GEORGE, JAMES, Presbyterian minister and educator; b. 8 Nov. 1800 at Muckhart (Perthshire, Scotland), son of James and Elizabeth George; d. 26 Aug. 1870 at Stratford, Ont.
James George, the son of a crofter, spent his childhood near Kinross and, after elementary schooling, became a weaver at Auchterarder. The local Presbyterian minister, recognizing his ability, persuaded him to study for the ministry and gave him private tuition. George entered Dollar Academy in 1822, then matriculated in St Andrews University. In 1825 he graduated in arts from the University of Glasgow and entered Divinity Hall to study theology. He also taught in a Glasgow charity school. In 1855 the University of Glasgow conferred upon George the honorary degree of dd.
Imbued with radical social ideas and strongly opposed to the Tory policies of Lord Melville in Scotland and of the ministry of Lord Liverpool, George immigrated in 1829 to the United States, joining his brothers who had settled in Delaware County, N.Y. He may have married before leaving Scotland; his first wife, Margaret, was buried there in 1834. After entering the ministry of the Associate Reformed Church, he preached in New York State in Philadelphia and Fort Covington. He later said that his stay in the United States cured him of his radical republicanism.
In July 1833 he moved to York (Toronto), Upper Canada, where he was received into the secession United Synod of Upper Canada, and was given the charge of Scarborough. Within a year he built up an active congregation which he took with him into the Presbyterian Church of Canada in Connection with the Church of Scotland. He was elected moderator of the synod in 1841.
At the time of the uprising led by William Lyon Mackenzie In December 1837, George marched into Toronto at the head of the “Men of Scarboro” to support the government. In a sermon preached at the time, one can see how thoroughly George had repudiated his earlier radicalism. Civil government, he said, should be obeyed as an institution of “divine appointment,” and rebellion could be justified only in extreme cases when a government “nullified its own claim to obedience.” George stayed with his Scarborough congregation for 17 years with only one interval, from October 1847 to May 1848, when he was stationed in Belleville. Up to 1853 he is said to have preached 1,700 sermons, each one written out in full. From these and later sermons a selection was made by his son-in-law, the Reverend Donald Ross, and published as a posthumous volume.
In 1846 George received a part-time appointment as interim professor of systematic theology at Queen’s College, Kingston. He lectured annually for six weeks while the Toronto presbytery supplied his pulpit in Scarborough. In 1852 he was appointed by the synod as a clerical member of Queen’s board of trustees, and the following year was made professor of mental and moral philosophy. With the resignation soon after of Principal John Machar, George became the acting head of the college with an increment of £100 in salary and the rank of vice-principal. During his term of office Queen’s acquired its first permanent home; a medical and a law faculty (the latter was short-lived) were added to those of arts and theology.
In 1854 George was partly instrumental in bringing the Reverend George Weir from Scotland to Queen’s as professor of classical literature. His early relations with the young professor were as cordial as they were with Weir’s sister who, for the first year, acted as her brother’s housekeeper. Trouble began in 1856 with the circulation of an anonymous letter attacking George and the board of trustees for their mismanagement of the college preparatory school. It was traced to the school’s headmaster, H. J. Borthwick, who was summarily dismissed. When Borthwick then applied to enter Queen’s as a divinity student, George refused to admit him to his classes and attempted to have his conduct investigated by the college senate, a move blocked by Weir who voted against it. George then made a formal complaint about Weir and Borthwick; when the board later pressed George to admit Borthwick to classes, he resigned as trustee, vice-principal, and professor of theology, retaining only the chair in mental and moral philosophy.
In 1859, when William Leitch became principal, George and Weir were summoned before the board and admonished to end their continuing altercation for the good of the college. The feud remained in abeyance until the autumn of 1861. On his return from a visit to Scotland, Weir charged that his “sister bore a child in March 1855 – a son – at this moment a living likeness of yourself [George], and known from the hour of its birth only by your name – of which child she has uniformly and solemnly affirmed that you are the father.” George categorically denied the charge, and at first demanded a full investigation by the trustees; he then changed his mind and decided to resign for reasons of health. The board promptly accepted his resignation, to take effect at the end of the spring term in 1862, and declined to take any further action on Weir’s charges.
Frustrated by what he considered to be the board’s pusillanimous attitude, Weir retaliated by lampooning the “immoral professor” of moral philosophy in an anonymously printed mock-heroic poem of 16 cantos. According to Leitch, who considered Weir to be mentally unbalanced, he also read to students and anyone who would listen, “the most indelicate and licentious details” from letters dealing with the alleged affair between his sister and George. When George left Queen’s in 1862 to become minister of St Andrew’s Church in Stratford, Weir transferred his antagonism to Leitch and so disrupted the college that the board of trustees dismissed him in 1864.
In Stratford, George had a successful ministry. He healed rifts in the small congregation and so increased its membership that a much larger church was needed. He was active also in community affairs, serving on the school board and acting as chaplain of the St Andrew’s Society. His second wife, Barbara Ross, whom he had married 20 Dec. 1845, had died a few years later, and some time before leaving Queen’s he married Janet Kerr. Both minister and wife were popular with the Stratford congregation and worked together to make a new church possible. When it was opened on 13 Jan. 1869, a debt of only $1,400 remained to be paid. George died in 1870, survived by his wife and three daughters by his first wife, two sons by the second, and two girls and a boy by the third.
No hint of scandal marked George’s ministry in either Scarborough or Stratford. Robert Ure, who preached the funeral sermon, made oblique reference to the troubles at Queen’s in affirming his belief that George’s record “impartially considered will be found to contain nothing that seriously affects the lustre of a noble character or the general consistency of a life devoted to the service of God.” A long encomium also gave him unstinted praise as pastor, teacher, pulpit orator, writer, and conversationalist; it even commented upon his “rich vein of genuine humour,” a quality singularly lacking in his published works.
It is difficult to assess the Weir-George dispute which once rocked Queen’s. George appears to have been self-important and resentful of criticism; Weir, envious, ambitious, paranoiac. However indiscreet George may have been, it seems highly improbable that he was Miss Weir’s seducer. The evidence, at best, is circumstantial and one can only resort to the old Scottish verdict, “not proven.”
[James George], Thoughts on high themes: being a collection of sermons from the mss. of the late Rev. James George, D.D. . . . (Toronto, 1874). Other writings by James George are listed in Bibliography of Canadiana (Staton and Tremaine); Bibliography of Canadiana: first supp. (Boyle and Colbeck); Canadiana, 1698–1900, in the possession of the Douglas Library, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario (Kingston, 1932), 47–48; and Catalogue of pamphlets in PAC (Casey), I.
Perth County Surrogate Court (Stratford, Ont.), will of James George, dated 19 May 1868; codicil, 15 Aug. 1870; affidavit, 29 Aug. 1870 (copy at PAO). QUA, Queen’s records, B, 1846–62; D1, 1846–64. Argus; a Commercial, Agricultural, Political and Literary Journal (Kingston, [Ont.]), 1862. Chronicle and News (Kingston), 1847–62. Daily British Whig (Kingston), 1849–62. Daily News (Kingston), 1851–62. A historical and statistical report of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, in Connection with the Church of Scotland, for the year 1866 (2nd ed., Montreal, 1868). Memorials of the life and ministry of the Rev. John Machar, D.D., 1796–1863, late minister of St. Andrew’s Church, Kingston (Toronto, 1873). “On appeal from the Court of Chancery: Weir v. Mathieson,” Reports of cases adjudged in the Court of Error and Appeal, comp. Alexander Grant (2nd ed., 3v., Toronto and Edinburgh, 1885), III, 1123–63. Presbyterian (Montreal), XXIII (1870), 239–46. Presbyterian Church of Can. in Connection with the Church of Scot., Minutes of the Synod, 1834–36; Abstract of the minutes of the Synod, 1837–45; Acts and proc. of the Synod, 1846–71. Stratford Beacon (Stratford, Ont.), 2, 9, 14 Sept. 1870. Stratford Herald (Stratford, Ont.), 31 Aug. 1870. William Gregg, History of the Presbyterian Church in the dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1885).