Manitoba History: “To Bestir Themselves:” Canadian Baptists and the Origins of Brandon College

by Tommy McLeod
Victoria, BC

Number 56, October 2007

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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If it is so, as one of the great sages of professional baseball has claimed, that “the game ain’t over til’ it’s over,” a parallel course of reasoning might lead to the conclusion that most, if not all, great stories “begin before the beginning.” Both conclusions come readily to mind when contemplating the course of Brandon College’s history. Selecting the date of 1 June 1900, the day on which Royal Assent was given to an Act incorporating “Brandon College” as the one which marks the birth of the new institution on the banks of the Assiniboine, satisfies only legal niceties. Even to go back of that date to such others as 1 August 1899, to the announcement of the opening of the College as carried in the denominational journal, leaves much that is relevant to the story unsaid. The same might be said of moving still farther back to the June 1898 meeting assembly of the Manitoba and Northwest Convention that took the decision to establish a college, which would provide instruction both in Arts and in Theology. Such dates recognize only decisions made and actions taken to meet the demands and realize the possibilities of a newly opening Canadian West. [1]

Prairie College

A commemorative cairn on the grounds of Brandon University was built, in part, with stones from the original Prairie College building at Rapid City.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough

The challenges confronting the Baptists in the Canadian West were not dissimilar from those which the denomination had faced in earlier years when settling in what was then Canada West. The responses of those times, in terms both of ideas and institutions, formed the most important part of the baggage carried into the new land in the missionary venture launched by Eastern Baptists, latecomers to the Western sweepstakes. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians were already hunkered down in the Red River Valley, their institutions, including their colleges, already well established. However, it was for the Baptists to be to the fore when settlement finally burst from the Red River Valley on to the hitherto avoided uplands of Manitoba.

The history of Brandon and of its College form an integral part of the story of the march of the forces of Ontario Protestantism into the new and, for much the greatest part, unoccupied (at least in Euro-Canadian parlance) land. It was, in its own right, a country, and one which for two centuries had been held, virtually in economic thrall, by the Hudson’s Bay Company. During the time of the Company’s supremacy, it had been challenged only by periodic, if at times violent, intrusions of less privileged traders seeking to share in the rich harvest of furs. Settlement in the days of the fur economy was confined for the most part to such river valleys as the western plains provided, and of these, only that of the Red River could be regarded as being of consequence. As J. W. Dafoe explained in describing the bleak land of the north-west: “Portage la Prairie was the extreme westward outpost of what was called the Red River Settlement. Beyond it stretched for nearly eight hundred miles the vast plain, tenantless except for the location at strategic points of the forts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. [2]

The Red River settlement itself might well be regarded as something of a phenomenon, existing in defiance of proclaimed laws of nature, which decreed the prairie reaches of British North America to be suited only to the requirements for fur-bearing animals and migratory Aboriginals. It existed in a land, proclaimed, if only by and in the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to be otherwise, unproductive and uninhabitable. With the “surrender” of its rights to the new Dominion of Canada in 1869, the song changed dramatically.

Under the new authority the western land, both in public thought and in public policy, came to be seen and treated in a new light. Contrary to past contentions, the western territory was now to be seen as a promised land; one that held out opportunities for a substantial measure of prosperity, if not unlimited wealth, for those willing and able to make the necessary effort to grasp them. The surge of westward migration marking the response to this lure brought with it a concern within Canadian church communities for the settlers moving into a land seen to be destitute of the institutions of civilized communities. This concern was compounded for Canadian Baptists, faced as they were when the westward race began, with the total absence of church brethren, much less organized church institutions, in the newly opening domain. [3]

Though the Eastern Baptists may have been somewhat tardy in meeting the challenge that was before them, when in time they did respond, the mission-minded brethren who came forward, carried with them to the new land certain convictions as to the role of their denomination in matters both evangelical and educational. While it is from the perspective of the latter that this narrative is primarily focused, it will be seen, as the story of Brandon College unfolds, that the two were inextricably, some might argue even fatally, entwined. Taken together, as they existed in the minds of those first coming to the scene, they provided the rationale, the guiding philosophy and institutional structure for the creation of a new college.

To arrive at the origins of the ideas which came to life anew, prevailing in the building of Brandon College, history must be pushed back almost half a century from the day in 1900 when the College assumed its chartered existence. And even then, in tracing the evolution of what became effectively “the Brandon idea,” selection must be made from among a variety of dates and circumstances. At least as early as 1838, the Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, in their efforts to set out their role in higher education, had, in the words of the Baptist Year Book, launched their struggles “against the vicissitudes” of their situation, leading to a catalogue of ventures which were in some ways heroic, if not uniformly successful. [4]

However, in selecting a specific date that most likely marks the beginning of the “idea” carried into Manitoba, choice most properly falls on 1 December 1855. On that day, the denominational journal, The Christian Messenger carried a letter headed “A Proposal.” It was signed only by “F.” The letter was addressed to the need for the Baptist community, acting in the light of its denominational requirements, to define its role in the field of higher education. It was a letter that would later be described as “the seed in which the germ of … Woodstock College … was enfolded.” [5] It was the flower from this seed that the founders of Brandon College sought to transplant to western land. Mention must be made, too, that general agreement has it that the author of this seminal letter, “F”, was Robert Alexander Fyfe.

While the designation “father of Brandon College” must be reserved for another more immediately identified with the development of that institution, that of “grandfather of Brandon College” might readily be given to Fyfe as Fyfe’s broad influence within the affairs of the Baptist community of Ontario and Quebec worked, directly and indirectly, to shape much of the course of development of the denomination’s affairs in the new Northwest. An early biographer speaks of him as “the founder and father of the Manitoba Mission” that marked the incursion of the Baptists into the new province. [6] As the mission established itself firmly in new ground, and the denomination’s presence increased in numbers, there was a growing concern for establishing a denominational position in higher education, in particular as it bore on the preparation for the ministry. It was here that Fyfe’s influence, at one stage remote though it was, became dominant. The structure, the conduct and the educational philosophy which were eventually to mark a college proudly flaunting the motto “Education Crowned with Reverence” were readily traceable to Fyfe’s conquests completed earlier in Canada West, now translated anew to meet the needs of the new country. [7]

Throughout the formative years of the 1880s and ’90s that as the Baptists struggled to respond to the increasing demands for their own educational institution, the shadows of Fyfe and his College hovered over the discussions. When the decisions were finally taken that were designed to transform wishes into reality, the ideas of Fyfe and the model of his Woodstock College would be dominating elements. The results could hardly have been different, given the fact that those officers charged with the responsibility for bringing the new institution into being were, as were the missionaries before them, not only of Woodstock persuasion, but charter members of the Woodstock experience. Then, too, the absence of an existing established alternative within Canadian Baptist experience may have weighed heavily in influencing the choices made. Earlier attempts of the Baptists to develop Bible schools more narrowly focused in terms of curricula and clientele than the more broadly based educational model offered by Fyfe’s Woodstock institution, had almost uniformly failed for lack of financial support. [8]

Of more immediate concern to the Brandon narrative are the consequences of other roles that Fyfe played within his church, first as chairman of the Regular Baptist Theological Education Society, and later as President of the Baptist Home Missionary Board of Ontario. A writer for the Baptist Year Book described Fyfe as “a man of action, of indomitable courage, not lightly diverted from any purpose on which he had set his heart.” [9] Fyfe did not hesitate to use his positions within church bodies to pursue his convictions concerning his church’s role in higher education, and its mission in the newly opening west. In the unfolding of western affairs, it was from his position as President of the Home Missionary Board that Fyfe’s impact on western affairs was first felt.

In 1869, two years after the new Dominion was formed, and one year before the Province of Manitoba came into being, Dr. Fyfe (as he had become by that time), aware of the promised potential of the new Canadian west, introduced a motion at the annual meeting of the Baptist Home Missionary Board calling for the appointment of a deputation to explore “the Great North-West Territories” and to report on “its physical, political and religious condition in order that … the Baptists might judge of the possible future of that country and better understand their duties as a body of Christians toward the vast territory.” [10] The deputation, consisting of Rev. Thomas L. Davidson and Rev. Thomas Baldwin, left on its mission in mid-June 1869.

In their report, the commissioners celebrated the agricultural potential of the west: it was “a country of unequalled fertility as regards the richness of the soil.” And the climate was fine: the commissioners thought “that all staple crops which are grown in Ontario can be grown in the territory in great abundance.” [11] The commissioners noted that the native population formed by far the largest number of those living in the new province. The region’s original inhabitants were impatient with “the slow manner in which the Dominion moves in the matter of their interests.” [12] The Canadians who had already arrived in the region, the deputation reported, “were rallying for British rule in the North-West.” [13] It would come but only after the Riel resistance in the fall and winter of 1869-70.

Prairie Baptist College

Prairie Baptist College, which operated at Rapid City between 1880 and 1884, is illustrated in this 1884 sketch.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Rapid City - School 5.

Alas, there were few Baptists among this original Euro-Canadian population already in the great North-West: one statement recorded it as one, a second as none. It seemed to the deputation that more Baptists were required to justify the expense of a missionary for the region. As their recommendation put it: “… it is our opinion … that the conditional appointment of a missionary, providing a colony of Baptist families would unite, move and settle together, in the great North-West would be a means of spreading Baptist principles in that far off country faster than by any other way within our reach … We would not recommend the Convention to send a missionary for the sake of the present inhabitants.” [14] But a missionary was sent. In 1873, Dr. Fyfe in his capacity as chairman of a recently constituted Committee on the Manitoba Mission, announced that his Committee had secured the services of a missionary ready to undertake the cause of carrying the Baptist faith into the new province. Naturally enough, the missionary, Rev. Alexander McDonald, was a product of Fyfe’s Woodstock institution. [15]

Later as settlement anticipated and followed in the wake of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Baptists joined the western migration. Before long “Baptist churches were coming into existence in the many new towns, growing up almost like mushrooms over the prairie.” [16] Such growth posed a critical problem of supplying the many new mission fields with trained ministers. There was no surplus in eastern Canada. And those who did take up work in the west would face “the hardships of a new country in a severely cold climate …” [17] Perhaps the problems could be solved with “home grown” ministers.

The first response to this growing concern of the western Baptists came six years after Alexander MacDonald’s installation as resident head of the Manitoba mission. Once more, the initiative centered on Woodstock College and a sixty-five year old Professor of New Testament and Hebrew, Rev. John Crawford. Convinced that the new west was to become one of the most important sections of an expanded dominion, Crawford approached the Ontario Baptist Convention with a proposal that they should develop a college there. His proposal was rejected, though he was conceded the right, if he so wished, to undertake such a venture on his own initiative, and to approach eastern congregations for financial support. This he did, and by 1879 was convinced, incorrectly as it turned out, that the response to his plea warranted his proceeding with the scheme, although he was still doing so primarily on his own. He sold his property in Woodstock and apart from retaining what was necessary to re-establish living quarters in a new land, placed all of his remaining resources at the call of his educational venture. [18]

Associated with Crawford in this undertaking was Rev. G. B. Davis, a former student of Fyfe’s college. [19] McLaurin later described him as “an all-round man, optimistic, ready for almost any kind of toil or search.” [20] Davies, too, made a cash contribution to the project, though his contribution was to be regarded as an advance and presumably recoverable. As will be seen, this was not to be.

Their undertaking must be recorded as a genuine, demanding exercise in pioneering, and in some respects a heroic one. In speaking to his projected venture in the Canadian Baptist, Crawford stated: “In my projected college in the Northwest Territory, 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 with whatever assistance the people can afford, until their churches be strong enough to support them altogether.” [21]

John Crawford

Reverend John Crawford (1819-1895), was the founder and principal of Prairie College at Rapid City.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University

This at a time when the steel rails of the Canadian Pacific Railway, though laid down past Winnipeg, would not cross the Assiniboine River for another two years. [22] Through a number of incarnations as a trading post, Brandon House, had existed somewhere in the vicinity of the eventual crossing. But what was to become the site of an almost instant city remained as a vacant spot on the map, and, as such, a matter of no particular concern to Crawford’s party. Their objective was to reach Rapid City, at the time a settlement of no consequence. Speculative rumours had it, however, that it would soon become a boomtown sitting astride the approaching lines of the Canadian Pacific—the first divisional point west of Winnipeg. Because of this promised strategic location, it would grow to be the second city of Manitoba. It was here that Crawford and Davies would plant the Woodstock seed in prairie soil, a purpose which in time, could be said to have been in some measure rewarded. At least the seed was planted, though it would take time beyond the efforts of Crawford and Davies to grow. [23]

The translation of Fyfe’s inspiration into Crawford’s reality required the acceptance of conditions which, at times, bordered on the Spartan. Davies led the little band of pioneers in their westward trek. The final leg of the journey to their destination posed for him and his small group of students what they must have regarded as unusual if not daunting demands. Their story is detailed succinctly by McLaurin “From Winnipeg they reached Portage la Prairie, (on) the first construction train after that section was completed. From there, they went one hundred miles north-west to Rapid City, through an untravelled country, making a very difficult journey.” Their journey took eight days. Their destination, when reached, was later described as “the first cluster of houses, mostly of log, that indicated an advanced civilization after leaving Portage.” Over that time, “less than a dozen houses had been seen.” [24]

It was planned that in their new surroundings that the little community would be self-sustaining. They would live collectively through their efforts on the land, working their homesteads, caring for their own domestic needs, pursuing their courses of studies, and supplying prairie pulpits on the Sabbath. Their first act was to gather stones and lay them, creating the building that would house their enterprise. Within its walls, the spirit of Woodstock College and its predecessor, the Canadian Literary Institute were to be recreated.

The Woodstock “model” went well beyond the matter of denominational resistance to secular intervention in its affairs. It was, in the first instance, less a challenge to the state to confine its attention to its own affairs, than it was a challenge to the church membership to “bestir” itself in meeting its divinely ordained responsibilities for attending to the education of its young. Some years after the initial responses to Fyfe’s proposal to the brethren to go west, responses that came from individuals rather than from any corporate element of the church, a writer in the Baptist Year Book commented that “it is a little mortifying that Baptists have not an educational institution of any grade in the Province [of Manitoba].” Coupled with that observation was a second, which in the light of the subsequent history of Brandon College, might be regarded as prescient. He wrote that there was within the denomination the ability to do anything needed “provided they will cultivate a little more largesse of soul and a little more forbearance with one another.” [25]

Brandon Academy

The students and faculty of Brandon Academy, around bearded principal S. J. McKee in centre, gather for a photo in 1892.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University, S. J. McKee Fonds, 9-15.

While Fyfe’s immediate concern was for the general educational needs of young Baptist men and women there was also recognition of the pressing matter of the appropriate preparation of candidates for ministry in the church itself. In commenting on this aspect of Fyfe’s proposal, his biographer commented: “This letter strikes a new key. It does not propose to commence at the wrong end by establishing a purely theological college without providing any steps by which the illiterate young farmer or mechanic, who felt it his duty to preach the Gospel, could climb up to its entrance.” Beyond the immediate matter of providing for the needs of an aspiring clergy went the conviction, in the words of the biographer, “that education under religious influence is the best training for other spheres of Christian activity, as well as for the pulpit.” [26]

To meet the needs of the constituency he regarded as coming within the church’s concern, Fyfe proposed an institutional structure that would provide through one element theological training, and through a second academic training, the whole to be combined in his Literary Institute. This was the basic structure Crawford carried with him into Manitoba, a structure that was continued through the later years of McKee’s Academy that succeeded Crawford’s Prairie College, and on into the years of Brandon College. As with the issue of denominational independence, as will later be seen, Fyfe’s principle of organization, involving the merging of the academic and the theological, the marriage of faith and reason, provided fertile ground for dissent and dispute. It was an arrangement which, when built into the structure of Brandon College, was at the root both of the denominational schism that colored the days of President Whidden, and at least in the opinion of some observers of the ultimate failure of the Baptist college to survive. [27]

Almost contemporaneous with the opening of Prairie College, Rapid City’s dream of glory was ended abruptly as the steel rails crossed the Assiniboine River. On its banks an instant city, the one Rapid City had hoped to become, came into being. At the end of a three-year struggle to realize his vision, crushed by the financial burdens involved, Crawford faced not only the loss of his investment in the venture, but total bankruptcy. The hoped for financial support of mission minded Easterners never materialized. Performance lagged well behind promises, as the East seemed preoccupied with its own educational problems, and Crawford’s college was forced to close. [28] The student body dispersed, the larger number of its members going to the recently established Toronto Baptist College. Others went on to pursue further theological training in the United States.

The Crawford-Davis partnership was terminated amidst recriminations over the financial arrangements. It is of interest to note here that there appears to have developed by this time, among some influential eastern Baptists, a commitment to the idea that there should be but a single, centrally located Canadian institution dedicated to the preparation of the church’s pastors. Inevitably, it was contended that any such institution should be located in the city of Toronto. The wish seemed to have become a reality in 1880, almost contemporaneously with Crawford’s western venture. Funded by Senator William McMaster, the Toronto Baptist College, as it was first named, was to become, within a few years, a fullfledged university, bearing McMaster’s name. It is not unreasonable to speculate that the commitment, if not the preoccupation, of the eastern constituency with its own institution of higher learning was an inhibiting factor of consequence in determining the fate of the Brandon mission’s campaigns for continuing eastern financial support.

Samuel James McKee

Reverend Samuel James McKee was held in such esteem that his obituary was featured on the 1937 cover of The Western Baptist.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University, MG1, Brandon College - Teaching & Administration, Box 1, File 13.

However, Crawford’s dream of establishing an educational mission in Manitoba, even at Rapid City, was not lost. Before the dust had settled on the site of Prairie College, G. B. Davis renewed the effort to establish an academy in that same community. It was at this point that Samuel James McKee, whose name was later to loom large in the history of Brandon College, entered the picture. McKee was Davis’s brother-in-law, and as might be expected, one of the Fyfe acolytes, an ex-staff-member of Woodstock College. An honours graduate of the University of Toronto, McKee had not sought a career in teaching, and initially spurned the blandishments of Fyfe who sought to recruit him for his Woodstock staff. He did shortly succumb however, and in 1872 entered upon what was to be a fiftyyear career as an ardent churchman serving in the field of education. [29]

In 1881, for reasons related to his health, McKee left Woodstock, intending to start life anew as a homesteader in the newly opening west. For this enterprise he chose the Rapid City area, most likely because of the presence, if not the influence of Davis. So it happened that when his brother-in-law needed assistance in bringing his academy into being, McKee, being close at hand answered his call. His term as an aide to Davis, if that is what was originally intended, proved to be a short one. Davis soon accepted a call to the pulpit of a new Baptist church in Moose Jaw, NWT. The wheel of fortune, if not Divine intercession provided the conditions for the continuance of a second academy in Rapid City, this one, now under McKee’s guidance. It was to be known, fittingly, as the Rapid City Academy. Throughout the lifetime of this school, McKee divided his time between teaching and farming. It may have been the combined efforts that enabled him to avoid the financial disasters of the earlier educational institution.

As he was to demonstrate throughout his life of service to the cause of his church in higher education, McKee was possessed of a considerable evangelical drive, though he was not by that token to be readily slotted into the category of “fundamentalist.” When, in due course, Brandon College was swept up in the crisis of a fundamentalist-modernist confrontation, he was not to be found in the ranks of the former. His evangelism seems, rather, to have been founded on an unswerving dedication to bringing, through his works, the power of Christian beliefs into the life of his community and his nation. Although the full structure of the Woodstock model was not to be realized in his Rapid City school, the Fyfe influence was readily apparent in an Academy announcement that set out its purposes as McKee envisioned them: “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.” [30]

In 1883, the annual meeting of the Baptist Home Mission Convention of Manitoba pledged itself “to keep pace with the times (and) establish a college in Winnipeg.” [31] In the following year, the 1884 meeting of the Manitoba Convention received the unexpected news that Crawford’s dream had ended with the collapse of Prairie College. Taken together these events appear to have created a new awareness among denominational leaders that they would have to move out of the bleachers and into the bull-pen if their expressed wish to establish a solidly based educational institution was to be realized. While there was at the time full and appreciative recognition of McKee’s personal determination and financial commitment to maintain a Baptist presence in Manitoba with his Rapid City Academy, there was also a growing recognition of the need for a more formal mustering of the greater resources of denominational bodies to the cause of education. From this point on, and for the remainder of the century, issues related to the Baptist Church’s role in higher education in the Northwest and to the policies appropriate for giving effect to any such role, commanded, increasingly, the attention both of the churches in conclave, and of the editorial columns of their periodicals.

In 1885, the first issue of the Baptist Convention’s newly founded journal, The North West Baptist, space had been given to a report of the Convention’s President, in particular to comments that were made on the church’s role in education. The President, Rev. F. W. Ashe noted that “We (have) Roman Catholics, Church of Eng1and People and Presbyterians with their respective colleges as teaching bodies which send their students up to the University for the purpose of examinations and receiving degrees.” In words reminiscent of those voiced some years earlier by Fyfe in Ontario when, speaking to his fellow Baptists, he urged the brethren “to bestir themselves on this important issue” Ashe envisioned a time, not five years hence, when “a sufficient amount would be raised for the literary department of a college … where young men could receive a classical education, and those called to the ministry a partial training for the present in a theological college.” [32]

While this might be taken to reflect determination that something should be done, it did not reflect any commonly held conviction as to what that something might or should be. Six years later, in 1891, though McKee had by then re-established his academy in Brandon, the editor of the North-West Baptist brooded further over what he saw as the growing dilemma facing the denomination: “Our educational policy is pretty much up in the air … The ranks of our preachers cannot be sufficiently recruited by drafts of men from the Eastern Provinces … Shall we attempt to provide theological training next year, or shall we wait? Is the denomination able to maintain two schools, one theological, one literary? Should the two departments be included in one institution or be separate? And where is the school or schools to be? A false start now will imperil the whole future of our work. It is best to begin small, and then we can feel our way.” [33]

In noting the hiatus between Baptist expressions of concern and decisions made to take corrective action, it must be conceded that the denomination’s organizational superstructures of the times, while adequate in allowing for discussion and debate, were less suited to promoting than to inhibiting the taking of collective decisions. The traditions of the denomination placed primary importance on the individuality of the church member, free of encumbering creeds, in the matter of conscience, and on the autonomy of the individual congregation in any matter of organized endeavour. In respect of the former, as a Baptist preacher by the name of Tommy Douglas once commented, “each Baptist is his own Pope.” [34] In respect of the latter, each congregation might only with difficulty yield up any element of the authority presumed to inhere fully within its purview. On the one side, the Baptist tradition may be seen to provide, as followers of the faith claim, for the greatest degree of personal liberty, subject only to the dominant will of God. In terms of organizational endeavour however, concomitant preoccupation with the potential evils of theocratic authoritarianism might well work to produce instead a kind of theocratic anarchy, sufficient to make sustainable joint action always difficult, and at times impossible. This thought is one to be constantly borne in mind as the history of Brandon College unfolds.

Throughout the extended period of denominational havering on matters of educational policy, S. J. McKee continued his own efforts, though not uninterrupted, to establish a Baptist teaching institution on the prairies. However, despite his highest hopes, as it had been with Prairie College so it proved to be with the Rapid City Academy. At the end of five years, the hopes of his community for a greater role in the affairs of the Province having been blighted by the redirection of the railroad, McKee withdrew from the Academy, and in 1889 it closed and McKee returned to Eastern Canada.

Though Prairie College failed, a victim in part of the centralization of Baptist theological training at the recently established McMaster University, interest in establishing a Baptist institution of postsecondary education in the West continued. [35] In 1889, the Manitoba and North-west Baptist Convention embraced a proposal to found a college in Brandon, Manitoba. [36] The plan was based on a report of the Education Committee of the Convention. The report recommended the establishment in Manitoba “in the near future [of] a first class educational institution.” The college would “provide the intended training (a) for our students for the ministry, and (b) for children, both boys and girls who are compelled to leave home to obtain an education.” For practical financial reasons, the college would accept “students of all denominations.” The college would also have a broad curriculum including preparatory university work, and education in support of teacher non-professional examinations. The response of the Convention to the committee’s report was a positive one, reflected in the motion “That this Convention now decide to establish a Baptist College with capacity suited to the work outlined by the committee … provided a guarantee of annual revenue of $8,500 for three years is secured.” [37] S. J. McKee had attended the convention as a representative of the Rapid City Baptist community and was charged with fund-raising in the east to support the project. He spent the late summer and fall of 1889 in Ontario canvassing for the cause of the college. The initiative failed. [38]

Brandon Circus

Brandon in the early days of the College. A circus elephant lumbers down Rosser Avenue, near the northeast corner of Ninth Street, circa 1905, while interested Brandonites (including one sitting up in a utility pole) look on.
Source: Magnacca Research Centre, Daly House Museum, 86-148-2.

It is to be noted that the action proposed by the Convention in 1889 had been greeted with what might be only described as modulated enthusiasm by the editor of the North-West Baptist: “That a grand opportunity is now provided us to influence and mold the character of youth of our country cannot be debated. But back of these considerations are the necessities of our direct mission work, work which cannot be adequately provided for without an educational institution in which the men whom God has called to the Gospel ministry can receive the training that is indispensable to prepare them for their work.” [39]

These sentences laid bare what was to emerge as a fundamental and persisting difference of opinion within the denomination. At issue was the direction of its educational efforts, its constituency, its structures and its programs The problem as phrased by the editorial writer might be readily rationalized as being simply one of whether the essential requirement of the time was to pursue the more ambitious challenge of establishing a broadly based, Woodstock inspired, presence in the pioneering community of the west, or should the Baptist community focus rather on the more limited undertaking of creating a Bible School dedicated to the training of a Baptist ministry suited to the needs and conditions of the times.

Through the 1890s the question of creating a Baptist College was discussed annually at the Convention of Manitoba and North-west Baptists. Differences of opinion as to the kind of school required and its location delayed action until 1899. [40] The debate featured as a central theme in the columns of the Canadian Baptist (in reality, the Ontario Baptist) and the North-West Baptist. Two separate realms of discourse reflecting fundamental differences in the views of East and West, both as to the nature of the western challenge, and the nature of the Baptist responding message emerged in the debate.

The Baptists of Ontario responded extravagantly, in words if not in money, to the call of the West as they visualized it. A correspondent of the Canadian Baptist wrote: “Today (1898) Ontario Baptists are given the opportunity of laying the foundations of a gigantic structure. The great North West is swelling into new life. Whether that new life will be devoted to those New Testament principles so dear to us depends on whether [we are] willing to put out our hands to help our brethren labouring and planning for its future welfare.” [41] Another correspondent writing to the Canadian Baptist in March of 1898 wrote: “... if we rightly value our principles and apprehend our mission in this great land and the world, the establishment and generous equipment of Christian colleges and universities stretching from sea to sea and in organic connection with our several Conventions must be recognized as having no secondary claim upon us as a group.” [42] This was a dream that was to persist, unfettered by reality.

Brandon College

The new Brandon College building, planned for completion in October 1901, “will afford excellent accommodation for the work of instruction, and will also provide residence for about eighty students.”
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University, BU Fonds RG6, Series 6, Senate, Box 1 (Brandon College Calendar, 1900-1901)

To the prospect of the swarming millions moving westward, as enthusiastically embraced by these various writers, was added a sobering judgment rendered by the editor of the Canadian Baptist “This country has entered upon an era of expansion … The great wave will soon react upon the East for bane or blessing. Whatever else Canadian Christians must do, they must leaven the West. And now is the time—now or never.” His central concern: “the turbulent and polyglot mass of Europeans” that required to be “welded into Christian and Canadian types” or a social blight would disfigure the youthful Dominion. [43] It is evident that the Baptists of eastern Canada accepted the challenges presented by the west as those of evangelism and education.

Western editorialists and correspondents were much less sanguine with respect both to the size and to the content of the educational package they wished to see delivered—and they were still in large part dependent on eastern benevolence for its delivery. Although it was less than two decades from the time when the eastern investigators had reported only one or less Baptists to be found in all of Manitoba and the Territories, considerable unease was now being expressed concerning the fact that their growing western denomination possessed as yet no institution of its own dedicated to the preparation of a ministry attuned to the particular demands of their pioneer community. A number of reasons were given for the west’s continued reliance on “the East” for the pastors required to fill western pulpits. Difficulties in securing supply preachers in adequate numbers, much less than the difficulties in holding them on any permanent basis given the living conditions, made it appear necessary, in the eyes of editors and letter writers, to produce a home-grown ministry, accustomed to the unique demands of western life, and prepared to live with the vagaries as well as the opportunities of westerm missionary endeavours. In the words of the local editor:

… The men who are to be the teachers of the people in divine things, who are to unfold to the truths of the Book of Books, and be their leaders in the great work of founding and establishing Christian churches, in order to do the work, must be trained to think correctly and must possess a thorough and systematic knowledge of Scriptural teaching. This generally can be obtained only in institutions dedicated to this special object. [44]

In the West, the need for a denominational college was less the question to be debated than was that of the philosophy and structure of the program to be offered when seeking a ministry “trained to think correctly.” One contributor to the debate staked out a popular view:

If on the other hand, there is wanted a man mighty in the scriptures, of rugged spiritual strength, with quickened mental perception to draw profit from every available source, a man who will not develop into a functionary, but stand erect and preserve his bearings in a sea of humanity, who can think and speak to the measure of the average human creature which is his material, then the course through which the prospective preacher and pastor has to be put must be such as to develop these traits.

In existing theological courses too often “emasculation and namby-pambyism” was the result. The object was “to send out men whose hearts are full of the word of God and who are red-hot to declare it in plain, simple, bold language, men who shall be heard with profit, if not pleasure by all …” Thus the principal work of Baptist education was to “make men mighty in the scriptures.” [45]

William Davies

Industrialist William Davies (1831-1921), made his fortune by sending meat to England in refrigerated ships. He and his sister paid for the Brandon College building with a single donation.
Source: S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University

The initiative of 1889 in which S. J. McKee had played a central role had failed, but in the fall of 1890 Brandon did get a new college. In 1890, with an eye to the future, McKee moved his academy to Brandon. [46] Without apparent reference to the disputes of the times, McKee’s new college was designed, Woodstock fashion, coupling the literary with the theological in the educational fare to be offered. McKee’s Brandon Academy offered classes “specially adapted to young men and women” in preparatory and advanced English, shorthand, typewriting, music (piano and organ) drawing and painting (oil and water color.) [47] One could also prepare for Teachers’ examination and the Preliminary Examination for the University of Manitoba and take commercial classes. [48] It was this Academy, designed and guided by McKee, which in time provided the foundation on which the “bestirred” Baptists, following a decade and a half of investigation and debate, established their Brandon College.

Over the ensuing decade, while the brethren were arguing the issues of educational policy, McKee dedicated his efforts to building and maintaining an institution that progressively gained favor in the eyes of the local community, if not uniformly in the eyes of his denominational colleagues. Quite apart from the fact that he had built and maintained an institution on which his denomination would come in time to build further, the extent to which McKee in his work succeeded in building that institution into the life of the community itself must be noted. Well before a legally constituted entity bearing the name came into existence, McKee’s establishment was known to the readers of the local press as “Brandon College.” [49]

In 1898 the convention of Baptists from Manitoba and the Northwest territories established a committee to consider the transformation of McKee’s Brandon College into a fully-fledged Baptist institution in the Wheat City which would provide instruction both in Arts and in Theology. And Eastern Baptists played an immediate role in the creation of the new college. In 1898 a Toronto industrialist, Mr. William Davies, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Emily Davies, pledged $25,000 to be used to establish a Baptist College in Brandon. In the summer of 1899 Brandon College was established on the foundation of work done by S. J. McKee. [50] Prof. McKee’s Academy was merged into the new institution and the quarters of the Academy in the Stewart Black on Rosser Avenue at Ninth Street continued to be used. On 13 July 1900, Mrs. Davies laid the cornerstone of the Brandon College building that would rise on the 200 block of Eighteenth Street on land purchased from the city. On 1 June 1900, Royal Assent was given to an Act incorporating “Brandon College.” That College and City grew together, establishing an enduring relationship that was to be of considerable importance in later years when the College was pushed to the brink of dissolution. [51]


1. The history of Brandon College is dealt with in A. E. McKenzie, ed., History of Brandon College Inc. Brandon: Brandon College, 1966; C. G. Stone and F. Joan Garnett, Brandon College: A History, 1899-1967. Brandon: Brandon University 1969; and Walter Ellis, “Organizational and Educational Policy of Baptists in Western Canada 1873-1939” Unpublished Bachelor of Divinity Thesis, McMaster University, 1962 and Walter Ellis “What Times Demand: Brandon College and Baptist Education in Western Canada,” in George Rawlyk, ed., Canadian Baptist and Canadian Higher Education, Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.

2. J. W. Dafoe, “Economic History of the Prairie Provinces” in Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. II, pp. 283-331.

3. On this theme see Douglas Owran, Promise of Eden – the Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856 - 1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

4. See “Sketch of the Educational Work of the Baptists of Ontario and Quebec During the last Half Century,” Baptist Year Book, 1900, p. 247.

5. For the quotation see James Edward Wells, Life and Labours of Robert Alexander Fyfe. Toronto: W. J. Gage, 1981, p. 289. On Fyfe see as well, F. T. Rosser, “Robert Alexander Fyfe,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online,

6. Wells, Life and Labours of Robert Alexander Fyfe, p. 369.

7. See Brandon College Calendar for the institution’s motto. RG6 Series 6, Subseries 6.6, Brandon College & University Calendars, S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University (hereafter SJMA).

8. Born in Quebec, educated in theology at Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, financed in part from his summer earnings as the foreman of a gang of lumberjacks in the eastern forests, Fyfe established himself early as a leading spokesman for the denomination. While still a young, newly ordained pastor, his was a major voice of Baptist voluntarism raised against the political powers when the issue of the distribution of the moneys accumulated from the sale of the Clergy Reserves burned brightly in Canada West. It was a battle which, in the words of one observer, “was waged with vigour and bitterness for several years.” Wells, Life and Labours of Robert Alexander Fyfe, p. 114.

9. See “Sketch of the Educational Work of the Baptists of Ontario and Quebec During the last Half Century,” Baptist Year Book, 1900, p. 252.

10. See “Report of Deputation of the North West Territories” as quoted in Rev. C. C. McLaurin, D.D., Pioneering in Western Canada a Story of the Baptists. Calgary, 1939, p. 33.

11. Ibid., pp. 32-39.

12. J. W. Dafoe, “Economic History of the Prairie Provinces” in Canada and Its Provinces, vol. II.

13. McLaurin, Pioneering in Western Canada a Story of the Baptists, p. 36.

14. Ibid., p. 38.

15. On this theme see P. Lorraine Coops, “Shelter from the Storm”: The Enduring Evangelical Impulse of Baptists in Canada, 1880s to 1890s, pp. 208-223. in G. A. Rawlyk, ed., Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens Press, 1997, pp. 208-223.

16. McLaurin, Pioneering in Western Canada a Story of the Baptists, p. 287.

17. Ibid., p. 287.

18. McLaurin, Dr. C. C. “The Beginning of Christian Education Among the Baptists of Western Canada,” The Western Baptist, May 1933, pp. 14-15.

19. On Davis and the history of Prairie College see John Edwin Davis, The Life Story of a Leper: Autobiography of John E. Davis, Canadian Baptist Missionary among the Telegus 2nd ed. Imprint Toronto: Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission Board, [pref. 1918].

20. McLaurin, “The Beginning of Christian Education Among the Baptists of Western Canada,” pp. 14.

21. Dr. John Crawford letter to Canadian Baptist, October 1879.

22. The head of steel of the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Brandon in September 1881.

23. Almost contemporaneously, in the home ground of Ontario, a similar seed, sprung from the Woodstock plant, was taking firm root. There it would yield in 1887, a Baptist University, McMaster, cast in the Fyfe-Woodstock mold. It was this university with which Brandon College would in time become affiliated. On the history of McMaster see Charles Murray Johnston, McMaster University. Toronto; University of Toronto Press, 1976.

24. McLaurin, “The Beginning of Christian Education Among the Baptists of Western Canada,” pp. 14.

25. Baptist Year Book, 1900, p. 251

26. James Edward Wells, Life and Labours of Robert Alexander Fyfe. Toronto: W. J. Gage, 1981, p. 290.

27. Walter Ellis, “What Times Demand: Brandon College and Baptist Education in Western Canada,” in George Rawlyk, ed., Canadian Baptist and Canadian Higher Education Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988, pp. 84-87.

28. Western Baptist Jubilee, p. 78.

29. McLeod, Tommy, McKee of Brandon College, Manitoba History, No. 40, Autumn/Winter 2000-2001.

30. McLeod, McKee of Brandon College, p. 36.

31. Ellis, “What Times Demand: Brandon College and Baptist Education in Western Canada,” p. 61.

32. Northwest Baptist, 1885, vol. 1, no. 1.

33. Northwest Baptist, December 1891.

34. Notes taken by Ian McLeod of Tommy Douglas conversation.

35. Ellis, “What Times Demand: Brandon College and Baptist Education in Western Canada,” p. 64.

36. Northwest Baptist, 1 August 1889, vol. 5, no. 1.

37. Northwest Baptist, 1 September 1889.

38. See McKee’s account of these developments in McKee, S. J., “The Beginning of our Educational Work in the West.” Unpublished manuscript, SJMA, S. J. McKee Fonds, Box 1, File 6.

39. Northwest Baptist, 1 September 1889.

40. McKee, S. J., “Brandon College,” unpublished manuscript, “S. J. McKee,” vertical files, SJMA.

41. Canadian Baptist, 24 March 1898.

42. Canadian Baptist, 10 March 1898.

43. Canadian Baptist, 30 March 1898.

44. Northwest Baptist, 1 June 1893.

45. Northwest Baptist, 1 January 1892.

46. On these developments, see Stone and Garnett, Brandon College, pp. 8-10.

47. Brandon Mail, 27 November 1890.

48. See Brandon Mail, 3 September 1891; Brandon Sun, 8 September 1898.

49. See for example Brandon Mail, 27 November 1890, 24 August 1893, 15 August 1895, 27 August 1896, Brandon Daily Sun, 22 September 1897, 8 September 1898.

50. Minutes, Brandon College Board, 11 July 1899. Board of Directors Minutes, Brandon College fonds, S. J. McKee Archives, John E. Robbins Library, Brandon University. See as well, C. G. Stone and F. Joan Garnett, Brandon College: A History, 1899-1967 (Brandon: Brandon University, 1969) 13.

51. On this chapter in the College’s history see Tom Mitchell and Bill Morrison, ‘Only Brandon Men Can and Will save It:’ Boosterism, Brandon College, and the Crisis of the Great Depression, Manitoba History, No. 24, Autumn 1992.

Page revised: 10 September 2013