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COCHRANE, WILLIAM, Presbyterian clergyman, educator, and author; b. 9 Feb. 1831 in Paisley, Scotland, son of William Cochrane, watchmaker, and Mary McMillan; m. first 24 July 1860 Mary Neilson Houstoun of Paisley, and they had one son and one daughter; m. secondly 2 Oct. 1873 Jennette Elizabeth Balmer of Oakville, Ont., and they had twin sons; d. 15 Oct. 1898 in Brantford, Ont.

William Cochrane left school at the age of 12 to work as a messenger for a Paisley bookseller and within a few years he had risen to the position of manager. A Presbyterian, he was active in the Free Church, where he was indoctrinated in its traditions of voluntarism, evangelicalism, and interest in missions and moral reform. In 1853 he accepted the financial support of two family friends in the United States to study for the ministry there. Four years later he received an ab from Hanover College in Indiana (which later awarded him an am and a dd) and then attended Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was taught by Charles Hodge, the defender of orthodox Calvinism. Licensed to preach in February 1859, Cochrane was ordained on 7 June and was inducted into a church in Jersey City, N.J.

After returning to Scotland to be married, he visited Brantford, Upper Canada, in 1861. Shortly thereafter he received, and accepted, a call from Zion Presbyterian Church there; he took up his new position in May 1862. “Thoroughly despising sensationalism and clap-trap,” Cochrane employed an “animated and impressive” delivery to preach “the gospel in its simplicity and purity.” His reputation as a “vigorous evangelical preacher” and his considerable organizational skills aided Zion Presbyterian in becoming a large and prosperous church. Membership continually increased, bible classes were established, and mission work was sponsored.

Cochrane, who served as clerk of his synod and his presbytery, rose to prominence on a national level. In 1873 he and Robert Ure made up the commission that, after a trip to Manitoba, recommended the Presbyterian college there be moved from Kildonan to Winnipeg. The previous year he had been appointed convener of the home mission committee (western section), a position he held until his death. As convener he made missionary tours to northern Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and in 1882 with James Robertson* he helped to establish the important Church and Manse Building Fund of Manitoba and the North-West. Cochrane had been a keen supporter of the 1875 union of Canadian Presbyterian churches. During the controversy shortly thereafter involving Daniel James Macdonnell’s doubts about the doctrine of everlasting punishment, Cochrane was instrumental in defining a compromise that allowed Macdonnell to remain in the ministry without further dividing the liberal and orthodox wings of the church. Cochrane became moderator of the General Assembly in 1882. He represented his church at three meetings of the Pan-Presbyterian Alliance, at Belfast in 1884, at London in 1888, and at Glasgow in 1896.

Despite his Princeton education, Cochrane was not rigidly orthodox. When there was a heated debate over the use of a harmonium and the hiring of a chorister at Zion Presbyterian Church, Cochrane concluded that those who opposed the introduction of music in worship were “awfully prejudiced.” He understood that the emergence of industrial society, the discoveries of scientists, and the questions posed by biblical scholars were raising doubts about orthodox theology and Christian social teachings. According to Cochrane, church-goers were “in danger of giving up all faith in the primary verities,” and the church was deceiving itself by concluding that growing membership and expanding mission fields were signs of inner strength. Dismayed that attending church was not a community event for much of North American society, he pressed for stricter sabbath observance. He also noted that ministers should “present the truths of Scripture in such new phrases as shall best adapt them to the age in which we live.” Despite the advocacy of a more liberal outlook, Cochrane did not abandon faith in the divine inspiration of Scripture and insisted that the fundamentals of evangelical Christianity, especially the doctrine of the atonement of Christ and the necessity of repentance, be maintained. “Any toning down of such doctrines,” he warned in an 1892 pamphlet, “is dishonorable in a Christian teacher, and deserving of severest condemnation.”

In the pulpit Cochrane rarely spoke on current events but his public addresses reveal an increasing concern about urban poverty and industrial strife. Particularly interested in education, in 1874 he was a founder of the Young Ladies’ College of Brantford, where he was the lecturer in philosophy and the governor. He also served for many years as president of Brantford’s mechanics’ institute. In politics he was a George Brown* liberal and was critical of the “brazen corruption” of the governments of Sir John A. Macdonald. Cochrane shared many of the anti-Catholic prejudices of Victorian Protestants and seems to have been sympathetic to the platform of the Protestant Protective Association [see Oscar Ernest Fleming*], which in the 1890s wanted to see separate schools abolished.

Cochrane remained the minister at Zion Presbyterian until his death. His ministry was aimed at bringing people to Christ as well as at strengthening and comforting believers. Although he constantly visited the troubled, sick, and dying in his congregation, he frequently complained in his diary that the heavy burden of church business gave him little time for pastoral duties and spiritual growth. He wondered if attending meetings and writing reports was the “right kind of work for a Gospel minister” and, towards the end of his career, he concluded that his work was “getting to be as much secular as religious.”

Despite all the various demands on his time, Cochrane had been a frequent contributor of articles and letters to various newspapers, and from 1871 he also produced more than a dozen books and pamphlets, many of which were based on his sermons and addresses. His most ambitious undertaking was his editorship in the early 1890s of the first four volumes of the biographical series that appeared under the title The Canadian album: men of Canada; or, success by example, in religion, patriotism, business, law, medicine, education and agriculture; containing portraits of some of Canadas chief business men, statesmen, farmers, men of the learned professions, and others: also, an authentic sketch of their lives; object lessons for the present generation and examples to posterity. Cochrane apparently wrote many of the sketches himself and sought to have the information in each verified by the subject. The series was to have a practical value to those in business: each biography gave an account of its subject’s “character and capacity,” which to Cochrane were as important as financial and professional ratings, and the photographs illustrated the “intimate connection between the features and expression of the face and the qualities and habit of mind.” More important, the Canadian album stands as a monument to the Victorian ideology, evident in Cochrane’s earlier works, of success based on self-help and moral uplift.

David B. Marshall

The most complete listing of William Cochrane’s published works is in Canadiana, 1867–1900. In addition to the Canadian album, which appeared in Brantford, Ont., from 1891 to 1896 in five volumes (the last edited by John Castell Hopkins*), his most important publications are The heavenly vision; and other sermons (1863–73) (Toronto, 1874); Christ and Christian life; sermons preached in Zion Church, Brantford, 1875 (Toronto, 1876); Warning and welcome; sermons preached in Zion Presbyterian Church, Brantford, during 1876 (Toronto, 1877); The church and the commonwealth: discussions and orations on questions of the day, practical, biographical, educational, and doctrinal, written during a twenty years ministry (Brantford, 1887); and The negative theology and the larger hope (Brantford, 1892).

AO, MS 409. R. N. Grant, Life of RevWilliam Cochrane, D.D. . . . (Toronto, 1899). PCC Acts and proc., 1899. Presbyterian Record for the Dominion of Canada (Montreal), 13 (1888): 16. Canadian biog. dict. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. D. G. Burley, “Making the self-made man: business and social mobility in mid-nineteenth-century Brantford, Ontario” (paper presented to the CHA annual conference, Winnipeg, 1986). J. S. Moir, Enduring witness: a history of the Presbyterian Church in Canada ([Hamilton, Ont., 1974?]). J. R. Miller, “Anti-Catholic thought in Victorian Canada,” CHR, 66 (1985): 474–94. J. T. Watt, “Anti-Catholic nativism in Canada: the Protestant Protective Association,” CHR, 48 (1967): 45–58.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David B. Marshall, “COCHRANE, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cochrane_william_12E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cochrane_william_12E.html
Author of Article: David B. Marshall
Title of Article: COCHRANE, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1990
Year of revision: 1990
Access Date: April 23, 2014