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BETHUNE, JOHN, Church of Scotland clergyman; b. 1751 in Brebost (probably near Orbost), Scotland, son of Angus Bethune and Christian Campbell; m. 30 Sept. 1782 Véronique Waddens, daughter of Jean-Étienne Waddens*, in Montreal, Que., and they had nine children; d. 23 Sept. 1815 in Williamstown, Upper Canada.
John Bethune was born into a respected family on the Isle of Skye, his father being descended from one of the lairds of Balfour. Nevertheless, his youth was apparently marked by poverty: he held a college bursary in his third year at King’s College (University of Aberdeen), and in 1770 the Synod of Glenelg, at the request of the Presbytery of Skye, granted his family £5 to help meet the expenses of his education. After graduating from King’s College with a ba in 1769 and an ma in 1772, Bethune returned to the Isle of Skye and was licensed as a Church of Scotland minister. In July 1774 the Presbytery of Skye came under criticism from the synod for having licensed Bethune before he could be presented to its meeting. From the standpoint of the presbytery, however, time had been of the essence. Soon after returning from Aberdeen, Bethune had decided to emigrate with some members of his family to North Carolina, a colony that had become a place of refuge for thousands of Highlanders in the years after the 1745 rebellion. It thus seems highly probable that in hastily licensing Bethune the presbytery had been inspired by a desire to prepare him for the ministry in America.
The Bethunes arrived in North Carolina in 1773, and on 14 June 1775 John was recruited as chaplain to the 1st battalion of the Royal Highland Emigrants (later known as the 84th), a loyalist unit raised by Allan Maclean*. Before assuming this post, he saw action at the battle of Moores Creek Bridge in February 1776, probably while serving as chaplain to the North Carolina royal militia. Along with hundreds of other Highlanders, he was captured at this battle by the victorious rebels and imprisoned. For a time he was held in Philadelphia, Pa, and it was from here on 31 Oct. 1776 that he and a group of fellow prisoners requested permission to rejoin their families. Although the evidence is unclear, he possibly was released at this time and made his way to New York City. Be this as it may, he is not heard of again until his arrival in late 1778 in Halifax, N.S., where the 2nd battalion of the Royal Highland Emigrants was stationed.
After reaching Nova Scotia, Bethune acted as chaplain to the 2nd battalion, assisted recruitment amongst Scottish Highlanders, and ministered to the loyalist settlers. His stay in the colony, however, was brief. By August 1779 he had moved to Montreal to take up his appointment as chaplain to the 1st battalion of his regiment. There he performed his regular duties as chaplain, administering the ordinances of marriage and baptism for military personnel of the 84th and other regiments. Since the Presbyterians of the city lacked a church of their own, Bethune attended the services conducted by the Anglican rector of Montreal, David Chabrand* Delisle. It was Delisle who married Bethune and Véronique Waddens in September 1782.
From 1783 until the disbanding of the 84th in the following year, Bethune was stationed at the garrison on Carleton Island (N.Y.). On demobilization, he spent a year at Fort Oswegatchie (Ogdensburg, N.Y.) before returning to Montreal in 1786. In Montreal he lived on his half pay but continued to perform marriages and baptisms for army personnel. Around him other Montrealers rallied – Presbyterian Scots, Dutch and German loyalists, and Anglican friends. Being sufficiently numerous to form a congregation, Bethune’s followers rented a large room on Rue Notre-Dame where, on 12 March 1786, Bethune conducted a Presbyterian service. He continued to minister to his “small but interesting” congregation until May 1787, when on the invitation of a group of Highland settlers he moved to the western area of the province, soon to become Upper Canada. Although his Montreal congregation was short-lived, it is noteworthy as the first Presbyterian congregation west of the town of Quebec and as a precursor of the St Gabriel Street Church, the mother church of Presbyterianism in Canada.
Bethune devoted the remainder of his life to his ministry among the Highland settlers in Glengarry County, Upper Canada, and to his family of six sons and three daughters. His ability to preach in Gaelic placed him in good stead with his new flock, and the welcome he received was repaid with years of dedicated service. In Williamstown, his place of residence, he formed a Presbyterian congregation and soon had the satisfaction of seeing a log church built, to be replaced by a stone structure before his death. In neighbouring Lancaster, Martintown, and Cornwall, he preached, organized congregations, and encouraged the building of frame churches. Besides the financial support he received from his congregation, he was awarded 2,000 acres as a retired chaplain, and his land holdings were increased in 1811 with the grant of a town lot in Cornwall. In 1789 he began drawing an annual salary of £50 from the local government. This salary was discontinued shortly after the formation of the new province of Upper Canada, but it was soon restored when 150 Presbyterians in the counties of Glengarry and Stormont signed a petition protesting that Bethune was “not a recent adventurer, but a gentleman of approved Loyalty” and that his government salary was necessary to keep him “above Want, and Consequently above contempt.”
Bethune’s relations with Lieutenant Governor Simcoe were complicated by the controversy surrounding the Marriage Act of 1793, a measure which confined the solemnization of marriages to clergy of the Church of England and justices of the peace. In March 1796 Presbyterians in Grenville County drew up a petition complaining that the act made them “aliens in their own country.” In his reply to the petitioners, Simcoe stated that their appeal was “the Product of a Wicked Head and a most disloyal Heart.” Later he informed the Home secretary that criticisms of the marriage act would be followed by demands for the partition of those lands set apart for the “National Clergy.” He also noted that Bethune, whom he had admitted had “the character of a most loyal man,” “signed the Petition, and is said to be the Author.”
Bethune was one of only a few Church of Scotland ministers who served in Upper Canada before the War of 1812. Still, he was not totally isolated from other clergymen, both of his own and of other denominations. He and his family frequently returned to Montreal for extended visits when a christening or church business was pending, and on these occasions he came into contact with fellow clergymen, including John Young*, his successor as Presbyterian minister in Montreal. With the Roman Catholic priest in Glengarry County, the Reverend Alexander McDonell*, he lived in peace, but he was careful to warn his flock that, although they should remain friendly with their Catholic neighbours, they should “flee from their principles, as from the face of a serpent.” He was also on intimate terms with John Strachan*, the Anglican clergyman. When Strachan taught school at Cornwall during the years 1803 to 1812, Bethune entrusted him with the care of his sons, and later he even allowed two of them, John* and Alexander Neil*, to take Church of England orders since he could not afford to send them to Scotland for their education.
Little else is known about Bethune. He seems to have taught school in Cornwall from 1812 to 1814; he may have been present as a chaplain at the attack, led by George Richard John Macdonell*, on Ogdensburg, N.Y., in February 1813; and in June 1815 he was appointed road commissioner for the Eastern District. A few days before his death in 1815, he delivered an address to his Williamstown congregation in which he drew attention to his “precarious health” and stressed the need for an assistant minister. Noting that “there is as great an apathy respecting this essential measure, as if it were certain that I should outlive the whole Congregation,” he warned his parishioners that if he died before an assistant could be provided, they would soon fall victim to the “snares” of the Roman Catholic Church, an “arrogant communion” whose members believed themselves to be “the exclusive favorites of heaven.” He also stated that there were “private gentlemen” in Lower Canada who would “gladly give you every assistance in their power” in the search for a Highland minister, but that “without timely and vigorous exertion on your own part, the matter will languish away in useless talk; a fault very common in all your public transactions.”
Bethune is the most honoured and respected of Canada’s pioneer Church of Scotland ministers, and his children were a credit to him. John and Alexander Neil rose high in the Church of England’s hierarchy, the former becoming dean of Montreal, the latter bishop of Toronto. Of his other sons, James Gray* became a banker, Angus* was made a chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Donald* founded a prominent shipping firm. A daughter, Cecilia, married John Kirby*, the Kingston merchant and legislative councillor. The best known of his descendants is Norman Bethune*, one of the heroes of the Chinese revolution.
John Bethune’s address, To the members of the Presbyterian congregation at Williamstown, and of the other Presbyterian congregations connected with them in Glengary, was printed in Montreal in 1815. A copy is available at the AO in Church records coll., MU 545, no.34 (Martintown, St Andrew’s Presbyterian).
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