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FORRESTER, ALEXANDER, Presbyterian clergyman and educationist; b. 1805 in Scotland; m. in 1841 Margaret Tweddale Davidson, who died in 1861; d. 20 April 1869 during a visit to New York City and was buried at Truro, N.S., survived by three daughters and one son.

Alexander Forrester was educated at the University of Edinburgh between 1821 and 1825. He subsequently had several posts as a tutor while he undertook theological studies in the Church of Scotland during the halcyon years of the eminent theologian and social leader, Thomas Chalmers. Forrester was licensed to preach in 1831 and in 1835 was ordained by the presbytery of Wigtown as assistant minister of the parish of Sorbie in Galloway. For eight years he ministered to Sorbie and nearby Garlieston as assistant to the Reverend Elliott Davidson, whose daughter he married.

In 1843 Forrester and many of the Sorbie congregation joined the secession led by Chalmers from the established church. Shortly thereafter Forrester was inducted as first minister of Free Middle Church of Paisley. The industrial area provided greater scope for his evangelical and educational interests which led him to establish numerous schools and preaching stations. He was particularly cognizant of the needs of the labouring population, an enthusiasm not shared by wealthier members of his congregation.

In 1848 his fellow minister, John Macnaughton, of Paisley Free High Church, returned from Nova Scotia with details of the promising prospects for a theological training college there. With only four days’ notice, Forrester volunteered to visit Halifax. He arrived on 30 Jan. 1848, a Sunday, and climbed directly from the harbour to conduct morning service at St John’s Church. In his capacity as deputy from the Colonial Committee of the Free Church, Forrester stayed in Nova Scotia for six months serving at St John’s and supervising the Free Church college in Halifax. With tireless energy and zeal he conducted three Sunday services, gave lectures on three evenings, and each day taught four hours of logic, “mental science,” Latin, and Greek to the students of the Free Church college and their juniors in the church’s Halifax Academy. On 4 May, the day after the college recessed, he set out on a tour of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to raise funds for the college endowment fund.

On 24 June he left for Scotland, but his missionary ardour had been fired and he accepted the call from St John’s Church to return as its pastor. He arrived back in Halifax on 18 October, was inducted on 16 November, and on 1 Jan. 1849 laid the foundation stone of Chalmers’ Church, a Gothic edifice into which the St John’s congregation moved on 14 Oct. 1849. Until 1855 Forrester also served the Free Church by travelling widely in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Bermuda to raise funds for its college and home mission scheme and to supply vacant charges.

During the same period he frequently contributed articles, mostly unsigned, to the Presbyterian Witness relating to the church at home and abroad, education, science, and agriculture. He reached other audiences by means of his lectures on botany, geology, natural philosophy, and biblical prophecy to the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute (of which he was president in 1852–54), to the young men of his own congregation and those of the YMCA (established in 1854), and to a wider public from the lecterns of the city’s public halls. His leanings towards non-sectarian Protestantism found expression through participation in the Nova Scotia Bible Society, Micmac Missionary Society, Sabbath Alliance, and prayer meetings, while his public-spiritedness was reflected in executive duties for industrial and agricultural exhibitions, as well as exhibits sponsored by the city’s horticultural society of which he was corresponding secretary.

Forrester’s interest in the Nova Scotian educational system, eventually his major preoccupation, was fostered not only by his incessant peregrinations and conscientious supervision of his church’s schools in Halifax, but more decisively by his role as one of the nine city school commissioners between 1850 and 1855. He and fellow commissioner John Sparrow Thompson were two-man committees for most of the board’s functions. The resulting acquaintance with the city’s public schools led Forrester to campaign for better school books, compulsory city assessment, and teacher training. In 1854 he was asked to become superintendent of education in succession to John William Dawson*. Forrester accepted the post the following winter after resigning the charge of Chalmers’ Church, and he also became principal of the projected provincial normal school. He began by inspecting the educational systems of New England, New York, and Canada in the spring of 1855, and by holding close to 50 public meetings throughout the province in the summer of that year to stimulate interest in teacher training.

After decades of debate over the need for teacher training, the new co-educational normal school opened at Truro on 14 Nov. 1855 with about 60 students. Since the introduction of the monitorial system in Nova Scotia in the 1810s, various proposals had been made by the managers of schools for a non-sectarian normal school. In Halifax the Royal Acadian School, the National School, and the school conducted by the Colonial Church and School Society pioneered teacher training. Such work had also been sustained in the institution at Boularderie in Cape Breton established by graduates of the Glasgow Normal School. It was Dawson, however, who campaigned most effectively for the establishment of a provincial normal school and the government finally undertook the venture after Dawson’s lack of success led him to resign in disgust. Consequently, it fell to Forrester to preside over the inauguration of the institution demanded by his predecessor. Shortly afterward he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by Presbyterian Princeton College in New Jersey.

From 1855 until 1863 Forrester observed a rigorous routine of instruction in natural science and the theory and practice of education for two terms at the normal school, and inspection of the province’s schools during the recesses in April and October, when he lectured on education and held teachers’ institutes. In 1857 the model or practice schools for about 200 pupils, divided into primary, intermediate, and high departments, opened under his supervision at Truro. From 1858 to 1860 he edited, financed, and largely wrote the Journal of Education and Agriculture, for the province of Nova Scotia, an immensely informative and handsomely produced monthly periodical. His enthusiasm for agriculture in the curriculum of the normal school resulted in his appointment as provincial agricultural commissioner between 1859 and 1863 and thereafter he served as an ex officio member of the re-established Central Board of Agriculture. He revisited Europe only in 1863, on a working holiday which included visits to teachers’ colleges in Scotland, England, France, and Belgium.

Forrester’s annual reports as superintendent of education, like those of Dawson, advocated assessment, centralization, and inspection of Nova Scotian schools. His insistence on quality as well as quantity underlay his demands for better schoolhouses, a graded system of primary, intermediate, and high schools, and the recognition of teachers’ qualifications through licensing and improved remuneration. His pronounced streak of independence is illustrated by his well-publicized petition to the government in 1862 containing almost 6,000 names and demanding compulsory assessment as the only way of improving the school system of a province whose inhabitants were still markedly illiterate.

In 1864–65 many of Forrester’s incessant demands for improvement were met in Charles Tupper*’s legislation for free schools supported by compulsory assessment and greater centralization and supervision through a council of public instruction and a system of school inspectors. But in the reorganization Forrester found himself unexpectedly relieved of the pre-eminent position as superintendent. Until his death he remained principal of the normal school, working in harmony with the new superintendent, and he now had time for his natural history specimens and the organization of his normal school lectures into a manual for teachers, The teacher’s text book (1867).

As an educationist, Forrester was more a popularizer than an innovator. In common with liberals of his day he believed in the contribution of education to national improvement, prosperity, security, and morality. His conception of schooling and teacher training was closely patterned on David Stow’s ideas as embodied in the Glasgow Normal School, ideas that were current in Nova Scotia before Forrester’s arrival. Stow’s system (derived from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi), which Forrester styled “the natural system,” emphasized the training of the child’s moral, intellectual, and physical attributes, which Forrester considered as much interdependent as the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms of science. His enthusiasm for science, especially for horticulture and agriculture, explains his determination to establish a model experimental farm at the Truro institution; it foreshadowed a provincial agricultural college but such an institution was during Forrester’s tenure largely frustrated by the parsimony of the local government. His intention to secure grants from the same officials, in addition to free tuition for student teachers, was also unsuccessful. Many of the expenses of the early years were borne by Forrester himself.

Although his contemporaries acknowledged Forrester’s praiseworthy exertions on behalf of education and utter selflessness in discharging his duties, they also considered him over-ambitious in his plans for the normal school and something of an autocrat as superintendent. As long as he retained both positions he was criticized as being a power unto himself. The separation of the offices in 1864 represented a resort to checks and balances under the watchful eye of the government-appointed Council of Public Instruction as much as it did an administrative reform.

In an age of continuous sectarian antagonism and renewed Protestant-Catholic strife, Forrester inevitably had difficulty in walking the knife edge of neutrality deemed desirable in a public servant. As an ordained minister of the highly energetic and numerically predominant Presbyterian Church in Nova Scotia, he was bound to be accused of Protestant bigotry and Presbyterian partiality; moreover, as a “foreigner” he could be reproached with ignorance of the province. Catholics distrusted him because of his opposition to legislative enactment for separate schools and insistence on the use of the Bible for moral education. Forrester apparently went to some lengths to appease them by refraining from association with such ultra-Protestant organizations as the Protestant Alliance, established in response to “papal aggression” and local Irish intransigence. Yet there was no doubting his anti-Catholicism; like many contemporaries he referred repeatedly to the Catholic Church as the “Man of Sin” and maintained an interest in Protestant union and the distribution of the Bible which was partly inspired by the utility of these measures as antidotes to Romanism. At the same time Protestants of other denominations were critical of Forrester. They identified the normal school as a Presbyterian institution, especially since the overwhelming majority of normal students were Presbyterians. At the same time, they interpreted Forrester’s support of Dalhousie College, which he saw as a means of providing a high quality liberal education by concentrating resources in one large-scale, amply endowed institution, as an attack on the government support of denominational colleges. Possibly as a sop to other Protestants, he withdrew from the courts of his own church.

To add to the complexities, Forrester was a forthright supporter of the Liberal party. During the controversy over separate schools and the transfer of Catholic allegiance from the Liberals to the Baptist-dominated Conservatives in the mid 1850s, Forrester’s sympathies for the Liberal cause became something of a religious crusade. At the mundane political level, his behind-the-scene machinations for the defeat of Charles Tupper in the Cumberland County election of 1857 were fruitless and aptly rewarded by his own demotion at the hands of the Conservative leader seven years later. It was also no coincidence that in 1864 Forrester was succeeded by a subordinate, Theodore Harding Rand, a Baptist and a layman.

Ironically, the free school legislation which Forrester did so much to promote not only meant his eclipse as educational leader but also the virtual failure of the Truro college as the province’s teacher training school. Because of the increased demand for teachers under the new legislation, Rand had to approve a permissive licence which in effect undermined the Truro institution by making graduates of every secondary school in the province eligible to teach. Forrester’s disappointments together with his lingering evangelical predilections led him to espouse the foreign missionary cause successfully blossoming in the Presbyterian church after the union of the Free Church Synod and the Synod of Nova Scotia (Secession) in 1860. But old age discouraged him from volunteering for the South Seas, and his continued devotion to the circumscribed and degraded arena of the normal school was apparently enough to hasten the demise of the once robust Scotsman.

Judith Fingard

Maritime Conference Archives of the United Church of Canada, Pine Hill Divinity Hall (Halifax), Chalmers’ Presbyterian Church, session book, 1843–1904; Free Church of Scotland, Colonial Committee, notices and minutes, 1843–70 (mfm.). PANS, MG 2, 736–42; RG 14, 65, records of the board of commissioners of schools for the City of Halifax; 70; 81. Alexander Forrester, Address to the people of Nova Scotia, on the support of common schools (n.p., n.d.); Duty of the legislature of Nova-Scotia with respect to collegiate education (Halifax, 1852); The object, benefits and history of normal schools, with act of legislature of Nova Scotia anent normal schools, &c (Halifax, 1855); The present war: a discourse preached in Chalmers’ Free Church, on Wednesday, the 17th May, 1854 . . . (Halifax, 1854); Provincial normal and model schools: brief review of the history of provincial normal and model schools, with prospective arrangements, viewed more especially in relation to the community of Truro (n.p., [1865]); Register and circular with brief history and condition of the Normal School of Nova Scotia, 1862 ([Halifax, 1862]); The sustentation of the Gospel: a sermon preached at the opening of the Synod of the Free Church of Nova-Scotia, at Halifax, June 25th, 1851 (Halifax, 1851); The teacher’s textbook (Halifax, 1867). Journal of Education and Agriculture, for the province of Nova Scotia (Halifax), 1858–60. Journal of Education for Nova Scotia (Halifax), 1866–70. N.S., House of Assembly, Journals and proc., 1856–70. Acadian Recorder, 23 Jan. 1858, 17 May 1862. British Colonist (Halifax), 24 April 1869. Christian Messenger (Halifax), 25 May 1864. Evening Express (Halifax), 4 Jan. 1861, 16 May 1862. Presbyterian Witness, 1848–72. J. B. Calkin, Old time customs, memories and traditions and other essays (Halifax, 1918), 175–88. J. Willoughby, Progress of education in Nova Scotia during fifty years, and lights and shadows in the life of an old teacher (Halifax, 1884). D. C. Harvey, “The establishment of free schools in Nova Scotia,” Journal of Education (Halifax), 4th ser., X (1939), 1074–80; “The origin of our normal school,” Journal of Education, 4th ser., VIII (1937), 566–73. Robert Harvey, “From pulpit to platform: Alexander Forrester,” N.SHist. Quarterly, 2 (1972), 349–65. N. K. VanBuskirk, “Dr. Alexander Forrester,” Journal of Education, 4th ser., XIV (1943), 181–86.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Judith Fingard, “FORRESTER, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forrester_alexander_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forrester_alexander_9E.html
Author of Article: Judith Fingard
Title of Article: FORRESTER, ALEXANDER
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: April 18, 2014