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BARCLAY, JOHN, Church of Scotland clergyman and author; b. 9 July 1795 in Kettle (Kettlehill), Scotland, son of the Reverend Peter Barclay; he may have been engaged to be married at the time of his death, which occurred on 26 Sept. 1826 in Kingston, Upper Canada.

“Can you name any type in history more ridiculous than a Scotch Presbyterian?” So said Dr Dougald MacKenzie in Hugh MacLennan*’s novel Each man’s son. “If you can’t laugh at him,” he added, “you’ll be tempted to murder him.” Whether or not MacLennan’s sense of the inherent absurdities of the type is accurate, Scotch Presbyterians have had an impressive impact upon Canadian history. When they first began to exert their burnished wills, the effect upon society could be inflammatory. This was the case when in 182526 John Barclay of St Andrew’s Church in Kingston issued a clarion call for the rights of the Church of Scotland.

Barclay graduated from the University of Edinburgh, was licensed by the Church of Scotland, and, in response to an application from Kingston, was ordained to that charge by the Presbytery of Edinburgh on 26 Sept. 1821. Arriving in Kingston on 25 December, Barclay took over a new church and an eager congregation. He attended to the usual round of pastoral duties, became a secretary to the local Bible society, and supported local philanthropic and educational institutions. In May 1822 he notified Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland* of the church’s intention to distinguish the government pew as was “the usual form in Scotch Churches.” A dignity worthless in itself, Barclay argued, it none the less worked towards “promoting Subordination, good order, & good Morals, among a people.”

The controversy that earned Barclay unmitigated hostility from Kingston’s Anglican élite began as an attempt to solve the problem of limited cemetery space. Late in 1822 Barclay appealed to the rector of St George’s Church, the Reverend George Okill Stuart*, for equal privileges in the lower burial ground. Stuart gave a peremptory refusal, claiming that other Protestant denominations could have access to the cemetery only if they followed Church of England burial services. This position was unacceptable to Barclay, who successfully negotiated an arrangement to share the upper burial ground with the Roman Catholics. But this proposal fell through and Barclay turned his attention again to the lower ground.

The conflict which ensued centred upon two incidents, the first on 27 Dec. 1824, the second on 8 April 1825. In the first, Barclay led a funeral procession to the burial ground, where it was met by Stuart. Fearing a “Collision,” Barclay expressed the hope that Stuart would not interfere. Stuart, however, insisted on performing the service of the “English” church, and Barclay departed the scene lest his presence signify a sanction of the Anglican’s actions. On 29 December Barclay asked Attorney General John Beverley Robinson* for his official opinion on the episode. Barclay contended that, since the Anglicans had no deed to the land, they possessed no exclusive right; hence, it should be open to all denominations. Robinson, replying early in January, lamented the dispute and offered his professional opinion that without a deed there was “no legal right.” He allowed, however, that St George’s might have a prescriptive claim to the ground and he urged the parties to negotiate. Citing Robinson’s suggestion, Barclay made the offer on 7 February and, on the following day, Stuart refused. Barclay and his congregation immediately petitioned Maitland for redress.

Although his language was always proper and, to a degree, conciliatory, he was becoming increasingly resolute about the issue. The second incident, at another funeral on 8 April, made compromise impossible. This time Barclay ordered a locksmith to be at hand in the event the gates to the cemetery were locked; as it turned out, they were open. Once again Stuart joined the procession and this time Barclay remained. When Stuart began to read at the grave site, Barclay ordered the grave to be filled as quickly as possible. He did not attempt to read himself because the Presbyterian rites called for complete silence. Stuart pressed on: the two men did not exchange a word. Stuart was furious at the effrontery. Several days later, Presbyterians were refused interment in the grounds. Barclay regretted the “unpleasant Competition” but vowed that until the matter was resolved “those who may use any force to prevent my Congregation from getting admittance to bury their dead . . . must be responsible for all the evil that may result from it.”

The chain of events that followed brought into the open a struggle for not only religious but national rights as well. To Stuart, the incident was “indecent, outrageous and profane.” He reported to a church committee composed of Christopher Alexander Hagerman*, John Macaulay*, and Robert Stanton* that any invasion of the church’s right “must be checked and restrained by legal support.” The committee investigated the affair and the church’s claim to the ground. Its report of 16 April dismissed the Presbyterians’ “pretensions” and upheld St George’s “entire and exclusive possession” of the cemetery. The report, together with supporting documents, was forwarded to the Executive Council.

The council met on 22 April. Except for James Baby, those present, John Strachan* among them, were Anglican. The cautious councillors recommended seeking an imperial decision while upholding, in the interim, the status quo, including the right of “dissenters” to interment conditional upon acceptance of Anglican burial rites. Barclay, who was in York (Toronto) awaiting the decision, was irate. He had reason to be. Whether the councillors were conscious of the fact or not, there was an Anglican bias to the documents upon which they made their decision. In his letter of 22 June referring the matter to Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst, Maitland noted that the Presbyterians felt “aggrieved in being deprived of a privilege which appears never to have existed, nor till very lately to have been thought of.”

On 16 August Barclay forwarded to the council affidavits casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Church of England’s prescriptive claim to the cemetery. Further, he enclosed a petition to the king to resolve a dispute which had arisen “by the assumption of an exclusive control . . . by the Episcopal Church.” The council’s needless equation of Presbyterians with dissenters gave Barclay a different perspective on his church’s situation within the colony. The Scotch Presbyterians, “residing in a British, not an English Colony,” claimed “equal rights with the Episcopal Church by the Act of Union.” The council met again on 3 November, considered the new evidence, and then reaffirmed its earlier conclusion. Towards the end of the month, the petition, as well as all new documents, were forwarded to London. When in late May 1826 Stuart learned that the imperial government had vindicated his conduct, he felt justified.

Barclay did not. He responded on 1 June with a pamphlet setting out his church’s rights, “so long neglected, and . . . now so strongly opposed” by the Church of England. His case had legal and historical foundations. Both the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791 referred to a Protestant clergy. Thus, the Church of Scotland by virtue of its position as one of the established churches of Great Britain had “a legal birthright claim to part of the profits arising from the Clergy Reserves in Canada.” Canada had been conquered by Great Britain, not England or Scotland; “therefore, any right, privilege and advantage, enjoyed by the Clergy of the Religion established in England ought equally to belong to the Clergy of the Religion established in Scotland.” Incredulous that Scottish legislators and clergy had allowed these rights in the colonies to slip away “silently,” he pointed to the transformation wrought in Scotland by state support: the “poor, ignorant, idle and wicked” became “comfortable, enlighten[ed], industrious, and moral.” Anticipating Egerton Ryerson*, he questioned claims about the number of Anglicans in the population and dismissed the structure of Anglicanism: “the genius of Episcopacy is in opposition to the genius of the people.”

Small wonder his “Scotch pamphlet,” as it was called, elicited a torrent of Anglican abuse. Stanton denounced it as “dull, dirty & disgusting.” It was vilified in the columns of the Kingston Chronicle and Stanton’s U.ELoyalist. It prompted several rejoinders in pamphlet form by Stanton, William Macaulay*, and Hagerman. John Macaulay thought that Barclay’s work would have “the bad effect of stirring up new dissenters in our society – The worst of it is that the disaffected will rejoice to see divisions created among those who ought to live together in harmony.” Behind the legal, constitutional, and historical discussions of the respective rights of the churches lay an ill-disguised Anglo-Anglican hubris. Stanton sneered, “Let the Scotch gentry learn to ask for favors respectfully, and they will fare better . . . but wilful men, must ha’ their way.”

Barclay’s death – the result of a fever contracted while returning from a visit to Scots in the London District – brought an end to the immediate affair; but the battle for Presbyterian rights, tied as it was to Scottish nationalism, continued long after his passing [see William Morris*].

Robert Lochiel Fraser

[The major primary sources for the burial-ground controversy are PAC, RG 1, E3, 42: 12–121, and PRO, CO 42/375: 222–69, 335–57. The Colonial Office’s response is contained in PAC, RG 7, G1, 61: 344–63; 62: 42–44, 69–70. Anglican reaction to the affair, and in particular to Barclay’s pamphlet, may be found in the Kingston Chronicle, 1825–26, and the U.ELoyalist (York [Toronto]), 1826. The more private side of this reaction is found in the Macaulay papers (AO, MS 78), Strachan to Macaulay, 9, 30 May, 22 Aug. 1825; Stanton to Macaulay, 29 June, 3, 8, 15, 22 July, 5, 18 Aug., 1 Sept., 5 Oct. 1826, 20 Sept. 1827; and Robinson to Macaulay, 25 July 1826. Barclay’s pamphlet, A letter to the Right Honourable the Earl of Liverpool, K.G., first lord commissioner of the Treasury; relative to the rights of the Church of Scotland in British North America; from a Protestant of the Church of Scotland (Kingston, [Ont.], 1826), provoked in response: An apology for the Church of England in the Canadas, in answer to A letter to the Earl of Liverpool . . . by a Protestant of the Church of Scotland; by a Protestant of the established Church of England (Kingston, 1826); The exclusive right of the church to the clergy reserves defended: in a letter to the Right Honorable the Earl of Liverpool; being an answer to the letter of a Protestant of the Church of Scotland, to his lordship; by a Protestant (Kingston, 1826); and A letter toA Protestant of the Church of Scotland”; by Misopseudes (n.p., 1826).

Biographical information and other material relevant to Barclay’s career may be found in the following: PAC, RG 5, A1: 28881–83, 28956–61, 30583–86, 30758–59, 38157–58, 38264–69, 39120–26, 39447–50, 40315–20, 41756–59, 41760–62, 41818–21, 42284–86, 42713–14, 139062–65; Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw), vol.3; Kingston Chronicle, various issues from 12 Dec. 1821 to 13 Oct. 1826; Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiœ scoticanœ, 7: 625; Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church (1885); A. B. Burt, “The Rev. John Barclay, M.A., the first Presbyterian minister settled in Kingston,” OH, 16 (1918): 37–39; and R. A. Preston, “A clash in St. Paul’s churchyard,” Historic Kingston, no.5 (1956): 30–44. On the general issue of the coherence of church rights and Scottish nationalism, see H. J. Bridgman, “Three Scots Presbyterians in Upper Canada: a study in emigration, nationalism and religion” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, 1978). Finally, the quotation from Hugh MacLennan is found in Each mans son (Toronto, 1971), 67.  r.l.f.]

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Cite This Article

Robert Lochiel Fraser, “BARCLAY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barclay_john_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barclay_john_6E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Lochiel Fraser
Title of Article:   BARCLAY, JOHN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 24, 2023