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BURWASH, JOHN, Methodist minister and educator; b. 8 May 1842 near St Andrews (Saint-André-Est), Lower Canada, second of the six sons of Adam Burwash and Anne Taylor; m. 25 June 1867 Eden (Edon) Henwood, and they had one daughter; d. 16 Nov. 1913 in Calgary.

John Burwash’s parents, both devout Methodists, moved to a farm near Baltimore, Upper Canada, in 1844. John, like his elder brother Nathanael, was drawn to the ministry, and was encouraged to acquire a college degree, still a relative rarity at the time for those entering the Methodist ministry. In 1859, with the financial help of Nathanael, who interrupted his studies to teach for a year, John enrolled in the Methodist Victoria College in nearby Cobourg. The influence of President Samuel Sobieski Nelles* and the curriculum, which drew heavily on the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, swayed him to assume a natural relationship between faith and reason and this outlook would be reflected in his later response to Darwinian science and the higher biblical criticism.

A medallist at his graduation with a ba in 1863 (he would receive an ma in 1872), Burwash entered the Methodist ministry as a probationer, and was stationed at Canton, Colborne, Barrie, Baltimore, and Grafton before being ordained in 1867. After serving briefly in Belleville and Parkhill, he became vice-principal and headmaster of the boys’ branch of the Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy in Sackville, N.B., in 1870. Although his only teaching experience had been as a classical tutor at Victoria in 1866, when he was stationed in Baltimore, he was asked to teach mathematics and the natural sciences at both the academy and the Mount Allison Wesleyan College and Latin at the academy. In 1873–74 he sought to remedy his deficiency in training in the sciences by taking time from a pastorate in L’Orignal, Ont., to attend some courses at Harvard in Massachusetts.

Burwash returned to Mount Allison in 1874 and functioned as the college’s one-man science department until 1890, with an interruption from 1882 to 1885 when he served as minister in Charlottetown. He was professor of natural sciences until 1877, of chemistry in 1877–78, and of chemistry and experimental physics from 1878 to 1882 and from 1885 to 1890. In a college which was parsimonious in remunerating its faculty and providing scientific equipment, he was grateful for a $250 grant in 1878 for some basic laboratory apparatus. Recognition of his reputation came in 1885 when he was asked to do geological work for the New Brunswick government as provincial assayer and analyst, and in 1888 when Mount Allison awarded him an honorary d.sc.; in 1900 he received a d.litt. from the University of New Brunswick.

In 1875 Mount Allison had established a faculty of theology and Burwash also became professor of homiletics. He taught ministerial candidates from the three Methodist Maritime conferences and frequently served on a voluntary basis as examiner in reading and elocution for the provincial Normal School at Saint John and as a lecturer at teachers’ institutes. These efforts won him praise, in the Mount Allison Argosy, as “one of the most eminent and useful educators of the Maritime Provinces” and “one of the very ablest preachers and platform-speakers ever listened to.”

Burwash left Mount Allison in 1890 to teach the sciences at Victoria University, where his brother Nathanael was chancellor. When Victoria moved to Toronto in 1892 and responsibility for the sciences was transferred to the University of Toronto, Burwash was appointed to Victoria’s chair of homiletics and pastoral theology. For the next 18 years, despite his age and the failing health which began to plague him after 1900, he taught Greek New Testament, church polity and discipline, Wesleyan theology, and homiletics and elocution, and after 1902 occupied as well the newly endowed Massey Chair in English Bible.

Following criticism by several alumni of his effectiveness in teaching homiletics, an investigation by Victoria’s board of regents in 1902 produced a solid show of support from colleagues and students. They emphasized Burwash’s conscientious preparation, his efforts to remain informed of new thought, and his helpfulness towards students. With complaints resurfacing periodically and his health continuing to deteriorate, in 1910 he retired from Victoria, left the active ministry, and moved with his wife to Calgary in order to be with their only daughter, Annie, one of the first female graduates of Mount Allison and the widow of the Reverend Frederick Langford, a Victoria graduate. Burwash, who was admired for the physical strength which had enabled him until his final years to carry heavy canoes on long portages near his summer home in Muskoka, declined rapidly after the death of his wife in 1912.

Like his brother Nathanael, with whom he retained a lifelong friendship, John had been able, as an educator, to bridge the old and the new at a time of great intellectual ferment. A bluff, forthright Methodist, he was conservative in his theology and strict in his piety. A strong supporter of the temperance movement in New Brunswick and in Ontario, and a mason, he reflected throughout his life the simple moral code on which he had been raised. “He followed the primal instincts of an intelligent, unspoiled, Christian heart rather than fine-spun theories. To John Burwash sin was sin, wrong was wrong, righteousness was righteousness, and he would follow right in scorn of consequences,” Francis Huston Wallace, dean of theology at Victoria, recalled in his official eulogy. This practical piety allowed Burwash, like other Canadian evangelical academics of his generation, to be accommodating towards the new Darwinian science and the higher criticism of the Bible. An empiricist, as critical of “dogma” in religion as of “speculative theory” in science, he advised ministers that “the only way rightly to understand the Bible is to live it out; to go from experience of heart and life back to the direction of the book.” Thus the scientific method was as applicable to religion as to the world of nature: each had its own clearly defined limits and both were connected by God into a harmonious whole. Always convinced that it was the Christian scholar who should be at the centre of the new scientific and biblical thought, in an 1884 sermon he warned that “the books of nature apart from revelation can only bring despair.”

Marguerite Van Die

John Burwash’s publications include the sermon in Mount Allison Wesleyan College, Theological Union, Fifth annual lecture and sermon, delivered June, 1883 (Saint John, 1883; copy in Mount Allison Univ. Arch., Sackville, N.B.), 39–46, and “The limits of religious thought,” in The Methodist pulpit . . . , ed. S. G. Phillips (Toronto, 1884), 178–89. An abstract of a lecture delivered at Victoria University, “Genesis and geology,” appears in Acta Victoriana (Cobourg, Ont.), 14 (1891–92), no.7: 4–7.

AO, RG 80-27-2, 47: 16. UCC-C, Biog. file. Victoria Univ. Arch. (Toronto), Fonds 2042 (Nathanael Burwash), esp. files 119, 622. Christian Guardian (Toronto), 10 Dec. 1913. G. H. Cornish, Cyclopædia of Methodism in Canada (2v., Toronto and Halifax, 1881–1903). Michael Gauvreau, “The golden age of the church college: Mount Allison’s encounter with ‘modern thought,’ 1850–1890,” in The contribution of Methodism to Atlantic Canada, ed. C. H. H. Scobie and J. W. Grant (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1992), 169–86. J. F. McLaughlin, “Rev. John Burwash, {{m.a}}., d.sc., {{ll.d}}., professor emeritus: an appreciation,” Acta Victoriana (Toronto), 34 (1910–11): 56–57. Methodist ministers in Canada, 1903–1925, comp. Douglas Walkington ([Toronto, 1981?]; copy at UCC-C). J. G. Reid, Mount Allison University: a history, to 1963 (2v., Toronto, 1984), 1. C. B. Sissons, A history of Victoria University (Toronto, 1952). [F. H.] Wallace, “A tribute to Dr. Burwash,” Acta Victoriana, 38 (1913–14): 142–45.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Marguerite Van Die, “BURWASH, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burwash_john_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/burwash_john_14E.html
Author of Article: Marguerite Van Die
Title of Article: BURWASH, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: July 31, 2014