CHRISTIAN, WASHINGTON, Baptist minister; b. c. 1776, reputedly in Virginia; d. 3 July 1850 in Toronto.
The facts of Washington Christian’s early life all lack documentation: his birth, his ordination in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, his itinerant ministry in New England, and his move in 1825 to York (Toronto) in Upper Canada. Christian, himself a black, ministered there to a small congregation of blacks and whites, and seems to have been the first Baptist pastor to officiate regularly in the provincial capital. By 1827 he had secured a permanent meeting-place, the rooms of St George’s Lodge. A small frame church was built on March (Lombard) Street in 1834, by which time Christian’s flock seems to have been made up entirely of blacks and the place of worship was known as the “Negro Chapel.” In 1836 Thomas Rolph* wrote that the “coloured inhabitants . . . have . . . a Church, which is well attended.” A year later Christian reported a membership of 66 to the Haldimand Association, the nearest Baptist church organization, centred on the Bay of Quinte. His congregation in the 1820s had probably been composed mainly of descendants of slaves brought into the Canadas between 1763 and 1793, although Rolph believed they were later arrivals, “most of them escaped from slavery.” The building of the March Street church had coincided with the influx of blacks from the United States following a disturbance in 1829 in Ohio.
In 1841 Christian built a new church, at the corner of Queen and Victoria streets. A visit by him in the winter of 1843–44 to Jamaica was important since “through the liberality of the Baptists in Jamaica the chapel is free from debt.” The visit also underscored the place of the West Indies in the thinking of Upper Canadian blacks. The organization of a Sunday School, a junior temperance society, and a library followed, and until his death in 1850 Christian remained in charge of the congregation, which called itself First Baptist Church from the late 1850s.
Christian was active in general Baptist Church affairs. A valued member of the Haldimand Association, he took a leading part in its deliberations and frequently preached at its opening meetings. In the late 1840s he became a visitor to the meetings of the Amherstburg Association, in the southwest of the province, and in 1848 he was made a life-member. He also maintained contacts with the United States as a member of the American Baptist Missionary Convention, an organization sponsored by the Abyssinian Baptist Church. In Upper Canada he was markedly successful in the formation of Baptist congregations among the black communities of the Niagara peninsula, notably in St Catharines (1838) and Hamilton (1847). In 1847 he made an extensive tour of the black settlements between Chatham and Sandwich (Windsor). Few would dispute the statement of historian Dorothy Shadd Shreve that he “founded more Canadian Baptist Churches than any other coloured Baptist minister.” A man of force and character, Christian was a moving preacher, capable of drawing large crowds. Hearing him speak at Whitby in 1837, an observer noted that “while truth fell from his lips it reached many hearts and suffused many eyes with tears.”
Disputes within his Toronto congregation caused difficulty for Christian. The trustees, who held the deeds for the property, attempted to interfere with the general operation of the church. According to the Reverend William P. Newman, editor of the Provincial Freeman, the trustees treated “the old man so unkindly that he died virtually of a broken heart.” He certainly died in poverty. Christian was buried in Potter’s Field, and 12 years later was reinterred beside his wife, Ann, in the Necropolis.
Information on Washington Christian is scarce and often unsubstantiated. Some of the works cited below, for example, claim without authority that he was a West Indian. A photograph of him is published in D. G. Hill, The freedom-seekers: blacks in early Canada (Agincourt [Toronto], 1981).
Canadian Baptist Arch., McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ont.), Amherstburg Regular Baptist Assoc., minutes, 1841–79. Haldimand Baptist Assoc., Minutes (Cobourg, [Ont.], et al.), 1837–51. Long Point Baptist Assoc., Minutes (London, [Ont.]), 1837–41. Thomas Rolph, A brief account, together with observations, made during a visit in the West Indies, and a tour through the United States of America, in parts of the years 1832–3; together with a statistical account of Upper Canada (Dundas, [Ont.], 1836). Provincial Freeman and Weekly Advertiser (Chatham, [Ont.]), 24 Nov. 1855. A history of the Amherstburg Regular Missionary Baptist Association ; its auxiliaries and churches . . . , ed. Dorothy Shadd Shreve (Amherstburg, Ont., 1940). J. K. Lewis, “Religious life of fugitive slaves and rise of coloured Baptist churches, 1820–1865, in what is now known as Ontario”