BLACK, JAMES, a founder of the Disciples of Christ in Upper Canada; b. 15 Aug. 1797 in the parish of Kilmartin (Strathclyde), Scotland, son of John Black and Janet Campbell; m. 15 Feb. 1828 Lois Humphrey of Grimsby Township, Upper Canada, and they had nine children; d. 21 April 1886 in Eramosa Township, Ont.
As a youth James Black attended school in winter and herded sheep during the summer. At 15 he began teaching in a parish school at Bellanoch in Argyllshire. The district in which he lived was being influenced by an infant Scottish Baptist movement developed at the turn of the century by Robert and James Alexander Haldane, who had seceded from the Church of Scotland. Black was impressed by the “Haldanite” minister of nearby Lochgilphead, Dugald Sinclair, who later came to Upper Canada. Because of his questioning of Church of Scotland credal statements, Black was refused a further teaching position and in 1820 immigrated with his parents to Aldborough Township, Upper Canada, where he was soon engaged to teach and lead the worship of the Scottish Baptists and Presbyterians in the area. James moved with his family to Nassagaweya Township in 1825, but left his father’s farm to teach at Martin’s Mills (Milton) and later at Beamsville. In 1829, the year after he married, Black began to farm in Eramosa Township, where he lived until his death. Though noted for his strength, he did not enjoy farm work; he found time to act as a school trustee and municipal commissioner during the 1840s and to devote himself to evangelism.
Black gradually became associated with the Disciples of Christ movement, whose members sought to promote Christian union by rejecting the credal statements and ecclesiastical structures of existing churches. Their first meeting-house in western Upper Canada was built in the late 1820s on Black’s farm. It appears that in the early 1830s Black began to absorb the writings of the spokesman for the American Disciples movement, Alexander Campbell, whose rejection of Calvinistic determinism he shared: like other adherents, Black avoided describing the complex origins of the Disciples and could not pinpoint the time when he had made the transition from Baptist to Disciple of Christ. The only authority the Disciples would acknowledge was the Bible, and they were reluctant to make doctrinal statements or even to engage in theological discussions. They looked forward to a day when all Christians would worship in small, independent, local churches joined together only informally. They hoped that a general dissatisfaction with existing churches would cause the old structures to melt away, leaving the field open for the restoration of New Testament Christianity. Some disenchantment with existing churches was evident in areas of rural Upper Canada where congregations of Disciples were established, but it never reached the scale the Disciples expected.
From the 1830s to the 1860s Black frequently journeyed from his farm to encourage the many congregations he helped to establish in Wellington County and to preach throughout the western portion of the province. Though Disciples were reluctant to pay a resident minister, they more willingly supported itinerant evangelists such as Black. He himself promoted the “co-operative movement” by which independent congregations in the 1840s began to join together to support evangelistic work. But there was strong internal criticism of efforts by Disciples to combine for any purposes on a larger than local level, thereby endangering the purity of their Christianity with ecclesiastical structures. Black in 1863 deplored the action of Disciples in Owen Sound who had joined the Baptist church there, even though the Baptists had adopted the Disciples’ practice of weekly communion, because he felt that the Baptists were still an organized “sect, however orthodox.” His suspicion of other churches is seen in his comment in 1858 when he referred to Satan preaching “as a minister of righteousness.” Despite his suspicions Black shared in the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society. In 1854 he was chairman of a Canadian auxiliary to the American Bible Union, a Disciple organization, which was preparing a “pure version” of the Scriptures. In the early 1860s he was editor with Lazarus Parkinson of the Adviser, published monthly in Toronto and one of many short-lived Disciple magazines.
“In consequence of his advanced age” Black in 1871 limited his preaching travels to Wellington and Halton counties. By the time of his death in 1886 he had seen the Disciples movement grow to many congregations. His work had been of particular importance because the Disciples’ suspicions of formal church structure made the success of individual congregations rest less on social circumstances than on the leadership of dedicated believers such as himself.
Emmanuel College Library (Toronto), Disciples of Christ coll., Proc. of the Wellington County Co-operation of Disciples of Christ, Record book 1, 31 Jan. 1869–5 July 1908. Adviser (Toronto), June 1862; March, May, December 1863; August 1864. Ontario Evangelist (Guelph, Ont.), May 1886. Reuben Butchart, The Disciples of Christ in Canada since 1830 . . . (Toronto, 1949). Frank Day, Here and there in Eramosa . . . (Rockwood, Ont., 1953), 9, 11, 19, 26, 32, 51–52, 89–90, 141–42. History of the Baptists in Scotland from pre-Reformation times, ed. George Yuille (Glasgow, ), 70, 116–17. Joshua Norrish, The early history of Nasagiweya (Guelph, 1889).