By Esther Barnes
THE EARLY YEARS
In the early 1800s, pioneering pastors from Scotland and the United States planted Baptist churches in the wilderness known as Upper Canada. These churches organized themselves into Associations, as was the custom of Baptists in the old country. Until 1888, when the Convention now known as Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec was formed, the Association was the one organization of large importance beyond the local church.
Nine churches in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick formed Canada’s first Association in 1800. Two years later, three churches on the Bay of Quinte formed what some historians call Ontario’s first Association—Thurlow, later known as Haldimand. A Markham church joined them in 1804. The records are so sparse, however, that a 1911 history of Baptists in Canada contended that there was no evidence that the Thurlow/Haldimand Association started before the Western and Eastern (i.e. Niagara-Hamilton) Associations began in 1819.
By 1874 the Haldimand Association extended from Lake Ontario to Lake Nipissing to the western tip of Lake Superior. Travelling through this vast territory to Association meetings had become so difficult that the churches in York County (now Metropolitan Toronto and York Region) and Simcoe County were asked to form their own Association. And so, the Toronto Association of Baptist Churches was born on June 26, 1874, in the vestry of the Second Markham Baptist Church, in Port Perry. (This church closed 48 years later.)
FOUNDING MEMBER CHURCHES
On June 8 and 9, 1875, delegates from 18 of a possible 19 churches met at the largest church, Bond Street in Toronto, for the Association’s inaugural meeting. Those churches reported a combined membership of 1,689. Only six were in the city of Toronto:
Bond Street began in 1827 in a rented room in a Masonic lodge. This fledgling congregation built its own chapel on March St. (now Lombard) in 1828, survived near-extinction in 1836, moved to a larger new church on Bond St. in 1848, and finally relocated to a 2,000-seat church with a new name: Jarvis Street. The Sisters of St. Joseph used the Bond Street building as a boarding house for working women and in 1892, founded St. Michael’s Hospital in the site. Jarvis Street left the Convention in 1928, but other present-day churches, such as Yorkminster Park, still regard Bond Street as their “mother church”.
Queen Street Baptist Church, now known as First Baptist Church, is the oldest Black institution in Toronto. It was formed in 1826 when Elder Washington Christian, a former slave from Virginia, brought together twelve fugitive slaves who had arrived in Toronto via the Underground Railroad. This congregation built its first church, on Queen Street, in 1841. It moved to University Ave. in 1905, and relocated to its present home at D’Arcy and Huron streets fifty years later. For parts of its long history it was affiliated with the Amherstburg Association, but rejoined the Toronto Association in the 1960s.
York Mills Baptist Church, originally known as the Yonge St. Church, was begun and built in 1833. Rev. S. A. Dyke, the first clerk of the Association, claimed in 1896 that it was then Toronto’s oldest church with a continuous visible existence. At one point in the 1860s its membership consisted of four widows and two other women. This church closed in 1945, but you can still see its cemetery and former parsonage at 104-106 York Mills Rd.
Alexander Street Baptist Church was founded in 1866 by 20 members of Bond Street. It grew, established two missions in the city, and was renamed Immanuel Baptist Church when it moved to Jarvis and Wellesley Streets in 1889. It moved to its present location on Finch Avenue East in 1967.
Parliament Street, founded in 1871, merged with Jarvis Street in 1913. In 1896 it led all the other churches in the number of its sons of and daughters in active service in China, India, South America, the USA, and Canada.
College Street (1872-1965), was known as Scotch Baptist Church in its early years. The building was sold to the Portuguese Seventh-Day Adventist Church in 1965, and then 2007 to a developer who converted it into four luxury freehold homes. One was listed in 2013 for $4.5 million.
Barrie, Orillia, Markham First and Second (not related to today’s Markham Baptist Church), First and Second King, East and West Oro, Eversley, and the short-lived rural churches in Belle Ewart, Innisfill, and Tollendale were also part of the original Toronto Association. The Barrie, Orillia, and West Oro churches survive today as members of the Georgian Bay Association.
Thus, of the 85 churches that belong to today’s Toronto Baptist Ministries, only one, Immanuel, has continuously been part of the Association since it began in 1875.
MEMORIES OF THE FIRST MEETING
The first evening session of the Association’s inaugural meeting could have ended in disaster. Dr. Robert Alexander Fyfe had just begun to address the meeting when, the clerk reported, “ it was brought suddenly to a close by the breaking out of an extensive conflagration [in a foundry] in such close proximity to the church, that at one time it was feared that the Bond street property would be involved in it.” Dr. Fyfe resumed his message the next morning.
According to its first constitution, the purpose of the Toronto Association was “to promote fraternal feeling and co-operation among the churches, to maintain Home and Foreign Missions, Ministerial Education, and whatever else may be deemed by its members worthy and suitable objects of its sympathy and support.” The organization was very simple. There was a moderator and a Secretary-Treasurer (or clerk) Communication with churches was considered so vital that the first meeting also chose a writer (the Rev. John Torrance) for a monthly circular letter on “The Toronto Association as a Missionary Field”.
FIFTY YEARS OF GROWTH
By 1889 there were so many churches in the Toronto Association that the 20 Simcoe County churches were dismissed to form the nucleus of the new Northern Association.
By the 1920s, the Toronto Baptist family was slowly becoming multicultural. A Slavic mission was operating in 1908; Chinese group was meeting in 1913. However, neither of these became churches. “According to the last census (1921), 10 per cent of Toronto's population are foreigners,” Rev. C. H. Shutt reported in 1924. “There are 11,024 Russians, 7,214 Polish, 3,902 Jugoslavs, about the same number of Italians, 1,864 Austrians 2,035 Chinese, and many of other nationalities. This constitutes an inviting field of labor, and it is a matter of congratulation that we have at least three missions carrying on work amongst the Russians and Poles, and one organized Polish Baptist Church, with about 30 members.”
By 1927 the Toronto Association had grown to 61 churches with a record 16,646 members (an average of 273 per church). A record number of people—1,166—were baptized the previous year—an average of over 19 per church!
With the departure of Jarvis Street and 12 other like-minded churches in the 1927-28 split, the Association’s total membership dropped by 4,567. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when church-planting initiatives in the new suburbs and strong home mission outreach to newcomers from Europe brought the total number of churches back up to 60 in 1953, and then 68 in 1956. But these were not the large downtown churches that attracted crowds in the “good old days” of Baptist influence in the city. By 1966 the average membership had dropped to 164 per church. The average number of baptisms that year was only 3.5.
By the 1970s, Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec statistics were painting a grim picture of decline in the number of churches, members, baptisms, and offerings throughout the constituency. In 1972 the BCOQ Planning Committee predicted that if current trends continued, the convention would be dead by the year 2000.
It’s still alive, though its name has changed to Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. The Toronto Association (known as Toronto Baptist Ministries since 2007) is also still alive. The Holy Spirit has continued to call, inspire, and enable Baptists to be faithful witnesses, in word and deed, to the six million people in this great and increasingly secular city.
The most striking evidence of the Spirit’s work is displayed by the growth of the 17 Chinese churches in our Association.
In the early 1970s Dr. Walter Ellis wrote Can the God of the Desert Grow Grapes?, a 150-page study of Toronto’s Baptist churches and the changing demographics of the city they served. He noted, among other things, that the once-thriving mission church on Beverley Street—one of the churches whose roots go back to Bond St. via Jarvis Street—had dwindled to a mere 31 members, of whom only one-third attended no more than once or twice a year. They had just decided to sell the building to a thriving Chinese congregation that had begun with three families in the back of the basement in 1967.
That congregation, Toronto Chinese Baptist Church, joined the Association in 1971. Today its 604 active members still meet in the beautifully-restored Beverley Street church. But for 40 years, under the pastoral leadership of Andrew and Linda Wong, TCBC planted daughter churches and grand-daughter churches across the GTA. In 2014 those eight churches reported a total membership of over 6,000. The largest, Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church, had 2,091 active members and an average Sunday attendance of 1,781. In the past ten years this church alone has baptized 587 people!
In ways that our forefathers could never have imagined in 1875—and they did all seem to be “fathers” back then—the Toronto Association is still very much “a missionary field”.