Lindsay’s progressive pastor: The Reverend Dr. J.W. MacMillan

By Ian McKechnie

“The first duty of an industrial order, whatever its nature, is to provide for the needs of the people. Business is good, in the true sense, when all the people are maintained in decent comfort and wholesome security. Salaries for presidents of corporations and dividends on stock should come after that has been accomplished.”

These words were printed, not in last week’s business or opinion section of one of Canada’s major national newspapers, but in Lindsay’s Evening Post almost 100 years ago, in 1920. The author, a syndicated columnist whose writings appeared in newspapers across Canada, went by the byline, “J.W. MacMillan, D.D.” The post-nominal letters, which stand for Doctor of Divinity, tell us that MacMillan was a man of the cloth; a minister of word and sacrament. “What does he think he is doing, sticking his nose into public affairs?” a contemporary observer might sneer. “Shouldn’t he be concerned with matters of a purely spiritual nature? Do we not believe in the separation of Church and State?”

Well, the learned Dr. MacMillan would probably beg to differ. For him, his calling as a Presbyterian minister meant that he had a responsibility to speak out against injustice and educate the masses about what could be done to alleviate the sufferings of the most vulnerable in society. Nearly 125 years after he was called to the pulpit of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay, MacMillan’s progressive approach to understanding and implementing sound social policy continues to resonate.

John Walker MacMillan was born in 1868 and went on to study at the renowned Knox College at the University of Toronto. Ordained in 1891, he served a parish in Vancouver before arriving in Lindsay in 1895. During his pastorate at St. Andrew’s, MacMillan took an active interest in the work of the hospital and library, a nod to the significant public role clergy played in Canadian society during the early 20th Century. MacMillan was an enthusiastic outdoorsman, once cycling forty miles over the rough roads between Lindsay and Sonya to attend a meeting of the Presbytery in the latter village (were he with us today, MacMillan would very likely have numbered among those calling for better cycling infrastructure in downtown Lindsay). He was a frequent visitor to Sturgeon Point, where he preached in its church and mingled with the family of prominent Lindsay businessman, John Dundas Flavelle, ultimately marrying his daughter, Amy Cooper Flavelle (1877-1957).

In 1903, MacMillan headed west and served a congregation in Winnipeg for the next six years, though he and Mrs. MacMillan maintained close ties to Lindsay well into the ensuing decades. From Winnipeg, MacMillan headed east again, this time to Halifax, where he served in the pulpit of St. Matthew’s Presbyterian [now United] Church on Barrington Street. He remained here until 1915, before returning to Manitoba to take up a position as professor of social ethics and practical theology at the University of Manitoba.

In the spring of 1919, Dr. MacMillan was appointed as Chair of Christian Sociology at U of T’s Victoria College. “In his home province, the professor is recognized as a sociologist of high standing,” gushed the newspapers at the time, “having acted during the war as chairman of the Minimum Wage Board for Manitoba, while at present he is temporary chairman of the Industrial Disputes Council…The importance of this particular branch of study was emphasized at the last session of the Methodist Conference, in Hamilton, when the Church was strongly urged to take a more active part in economic and social affairs.”

Reading through MacMillan’s writing in 2019, one is struck by how similar the issues of his day are to our own. Consider, for instance, his warning about the state of political discourse in Canada:

“It will be well to remember that all the world is psychically disturbed at present, and that the tone of all discussions, whether in parliaments or where the union organizers meet the bosses, is more acrid than in former years. We deliberate less and vociferate more about everything. Thus, with both sides impelled to downright and defiant action, the likelihood of trouble is great. Pity that allowance could not be made. And the man who deserves most consideration is the man who is trying to be a father and a citizen on less than five dollars a day.”

Perhaps taking a cue from the ancient prophet who wrote, “Come now, and let us reason together,” MacMillan decried those who allow the heat of political rhetoric to be turned up to a boil. “It is a dangerous thing for any community to resent the utterances of unpopular views,” he wrote in 1919 about the cause of revolutions. “From public discussion comes public opinion, and from public opinion comes social action. So the adaptation is made in an orderly manner, and the storm of revolution gets no chance to rise.”

The Reverend Dr. John Walker MacMillan died on April 16th 1932, aged 63. According to authors Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau, in their book A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940, “MacMillan’s growing espousal of government intervention in the sphere of social welfare remained tempered by his belief that a cooperative society was anchored upon the primary institutions of family and that the church remained the critical linchpin between the public and private spheres.”

Today, MacMillan’s portrait hangs above the coat racks at St. Andrew’s, gazing down on a stream of volunteers who give of their time and talents to ensure that the hungry are fed and the poor are lifted high in body, mind, and spirit through outreach ministries ranging from the Community Soup Kitchen to the Sunday Suppers. St. Andrew’s continues to serve the people of Lindsay, even though the mainline church MacMillan knew and served has become for many a mere cultural relic, no longer enjoying the prominence it once did in Canada.

Nonetheless, J.W. MacMillan’s advocacy from the pulpit, the lecture hall, and the newspaper all those years ago can and should inspire today’s advocates of a universal basic income, a higher minimum wage, and unlimited access to health care, among other issues that must be championed by “the people” of faith and no faith, when they are clearly not being championed by the government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.