November 1890, the Brandon press carried announcements of the opening of Brandon Academy. In December, the existence of the new institution was recognized by The Brandon Times with the terse, if well meant comment, “this school fills a gap in our educational system.” [16] What the gaps were, and what the filling was to be, are matters not made clear in editorial comment. However, it may be assumed that reference was being made primarily to promised programs that would extend beyond the matriculation offerings of the Collegiate Institute then existing in the city. Not least among such programs would be preparatory courses for matriculation and university entrance to be offered those who might be described in current terms as “mature students.”

On later occasions, editorial and reportorial comments were to be somewhat more fulsome. The Times wrote, “The principal came to Brandon in 1890 without consulting anyone, and, with no one to back up his efforts, did what he considered best for this part of the country. [17] The spirit of Fyfe and Woodstock marched on. Obviously, McKee had acted in approved pioneering manner. An earlier article in the same newspaper had stated, “the school is now receiving the patronage which the principal as a gentleman and scholar so richly deserves. The Professor brings to the work a ripened scholarship and many years of valuable experience ... Mr. McKee has done a noble work, and made a living monument for himself.”

The introduction of the McKee family to Brandon was a troubled one. In January 1891, the prairies were struck by a diphtheria epidemic. Within a short period of time, the McKees lost three small daughters. Despite this grievous loss, McKee proceeded with the work of establishing his Academy. He promised that his institution would be “a first class school for boys and girls.” The programs to be offered were, in most respects, similar to those which he had presented in Rapid City. The educational cum religious philosophy to prevail was essentially that of Woodstock. In an obviously promotional article which appeared in The Times in March of 1892, one of the broader purposes of the school was emphasized:

Young men and women who have been away from school for a year will find the work of the Academy well arranged to meet their needs. Classed by themselves apart from very young pupils, they receive the instruction they need under the most encouraging circumstances. [18]

Some of the difficulties of operating a centre for higher education in a pioneer agricultural community were portrayed in an item carried in the Brandon Mail.

On September 1st 1891, the Brandon Academy opened with only three pupils. This was not to be wondered at as the frost had frustrated many plans, and those who could come were still in the fields. They gradually dropped in, and on October 12, the night classes opened. That was five months ago: the school now has over 100 pupils. [19]

By 1897, the Academy was firmly established as an integral part of the Brandon community and its educational system. The local press with increasing frequency referred to it as Brandon College, and then in glowing terms. The Daily Sun spoke of it, if somewhat extravagantly:

... one of the institutions of which our citizens are justly proud is Brandon College, an institution, in its usefulness, second to none in Canada. No other institution can give its pupil such advantages when viewed from the practical side of life. [20]

“Brandon Will Shine”

The final years of the nineteenth century saw the protracted discussion of the matter of a western Baptist college brought toward a conclusion. In June 1898, the Manitoba Convention approved in principle the establishment of a denominational school in Manitoba. Machinery was created to give effect to this decision. The question of a specific site, however, remained open. There were strong voices favoring locating the school in Winnipeg. The old Woodstock debate resumed, Rev. Charles Eaton admonishing the gathering: “Now you are going to have a college. Its place is somewhere out on your boundless prairies, away out under the pure skies, and away from the tall chimneys of the city.” [21] In its headline, the Brandon Sun seized on this admonition to anticipate the ultimate outcome in the matter: “The Baptists Will Establish a College in a Prairie Town, which means Brandon.”

In 1899, the Manitoba Baptists made the initial moves to resolve what had been a continuing, even nagging problem. The first critical step forward came with the naming of a president for their proposed institution. Rev. A. P. McDiarmid, D.D. had graduated from the University of Toronto with a major in Philosophy. At the time of this appointment, he held the position of Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the Ontario and Quebec Convention of the Baptist Church. He was a native of Toronto, and a former Woodstock student. In him, the western line of descent from R. A. Fyfe, through Crawford and McKee was to be continued. It was to be yet further enhanced in 1903 with the arrival of Professor Harris L. McNeill, directly from the Woodstock incubator.

McDiarmid’s arrival in Brandon brought an immediate influence to bear on the resolution of the outstanding issues of location and program. Despite a recommendation received from its Educational Committee, that “Brandon should be selected as the home of the college [only] for the present year,” [22] the greater wisdom prevailed “that it would be unwise to go on leaving the question of future location undecided.” Brandon, McDiarmid’s choice, was to be selected and remain the site of the new institution, Brandon College. In June, 1900, its charter was approved by the Manitoba Legislature.

Many of the final discussions in the Convention had centred on the relationship of the new institution to the preexisting McKee Academy (also known as Brandon College within its constituency.) McKee’s Academy had demonstrated real vigor and vitality, in some measure even prospering under conditions that were not the most favorable. If, as might be suspected, it had been McKee’s intention, at the turn of the preceding decade, to set in place in the community of his choice the foundation for the subsequent creation of a full-fledged Baptist College, his foresight was to be rewarded.

One of the first matters of business of the Board of the new College as ordered by the Convention, was to instruct the President “to approach Professor McKee of Brandon with a view to merging his Academy with the new school.” It is difficult to conclude that McKee, as an active churchman who had participated in all previous discussions of the Convention, was now taken unaware of the arrangement now proposed. It would be remarkable if there had not been a substantial understanding with respect to such a consolidation prior to the passage of the Convention’s formal resolutions. It is to be noted, too, that the pro tern committee established to oversee the affairs of the new College included in its membership S. J. McKee. Whatever the case, in the summer of 1899, the College Board purchased the equipment and good will of the Academy and settled in to the earlier body’s rented premises. McKee became a member of the staff of the successor institution.

As a staff member of the new College, McKee was, for more than two decades, to serve the institution in a variety of roles. In addition to serving as a member of the teaching staff, he was throughout that period a member of the College Board, acting frequently as its Secretary. He was named regularly to membership on important committees dealing both with program and structure. There is no doubt that from the first days of Brandon College, McKee regarded himself, and seems to have been regarded by others, as being at least de facto its Vice President. The minute books of the governing bodies do not record that such an appointment was ever formally made. It may well be that this status was something discussed and agreed upon at the time of the negotiations for the take-over of the Academy. For most of McKee’s days at College, such informality was of little consequence. Unfortunately, as will be recorded, toward the end of his years there, it became a matter of considerable discomfort to all concerned with the governance of the institution.

In 1910, the Board acted to establish the Academy program as a separate administrative entity within the structure of the College, and McKee was offered its headship. The offer was declined, by reason it might be suspected that McKee regarded such a position as a demotion. Whether or not it was because of a feeling on the part of Board members that, though he had rejected this offer, McKee merited some recognition, he was appointed both to the Chair of Philosophy and to the position of Registrar. Further recognition came in 1912 at the final Convocation to be presided over by Dr. McDiarmid, when the degree Doctor of Laws was bestowed on “the venerable S. J. McKee.” [23] It was approaching forty years since the “venerable” gentleman had first shouldered the Baptist cause in the field of higher education in Western Canada.

Bringing in the New

Such ambiguities as existed in the arrangements surrounding the amalgamation of McKee’s Academy and Brandon College were not to become a matter of concern for most of the ensuing two decades. Meantime, the project was truly launched. On August 14th 1890, the local press carried the announcement that “the full work of the new College (would) begin on 2 October.” The courses outlined for the coming academic year were, essentially, a continuation of the programs previously offered by McKee’s Academy. A statement of the broader aims of the College soon followed in the September 6th issue of the Brandon Sun.

The value of the Christian element in education is becoming more widely recognized, the training of the ministry should have established within it the establishing of the right motives in life. Power for good in society and in the country depends even more on right character than on intellectual furnishing. While aiming at the best intellectual training, it will be sought to procure this in the presence of distinctly Christian ideals.

The essence of this statement, undoubtedly the precursor of the College’s long-time motto “Education Crowned with Reverence,” was pursued in the first of the College’s calendars:

The College aims not only at the mental culture of its students, but at the development of right character. It recognizes the supreme importance of surrounding the student during the period of college life with positive Christian influences. Though Christian, the college is in no sense sectarian. Students of all denominations enjoy equal privileges. The College, in all departments, is open to student of both sexes.

This statement was not out of tune with the one issued by McKee prior to the final year of his Rapid City Academy, and was still one which more than three decades later he was able to endorse. Then, he added this postscript: “The faculty has produced, and is still producing results which thrill with gratitude to God, the hearts of all those who know the work of the College.” [24]

On October 5, 1889, Brandon College, housed temporarily in the premises previously occupied by McKee’s Academy, was formally opened. From the outset, it was intended that the College should not for long linger in this facility. In moving toward the new day, the first sod marking the site of a new building was turned in June of 1900. The cornerstone was laid on July 14th . This occasion followed by a day the closing exercises of the first Baptist Dominion Congress which had been meeting in Winnipeg. Members of the faith from all parts of Canada journeyed by special train from the capital city to Brandon to attend. The president of the Congress, who was also the Premier of New Brunswick, presided.

With the opening of the College, McKee was immersed in its immediate problems. A reading of the motions that came before the Board indicates clearly that the persisting and critical issue of theological seminary versus a more broadly based educational institution remained unsettled. At an early stage in College development, McKee, conforming with Fyfe’s earlier stand, took the lead in establishing firmly the governing principle of co-education. In 1904 he successfully sponsored a motion calling on the Board “... to draft a letter setting forth the need for a ladies building, the same to be signed by the officers of the Board and the Principal and published in the Canadian papers of the denomination.” [25] The plea was greeted by success. The denomination responded, and 1907 saw the opening of a women’s residence on the College campus, Clark Hall. Initially, the project was somewhat more grandly described as a Women’s College. It is apparent that McKee’s motion of 1904, while succeeding its intent, did not satisfy him that the debate had ended. One year later he sponsored a second motion, also approved by the Board, “... that co-education be the principal (sic) upon which our education continue to be conducted at Brandon College.” The significance of McKee’s crusade on behalf of co-education is attested to be the fact that, from its beginning, female enrollment constituted a significant portion of the College’s student body.

An important issue, unresolved at the time of the College’s opening, was that of the status of the new body as a full-fledged collegiate institution. The earliest discussions of the proposed venture had been conducted in the full knowledge that the Government of Manitoba had, in 1877, enacted a measure creating a University of Manitoba. This institution was to be recognized as the sole degree granting institution (except for degrees in theology) within the Province. In the first instance, this institution was to be not a teaching body, but one concerned with determining the academic requirements for degrees and conducting the required examinations. Teaching in the traditional academic areas was to remain the responsibility of the denominational colleges, (St. Boniface, St. John’s and Manitoba). These colleges had existed for some time in the Red River Valley, and were now to become, as affiliates, the core of the new University. Brandon College, slow in coming into being, located some hundred and forty miles from the capital city and its collection of functioning colleges, and in keeping with its Baptist principles of voluntarism and denominational independence, was something of an “odd man out.”

Discussions within the Convention in the final years of the century, focussing on this issue of likely status, indicate full recognition of the legal restraints that the University Act placed upon any approach to complete institutional independence. Probably the most dear cut proposal, recognizing this reality, was that Brandon should seek a “double affiliation,” its Theological Department with McMaster, its Literary Department with the University of Manitoba. This suggested resolution was soon to be by-passed.

Once constituted, the new institution, principally it seems under the influence of Principal McDiarmid, moved in the face of the apparent legal obstacle to secure from the Government of Manitoba full university status, including the right to grant degrees. This was a cause to be pursued persistently, but to no avail over the next decade. In 1906, McKee was named to a special committee named by the Board to draft a suitable bill, and shepherd it through the steps necessary to attain its final enactment. With the active support of the civic administration, the local Board of Trade, and leaders from other Protestant denominations, the proposal was brought before the government of the Province. It took the ensuing four years for the Government to grind out a negative response to the College’s petition. Over that period of time, the College continued to be subject to the ultimate powers of the University of Manitoba in the matters of curricula, examination and the awarding of degrees.

The College’s position seemed to the Baptists to be further compromised by the fact that as the Provincial University was structured under its act, its essential powers were exercised by what was simply a federation of the preexisting denominational colleges, leaving Brandon, still, as “odd man out.” With the Government’s final “no” to the College, its Board sought and secured affiliation with the Baptists’ own University, McMaster—an institution free of governmental support, with its threatened incursions. It was a relationship that was to continue until 1938, when the Baptist College ceased to exist.

The struggle of the College with external powers in the matter of status was rendered in no way less complicated by the struggle engaged in with internal powers as to the purpose and substance of the venture. Throughout its lifetime, the College was forced to struggle, initially for its existence, finally for its survival. In some, if not the largest part, these struggles originated within the conditions under which the denomination itself functioned (or failed to function) as an organized entity. Its strongly held views on independence, congregational autonomy, and voluntarism in matters both internal and external provided for an unlimited, and in some senses admirable freedom for discussion, debate and even dissension. However, the same freedom, jealously guarded both by individual Baptists and by their individual congregations, presented grave difficulties in securing joint decisions, and even graver in giving them effect. A full history of the resulting entanglements, doctrinal and organizational, must be written elsewhere. It is sufficient to say here that Brandon College, over its years was caught up in both.

Early in the life of the institution, McKee found himself involved (enmeshed might be the better term) in the doctrinal differences existing within and among Baptist congregations. These differences, arising from a continued “seminary versus university” debate carried within them in varying degrees the still stronger overtones of the doctrinal clash between fundamentalists and the modernists. It was the fall-out from the latter contest which was in time to critically affect the College’s very existence. As early as 1909, the College, in a well-tempered statement presented to the Western Convention, indicated its awareness both of the problems and of their implications:

Aggressive evangelism and Christian education should never be actuated by a spirit of rivalry, as if each had its own special functions ... The Christian body that is indifferent to either one of the two forms of Denominational service, or does not hold them in fullest sympathetic Relationships, will find itself handicapped in the high service of humanity. And the Christian body that is indifferent to both of these will go, as it ought to go, to the wall.

It has been our aim, not only to send out increased forces through the recognized agencies of missionary (activity), but, and this in its results means more than the other, to create and develop and set in motion, those personal, pervasive life influences that percolate quietly in the life of home, of society and of nation. [26]

The statement was designed to be in its effect, not only “the soft answer that turneth away wrath” but as well to establish the independent position of the institution as the master within its own house. From this beginning, and throughout the ensuing years of often raucous disputes within the denomination concerning the College and its affairs, the President and his associates for the most part sought to avoid the inevitable hurly-burly of direct confrontation. Moderation, and the “soft word” marked their struggles within the denomination to establish the College’s independence from the decisions and the direction of Everyman, even though these might be put forward as the judgements of the institution’s “owners.” Presumably, to the extent that ownership existed, it was vested in the collegial body of the denomination, not dispersed among its various constituent elements, each flaunting its independence and autonomy.

As has been noted by other writers on the topic, there was from the outset a marked absence of statements of specific expectations or directives from the Manitoba Convention, and later from the Western Union in respect of the College’s policies and programs. Nor was any clear route established leading to the determination of such matters. By default if not by design, critical decision making powers were left with, though not clearly vested in, those immediately responsible for the conduct of the institution’s affairs. The autonomy claimed as the inherent right of the individual congregations could, and did, find its counterpart in a similar claim made by another corporate entity, such as a Baptist college. In this instance, the claim might appear to be even stronger when considered in the light of generally established views on the requirements for autonomy in the direction of the affairs of collegiate institutions.

It seems inevitable that the educational philosophy carried into Manitoba by the earliest of the Baptist teachers and their successors, all disciples of R. A. Fyfe and Woodstock, should prevail. Moreover, nothing in the record of protracted general discussion and debate leading to a decision to create a Western institution indicates the positing of any defined alternative philosophy. The record shows as well that Baptist attempts at developing and supporting Bible colleges as such, from the time of Gilmour’s Canada Baptist College on had been marked by failure rather than success. Nonetheless, deep-seated differences of opinion concerning the role, structure and conduct of the College persisted unresolved. Indication of tensions existing between the College and its denominational constituency is evident in the provision made by the Board in 1911 for a committee charged with responsibility for reviewing the institute’s relationship with the Union. [27] McKee, best combining full commitment both to the cause of evangelism and to that of higher education, was again called on to participate in the framing of a pronouncement that when completed, resounded effectively as an Academic Declaration of Rights:

... in our confirmed judgement, the work of the College should be under the immediate and unfettered direction of its own Board of Directors and Senate—that the Board of Directors should, subject to the express policy of the Baptist Union, control its business administration, and the Senate should have direction of its educational policies and work, viz. determination of it courses of studies, its curricula, its instruction, its examinations.

The sections of the College charter concerned with its governance were amended accordingly. However, some of the damage already sustained could not be undone. McDiarmid, weary of continued controversy and its stresses, resigned from the presidency. The reason given publicly was ill health. His letter of resignation, however, goes well beyond that:

My physical strength and other circumstances do not condition me to carry increasing burdens. I have discovered also that some of the leaders in our denominational work are not in sympathy with my ideals and policies for the development of Brandon College. I feel, therefore, that it is my duty to make place for another, more capable of carrying the responsibilities of the work, and one in sympathy with the educational policies now being pressed to the front. [28]

This brought to a close the period of the first presidency of the College, what proved to be almost one third of its existence. The struggles to which McDiarmid had committed himself, establishing the institution’s independence from state control, and autonomy from denominational incursions, were not successfully concluded. Brandon College had escaped from the intrusions of government and its university by its affiliation with McMaster. The Baptist principle of “voluntarism” had been preserved against the prospect of state intervention, but the full status of an autonomous university institution had not been achieved. It is not out of the way to observe, at the same time, that over the lifetime of the College, voluntarism as the foundation of necessary financial support, proved to be something much less than unshakeable. From its earliest days, the College, faced with the apparent inability of Conventions and Unions to take effective corporate action in giving effect to decisions made, was haunted by the persisting specter of unmet pledges and budgetary deficits.

Nor did the amendments to the charter, designed to provide a substantial degree of independence for the institution ,effectively end the years of indecision, doubt and controversy that had existed within the denomination concerning the role and structure of its college. The terms of office of succeeding presidents, in particular President H. P. Whidden, were to be marked by continued and even more bitter intra-denominational conflict than had marked the McDiarmid years.

The apparent victory of the College in securing clarification of its responsibilities for ordering its own affairs, academic and administrative, left remaining uncertainties. In particular, these had to do with the nature and limits of its answerability for its actual performance. The amendments obtained, in themselves, given the loose structure of denominational organization, did little to indicate dearly to whom or what the College might be held finally responsible—the Union, as the voice of the denominational corporation, or the myriad voices of Conventions, congregations and even individual members of the faith. It was in this regard that, over a good portion of the second and third decades of its existence, the institution was doomed to continue the struggle to establish its autonomy.

Class of 1923 at Brandon College.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

As to McKee’s role in the College’s deliberations and pronouncements on the various problems confronting it, little more is to be gleaned directly from the official institutional records beyond what has already been noted. He was an active participant in the drafting of both the proposed legislation for the creation of an autonomous university, and the College’s “bill of rights” with respect to its relationship with the Western Union. There is no indication that McKee, throughout the times of dispute and disturbance, was ever other than a staunch believer in and supporter of the College’s policies and programs. The more general records of church and college indicate that he was above all a staunch churchman. He was, essentially, a product of the church community of the nineteenth century, raised in the Protestant evangelical milieu of that age. As such, he was not wholly devoid of some of the starker moral convictions of his more conservative, fundamentalist brethren. On the whole, his doctrinal position appears quite removed from that of his more pessimistic, sin-driven, fundamentalist denominational fellows. His was a strain of evangelism tempered with a strong strain of optimism concerning the human animal—not necessarily committed to the hope of its perfectibility, but certainly dedicated to a conviction of its improvability. He was able to live, if at times less than comfortably, with the changing views and needs of his times. As a distinguished churchman and scholar, he could not but be aware of the stirring of new, even disturbing ideas in the world of Christian theology and theological education, but such awareness did not, apparently, alter his view of the mission which he had set for himself, a mission committed to the perpetuation of the Woodstock-Baptist presence in higher education, now embodied in Brandon College.

The Second Decade

To the College’s problems left unsolved in the first decade of its existence, problems which must have caused McKee the gravest concerns, the second decade added grave personal losses and disappointments. The years of World War I brought family sadness. One McKee son, Corey, was killed while serving overseas. A second son, Allan, after returning home, died of war injuries.

Less grievous, but nonetheless personally painful, was the situation facing McKee following on Prime Minister Borden’s “Win the War” election of 1917. The search for a Unionist candidate for Brandon constituency, driven in large part by veterans seeking a politically untarnished one, ended with the nomination of President Whidden. He won the seat with a substantial majority. Available records shed little light on either the reasons for, or the full course of events within the administrative ranks of the College subsequent to Whidden’s victory. Presumably in the light of the demands that electoral victory would make on the President’s time, the Board, or some person or persons acting in the Board’s name, and presumably with Whidden’s knowledge if not concurrence, undertook to restructure the top echelon of the College’s administration. The action taken deeply offended and injured McKee. It may be safely assumed that the President was aware of the fact that his responsibilities as a member of a wartime House of Commons would require his absence from the College for substantial periods of time, and that appropriate steps should be taken to designate and empower an officer to act in his stead during such times. While it was a situation that doubtless demanded some appropriate action, the fact remains, and a rather peculiar one it is, that the corrective transactions took place with no prior notification to, or consultation with the person most affected, Professor McKee.

At this time, McKee, following on from his years at Woodstock, had, in the interest of his church, dedicated nearly four decades of his life to the cause of higher education on the prairies. At his own risk, he had succeeded in a pioneer venture where others had failed. He had established a firm foundation for the successor institution which was to mark the fulfillment of years of Baptist dreams, and lodged it firmly in the life of the Brandon community. From the boardroom to the classroom he had effectively and efficiently performed not only whatever tasks were asked of him, but had gone well beyond that. Now an official decision was taken which, both in its content and in its process, was to provoke his strong reaction.

As pointed out earlier, from the first days of the College, with or without a formally minuted appointment, McKee assumed the role of Vice President of the College, and appears to have been recognized as such by his peers. Faced with the necessity of providing a more formally structured administration, rather than confirming McKee in the position which de jure or otherwise he had filled with some distinction, the Board created a position of Dean of the College. The new position was designed to rank second only to that of the President. Professor H. L. MacNeill was named to the post. MacNeill, like McKee, was a Woodstock man, and in his own right a scholar and College citizen of considerable standing. Yet the resulting sense of injury felt by McKee was not wholly unmerited. Although an unmentioned factor in any record of the event, age may well have played some part in the Board’s decision. McKee was now sixty-eight old, and he felt sometimes that others regarded him as “behind the times” and “no longer needed.” Not surprisingly, he felt, and expressed his concern over, the loss of status following from the preemption of what he had come to regard as his position in the College’s administrative galaxy. Whatever his reasoning, McKee tendered his resignation from the staff of the College. The emotional stress of the incident was made greater when his son, Harris, serving with the College administration, now concerned with what he regarded as the unjust treatment of his father, resigned. It was revealed later that the son’s action was taken against his father’s advice and wishes. [29]

Because of Whidden’s absence from the campus, McKee’s letter of resignation was tabled by the Board. Final action was postponed, and attempts were made to have the resignation withdrawn. McKee, however, remained firm in his decision. In July of 1918, the Board, expressing “deep regret” accepted the resignation. McKee was appointed Professor Emeritus, and provision was made for “an adequate retiring allowance.” Tribute was paid in a letter from the Board of Directors:

Your work in College halls may be finished, but in the lives of scores of men and women scattered over these provinces who have received their ideals and inspiration in your classes, it still lives to provide moral fiber and Christian content in the public life and character of our nation. We cordially recognize that it is upon those foundations of Christian education which you thus early laid that Brandon College was securely established in 1899, and upon which we shall continue to grow. [30]

Following closely on these bitter personal events came the news of the death of his son Carey, returned from the war’s battle-front. In 1921 the McKees left Brandon and took up residence in Vancouver.

Professor McKee

The story of McKee’s involvement in the politics, the academic programming and the administration of the College, is not to be seen as the whole of his story. His reputation within the College community itself appears to have grown at least as much, if not more, from his work in the classroom, and his relationship with the student body. In speaking of McKee at a later date, President J. R. C. Evans, in his time one of McKee’s students, said “he gave his very life-blood for Christian education.” It is evident, too, that his students responded in kind. An appreciation of Dr. McKee that appeared in the student publication The Quill, in 1913, signed D.L.D. (later identified as Douglas L. Durkin, Principal of the Academy Department of the College) spoke of “... a gentle manner, a forgiving spirit, a wholesome magnanimity, a still rugged sense of fair play, a desire to be of service, a capacity for painstaking, and a sense of his place as a citizen—these are some of the qualities of his character”. To which was added, “the doctor has lived his life in the heart of many a student.” [31]

The hymn of praise to a teacher of whom D.L.D. could say, “No one ever surpassed Dr. McKee in the wholesome respect of his students was extended as well to Mrs. McKee as the little lady who has been his mate for almost forty years ... I have gone frequently with perhaps a little discouragement, perhaps a little vexation, to a certain home where there was a pleasing note of cheerful conversation, the face lighted up with smiles, a strange sensation of optimism that come to one almost as a fragrance. I come away with a rare feeling of contentment ... Well, that is the influence that rests one after he has visited Mrs. McKee. It is enough to know that she has never been heard to speak ill of anyone.”

Dollars and Dogma

From its earliest days, the College was faced with financial crises. As has been noted, the College came in to existence as part of a broad missionary venture set on establishing a Baptist presence in the opening West. Its founding, dedicated in the first instance to the development of an educated ministry, relied in largest part on the financial support of the established churches in the “East.” Expected, even if not actually promised, such support proved over time to be not forthcoming in the amounts required to sustain a fully functioning institution. Nor, under the circumstances, might too much be expected of the denomination’s western congregations. By the year 1931, at the time of the onset of the most critical in the College’s long history of financial tribulations, their membership had not burgeoned in the manner hoped for. Figures set out by Dr. McKee in the course of a fund raising campaign he undertook on behalf of the College placed the total membership of the denomination in the western provinces at 15,000, and these dispersed among more than 159 congregations. [32] It was evident that even after three decades of limited growth, the College, to be properly financed, must continue in some large measure as it had started, a missionary venture drawing support from the East.

Problems of the limited numbers within its constituency were compounded further by changing patterns of settlement. In the course of the progressive settlement of the western region there emerged not only new population centres, but as well newly constituted provinces. Within these the denomination acted to form new, distinct, and in the best Baptist sense, autonomous provincial Conventions. Demographic changes in the west, taken together with the changes in church’s organizational structure bore heavily on the College’s finances and on the denomination’s commitment to dealing with them. In its earliest days, Brandon, while located on the outer fringe of Manitoba, still occupied what might have been regarded a central location within the most heavily populated province in the West. Change altered that, and brought with it diluted concern for the financial affairs of Brandon. Provincial Conventions with growing, yet still limited population numbers, urged increasingly the development of educational facilities closer to home and more amenable to local control. Two Conventions, British Columbia and Alberta , proceeded accordingly with schemes designed to meet the perceived needs of their own domains. The fact that one such project failed while the other never got off the drawing board does not seem to have offset the waning enthusiasm for maintaining the level of support necessary for the survival of the denomination’s one functioning educational institution.

Added to all of this, and probably even more debilitating was the outcome of the persistently conflicting views that persisted within the denomination with respect to the nature and scope of the College’s Christian mission. As noted, from the earliest times, divided opinions on fundamental issues of the substance of teaching and the institutional setting appropriate to the needs of the western Baptist churches and their ministry had induced continued intra-denominational dispute. Divisions which had simmered throughout the earlier years of the College, burst into full flame in the immediate post-war period, McKee’s final years of formal association with the College. A growing fundamentalist-modernist struggle within the Christian community raged across the continent. It seems to have found its most receptive Canadian battle ground within the Baptist denomination. As the struggle raged within the denomination it became, increasingly centered on its educational institutions, Brandon, and somewhat later, McMaster. The contest was marked by vociferous denunciations emanating from some of the fundamentalist faction strategically located within the church. At issue were failures in matters of doctrinal stance and purity as these were judged to exist in the doctrinal commitment of the theological departments of these institutions.

In Brandon, in the earlier of the confrontations, the attack centred on the Professor of Systematic Theology, H. L. MacNeill. It spread to embrace President Whidden, held culpable, if only of guilt by association, attested to by his apparent acceptance of MacNeill’s professorial performance. He had not moved to discipline, much less fire the miscreant. In words wholly indicative of the temper of the protest, the two were linked as “men who love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil”. The net was cast even wider to bring in senior officers of the Western Union who had not used their presumed authority to discipline the institution itself. This sets out the core, though by no means the detail of the conflict.

The charges, which grew from 1918 on, increasingly provoking general unease in the denomination generally. In time it provoked a response. In 1922, the Baptist Western Union formally entered the contest to the extent of naming a committee of senior Baptist churchmen, instructing them to conduct a formal investigation of the charges. Over the ensuing year an exhaustive investigation into all aspects of the dispute was carried out, and in 1923 the committee reported back to the Union. A stinging rebuke to the dissidents, both with respect to their charges and to their methods, was delivered and was endorsed by the Union. The College was completely exonerated from the complaints that had been widely broadcast throughout the whole of the Canadian Baptist community. [33]

Exoneration of the College and its members proved to be, at best, a moral victory. The dissension that had been building steadily over the years was not cooled, but continued well beyond the ability of the Union to quell it. The fundamentalist-modernist rift must be seen as more than a matter of vocal segment of the Baptist community set against its western college. It was a struggle within the denomination itself, and continued, bitter and unabated. Nor was comfort to accrue to the College and its defenders when the dissident elements in British Columbia and Ontario were finally separated from their Conventions, in one instance, by withdrawal to form a separate Convention, in the other by outright dismissal by the Convention itself. Unfortunately for the College, included among the dissident congregations withdrawn from the British Columbia and Ontario Conventions were some that had been major contributors to Baptist mission funds, which were in turn, a vital element in the College’s financial structure.

Job’s boils found their modem counterpart in the accumulated trials and tribulations besetting the College. In 1928, the College found itself once more responding to the question “... why [do] the Baptists need a training school in Western Canada.” If such uncertainty needed emphasis, it was provided by the collapse of 1929. This came at a time when the College had undertaken a new financial campaign designed to put the institution on a sound financial footing. It was directed to a wider national and international constituency. The campaign collapsed as the downdraft of the economic collapse struck, in some instances shattered, the business affairs of prospective donors. Expected commitments either were not made, or, in the instance of at least one major donor, made but withdrawn. Taken together, the fall-out from the doctrinal dispute, and the destruction of its fiscal plan, placed the College in a perilous position from which it was not to recover.

The Last Crusade

It is a mark of the man that despite any sense of personal injury that might have been expected to arise from what he regarded as the injustice of his relegation from the position of Vice-President, assumed or otherwise, McKee remained dedicated to its purposes and survival. Nor was there lack of other reasons for disaffection. Upon his retirement, provision was made for an annual allowance of $1,500. Given the times, had this amount been paid regularly, it could have been an adequate though certainly not princely

sum. Mounting financial difficulties of the College determined otherwise. The institution’s records show disturbing irregularities in the flow of monthly payments. In addition, as times worsened, a general reduction of faculty salaries was extended to McKee’s allowance. His responses to these events, as reflected in the exchanges of correspondence with the College administration, were remarkably restrained. As noted, he continued to serve as a Board member after his resignation as a staff member of the institution, and even continued to serve as a Board member until 1922.

Arts Banquet, Brandon College, 1935.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The doctrinal disputes within the denomination, taken together with the profound economic distress following from the general collapse of the economy , promised disaster for a College that had, from its formation, lived on unredeemed promises. The gathering storm clouds brought McKee back into the midst of College affairs as an active, volunteer advocate and would-be fund-raiser on its behalf. In part, his return to an active role in College affairs may have been stimulated by his associations past and continued with the man presiding over its affairs in these fateful years, John R. C. Evans. Writing of Evans at a later date, W. L. Morton spoke of him as “a son of the College and an academic leader of an ability which far transcended the sphere in which he ... elected to work.” [34]

Evans graduated from Brandon College in 1913, and in the fall of the same year was taken on its staff as an instructor. The remainder of his working life, apart from time off to pursue graduate studies, was spent in the service of that institution. His final service to the institution was to see it through its last rites as a Baptist college. It might be noted, at the same time, that probably more than any other individual, he carried the institution on and into its reincarnation as a secular college.

Evans had been both a student and a colleague of McKee, and throughout the years of the latter’s retirement, the two had maintained a regular correspondence. It is to be noted in accordance with McKee’s sense of propriety, the salutations to his former student should be consistently formal. He was addressed as “Dear Dr. Evans.” For his part, Evans seemed ever ready to confide in the “elder statesman.” As a student, as a staff member junior and senior, and as an administrative officer over the years of McKee’s active service, Evans had been associated with, and obviously come well under the older man’s influence. Now, with the collapse of its 1929 fund raising project, the College was pushed ever nearer the brink. The “elder statesman,” acting on whatever inspiration or authority, set out on his own to secure support from the Rockefeller Foundation. At his own expense, and acting in effect as Evans’ agent, both in person and by letter, he literally laid siege, in person and by letter, to the offices of an officer of the Foundation, Mr. Richardson. The request put forward was for an “emergency grant” of $20,000 a year for a period of three years. The amount, in retrospect, appears to have been not beyond the means, though maybe not appropriate in size to the dignity of the prestigious Foundation. In the event, McKee’s plea fell on deaf ears. It may have been a well-merited cry for Christian charity, but it built no compelling case for investment in a valued and valuable , though financially failing, educational institution.

In building his case, McKee rang all of the changes. The closing paragraph of one of his earlier submissions is of interest, if not above criticism:

The High School work of our academic department was never more needed than at present. We must for years to come keep in view the work of this department for the large foreign element in our midst ... We have large settlements of Danes, Norwegians, Ukrainians, Russians, Czecho-Slovakians and many others. We must do work through our Academic Department, leading them up to Arts and ministerial work. Our churches in Winnipeg, reported at last Convention, members from 17 nationalities. One of our Vancouver churches is doing its work in a settlement composed of some twenty nationalities. We must do more for the education and uplift of these foreigners, or they will be, in after years, a menace to our civilization. Communism is doing its best to lead them against all religion. So far as is in our power, we must free them for Christ and his Kingdom. [35]

McKee’s concluding sentences might well be interpreted as being designed for the occasion, appealing directly to the “red scare” sentiment presumed to be holding sway on Wall Street and elsewhere in monied America. Such an interpretation might do McKee a disservice, and even accuse him of a guile he did not possess. It seems more likely that his concern bespoke nothing more than a dogmatic Christian conviction that Communism, the incarnation of the anti-Christ, must be permanently eradicated. Whatever the rationale, his appeal fell short of its target. By the end of December, 1931, the Foundation had said, in a variety of ways, politely and clearly NO.

From the beginning of the decade of the thirties, the life of the College was increasingly precarious, its very existence subject to question. The resolutions passed at yearly meetings of the Union anticipated abandoning the College as a Baptist institution or closing it completely. The year of McKee’s abortive petition to the Rockefeller Foundation saw a rescue mission organized by the citizens of Brandon, which, while heroic in the light of the times, provided financial support sufficient only for a stay of execution, not for permanent reprieve.

In April of 1936, in a letter to McKee, Evans wrote, voicing an uncharacteristic note of pessimism:

We are having an extremely difficult time just now to meet our financial obligations. I do no think I am exaggerating when I say that never before has our financial situation been so acute. Practically nothing has come from outside sources since the beginning of the year ... The people in the East apparently are finding enough difficulties of their own to occupy their time and attention, while in the West, repeated crop failures, etc. have, it would seem, undermined the courage and hope of those who really believe in Christian education. There are, of course, many throughout the West who cannot see the value of the work that is being done here at Brandon. Our denomination in this regard is, without doubt, lacking vision. [36]

At the time that letter was written, the College administration was faced with growing, increasingly crippling restraints. Credit with their bank had been terminated, and their suppliers were demanding cash in advance for all purchases. The life of the institution as a Baptist missionary venture was drawing to a close. In July of 1938, the Assembly of the Baptist Union of Canada, by resolution, endorsed the action taken the preceding year by the Board of the Western Union which “instructed the closing of Brandon College.”

The financial difficulties of the College reached, for the final time, into the private lives of the McKees. On August 9th 1937, at a time when the lives of both McKee and his beloved college were drawing to a close, the Bursar of the College, obviously responding to a plea from McKee:

Until some definite arrangement has been made (re the disposition of the College’s affairs) the Union is withholding all funds to the College, and as a result, we are without any funds whatsoever ... I regret very much our inability to enclose a check at this time, but I assure you that as soon as any money is received your request will receive first consideration. [37]


The life of the Baptist college and that of the one most frequently recognized as its founder, entwined over half a century, drew to a close contemporaneously. On September 17, only days before the College was to open for its final session as a Baptist institution, McKee’s funeral service was conducted in the College. The eulogist was J. R. C. Evans who spoke feelingly of his old friend’s place in the life and work of the College:

It is here he laboured; it here his life’s work was done; it was here he won the respect of countless students who today are bowed in sorrow at his passing, and who would gladly rise up and call him blessed; it was here he gained the admiration of his fellows as he toiled sacrificially in the interest of church and community; it was here he gave his very life-blood for Christ’ an education; and it was here, I am sure, that in truth he spent his last moment, although news of his departure came to us from Vancouver, some sixteen hundred miles away. [38]

The passing of Dr. J. S. McKee, and the decision of the Baptist Union to withdraw its support from the institution so close to his heart marked the end of an era. McKee died, his dream of a vital Baptist presence in Western Canadian higher education largely unrealized.

Fortunately, though bereft of its original sponsorship and for a time bordering on extinction, the College survived, though as a publicly financed, non-sectarian institution. That it did so might be attributed to two factors. Of considerable consequence in determining the institution’s fate was the fact that within the four decades of its existence as a denominational college, it established itself firmly both in the educational structure, and in the esteem of the people of western Manitoba. The public that the College had created for itself now rallied to its cause in securing financial participation of the Government of Manitoba in guaranteeing the future of the College. In all, however, probably the greatest single and persisting influence was that of McKee’s protégé, President Evans. Much of the spirit and ideals of Brandon College were carried forward by the one who best exemplified them. McKee’s College, the College which had struggled to establish itself on a voluntary basis, free from state influence, became now an independent, secular institution, affiliated with the University of Manitoba.


1. Charles M. Johnson, McMaster University: The Toronto Years. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

2. Murray J. Lovell, “The Canadian Literary Institute and Dr. Robert Alexander Fyfe” in Nation Builders, Toronto: 1925.

3. C. C. McLaurin, Pioneering in Western Canada. Calgary: C. C. McLaurin, 1939, p.41.

4. Ibid., p. 39.

5. Ibid., p. 42.

6. Letter, W. H. Cline to Rev. C. S. Wallace. Brandon University Archives, box 60.

7. The Canadian Baptist, 30 October 1879.

8. Rapid City Standard, 30 October 1879.

9. Ibid., 4 January 1884.

10. Ibid., September 1885.

11. McLaurin, p. 294.

12. Brandon Times, 17 March 1892.

13. Ibid., 20 June 1889.

14. Ibid., 3 October 1889.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 17 March 1892.

17. Ibid., 18 December 1890.

18. Ibid., 17 March 1892.

19. J. F. Barker, Brandon City. Brandon: J. F. Barker, 1977.

20. Brandon Daily Sun.

21. Ibid., 18 June 1898.

22. Minutes of the Educational Committee of the Baptist Convention of Manitoba and the North-West, July 1899.

23. Minutes, Board of Directors, Brandon College, 11 January 1906.

24. S. J. McKee: mimeo, no date (circa 1931), Brandon University Archives.

25. Minute, Board of Directors, Brandon College, 11 January 1906.

26. 1969 Annual Report of the Board of Directors to the Baptist Western Convention, Brandon University Archives.

27. Minutes, Board of Directors, Brandon College, 9 December 1911.

28. Ibid.

29. Letter, McKee to Whidden, 22 July 1918, Brandon University Archives.

30. Letter, Board of Directors, Brandon College to McKee, 5 June 1920, Brandon University Archives.

31. D.L.D. in The Quill, December 1913.

32. Letter, McKee to Evans, 30 November 1931.

33. Baptist Year Book, 1925.

34. W. L. Morton, One University: A History of the University of Manitoba. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1957. p. 167.

35. Letter, J. S. McKee to W. S. Richardson, 28 November 1931, Brandon University Archives.

36. Letter, J. R. C. Evans to McKee, November 1931, Brandon University Archives.

37. Letter, Bursar Eaton to McKee, 9 August 1937, Brandon University Archives.

38. J. R. C. Evans, funeral eulogy, 17 September 1937, Brandon University Archives.

Page revised: 14 October 2012