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BELL, WILLIAM, Presbyterian minister; b. 20 May 1780 in Airdrie (Strathclyde), Scotland, eighth and last child of Andrew Bell and Margaret Shaw; m. 13 Oct. 1802 Mary Black in Leith, Scotland, and they had eight sons and one daughter; d. 16 Aug. 1857 in Perth, Upper Canada.

William Bell came from a background of agriculture and minor rural trades. His father was a severe, patriarchal Presbyterian and William, thirsting for freedom, ran away from home twice, the second time to London in June 1802. There he worked for a number of carpenters and cabinet-makers before becoming a building contractor in 1805.

Although he had spent only some random months in school, he was a voracious reader and had always longed to be a minister. In 1808, against the wishes of his wife and family, he sold his business and entered the Congregational Church’s Hoxton Academy in London to train for the ministry. He was licensed to preach by the Middlesex Congregational Court on 18 Feb. 1809, but, hoping to become a Presbyterian minister, he returned to Scotland in 1810. While teaching school at Rothesay to support his wife and children, he studied at the Associate Synod of Scotland’s seminary at Selkirk, and, from 1812, attended classes at the University of Glasgow as well. In May 1814 he moved his family to Airdrie and devoted himself full time to finishing his studies. On 28 March 1815 he was licensed to preach by the Associate Presbytery of Glasgow.

Unpopular as a preacher and of a prickly disposition, he was unable to find a congregation and was obliged to work as an itinerant relief preacher. After months of constant travelling he decided in 1816, despite his wife’s protests, to accept the Colonial Office’s proposal of a land grant and a £100 salary to serve as minister to the government-assisted Scottish settlers at Perth, Upper Canada. Bell was ordained by the Associate Presbytery of Edinburgh on 4 March 1817, and a month later sailed with his family for the Canadas.

They arrived at the end of June to find Perth in an uproar, the immigrant families, disbanded soldiers, and half-pay officers having come only the year before. Seeing all around him what he believed to be rampant moral decay and social anarchy, Bell turned his considerable energies to organizing a congregation, teaching school, conducting pastoral visits, and building a church (First Presbyterian). Over the next decade he saw the village stabilize and his congregation quadruple.

In 1817 the Presbyterian church in the Canadas was in a very early stage of development; the four ministers in Lower Canada and the nine in Upper Canada operated without a permanent presbyterial organization. Before leaving Scotland, Bell had been approached by members of the Associate Synod of Scotland asking him to attempt to form a presbytery in the colony that could be allied to their synod. Within a month of his arrival, he and three other ministers, William Smart*, William Taylor, and Robert Easton*, applied to the Scottish synod for authority to organize a presbytery in Canada. Bell, initially arguing that they should obtain prior approval from Scotland before acting, split with his colleagues when they decided in January 1818 to establish an independent body, the Presbytery of the Canadas. He soon changed his mind, however, and joined them the following July when organizational details were worked out, including, at Bell’s suggestion, acceptance of the principle that the new presbytery recognize “the doctrines, discipline and worship of the Church of Scotland.” The presbytery experienced a number of mutations, ultimately evolving into the United Synod of Upper Canada in 1831. Bell took a keen interest in its proceedings, but his bitter quarrels with most of his colleagues, particularly those of Irish extraction, more often than not hindered progress.

The Church of Scotland forces in the colony were on the rise by the late 1820s and part of his congregation in Perth joined them in 1830, securing the services of the Reverend Thomas C. Wilson, and, in 1832, building St Andrew’s Church. Bell, too, longed for the respectability of membership in the Church of Scotland and had often publicly argued for a union of all Scottish ministers in the Canadas, but he felt it should be done in an organized, official way. He was happy when merger negotiations opened in 1832 between the United Synod of Upper Canada and the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland. However, disagreement over this question and over a government grant in 1833 shattered the United Synod. Eight members withdrew the following year and, in October 1835, amid much acrimony, Bell also left, joining the Church of Scotland affiliate. Although elected moderator in 1845, he played a minor role in his new synod. On most issues he aligned himself with the more evangelical members; unlike them, however, he did not leave the church as a result of the disruption of 1844, considering the fight to be a solely Scottish affair [see Robert Burns*].

Bell found it difficult to fit into a diversified society, believing as he did that the minister held a unique position in the community and should be recognized as the unquestioned arbiter of all moral standards. His intense sense of divine mission coupled with an irascible disposition and sanctimonious temperament led him into repeated clashes with most of his neighbours and associates. Yet his indefatigable energy and missionary zeal did much to keep the Presbyterian faith alive among the settlers. He established temperance societies, Sunday schools, and Bible classes, and helped found congregations in Beckwith Township, Lanark, Smiths Falls, and Richmond.

He had good reason to be proud of his family. A younger son, the Reverend George Bell, was a student of Alexander Gale and became one of the first alumni of Queen’s College, Kingston, later serving as its registrar and librarian. Another son, Andrew, also joined the ministry and faithfully served a number of congregations before predeceasing his more robust father by some 11 months. William*, whose intemperate habits embarrassed his father, had died in 1844 at the age of 38. Shortly before his own death, William Bell ended the long-standing rivalry between the Presbyterians in Perth by bringing about the reunion, in May 1857, of his congregation and that of St Andrew’s.

H. J. Bridgman

[William Bell extensively rewrote his letter-book and 17 diaries (QUA, William Bell papers) late in life. Autobiographical information and comments on the church at Perth also appear in his Introduction to pastoral letters from the Rev. Wm. Bell to the members of the Church of Christ under his care (Lanark, [Ont.], 1828), 2–7, and in his “History of the first Presbyterian Church in U. Canada, 10 July 1840” (QUA, Bell papers). His more immediate responses to issues appear in the numerous pugnacious letters he sent to Upper Canadian newspapers, his Hints to emigrants; in a series of letters from Upper Canada (Edinburgh, 1824), and the records held by the UCA and QUA of the relevant sessions, presbyteries, and synods.  h.j.b.]

St Andrew’s (Presbyterian) Church (Perth, Ont.), Perth Presbyterian Church, reg. of baptisms and marriages: 2 (photocopy at PAC). UCA, Biog. files. Croil, Hist. and statistical report (1868), 83, 86–88. Presbyterian, 10 (1857): 131, 144. Bathurst Courier, 21 Nov. 1843, 21 Aug. 1857. Christian Guardian, 20 Aug. 1831. Globe, 25 Aug. 1857. Kingston Chronicle, 30 Oct. 1830, 10 Sept. 1831. Annals and statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, comp. William MacKelvie et al. (Edinburgh, 1873), 672. Encyclopedia Canadiana. Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiæ scoticanær, vol.7. Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church. V. H. Lindsay, “The Perth military settlement: characteristics of its permanent and transitory settlers, 1816–1822” (ma thesis, 2v., Carleton Univ., Ottawa, 1972), 1: 1, 8–10, 12–13, 27; 2: 38–39, 46. C. G. Lucas, “Presbyterianism in Carleton County to 1867” (ma thesis, Carleton Univ., 1973). Isabel [Murphy] Skelton, A man austere: William Bell, parson and pioneer (Toronto, 1947). CHR, 29 (1948): 86–87.

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Cite This Article

H. J. Bridgman, “BELL, WILLIAM (1780-1857),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bell_william_1780_1857_8E.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/bell_william_1780_1857_8E.html
Author of Article:   H. J. Bridgman
Title of Article:   BELL, WILLIAM (1780-1857)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   December 2, 2023