By Wendy Elliott
Author Eldon Hay has published his second book, The Covenanters in Canada: Reformed Presbyterianism from 1820 – 2012.
The professor emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies at Mount Allison University and retired United Church minister has collected the history of one of Canada’s earliest religious minorities.
Other than the existence of two Covenanter churches in Kings County, this religious community had practically been forgotten in the annals of local history until the denomination was re-established about a decade ago.
Hay has said that the inspiration for his writing came during a visit to a tiny, old Presbyterian cemetery in Jolicure, N.B., back in the early 1990s, but he also came to admire the Covenanters.
Originating in Ireland and Scotland, they were a group of religious dissidents who objected to a king being both head of church and state. They were steadfastly opposed to the Stuart kings’ interference in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
The Covenanters derived their name from the word covenanting as set out in the 1638 National Covenant of Scotland. Their unique principles viewed Christ as the head of both church and state; however, since Christ was not recognized as the head of state, Covenanters were not allowed to hold public office, to swear oaths or vote.
During Covenanter services, hymns were prohibited. Psalms were sung, but all musical instruments were excluded from worship. Secret societies were forbidden. Their churches reflected plain architecture because it was less important to them than the manner of worship.
Hay’s well-documented book chronicles the history and theological significance of this hardy group from their roots and how they spread to the New World with the immigration of missionaries.
The Covenanter Church at Grand Pré is the oldest existing Presbyterian Church in Nova Scotia. The first congregation was recruited by the Rev. Andrew Murdoch from Ulster. Murdoch, the first Presbyterian minister to settle in the province, gathered together a small group of New England Planters and they built a small log church. The old church was demolished in 1795 and, under the leadership of Rev. George Gilmor - a graduate of the University of Edinburgh - a plain, new meeting house was begun in 1804.
In 1833, the first Covenanter, Rev. William Sommerville, introduced a stricter regime and conducted prolonged services. The congregation was segregated during his time as well, with men sitting on one side and women on the other.
Sommerville and his successor, Rev. Thomas McFall, were ordained pastors of the Reformed Presbyterian church of Ireland. According to Hay, Sommerville had established a school in order to support his family and McFall tried to bolster his income by farming.
From 1894 until its purchase by the Presbyterian Church of Canada in 1912, the church was vacant. In 1925, it joined the United Church of Canada.
Today, the Covenanter Church is primarily used for services during the summer months.
Known as the Cornwallis Congregation of the reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Covenanter Church in Grafton was the last remaining Covenanter congregation in the Maritimes.
Built in 1842-43, the small church has had only two pastors, in addition to summer pastors. Somerville was pastor for 47 years, followed by McFall, who served for 49 years.
In 1930, Dr. Robert Park, who taught at Geneva Falls College in Pennsylvania, built a cottage in Harbourville and served as summer pastor for more than 30 years. He gave his last sermon at the Grafton church in 1961. Thirty years later, the church was designated a provincial heritage property.
Since then, a local committee has organized an annual summer service. Usually, visiting Covenanter ministers come from the United States to preach, said Hay.
There is a Covenanters Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. It had its beginning in 2001, when a small number of families began meeting in homes. In 2002, Kevin Carter took over pastoral duties.
The congregation, which covers an area from Greenwood to Wolfville, was officially organized in 2006. The Covenanters moved into their own building in 2010.