EASTON, ROBERT, Presbyterian clergyman; baptized 15 Sept. 1773 in Selkirk, Scotland, eldest of four children born to William Easton, a gardener, and Nellie Thomson; d. 2 May 1831 in Montreal.
Robert Easton was a native of Hawick, near Selkirk, and he attended grammar school there. After moving on to the University of Edinburgh and graduating in 1793 from the seminary of the Associate Synod of Scotland at Selkirk, he was licensed by the Burgher Presbytery of Edinburgh; however, it was not until 2 Aug. 1798, following his acceptance of a call to Morpeth, England, that he was ordained to the ministry. He was recruited for service in America by the Reverend John Mason of New York, and in 1802 he resigned the charge of Morpeth and with Mason and five other young clergymen, one of whom was Robert Forrest, sailed to New York in September.
Easton undertook missionary duties in the United States before coming to Montreal in 1804 to minister to a congregation that Forrest had extracted from St Gabriel Street Church after losing his bid for its pulpit to James Somerville* in 1803. Having accepted a call to New York, Forrest had persuaded Easton to replace him in Montreal. Without a church, Easton’s congregation worshipped in a room on Rue Notre-Dame. The members were largely Scottish Secessionists and American Presbyterians, for the most part “tradesmen and mechanics” according to James Leslie*, who added that his own congregation, St Gabriel Street Church, was attended “by the higher classes of the Presbyterian community.” Under Easton the new congregation quickly elected a committee of managers and made plans to build a church. Two adjacent lots on Rue Saint-Pierre were bought; on one Easton laid the cornerstone for a church on 15 Oct. 1805. Given the high tension in relations between Britain and the United States, he took pains in a speech on that occasion to emphasize that his congregation was no less loyal to Britain than that of St Gabriel Street Church. At the same time, while deploring a decision of the Court of King’s Bench at Quebec that refused civil registers to all but Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy [see Clark Bentom*], he urged forbearance on his congregation. In late 1806 or in 1807 the church, which became known as St Peter Street Church, was completed; of the £1,500 required to build it, £600 was collected by Easton in New York on condition that the institution would remain a Secession body.
In May 1808 Easton moved into the stone house that the congregation had acquired with the lot adjacent to the church. From his salary of £125, which was always in arrears, the committee of managers deducted £18 for rent. Easton soon brought to the manse a wife, Mary Beattie, who had moved with her family to Montreal from Salem, N.Y. Of the four children born to them, two would die in infancy.
The years 1808–18 were the most satisfying of Easton’s career. The congregation finally obtained civil registers in 1815. It also prospered, and as a result Easton’s salary doubled to £250 by 1818. In addition to serving his own congregation, he ministered to Irish and Scottish Presbyterian immigrants passing through and to Presbyterians in settlements outside the city. He became better known; at least two of his sermons were published, one in 1815, the other, preached before the Female Benevolent Society of Montreal, in 1816. In the latter year he was appointed the Montreal agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society, and when an auxiliary was formed in the city in 1818 he became its first secretary.
Easton had attempted unsuccessfully in 1805 to connect St Peter Street Church with the Associate Synod of Scotland. In July 1817 another effort was made: Easton, William Smart*, the Secession Church minister at Brockville, Upper Canada, and William Bell* and William Taylor, two ministers recently arrived from Scotland who probably provided the initiative for the move, petitioned the Associate Synod for authorization to form a Canadian presbytery in connection with it. Before a response could be received, however, Smart launched the idea of an independent presbytery that would group all ministers in the Canadas whatever their affiliation to the various Scottish churches. In January 1818 Taylor, Smart, and Easton, who had become an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, met and formed the Presbytery of the Canadas, with Easton as moderator, in order to conduct an ordination. It was decided to hold another meeting in July in St Peter Street Church, to which all Presbyterian clergy would be invited, with the object of establishing a union on a more solid foundation. Bell, hoping for affiliation to the Associate Synod, had refused to attend the January meeting, but he was present in July. He had earlier found that Easton’s “preaching was not reckoned evangelical” and had taken a personal dislike to him. “We soon learned,” he recorded, “that Mr. Easton had taken all the business of the Presbytery into his own hands and had acted with all the authority of a bishop,” and Easton continued to dominate the proceedings to Bell’s great frustration. When the authorization to form a presbytery arrived from Scotland in the course of the proceedings, Easton feared it would compromise the independent organization and tried to suppress the news. Bell – and the press – learned of it, however, and a lively controversy ensued. Easton got his way, and the Presbytery of the Canadas was accepted.
In June 1818 the committee of managers of St Peter Street Church had reluctantly granted Easton a year’s leave of absence in Britain on full salary to enable him to recover a declining health and attract ministers to the colony. He angered his congregation by remaining almost two years. In 1819–20, while he was still abroad, Bell had the Presbytery of the Canadas transformed into the Synod of the Canadas and seems to have insisted on the exclusion of Easton and his congregation; in any case, St Peter Street Church, probably unhappy with the assistance it was receiving, repudiated the synod in February 1820, thus cutting its ties with Canadian Presbyterian Secessionism, and forced its decision on Easton when he returned in the fall. Easton’s influence with the congregation was diminished, and the break with Canadian Secessionism divided the church. When Easton offered his resignation in 1822 the congregation called John Burns, a Church of Scotland minister, to succeed him and resolved to establish its connection with that church. These decisions provoked the departure of the American minority, who had contributed to building the church on condition that the congregation remain a Secession body. The Americans founded the American Presbyterian Church, and St Peter’s Street Church was renamed St Andrew’s Church.
Easton turned increasingly to outside interests. Before leaving in 1818 he had proposed a revision of Britain’s emigration policy to Sir John Coape Sherbrooke and petitioned government for a land grant in Rawdon Township. After his return he was again appointed secretary of the Montreal auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society and in 1822 he proposed to the Church Missionary Society, an Anglican body, the establishment of an Indian college in Lower Canada. He also pursued his application for a land grant, but without success.
With his eyesight deteriorating, Easton retired, on an annuity of £150, when John Burns finally arrived in 1824. Of Easton, Archibald Henderson, a Presbyterian minister who had arrived in Lower Canada in 1818, asserted that one could not long remain in his company “without perceiving him to be a complete visionary.” Although his career had ended in failure, the division of the congregation he had nurtured produced two of Montreal’s major Presbyterian churches.
Robert Easton is the author of A sermon, delivered before the members of the Female Benevolent Society, in Montreal, September 8, 1816 (Montreal, 1816) and Reasons for joy and praise, a sermon preached April 6, 1815, being the day of general thanksgiving for peace with the United States (Montreal, 1815).
ANQ-M, CE1-125, 5 mai 1831. Arch. of the Mount Royal Cemetery Company (Outremont, Que.), Reg. of burials, May 1831. Church Missionary Soc. Arch. (London), C, C.1/M, Mission books (incoming letters), 28 Jan. 1822. Mount Royal Cemetery Company (Outremont), Tombstone of Robert Easton. PAC, RG 1, L3L: 79841. St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Montreal), Minutes of the Church Committee, 1804–24. Canadian Courant and Montreal Advertiser, 22 Dec. 1821, 4 May 1831. Montreal Gazette, 21 Oct. 1805. W. M. Glasgow, Cyclopedic manual of’ the United Presbyterian Church of North America . . . (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1903). Hew Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiœ scoticanœ: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation (new ed., 9v. to date, Edinburgh, 1915– ), 7. R. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church. William Gregg, History of the Presbyterian Church in the Dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1885). E. A. [Kerr] McDougall, “The American element in the early Presbyterian Church in Montreal (1786–1824)”