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MURRAY, ROBERT, editor and author; b. 25 Dec. 1832 in Earltown, N.S., sixth of the seven children of John William Murray and Christina Matheson; m. 24 Aug. 1867 Elizabeth Carey* in Halifax, and they had seven children, of whom one daughter and four sons survived to adulthood; d. 12 Dec. 1910 in Halifax.

The parents of Robert Murray, natives of Sutherland in Scotland, immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1822 and settled in what later became Colchester County. Murray’s father, a catechist, held Sunday services in English and Gaelic at his home before a Presbyterian church was built in Earltown, and the many religious books he brought from Scotland formed the early reading material of his children.

Robert and his elder brother William attended the Free Church Academy in Halifax, from which Robert graduated in 1852. He then studied at the Free Church College, graduating in 1857. In September 1858 he received a licence to preach from the Free Church of Nova Scotia, but he was not ordained a minister. Three years previously he had joined the staff of the weekly newspaper the Presbyterian Witness, and Evangelical Advocate of Halifax, and had made such an impression that he was immediately offered its editorship. From January 1856 Murray divided the paper into religious and secular sections, which were printed on separate pages in order that the secular section could be read during the week and the religious section on Sundays. Under his guidance the Witness became popular throughout the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Between 1861 and 1875 he was also editor of the monthly Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces of British North America. The major portion of the latter’s pages was devoted to minutes of synods and correspondence from missionaries abroad.

Murray held firm views on many subjects. He supported the union between the Free Church of Nova Scotia and the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia in 1860 and became convinced that all Protestant denominations should be united eventually. But he denounced the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church of England as “a soul-destroying system” and was likewise an earnest foe of Roman Catholicism. One of his favourite causes was the Presbyterian congregation in St Anne, Ill., which was ministered to by a former Catholic priest, Charles Chiniquy*. The Witness regularly published names of those who contributed financially to the congregation, and when Chiniquy came to Halifax in 1873 on a fund-raising tour he was a guest at Murray’s home. Chiniquy was stoned by Roman Catholics in Antigonish, and Murray accused Bishop Colin Francis MacKinnon* and his priests of having instigated the attack. Forced by the threat of a suit for libel to withdraw the charge, he nevertheless implied in his retraction that the bishop was responsible for the conduct of his priests and parishioners.

Murray thrived on political debate, and he wrote passionate editorials in the Witness on the issues of the day. An ardent believer in confederation, he extolled the natural resources of British North America and used them in 1865 to refute those who doubted the practicability of union: “Have we not more than enough wheat for ourselves even if we have fifty millions? Have we not enough coal and iron? Have we not ports, rivers, boundless forests? Have we not the best fishing ground in the world? How then is it possible to speak of the geographical Impossibility of Confederation? British America is ours and we shall stand condemned before all the world and at the bar of History if we fail to enter in and possess the land.” Murray was also in favour of free schools and had hailed the re-establishment of Dalhousie College in 1863 with pleasure. In addition, he was a strong advocate of temperance. The Intercolonial Railway was another of his causes, and he described an 1861 railway journey from Halifax to Truro as “everything that is comfortable, plenty of room, fresh air, swiftness, safety – and all for nine and fourpence halfpenny, – whereas we used to pay twenty shillings for getting jolted, smothered, and roasted in the old Coach.”

Among Murray’s other contributions to the Witness was a series of amusing portraits of Nova Scotia politicians, published in 1863 under the title “A letter to my country friends.” In these articles he spoke of Joseph Howe*, who “makes a jolly speech when he doesn’t try to make it too long,” “fierce little, tempestuous” Charles Tupper*, and John Chipman Wade of Digby County, “a weakish, watery, dull little spitfire of a fellow; going off every now and then in small explosions like a wee popgun.” As to his own political leanings, Murray wrote, “People who should mind their own business, sometimes ask me what party I belong to – If I am a tory – a radical – a great liberal or a liberal conservative. To all questions I have the shortest possible answer, – No! They are poor fools who pin their political faith to any party or set of men; I wouldn’t do it for all the gold in Nova Scotia quartz.”

On several occasions the publisher of the Witness, James Barnes, sent Murray on trips, and the paper was brightened by his descriptions of his experiences, which he called “editorial correspondence.” The most memorable voyage occurred in 1862, when Murray attended Presbyterian assemblies in Edinburgh and the International Exhibition in London. During it he composed accounts of the Atlantic crossing, the exhibition, the statesmen of parliament, churches in England, Scotland, Paris, and Brussels, and the home of his ancestors in Sutherland.

By 1867 Murray had become recognized as a writer, and when Henry James Morgan* published Bibliotheca canadensis that year he noted that Murray had published articles on “literary, social, economic and scientific subjects” in journals in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, in addition to his contributions to the Witness and the Home and Foreign Record. In 1884 Murray contributed to Picturesque Canada (Toronto), edited by his friend the Reverend George Monro Grant. He wrote the section on Prince Edward Island and co-authored those on Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Murray also became known as an author of hymns. In later years he took a railway journey across Canada, and it inspired the hymn for which he is probably best known, “From ocean unto ocean.” The hymn has been praised by literary critics as “thoroughly human and humane . . . all that a true hymn should be.” Other hymns, such as “Our blessed bond of union” and “In Christ we all are one,” have been chosen for Presbyterian, Anglican, and United Church hymnaries, and a one-stanza hymn, “Our loved dominion bless,” was for a time the third verse to “God save the queen.” Since the age of nine Murray had also written poetry, and he published verse in the Witness, but it is impossible to say how much of that included was his.

Murray was involved with all aspects of the Presbyterian Church, being a member of synod and of the General Assembly’s committee on church union and participating in assemblies across Canada. The family initially attended Chalmers Church in central Halifax, where Murray was an elder, but as the west end of the city became more densely populated Murray was instrumental in establishing the Coburg Road Church there. The church was dedicated in November 1894, and he and Robert Alexander Falconer* were its first elders. Murray was active in the wider Halifax community as a charter-member of the Halifax Infants’ Home, the Nova Scotia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty [see John Naylor], and the Nova Scotia Historical Society. He was also secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Evangelical Alliance, honorary secretary of the British American Book and Tract Society, a governor of Dalhousie, and chairman of the Halifax Civic Improvement League.

Murray’s home life was unusual in that he and his wife lived with the wealthy daughters of the silversmith Peter Nordbeck*. As a single woman, Elizabeth Carey had been a companion to Antoinette Nordbeck and her invalid sister, Caroline, and Murray joined the Nordbeck household on fashionable Brunswick Street after his marriage. Because the Murray family increased rapidly, in 1879 Antoinette bought a 43-acre property, with a large house and outbuildings, known as the Studley estate. Here the Nordbecks and Murrays lived in apparent harmony; Robert had his own study-cum-library. He was greatly revered by his children in spite of his strict rules governing their behaviour on the sabbath. When Antoinette died in 1898 her share of her father’s estate and the continued care of Caroline was left to Elizabeth Murray. Four years later Caroline died. By then, except for one son, the Murray children had departed for homes of their own.

In 1902 Dalhousie awarded Murray an honorary lld, and three years later his golden jubilee as editor of the Witness was celebrated in St Matthew’s Church. Four of his best-known hymns were sung and there were formal addresses and presentations, including an historical speech by the president of Dalhousie, John Forrest*. Murray succumbed to pneumonia after a few days’ illness in December 1910. Newspapers across Canada noted his death, and on the Sunday after his funeral a memorial service was held in Chalmers Church (the former Coburg Road Church, renamed in 1904), where personal tributes were given by two of his lifelong friends, Forrest and the Reverend Edward Manning Saunders*, minister of First Baptist Church in Halifax.

Murray was described by Forrest as “firm as a rock in his convictions and in the advocacy of what he thought right.” His dogmatic columns on Roman Catholicism, Anglo-Catholicism, the correct observance of the sabbath, and temperance would not be read with sympathy today, but members of his generation, and particularly Presbyterians, agreed with his views and believed that he had “never been characterized by religious or ecclesiastical narrowness and bigotry.” His secular writings, on the other hand, give a fresh and comprehensive view of the 19th century, not only in Nova Scotia but also at the sites of his journeys. His granddaughter Elizabeth Murray Stevenson has edited selections from the Witness and has published them in historical periodicals; they have been well received by modern readers.

In accordance with Murray’s wishes, his widow sold the Studley estate to Dalhousie in 1910 in order to aid the college’s much-needed expansion, and the property has since been known as the Studley campus. The house itself was used for departmental offices and living quarters for caretakers until it was demolished in 1949.

Joan M. Payzant

A photograph of Robert Murray, taken about 1905, and a photograph of the Murray family are held by the author, a granddaughter.

Robert Murray’s contributions to volume 2 of Picturesque Canada: the country as it was and is, ed. G. M. Grant (2v., Toronto, 1882-[84]) are the entries “Nova Scotia” (pp.789–841), co-authored with Mrs A. Simpson; “Cape Breton” (pp.841–52), with John Stewart McLennan*; and “Prince Edward Island” (pp.853–66). Selections from Murray’s 1863 series “A letter to my country friends,” edited by a granddaughter, Elizabeth Murray Stevenson, are reproduced in the N.S. Hist. Quarterly, 10 (1980): 143–57.

NA, MG 25, 93. Daily British Whig, 3 Feb. 1911. Daily Echo (Halifax), 29 April 1902. Halifax Herald, 19 Dec. 1910. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 13 Dec. 1910. Presbyterian Witness, 8 Jan. 1848–December 1910. Vancouver Daily Province, 12 Dec. 1910. Jim Bennet, “Shades of Studley past,” Dalhousie Alumni Magazine (Halifax), 5 (1988), no.1: 7–9. G. A. Burbidge et al., Historical sketches of StAndrew’s Church (Halifax, 1949). R. J. Long, Nova Scotia authors and their work: a bibliography of the province (East Orange, N.J., 1918). A. E. Marble, Nova Scotians at home and abroad, including brief biographical sketches of over six hundred native born Nova Scotians (Windsor, N.S., 1977). E[lizabeth] M[urray] Stevenson, “Robert Murray tackles confederation,” N.SHist. Rev., 1 (1981), no.l: 33–38; “The Witness” (typescript, Peterborough, Ont., [1984?]), introduction and c.1; “The Witness,” N.SHist. Quarterly, 10: 41–57. J. M. Payzant, “Rob and Francie” (typescript, Dartmouth, N.S., 1989) [a genealogical story for the immediate descendants of Robert Harper Murray and his wife, Frances Creighton Murray]. Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces of British North America, Home and Foreign Record (Halifax), 1 (1861). W. M. Ross, “Child rescue: the Nova Scotia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, 1880–1920” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1976). Tratt, Survey of N.S. newspapers.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Joan M. Payzant, “MURRAY, ROBERT (1832-84),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_robert_1832_1910_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_robert_1832_1910_13E.html
Author of Article: Joan M. Payzant
Title of Article: MURRAY, ROBERT (1832-84)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: November 22, 2014