Still Voices – Still Heard is a collection of biographies of prominent, albeit dead, Canadian Presbyterians connected to the Presbyterian College, the seminary of The Presbyterian Church in Canada at McGill University in Montreal. These are the “still” voices; the individuals are no longer living. This is interesting enough in itself, and not all that uncommon a topic about which to write. But making the book even more interesting is that, appended to each chapter, there is material written (or spoken, in the case of sermons) by the individuals profiled in the book.
The format is a great idea, and it was compiled in honour of the 150th anniversary of the College. The chapters are organized chronologically, which helps the reader follow the development of the College. The book begins with the early years of the school, beginning with William Dawson, a Presbyterian scientist who was the Principal of McGill University from 1855 to 1893. It was his vision that brought about the founding of Presbyterian College as a seminary of the Free Church, which broke away from the (Auld Kirk) Church of Scotland as a result of the Disruption of 1843, which made its way to Canada in 1844 (even though the issue that brought about the split was not an issue for the Canadian church).
What Dawson was to the University, D.H. MacVicar was to the College. His writing on the role of ruling elders in the church, which accompanies the biographical sketch, was helpful in his day and remains helpful today.
What follows are stories of people who are variously remembered who made significant contributions to Presbyterian life in Montreal and Canada, and to the College specifically. They include Jane Drummond Redpath (a key promoter of mission; her husband’s family name remains on many bags of sugar to this day), A. Daniel Coussirat (who pioneered French work among Presbyterians in Quebec), Andrew S. Grant (a pioneer in western Canadian church extension), James Naismith (the creator of the game of basketball; how many of those tall American men who play can credit their game to a Canadian Presbyterian minister?), George C. Pidgeon (a major Presbyterian player in the cause of church union, a student of MacVicar, and the first Moderator of the United Church of Canada), W.G. Brown (preacher, journalist, politician, and missionary to the Canadian west), Cairine MacKay Wilson (the first woman senator in Canada), John W. Foote (Presbyterian military chaplain), C. Ritchie Bell (pastor and teacher of pastors), Alison Stewart-Paterson (one of the early women to graduate from the College to ordained ministry), and R. Sheldon MacKenzie (pastor and educator).
Each of their stories is unique, with a common connection to the Presbyterian College. And each of their contributions to the life of the denomination was significant. I’m sure the editors could have chosen many other individuals to profile, but their choices were good ones, helping the reader to see a broad view of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and one of its colleges.
The contributors were clergy and laity, and it was often easy to tell which was writing by her or his understanding of the context of the history of the denomination. The pieces written by those who had enjoyed a personal relationship with the subject were especially engaging because of that personal connection. Not all articles followed what seemed to be the desired structure, which, while not a significant factor in gaining the knowledge intended, these felt ‘different’ in their flow. Some repeated information within the chapter itself, which the editors could have fixed without changing the integrity of the contributions. And, as happens more and more commonly in books nowadays, there were small errors in spelling and word intention that could have been picked up either by the editors or at the publisher’s end. However, that set aside, it is a good and helpful read, giving one a good sense of the context of the Presbyterian College and enabling the reader to celebrate what God has done and is doing through the College.
In my opinion, the best-written and perhaps most interesting chapter was William Klempa’s piece about Andrew Grant. Other readers could choose other contributions, of course. I found each chapter was of a length that it could be read in a single sitting, allowing the whole book to be read in about 13 sittings.
In the preface, current Principal Dale Woods says that this book seeks “to capture the spirit and passion of those who helped shape the life of the College and those who graduated from the College” by enabling them to “speak in their own words.” With that goal in mind, the authors and editors have succeeded. Anyone wishing to read a decidedly different but entirely interesting history of one of Canada’s lesser-known but highly influential seminaries will find this to be a most engaging read.
Still Voices – Still Heard, published in 2015 by Wipf & Stock, edited by J.S.S. Armour, Judith Kashul, William Klempa, Lucille Marr, and Dan Shute. ISBN 978-1-4982-0831-4.