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By Ryan Taylor

Everybody knows about Methodists. How many know about Bible Christians?

Actually, Bible Christians are a kind of Methodist. The sect began in Devonshire, England in 1815.

After the death of John Wesley, the Methodist church began to come apart as theological arguments multiplied. William O'Bryan was a preacher who felt moved to found his own church. It grew rapidly, and many adherents and missionaries came to Canada before 1850.

The tiny Bible Christian chapels, usually log huts, were scattered in rural areas across Ontario and Prince Edward Island. Eventually there were some in the United States also.

As with other Methodist splinter groups, the Bible Christian Church dwindled as the 19th century progressed, and eventually rejoined the Wesleyan Methodists. Surviving congregations are now part of the United Church of Canada.

Two years ago, Sherrell Branton Leetooze of Bowmanville and Elizabeth Howard decided it was time to document Bible Christian churches and clergy in Canada. The result is three volumes which will benefit genealogists for years to come.

Bible Christian Chapels of the Canadian Conference travels village by village, describing the founding of the congregation, its building, some names associated with the church, and what happened to it now. The buildings had various fates, aside from being torn down: auction halls, churches of other denominations, private homes, funeral parlors.

Much of the missionaries' work involved travelling in sparsely-populated areas holding services wherever they could find a suitable spot. These circuit riders are given their due by Leetooze in A Corner for the Preacher, which begins with a description of Bible Christian immigration. The various circuits with their preaching points are listed. This will help family historians who can find their ancestors' locale on a circuit. Once they know the name of the circuit, they can try to find the circuit rider's records linked to his home church, wherever that may be.

The Damascus Road is subtitled The Bible Christian Preachers of the Canadian Conference, 1832-1884. It has short biographies and portraits of the clergy. The portraits show stern, perhaps grim, faces that we can imagine thundering from the primitive log-cabin pulpits. All three volumes are generously illustrated with maps and photographs.

With both the church histories and the biographies, the amount of material Leetooze was able to find varied considerably. Some churches have detailed entries, and others only a few facts.

John Hicks Eynon was one of the earliest and best known Bible Christian missionaries. His conversion followed the preaching of Elizabeth Dart, who later became his wife. A woman preacher was an unusual thing in the 1820s (the Methodists later moved to suppress women in the pulpit).

Eynon lived the rough life of the pioneer, working alongside his 'sheep' in the daytime before preaching to them in the evening. This was unlike the more refined behavior of other missionaries, but Eynon said that his shirt and hands may have been dirty, but his conscience was clean.

If the churches were small, so were the clergy's living accommodations. After the donation of a half-acre of land for a parsonage in 1853, one chapel constructed a house 18 by 24 feet, with room for a garden. Many rooms in our homes are bigger than that.

Leetooze's already considerable reputation for accurate historical writing will be enhanced by these valuable research tools. Every genealogical library should have them and they will be well used.

Each volume costs $25 plus shipping, and can be ordered from Lynn Michael-John Associates, 80 Roser Crescent, Bowmanville ON L1C 3N9, phone (905) 623-9147. Leetooze's earlier works, volumes on the history of each township in old Durham County, Ontario, plus an index volume for the whole series, are also still available.

Posted July 10, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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