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McGILL, ROBERT, Presbyterian minister and editor; b. 21 May 1798 in Ayr, Scotland, son of William McGill; m. Catherine McLimont, and they had at least three children; d. 4 Feb. 1856 in Montreal.

Robert McGill, the third son of a schoolteacher, was born and brought up in Ayr, Scotland. Initially taught by his father, he went on to the University of Glasgow and then, aspiring to the ministry, entered divinity. He was licensed by the Church of Scotland’s Presbytery of Glasgow but, unable to find a permanent post, he accepted the onerous job of relief preacher, substituting for ministers throughout the presbytery.

In 1829 the long-established Presbyterian congregation of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada, petitioned the Glasgow Colonial Society for a minister. The request was passed on to the Presbytery of Glasgow and McGill accepted the call with its promise of £150 per annum. After being ordained by the presbytery on 15 July 1829, he set sail for America, arriving at Niagara in October.

McGill, a powerful, fervent preacher and a conscientious pastor, enjoyed his years in Niagara. He began construction of a new church, St Andrew’s, in 1831, erected a manse, organized a strong congregation, and became a leader in local affairs, in particular taking a keen interest in educational matters. Enthralled as he was by the beauty and immensity of the country, he was appalled by the paucity, and isolation of its Church of Scotland ministers and incensed by the lack of government recognition of his church’s claims to establishment. Full of enthusiasm, he set out to rectify the situation. It was to be his lifelong conviction that the solution lay in numbers, organization, and, during the early years, the close support of the Scottish church. He urged the Glasgow Colonial Society to send and initially support a constant stream of missionaries, since many areas were too poor to sustain a minister. Once in the Canadas, he maintained, they would soon find permanent posts.

At the same time he rallied those ministers interested in forming a colonial synod, and in June 1831 saw the foundation of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland. A born organizer, he played a vital role in the new body, heading or sitting upon innumerable committees and serving as synod clerk from 1831 to 1835 and as moderator in 1839. A leader of the negotiations begun in 1831 for union with other Presbyterian groups in the Canadas, he, with the prominent Presbyterian layman William Morris, was instrumental in bringing about the union of their church and the United Synod of Upper Canada in 1840. From an early date he recognized the need to train ministers locally, supporting first the demand for a Presbyterian theological chair at the proposed King’s College, Toronto, and then the plan to found a separate Church of Scotland seminary. After the decision was taken to create Queen’s College, Kingston, he was appointed senior member of the board of trustees, a post he held until his death.

McGill published regularly. In March 1837 he founded the Canadian Christian Examiner, and Presbyterian Review, a monthly periodical intended to maintain the faith in areas without a preacher, and edited the paper until shortly before its demise in December 1840. His major work was a collection of prayers and meditations for the young, printed in Niagara in 1842.

Noted for his talents as a conciliator, McGill had smoothed over many contentious issues among his colleagues in the 1830s. As tensions rose within the church over the nature of the relationship that should exist between their synod and the Church of Scotland, he was at the centre, heading various committees in an attempt to find a compromise solution. When, despite all efforts, the church split on the issue in 1844, McGill, fearful of jeopardizing its state aid, stayed with the Church of Scotland synod. Next year, after. the death of the Reverend Edward Black*, the parishioners of St Paul’s in Montreal asked McGill to become their pastor. He found the lure of the city irresistible. In November 1845 he was inducted into his new charge and quickly became involved in the local scene, championing various Protestant charities.

Upset by the split that had taken place within the church in 1844, McGill tried, as convener of a series of committees on the problems arising out of the rupture, to avoid exacerbating the situation, even though he concluded, with regret, that for the time being reconciliation was impossible. He continued to press for better organization, more ministers from Scotland, and increased efforts to find local ministerial candidates. Reunion, though, remained his chief goal. In 1852 he raised the subject again, arguing for a merger of the various Presbyterian groups in the Canadas. Three years later, just months before his death, he went to New Brunswick as the chief delegate of his church to lay before the synod there the need for all branches of the Presbyterian faith in British North America to unite.

McGill’s unceasing work on behalf of his church was recognized in 1853 when he was awarded an honorary dd by the University of Glasgow.

H. J. Bridgman

An outline of McGill’s career is contained at the QUA in the session, presbytery, and synod records of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, and in the UCA biog. files. He was the author of “A Canadian missionary,” Glasgow Colonial Soc., Report (Glasgow), 1835: 5657; The love of country, a discourse preached in St. Andrew’s Church, Niagara, on Tuesday, the 6th February 1838, (a day appointed for public thanksgiving, on account of our deliverance from the miseries of the late insurrection) (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.], 1838); Letter to the friends of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, on the establishment of a literary and theological college (Niagara, 1839); Prayers, and devout meditations, designed to assist the young Christian in the cultivation of a devout temper (Niagara, 1842); Brief notes on the relation of the synod of Canada to the Church of Scotland, (being the basis of an exposition of this subject to the Presbyterian congregation of Niagara, on Wednesday evening, March 6th, 1844) (Niagara, [1844]); Report on the part of the convener of the synod’s committee to negociate on the subject of reunion with the seceding brethren (Niagara, [1844]); Letters on the condition and prospects of Queen’s College, Kingston, addressed to the Hon. William Morris, chairman of the board of trustees (Montreal, [1846]); and Discourses preached on various occasions, in the course of ministerial duty (Montreal, 1853). Along with George Sheed and Alexander Gale, he also wrote “Memorial on the state of religion in certain districts of Upper Canada,” Glasgow Soc. (in Connection with the Established Church of Scotland), for Promoting the Religious Interests of the Scottish Settlers in British North America, Annual report (Glasgow), 1831: 28–32.

The journal McGill edited appeared as the Canadian Christian Examiner, and Presbyterian Rev. (Niagara), 1 (1837)–2 (1838), and then continued in Toronto as the Christian Examiner, and Presbyterian Magazine, 3 (1839)–4(1840).

ANQ-M, CE1-125, 1 nov. 1864. UCA, James Croil papers, diary, 1866–67: 51; Glasgow Colonial Soc., corr., 2 (1829–30), nos.153, 202; 5 (1834–35), no.201; 6 (1836–38), nos.119, 222, 282–83; 7 (1839–43), nos.76, 83. John Cook, A sermon preached on the occasion of the death of the Rev. Robert McGill, D.D., minister of St. Paul’s Church, Montreal (Montreal, 1856). Croil, Hist. and statistical report (1868), 11–12. Glasgow Soc. (in Connection with the Established Church of Scotland), for Promoting the Religious Interests of the Scottish Settlers in British North America, Annual report, 1829: 18; 1830: 13; 1831: 16. Presbyterian, 8 (1855): 98, 155; 9 (1856): 35–36, 130; 17 (1864): 358. Montreal Gazette, 5–6 Feb. 1856. Montreal Transcript, 5 Feb. 1856. The matriculation albums of the University of Glasgow from 1728 to 1858, comp. W. I. Addison (Glasgow, 1913). A roll of the graduates of the University of Glasgow from 31st December, 1727, to 31st December, 1897 with short biographical notes, comp. W. I. Addison (Glasgow, 1898), 372. Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiæ scoticanæ, vol.7. Janet Carnochan, Centennial, St Andrews, Niagara, 1794–1894 (Toronto, 1895). Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. J. Bridgman, “McGILL, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgill_robert_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcgill_robert_8E.html
Author of Article: H. J. Bridgman
Title of Article: McGILL, ROBERT
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: December 22, 2014