McGRAY, ASA, wheelwright, Baptist minister, and farmer; b. 18 Sept. 1780 in North Yarmouth (Maine), son of William McGray; m. 7 March 1801 Susanna Stoddard in Durham (Maine), and they had at least five boys and two girls; d. 28 Dec. 1843 in Centreville, N.S.
Asa McGray, the son of a tavern-keeper in Durham and a wheelwright by trade, was converted to Methodism there in 1805 and baptized by immersion. He began preaching in 1813. Increasingly attracted to the Free Will Baptist movement, however, he was ordained in Fairfax (Albion) by the Fairfax Baptist Church on 26 Sept. 1814. After preaching for two years he moved to Windsor, N.S., one of many Free Will advocates drawn to the colony from the District of Maine. There he supported himself as a wheelwright and preached on occasion.
In 1820 or 1821 McGray moved to Centreville on Cape Sable Island, where there may have been a Baptist church operating on the Calvinist model. On 22 March 1821, assisted by another minister, Thomas Crowell, he organized, perhaps from the earlier church, the first Free Will Baptist Church in Nova Scotia. This group differed from the Regular Baptists of the colony primarily in its rejection of Calvinism and the espousal of open communion. Its members were determined, as recorded in the church minutes, to have the “Scriptures of Truth as our only and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.” In these and other matters they were still strongly influenced by the legacy of Henry Alline* and the Great Awakening. With little competition, McGray’s church grew rapidly, fuelled by periodic revivals.
McGray was instrumental in the establishment of other Free Will Baptist churches in surrounding communities on the island and in ordaining candidates to serve them. In 1834 these churches were formed into a quarterly meeting, or conference, a loose organization of independent churches. On 17 June 1837 a partial union was effected between the Free Will Baptists and the Free Christian Baptists, a similar group under the leadership of the Reverend Joseph Norton. Disagreements between Norton and McGray led in 1839 to the embittered withdrawal of McGray and most members of his church. They assumed their former name and in 1840 allied themselves with the Farmington Quarterly Meeting, in Maine. It was not until 1867 that the Free Christian and Free Will Baptist bodies in Nova Scotia were reunited as the Free Baptist Conference. In 1906 this body merged with the Calvinist Baptists to form the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces.
McGray served his church and community selflessly, helping to build bridges and schools. He often acted as doctor, and his wife as midwife. In 1827 he established the first Sunday school on the island. Following the tradition of his church, he received no payment for his pastoral services and even provided the first meeting-place at his own expense by enlarging and remodelling his home. His livelihood derived from farming, supplemented with occasional offerings made by members of the congregation. It was not until 1838 that the church agreed to contribute towards his support.
The dispute with Norton was but one of many deep divisions in the Baptist movement that marked McGray’s final years, as evangelicals in Nova Scotia attempted to make choices from what was at times a bewildering array of contending factions. McGray’s free-will doctrines and emphasis on open communion would eventually play an important role in shaping Maritime Baptist views. Ironically, it took a preacher from Maine to reintroduce and uphold in Nova Scotia the legacy of Henry Alline at a time when most of Alline’s disciples, including Edward Manning* and Joseph Dimock, were moving down other, more “orthodox,” paths.
Atlantic Baptist Hist. Coll., Acadia Univ. (Wolfville, N.S.), Centreville, Shelburne County, N.S., United Baptist Church records, records of Cape Sable Island Free Baptist Church; Edward Manning, journals. A treatise on the faith of the Free Baptists of Nova Scotia (n.p., n.d.; copy at Atlantic Baptist Hist. Coll.). Christian Messenger, 25 Aug. 1837. S. B. Attwood, The length and breadth of Maine (Orono, Maine, 1973). Free Baptist cyclopædia, ed. G. A. Burgess and J. T. Ward (Chicago, 1889). Bill, Fifty years with Baptist ministers. Edwin Crowell, A history of Barrington Township and vicinity . . . 1604–1870 (Yarmouth, N.S., ; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973), 253–56, 519–20. Levy, Baptists of Maritime prov. Saunders, Hist. of Baptists. I. D. Stewart, The history of the Freewill Baptists for half a century (Dover, [N.H.], 1862).