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MURRAY, ISAAC, Presbyterian minister, educator, and editor; b. 24 March 1824 in Meadowville, N.S., son of James Murray; m. 30 June 1854 Jane McK. Sprott, daughter of the Reverend John Sprott*, in Musquodoboit, N.S., and they had two daughters; d. 7 Dec. 1906 in New Glasgow, N.S.

The son of Scottish immigrants, Isaac Murray received his common-school education at Rogers Hill, in Pictou County, N.S. He then served as a rural schoolmaster for a year before entering Pictou Academy at age 15. Returning to teaching after two years of study there, he took advantage of informal lessons in logic and moral philosophy offered by the Reverend James Ross* of West River (Durham) in order to prepare himself for the ministry. In 1844 he entered the theological hall of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia, then being conducted by John Keir* at his home in Princetown (Malpeque), P.E.I. He returned to Nova Scotia to continue his studies when the hall was relocated in West River in 1847. Resisting pleas to begin preaching with what he believed to be insufficient training, he went to New Jersey to complete his education at Princeton Theological Seminary.

After being licensed to preach by the Pictou presbytery in May 1849, Murray returned to the Island. He was ordained minister of Cavendish and New London in January 1850, filling the vacancy left by the departure of John Geddie* for missionary work in the Pacific. His youth, energy, and intellectual skills soon propelled him to a prominent position: during the year after his ordination he served the first of many terms as moderator of the Island presbytery. Education was one of Murray’s principal interests throughout his long career. The foundation for his own success had been laid in large part by the tutorship of well-educated clergy in Pictou County and he in turn offered help to academically promising young members of his congregation, such as David Laird*, providing them with encouragement and training in theology, Latin, and Greek. Educational issues also drew Murray to the forefront of Island politics. Acting with other leading evangelical clergymen, he assumed a conspicuous role in pressing Protestant demands for mandatory Bible-reading in public schools in the mid 1850s. To advance this and other matters of concern to evangelical Protestants, Murray helped to establish the Protector and Christian Witness in Charlottetown in March 1857 and he was a co-editor, along with George and Alexander Sutherland, during its 22-month existence. His work in this enterprise marked the beginning of an active journalistic career. In 1867 and again in 1870 the presbytery called upon Murray to serve as an editor of the Charlottetown Presbyterian. Murray had also been instrumental, with David Laird, in founding the Patriot and he helped to guide it by regularly contributing editorials.

In 1863 Murray had been appointed to the Island’s Board of Education by the Conservatives, who had returned to power under John Hamilton Gray* in the wake of the Bible controversy that Murray had helped to foster. He was reappointed five years later following the promulgation of a new education act, which restored the principle of free education and sought to achieve a compromise between Protestant and Roman Catholic interests. With Angus McDonald*, rector of the Catholic St Dunstan’s College, he was assigned the task of examining candidates for teaching licences. Murray took on a central role in resisting Catholic demands for revising educational policies and establishing sectarian schools on the Island in the late 1860s and early 1870s [see Peter McIntyre*]. He insisted on a distinction between teaching religious values and sectarianism. The first approach, which had been at the core of Protestant demands for Bible-reading in the schools, was necessary if the government was to foster a moral and obedient citizenry; the second was to be resisted. If Catholics did not like the way that religion was being treated in the public schools, they ought, Murray suggested in 1875, to consider whether they belonged within the sphere of the British constitution. Canada, he argued, was a Protestant country.

Although much of Murray’s energy was directed toward combating Catholic influence, he engaged in sharp debate with fellow Protestants as well. Responding to a speech made by the Reverend John Davis* in 1864, on the need to send Baptist missionaries into Pictou County, he launched a blistering attack on the inadequacies of Baptist theology. The controversy was pursued at length in letters to editors and in public debate, and gave rise in 1869 to Murray’s scholarly treatment of the issue in Scripture baptism: its mode and subject.

By the 1870s Murray’s talents were receiving recognition beyond the Island. In 1873 he served as moderator of the Maritime synod of the Presbyterian Church and in 1876 his scholarship and efforts on behalf of the church earned him an honorary dd from Queen’s College in Ontario. The following year, when the General Assembly of the newly united Presbyterian Church in Canada was split by its consideration of theological errors in the highly controversial preaching of Daniel James Macdonnell* of Toronto, Murray, an ardent supporter of union, helped to damp acrimony and keep the debate from leading to new fractures. In 1892 he was chosen to act as Maritime moderator of the church.

Murray spent more than a quarter-century as pastor at Cavendish before transferring in 1877 to adjacent New London, then a separate parish. The following year he went to the Prince Street congregation in Charlottetown. Declining health appears to have prompted him to move to less demanding pastorates. In 1882 he left the Island altogether and became minister at Vale Colliery (Thorburn) and Sutherlands River, both in Pictou County. The Prince Street Church had been experiencing financial difficulties, but Murray’s decision to leave the province may also have been spurred by tensions within the Island’s presbytery. In 1881 he had stood alone against his colleagues in defending the editor of the Charlottetown Presbyterian and Evangelical Union, the Reverend Stephen G. Lawson, from severe disciplinary action after he was found guilty of libel by an Island court. Murray drew sharp criticism for doing so. He accepted a call from North Sydney in 1884 and remained there until his retirement in 1896. He then moved back to Pictou, settling in New Glasgow, where he died in 1906.

Isaac Murray belongs to a broad group of rural Pictonians who, having been shaped by the Presbyterian culture of the county and prepared for professional careers by Pictou Academy, went on to leave their mark on the patterns of development elsewhere. Murray’s stamp was essentially conservative. One of his students aptly described him in 1900 as “Luther, Knox, and Calvin boiled into one.” Concerned to bring the world about him in line with his orthodox Presbyterian theology, and believing that the purpose of the state was to carry out God’s will, Murray helped to move religious concerns beyond the church and into the centre of political life on Prince Edward Island.

Rusty Bittermann

PARO, RG 10, 3–5. Pictou County Court of Probate (Pictou, N.S.), Wills, 10: 227 (mfm. at PANS). UCC, Maritime Conference Arch. (Halifax), Prince Edward Island presbytery, minutes, 1850–75. Daily Patriot (Charlottetown), 1881–82, 11 July 1900. Eastern Chronicle, 13 July 1854, 25 Oct. 1894. Islander, 1850–71. Patriot (Charlottetown), 1867–80. Pictou Advocate, 11, 18 Dec. 1906. Presbyterian (Charlottetown), 1867–70. Presbyterian Witness, 1849–1904, 15 Dec. 1906. Protestant and Evangelical Witness (Charlottetown), 13 Aug. 1864. Margaret MacConnell, Meadowville, then and now (Pictou, [1987]; copy at PANS). J. [M.] MacLeod, History of Presbyterianism on Prince Edward Island (Chicago and Winona Lake, Ind., 1904). J. P. MacPhie, Pictonians at home and abroad: sketches of professional men and women of Pictou County . . . (Boston, 1914) (photograph of subject appears on p.54). John Murray, The history of the Presbyterian Church in Cape Breton (Truro, N.S., 1921); The Scotsburn congregation, Pictou County, Nova Scotia . . . (Truro, 1925). Presbyterian Church in Canada, Synod of the Maritime Provinces, Minutes (Halifax), 1875–96, 1908. Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces of British North America, Minutes of the synod (Halifax), 1860–75. I. R. Robertson, “The Bible question in Prince Edward Island from 1856 to 1860,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 5 (1975–76), no.2: 3–25.

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Cite This Article

Rusty Bittermann, “MURRAY, ISAAC,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_isaac_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_isaac_13E.html
Author of Article: Rusty Bittermann
Title of Article: MURRAY, ISAAC
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: April 19, 2014