CAMPBELL, ROBERT, Presbyterian minister, botanist, educator, and author; b. 21 June 1835 near Perth, Upper Canada, seventh son of Peter Campbell, a farmer and elder of the Presbyterian Church, and Margaret Campbell; m. 29 Dec. 1863 Margaret Macdonnell, sister of Daniel James Macdonnell*, in Fergus, Upper Canada, and they had seven sons, three of whom died before reaching adulthood, and three daughters, one of whom died at age 24; d. 15 March 1921 in Montreal.
Peter Campbell’s parents immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1817 and settled near Perth that same year. An able student, Robert was able to obtain a classical education from a well-educated Irish schoolmaster at the local common school. After a conversion experience in 1852, he began to prepare for the ministry. He graduated in 1856 from Queen’s College, Kingston, with a ba (honours in all subjects) and later that year he became headmaster of Queen’s College School. He continued to study, receiving an ma from Queen’s in 1858. Although licensed to preach by the presbytery of Bathurst in 1860, he went abroad, visiting the British Isles and the Continent. He seems to have already had a reputation as a preacher, because on his return he received invitations from several congregations. He chose St Andrew’s Church in Galt (Cambridge); on 10 April 1862 he was ordained and inducted into that congregation. After four years there, he accepted a call from the famous St Gabriel Street Church in Montreal. Campbell would retain this charge until his retirement in 1909, a ministry of 43 years. He held the title of minister emeritus from 1909 until his death.
Though his doctrine was Calvinist, Campbell nevertheless adhered to the Church of Scotland rather than its Free Church counterpart. Both of his congregations, in Galt and Montreal, were part of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland. His call to the St Gabriel Street Church represented a daunting task. The Reverend Henry Esson* had led St Gabriel Street into the Free Church after the disruption of 1843 [see Robert Burns*], but not without substantial dissent. The church and the manse were given back to the Synod of the Church of Scotland in 1864. Thus Campbell inherited not just a previously prestigious pulpit but also a history of dispute and a vastly shrunken congregation. He worked with confidence and enthusiasm. He began with between 40 and 80 families; by 1875-76 the church had 196 families and 358 communicants, making it the fourth largest Presbyterian congregation in Montreal.
Proud of his Scottish heritage, Campbell was a founding member of the Celtic Society of Montreal, established in 1883. Philosophically he was trained in the Scottish common sense tradition and espoused its realism; he remained unimpressed with the philosophical idealism sweeping through the church’s institutions of higher learning and had little time for the theological liberalism that accompanied it. Although conservative in his socio-political outlook as well, he did not completely trust the bullish capitalism of his age. Campbell was doctrinally conservative but not reactionary. In spite of his high praise for the Westminster Confession, he sometimes qualified his acceptance of it. He agreed with some of the results of higher criticism of Christian Scriptures. No exponent of cultural Christianity, he remained evangelical in outlook. He averred that “every baptized child of the Church needs spiritual regeneration as much as any Hindu or Hottentot.” To a certain degree, he fell between the cracks, not nearly up-to-date enough for the theological liberals of his day, but not sufficiently conservative to satisfy strict Calvinist orthodoxy.
Campbell was both an ecumenist and a fervent Scottish Presbyterian. As an ecumenist, he freely recognized a valuable Christian witness in the other Canadian denominations he termed “evangelical”: Anglican, Baptist, Congregationalist, and Methodist. He also found a place in Christendom for the Roman Catholic Church; he even had nice things to say about the Unitarians. Of the Jews, Campbell comments: “Over against [the crucifixion of Christ] is to be placed the fact that our great redeemer was a Jew, and that Christians owe the large sources of their religion to that remarkable people.” As an unapologetic Scottish Presbyterian, he aggressively supported a union of the various branches of Presbyterianism in 1875, but later strongly opposed the union of Scottish and English denominations in Canada, finally consolidated in the establishment of the United Church of Canada in 1925. He tested severely his rugged constitution in his all-out fight to get the Presbyterian union through the Quebec legislature in 1875 and he would similarly ignore the limitations of old age as a leader in the struggle against interdenominational union.
In addition to his pastoral work, Campbell was a trustee of Queen’s College for many years and for two academic years (1880–82) he was a lecturer in church history there. His writings give evidence of his acquaintance with current topics such as socialism, evolution, and higher criticism of the Bible. Queen’s conferred on him an honorary dd in 1887. As soon as the union of 1875 had made it possible, he served the erstwhile Free Church theological college, Presbyterian College of Montreal, as a member of its board of managers from 1875 to 1883. He taught church history there as well, in 1904–5 and in 1916. Except for a brief hiatus (1894–95), he was a senator of the college from 1883 until his death, a tenure that made him one of its longest serving, most influential senators.
From 1892 until his death Campbell was senior clerk (secretary) of the General Assembly, the most important post in Presbyterian churches within the Scottish tradition. The clerk’s word is authoritative in the intricacies of Presbyterian practice. Certainly Campbell’s consummate skill in the position was freely acknowledged by friend and foe alike. The other high post in Presbyterianism is that of moderator of the General Assembly. Campbell had this honour in 1907.
Campbell had a considerable public role, especially in Montreal. He was a founding member and chaplain of the St Lawrence Curling Club. He was also active in such charitable organizations as the Prisoners’ Aid Society. No stranger to legislators, he acted as lobbyist or publicist on numerous issues involving the church.
An avid botanist, Campbell collected flowers both at home and abroad, and his hiking undoubtedly contributed to his near-legendary vitality. Active in the Natural History Society of Montreal, he contributed 17 articles on botany to its Canadian Record of Science, of which he was editor for a number of years. In 1895 he became president of the society.
His literary output, while not extraordinary, was respectable for a conscientious parish minister. He is best remembered for his minutely detailed History of the Scotch Presbyterian Church . . . (Montreal, 1887). Over 800 pages long, it contains many small biographies of founders of Presbyterianism in Montreal and is still consulted today. His Relations of the Christian churches to one another . . . (Toronto, 1913) is a polemical but charitable refutation of church union. The best known of his shorter works are On the union of Presbyterians in Canada (Montreal, 1871) and The pretensions exposed . . . (Montreal, 1878), a vitriolic tract against ministers claiming to represent the true Church of Scotland. Less acerbic was his Union or co-operation . . . (Montreal, [1906?]). He wrote numerous articles for church magazines; the prestigious Catholic Presbyterian (London and New York) published his “Rise and progress of the Presbyterian Church in Canada” in 1879.
All the sources converge on two of Campbell’s traits: his optimism and his vigour. He evidently had an irrepressible enthusiasm and an almost irritating ability to see hope in the most thorough defeats. He evangelized confidently in his east-end Montreal parish even when it seemed that once established as church members many of his flock moved to the more prosperous west end of the city. He retired from the pastorate at age 74 and kept up a punishing schedule of engagements. The last active day of his life – 28 Feb. 1921 – he participated in a meeting of the presbytery of Montreal, as had been his wont for 53 years; that evening he planned to attend a meeting of the Natural History Society of Montreal (of which he was honorary president). He was en route when the streetcar in which he was riding lurched forward and left him with injuries which would prove fatal two weeks later. His death robbed the Presbyterian Church in Canada of one of its most distinguished elder statesmen, the Quebec Christian community of a renowned ecumenist, and the Canadian scientific community of an acute observer of nature.
Science and technology biblio. (Richardson and MacDonald) lists numerous articles on botany which Robert Campbell published in the Canadian Record of Science (Montreal) and the Canadian Horticultural Magazine (Montreal). Some of these articles, as well as the works mentioned in the biography and other writings by Campbell, are listed in CIHM, Reg.
AO, RG 80-27-2, 79: 112. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). N. K. Clifford, The resistance to church union in Canada, 1904–1939 (Vancouver, 1985); “Robert Campbell, the defender of Presbyterianism,” in Called to witness: profiles of Canadian Presbyterians . . . , ed. W. S. Reid and J. S. Moir (4v. to date, [Toronto; Hamilton, Ont.], 1975–?), 1: 53-66. [James Croil], A historical and statistical report of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, in connection with the Church of Scotland, for the year 1866 (Montreal, 1867). G. C. Heine, A brief sketch of the life and work of the Rev. Robert Campbell, d.d., minister of St. Gabriel Church, Montreal (Montreal, 1922). Presbyterian Church in Canada, General Assembly, Acts and proc. (Toronto), 1921-22. Ephraim Scott, “The late Rev. Robert Campbell, d.d.,” Presbyterian Record (Montreal) 46 (1921): 104–6. Hew Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiæ scoticanæ: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation (new ed., 11v. to date, Edinburgh, 1915–?): 7. Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell).
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Cite This Article
Dan Shute, “CAMPBELL, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/campbell_robert_15E.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:
|Author of Article:||Dan Shute|
|Title of Article:||CAMPBELL, ROBERT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2005|
|Access Date:||March 30, 2023|