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STEWART, THOMAS, Presbyterian minister, professor, and church administrator; b. 16 Dec. 1855 in West Bay, N.S., fourth son of the Reverend Murdoch Stewart and Catherine McGregor; younger brother of Donald Alexander Stewart* and John Stewart*; m. 10 July 1888 Florence Russell Wetmore in St George, N.B., and they had two daughters; d. 8 Jan. 1923 in Halifax.

In 1843 Thomas Stewart's father, a Presbyterian minister, emigrated from Scotland to Cape Breton Island. Thomas was born into the bosom of the Free Church of Nova Scotia, of which his father was moderator in 1851, and he duly followed him into the ministry. Educated first at Pictou Academy and Dalhousie University (ba 1882), he graduated from the Presbyterian College in Halifax (bd 1884). Licensed by the Presbytery of Halifax in April 1884, he spent the winter session of 1884-85 taking a postgraduate course in the divinity halls of the United Presbyterian Church and the Free Church in Edinburgh. There he came under the influence of Henry Drummond, professor of natural science in the Free Church college and an evangelical theologian whose works harmonized evolution and Christianity and directed Christians to shape their social environment. Stewart also did social work among children in the slums.

Returning to the Synod of the Maritime Provinces, Stewart was ordained by the Presbytery of Saint John in January 1886 and he served briefly as missionary at St George and Pennfield, N.B. In 1887 he was called to Sussex and in 1891 he moved to St James Church in Dartmouth, N.S., where he remained for 17 years. His active pastoral career ended in 1908, when he was appointed professor of church history and practical theology at the Presbyterian College, which granted him a dd that same year. Though he lacked scholarly interests, it was a post for which his formative experiences in Edinburgh had well prepared him. Not only did Stewart, like his father, believe strongly in the need for a learned ministry, he was also a notable evangelical preacher. Throughout his five years as a professor, he was a vigorous exponent of the Social Gospel, which he was chiefly responsible for carrying in the Maritime synod. Writing in Theologue (Halifax) in 1911, he challenged the church not to be indifferent to urban poverty of the sort found in Halifax and Sydney, and he urged ministers to take an active interest in parishioners' daily lives. He was joined in this advocacy by two other leading exponents of the Social Gospel in the Maritimes, the Reverend John William Angus Nicholson* of St James Church in Dartmouth and the Reverend William Henry Smith* of St Paul's Church in Fredericton. Their views helped significantly to draw the attention of Maritime Presbyterians to social problems that were perhaps broader in range than those which officially engaged the church's national and regional boards on temperance and moral reform [see John George Shearer].

In 1913 Stewart reluctantly abandoned academic life to accept the post of agent, or treasurer, of the board of trustees of the eastern section of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He had been offered, and declined, the post on one or two previous occasions. According to historian John S. Moir, the agent acted as secretary of the home and foreign missions committees in the Maritime provinces and of the board of superintendents of the Presbyterian College, and as general treasurer for all church schemes except the Ministers' Widows' and Orphans' Fund. During the nine years he held the post, Stewart became nationally known within the church. He was already mortally ill, apparently with cancer, when elected moderator of the Maritime synod in September 1922; the previous June he had been appointed senior clerk of the General Assembly. He died in January 1923. Had he lived, only his principled opposition to interdenominational church union could have prevented his becoming moderator of the General Assembly, and he, rather than Ephraim Scott*, would likely have been chosen as first moderator of the continuing Presbyterian Church. Unlike many of his closest clerical friends and colleagues, he looked upon the union movement as schismatic.

Though a conservative in theology and ecclesiastical politics, Stewart was an evangelical whose commitment to social justice was rooted in the Scottish liberalism of his father and the Free Church. Another side showed in his obsession with foreign missions, the white man's burden, and jingoistic imperialism that was typical of mainstream Canadian Protestantism, but as a progressive Social Gospeller no senior Presbyterian minister stood in higher esteem than Stewart. "In him," wrote Archibald McKellar MacMechan* in condolence to John Stewart, then dean of medicine at Dalhousie, "I always recognized the quality of steel. He made me think of a drawn sword, something clear, keen, powerful, - a weapon. He belonged to the Church militant. In his intellect, in his preaching, in his standard of faith and morals there was to me always this clearness, this keenness, as of a sword. I knew him chiefly in the pulpit, as a preacher of righteousness, unfaltering, uncompromising."

Barry Cahill

[Thomas Stewart's papers, which must have been voluminous, have not survived. Knowledge of his career depends largely on the biographical sketch written shortly after his death by one of his oldest friends, the Reverend George Stephen Carson, and published in the family's memorial volume, Toward the sunrising and other sermons (Toronto, 1923). A sermon preached by Stewart in 1921 is reprinted in History, Church of St. James, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia ([Dartmouth, 1971?]). b.c.]

Dalhousie Univ. Arch. (Halifax), MS 2-82 (A. McK. MacMechan papers), C906. NSARM, Churches, St James United (Dartmouth), records, 1891-1908 (mfm.). UCC, Maritime Conference Arch. (Sackville, N.B.), Pine Hill Divinity Hall fonds, 1908-23. UCC-C, Biog. file. Evening Mail (Halifax), 11 Jan. 1923. Presbyterian Witness (Halifax), 1886-1923. E. A. Betts, Pine Hill Divinity Hall, 1820-1970: a history (Halifax, 1970). Michael Boudreau, "Strikes, rural decay and socialism: the Presbyterian Church in Nova Scotia grapples with social realities, 1880-1914," in The contribution of Presbyterianism to the Maritime provinces of Canada, ed. C. H. H. Scobie and G. A. Rawlyk (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1997), 144-59. B. J. Fraser, The social uplifters: Presbyterian progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada, 1875-1915 (Waterloo, Ont., 1988); "Theology and the Social Gospel among Canadian Presbyterians: a case study," Studies in Religion (Waterloo), 8 (1979): 35-46. A. D. MacKinnon, A history of the Presbyterian Church in Cape Breton (Antigonish, N.S., 1975). Presbyterian Church in Canada, General Assembly, Acts and proc. (Toronto), 1908-23; Synod of the Maritime Provinces, Minutes (Halifax, etc.), 1891-1923 (available in UCC, Maritime Conference Arch.). Presbyterian Record (Montreal), 1908-23. Theologue (Halifax), 1908-19.

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Cite This Article

Barry Cahill, “STEWART, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_thomas_15E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stewart_thomas_15E.html
Author of Article: Barry Cahill
Title of Article: STEWART, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 2005
Year of revision: 2005
Access Date: December 18, 2014