FYFE, ROBERT ALEXANDER, Baptist clergyman and educator; b. on 20 Oct. 1816, in the parish of Saint-Philippe, in the seigneury of Laprairie, L.C.; d. at Woodstock, Ont., on 4 Sept. 1878.
Robert Alexander Fyfe was the son of Scots who had emigrated from Dundee in 1809. He grew up on the farm, later learned the art of shoemaking and worked in lumber camps, and, in his late teens, moved with his family to the town of Laprairie where he clerked in a store. On 27 April 1835 he was baptized by the Reverend John Gilmour* and joined the Laprairie Baptist Church. Soon after, he determined to devote his life to the Baptist ministry.
His formal education was so limited that it took four years of arduous work for him to qualify for entrance into a theological college. The first year of this preparation was spent at the Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution in Hamilton, New York; the second, in the Baptist College in Montreal. In June 1837 he journeyed to Massachusetts hoping to enter the Newton Theological Institution, but he was advised to take more preliminary training, and this he received at the Manual Labor High School of Worcester, Massachusetts. Overcoming severe financial and health problems, he entered the Newton institute in October 1839, graduated in 1842, and was ordained to the ministry at the Brookline Massachusetts Baptist Church on 25 Aug. 1842.
Fyfe immediately left for Canada. In previous summers he had served as student pastor in the Ottawa valley with the Reverend Daniel McPhail. He went now to Perth, Canada West, where a church was organized on 31 Oct. 1842, and on 23 Feb. 1843 he married Jane Thomson, also the child of a Scottish immigrant, of Laprairie.
That fall Fyfe was prevailed upon by the governing body of the Montreal Baptist College to accept its principalship on an interim basis. He was deeply interested in education, but he did not feel prepared at that stage of his career to accept permanent charge of the college, although it was offered to him. After the arrival of a new president, John Mockett Cramp*, in the fall of 1844, Fyfe accepted a call to the March Street Baptist Church (later Bond Street, and then Jarvis Street) in Toronto, where he laboured with great success until 1848. During his term a new church was erected on Bond Street.
A son had been born in 1844, and a second son in June 1845. Fyfe experienced great tragedy when in June 1846 the two boys died within 17 days of each other and when a year later, in June 1847, his wife died after a long illness. In September 1848, in Massachusetts, he married Rebecca S. Kendall of Brookline. They had no family and she survived him, living until May 1884.
Fyfe left Toronto in October 1848 to begin a second pastorate at Perth. After three successful years as pastor he resigned, having become discouraged over his failure to bring about closer cooperation between the Baptists of the eastern and western portions of the Province of Canada. The Baptists of the Ottawa valley and Montreal were mainly immigrants from Great Britain with traditions that differed from those of the Baptists farther to the west who were largely of American origin. The fundamentalism of the latter led to differences on a number of doctrinal questions between the two groups which were hard to reconcile. In December 1851 Fyfe accepted a call to the Baptist church in Warren, Rhode Island, and in November 1853 he became the minister of the First Baptist Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Two years later he returned to the Bond Street Church in Toronto for a second pastorate.
After the failure of attempts to operate Baptist theological schools in Montreal (where the Baptist college had closed in 1849), and later in Toronto, Fyfe advocated the founding, for men and women, of a school for advanced literary education of which theological education would form a part. His plan was accepted, and he became the first principal of the Canadian Literary Institute at Woodstock, which opened in September 1860. Through the institute, he exerted great influence on all aspects of denominational life. After Fyfe’s death, the theology department was moved in 1881 to Toronto as the Toronto Baptist College; in 1887 it was incorporated as McMaster University. The Canadian Literary Institute, which had remained in Woodstock, was in affiliation and it was renamed Woodstock College.
In 1859, with a friend, Fyfe had purchased the Christian Messenger, a denominational paper published in Brantford, and made its place of publication Toronto, renaming it the Canadian Baptist in 1860. He provided outstanding editorship until 1863 when he was succeeded by the Reverend Hoyes Lloyd. Fyfe was a champion of civil rights, and from the earliest days of his ministry was concerned with questions of public interest. He was a prolific writer and a forceful speaker. With vigour and clarity he entered into public discussions on clergy reserves, endowed rectories, the desectarianism of King’s College, and, in later years, reform in the management of the University of Toronto even though he was then a member of that university’s senate.
Fyfe was the leading Baptist of his time in Ontario and Quebec. He was a sincere Christian gentleman, respected by old and young alike. His ability as a pastor and evangelist is attested by the fact that two of the four congregations he served recalled him for a second term. He had a broad outlook and everything connected with the prosperity of his denomination was of interest to him. After his return to Canada in 1855 he did more than anyone else to unite the heterogenous body of Baptists in the two sections of the province. He gave leadership on boards, committees, and societies covering almost every activity connected with the organization of the Baptist churches. At the same time he was the wise counsellor of the small rural churches, the sincere friend and helper of missionaries, and the confidant of distraught pastors.
The Baptist encylopædia . . . , ed. William Cathcart (Philadelphia, 1881) J. E. Wells, Life and labors of Robert Alex. Fyfe, D.D. . . . (Toronto, n.d.). John McLaurin, “Robert Alexander Fyfe,” McMaster University Monthly (Toronto), III (1893–94), 1–9.