GORDON, DANIEL MINER, Presbyterian minister, author, and educator; b. 30 Jan. 1845 in Pictou, N.S., son of William Gordon and Amelia Miner; brother of Wilhelmina Gordon; m. 28 Sept. 1869 Eliza Simona MacLennan in Charlottetown, and they had three sons and three daughters, one of whom died in infancy; d. 31 Aug. 1925 in Kingston, Ont.
Daniel M. Gordon’s father was born in Kildonan, Scotland, and came to Pictou with his family as a boy in 1816. At the time of his marriage in 1837, he was a prominent merchant in Pictou, a staunch conservative in politics, and an active elder of the Church of Scotland. He donated the land on which a manse was built and became treasurer of a program that sent young men, including George Monro Grant*, to the University of Glasgow to train for the ministry. Gordon’s mother was, by his own account, the most important personal and religious influence on him and he maintained an active correspondence with her throughout his life.
The second son in a prosperous family, Gordon had the educational advantages of early tutoring and was able to read at the age of four. At seven, he entered Pictou Academy, founded by Thomas McCulloch*, where he remained until, not yet fifteen, he was sent in 1859, at his father’s expense, to Glasgow to study arts and then divinity. Like Grant, who returned to Nova Scotia a few months after his arrival, Gordon was much influenced by the famous Dr Norman Macleod of the Barony Church, Glasgow, and became president of the Conservative Club at the university. Unlike Grant, he was also exposed to the Christian idealism of John Caird, who was appointed to the chair of divinity in 1862. He attributed his own intellectual awakening to Caird and continued to read his teacher’s work with appreciation until his death.
Not pressed by financial necessity to teach during his vacations, he passed the summers reading and travelling. One summer was spent in Berlin learning to speak and read German, and attending lectures. This sojourn was followed by a walking tour from Heidelberg to Milan; his classmate Daniel James Macdonnell* accompanied him for much of the way. Other Canadian friends included Charles Martin Grant, younger brother of George and later a missionary to India, with whom he shared accommodation in Glasgow for a year.
Having graduated ma in 1863 and bd three years later, he was licensed and ordained in 1866 by the Presbytery of Ayr and sent to Nova Scotia by the Colonial Committee of the Church of Scotland as a missionary. He preached for some months at St Paul’s Church, Truro, and its attached mission stations before being called to St Andrew’s, the oldest Protestant church in Ottawa, in 1867. The congregation included the engineer Sandford Fleming* and wealthy lumbermen such as Allan Gilmour* and Henry Franklin Bronson*. In 1869 he married Eliza, daughter of the Reverend John MacLennan*, in Prince Edward Island.
Besides his strong biblical preaching and pastoral work at St Andrew’s, he was active in efforts to found a nurses’ training school at the Protestant hospital in Ottawa. He served on committees of the Church of Scotland synod and on the board of trustees of Queen’s College in Kingston and worked for the union of the various branches of Presbyterianism in Canada, which was achieved in 1875 [see William Caven*; William Snodgrass*]. In 1879 he accompanied George Mercer Dawson* as secretary of an expedition to explore the Peace River and Pine River passes as possible routes for the Pacific railway. His account of the journey was published the following year as Mountain and prairie.
One result of this experience was his urging the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to appoint a superintendent of missions for Manitoba and the North-West Territories. In 1881 James Robertson* was named to the position, a decision which was to result in the Presbyterian Church becoming the largest in western Canada at the time of Robertson’s death in 1902. The move, however, left Knox Church, Winnipeg, vacant and in 1882 Gordon felt it his duty to leave the comforts of the national capital and accept a call to that congregation as Robertson’s replacement.
The years in Winnipeg were hard on Gordon and his young family. In addition to his heavy pastoral work, he lectured on apologetics at Manitoba College and supported Robertson’s energetic expansion of Presbyterianism as secretary of the Church and Manse Building Fund of Manitoba and the North-West. During the Riel rebellion in 1885 [see Louis Riel*] he served as a chaplain to the 90th (Winnipeg) Battalion of Rifles. Gordon’s coolness under fire at Batoche (Sask.) made him popular with Major-General Frederick Dobson Middleton*’s men and earned him a reputation as “Fighting Dan Gordon.” Yet he was not, by nature, a fighter. His gentle and irenic temper led to an awareness of the real grievances suffered by the Métis and Indians, and to shame at the church’s lack of missionary zeal towards native people. He wrote to George Grant that they were “very much worse off by reason of the advent of the whites. . . . It is a bitter mockery on the Christian name for us to apply it to ourselves as a people when we have treated the Indian in such a way as to make him partake of our worse vices and vilest diseases, and do nothing more to help him than give him a bare pittance of food. I think if I were an Indian I would take all the risks of an uprising and have done with it.”
Failing health prompted a move to St Andrew’s Church, Halifax, in 1887. (Health continued to be a problem until, in 1889, the Victorian remedy of a trip around the world provided the needed rest.) Diminished pastoral responsibilities gave him time to acquaint himself with developments in the historical criticism of the Bible. He became a careful student of reverent biblical criticism and the works of scholars such as William Robertson Smith and Charles Augustus Briggs. He remained the minister of St Andrew’s until 1894 when he moved from the board of the Presbyterian College in Halifax to the chair of systematic theology and apologetics there, succeeding Alexander McKnight*. Though Gordon was never an original scholar, he brought to the task a great wealth of pastoral experience, conservative instincts, and the habits of careful and well-informed study. The pastoral emphasis is evident in his contributions to the school’s publication, the Theologue. The most trusted of the Auld Kirk ministers within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Gordon was elected moderator of the General Assembly in 1896. During the years in Halifax he presided as “King Arthur” over a Round Table of younger Presbyterians who were to become influential in 20th-century Canadian university life, including Walter Charles Murray*, Alfred Gandier, Clarence Mackinnon, Arthur Silver Morton*, and Robert Alexander Falconer*.
In 1902 Gordon was persuaded by Sandford Fleming, then chancellor of Queen’s College, to become George Grant’s successor as principal. The issue that had dominated the latter years of Grant’s tenure was the secularization of the university. By 1900 Grant had come to the conclusion that Queen’s had to sever its relationship with the Presbyterian Church if it was to receive the government and private funding needed to run a modern university, and had begun applying his legendary political skills towards that end. He had already won approval in principle for the change from the General Assembly, and a joint committee of the university and the assembly had drafted the necessary legislation before his death in 1902.
Initially supportive of the shift envisaged by Grant, Gordon lacked his predecessor’s aptitude for public debate and shaping collective decisions. The 1903 assembly, swayed by a vision of Queen’s as a national Presbyterian university and by the promise of a generous donation from John Charlton*, rejected the bill. Permission was, however, granted for the university to appeal to individual congregations to increase the endowment. Gordon acquiesced in this result and shouldered the years of strenuous effort that it took for him eventually to raise $400,000 - which his acquaintance Andrew Carnegie topped up to half a million.
More diplomat than fighter, Gordon sought consensus and trusted that free discussion would eventually result in unanimity. But the increasingly polarized debate over Queen’s pitted the interests of the faculty against the hopes of those who wanted to maintain Presbyterian control of the institution that the church had founded but never enthusiastically supported. Even as the evidence accumulated that the church lacked the will and the resources to fund the faculties of arts, science, medicine, and education of a modern university, the controversy split Queen’s board of trustees. Gordon was rebuffed twice more by the General Assembly before provincial legislation was finally passed in 1912 that divided the endowment and left the church in control of just the theological college.
Ten years of equivocation proved costly for the university. As a denominational institution, it was unable to participate in the pension scheme for professors established by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching until the funds had already been allocated. Not only was this exclusion resented by the older members of the faculty, but the university found it difficult to retire old professors and to compete with other institutions for new staff. The delay also prevented anticipated support from the Ontario government for the faculty of arts until after World War I.
Besides attending to his administrative and fund-raising responsibilities as principal, Gordon shaped the training of divinity students. Whatever the influence of the philosophical idealism associated with John Watson* and Samuel Walters Dyde on the campus, Gordon was a “religious conservative.” As he explained in the Queen’s Quarterly, the theological faculty strove to teach that “the interests of redemptive truth are paramount, the aim being to make all knowledge lead up to the knowledge of God and his purposes for men.” Theological examinations centred on the nature of sin and theories of the Atonement. Gordon told those attending the alumni conference in 1907 that David Hume’s scepticism about the possibility of miracles violating so-called “natural law” was unwarranted. “We must remember that we are not asked to accept the miracles as mere supernatural marvels but as works of the Person Jesus Christ. . . . Christ’s miracles . . . help to interpret to us the living Christ, the image of the invisible God.” Science dealt with observed information; faith marvelled in astonishment at God’s involvement in history. Gordon is a good example of a minister who, although exposed to idealism and an admirer of John Caird, remained open to the possibility of miracle and firmly within the orthodox and evangelical camp.
Politically, Gordon was an imperial federationist who advocated improved communication and trade links between the various parts of the empire. He was an active member of the Canadian Defence League, which under the presidency of William Hamilton Merritt* urged universal voluntary military training, and supported the creation of an engineering cadet corps at Queen’s in 1910 under his own motto, Fear God, Honour the King. He foresaw a conflict tied to clashing imperialisms. At an engineering dinner in December 1913 he urged increased enlistment in the corps and suggested that Queen’s ought also to be able to supply one or two companies of infantry from the arts students and an efficient ambulance corps from the medical school, with a full supply of chaplains from the theological college. Gordon’s enthusiasm for imperial defence was not shared by all at Queen’s. An offer from Reuben Wells Leonard to build a residence for students who enrolled in an officer-training program provoked organized opposition from Oscar Douglas Skelton*, then head of the political science department. But when war was declared, the 5th (Kingston) Field Engineer Company from Queen’s was ready and helped to prepare the base at Valcartier, Que., for the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many of its members were also among the first unit from any Canadian university to get to the front. In 1914 Gordon was made an honorary colonel by Samuel Hughes, minister of militia and defence, and he served on the cadet committee of the adjutant general’s branch of Hughes’s department. The following year he was created a cmg.
Gordon’s view of the war was balanced and well founded. Two of his sons served as officers. The eldest, the Reverend Alexander MacLennan Gordon, was awarded the dso as the senior chaplain of the 4th Canadian Division. The relationship between father and son was very close and their correspondence presents an interesting and theologically informed reading of the war. Unlike those clergy who baptized the war effort a glorious crusade or clung to an unyielding pacifism, Gordon was sufficiently sophisticated in his theology to distinguish between Christ and Caesar and the weapons and responsibilities of church and state. Like many, he hoped that the war might be a means of turning hearts from the unbounded pursuit of financial gain to considerations of service. He carried on correspondence with students at the front and wrote to bereaved parents. During the war, as enrolment at Queen’s plummeted, Grant Hall and the adjoining Arts Building were converted into a convalescent hospital, and women, including Gordon’s daughter Wilhelmina, began teaching for the first time.
Failing health finally prompted Gordon’s retirement in 1917, 50 years after his ordination. His last years were spent with Wilhelmina, his wife having predeceased him in 1910. “The very heart and centre of her home,” according to her daughter, Mrs Gordon had been intensely interested in her husband’s work at Queen’s and her sympathy and thoughtfulness had endeared her particularly to the female students. Gordon’s retirement afforded him the time to write five volumes of unpublished but engagingly readable reminiscences. He also corresponded widely with those involved in church union, including former members of the Round Table. By the 1920s he was the only minister still alive who had actively participated in the union of all the Presbyterian churches in 1875 and in the early discussions about the possibilities for an organic union across denominational lines. He had briefly been the convenor of the church union committee after the death in 1911 of Principal William Patrick of Manitoba College, presented to the General Assembly the report of the congregational vote taken that year, and recommended against precipitate action without a greater degree of consensus. He continued a member of the committee until 1915.
As it appeared increasingly likely in the 1920s that the issue would be forced and legislation sought from parliament, he exerted his influence to promote the alternative of spiritual union and cooperation rather than an organic union purchased at the cost of disruption. While he deplored clergymen who derided, before parliamentary committees, the Westminster Confession to which they had given assent at ordination, and disapproved of boasting about the political influence of the new church, Gordon’s main objection to union was not theological but to the aggressive tactics of its supporters and the violation of trust that he believed was at stake.
Once the disruption within the Presbyterian church had occurred in 1925, however, he wrote, just weeks before his death, to both Clarence Mackinnon in the new United Church and to Ephraim Scott*, moderator of the continuing Presbyterians, to urge reconciliation and cooperation in joint mission work. In the midst of all the rancour generated by church union, the attempt at peacemaking was typical of the man.
Daniel Miner Gordon’s publications include Mountain and prairie: a journey from Victoria to Winnipeg via Peace River Pass (Montreal, 1880); “The spirit of theological inquiry,” Presbyterian Witness (Halifax), 10 Nov. 1894; the following articles in the Presbyterian College’s journal Theologue (Halifax): “Our summer school,” 5 (March 1894): 82-86; “The young minister’s library,” 7 (February 1896): 69-77; “Some eminent preachers,” 8 (April 1897): 137-45; “Spiritual diagnosis,” 11 (April 1900): 133-45; and “Culture and religion,” 12 (January 1901); and these articles in Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Ont.): “The functions of a modern university,” 10 (1902-3): 487-97; “Reminiscences of the N.W. rebellion campaign of 1885,” 11 (1903-4): 3-20; “Queen’s and the Assembly’s commission”: 187-90; “The installation address of Principal Gordon”: 318-25; “The General Assembly and Queen’s University,” 13 (1905-6): 68-70; “An imperial intelligence union as a means of promoting the consolidation of the empire,” 14 (1906-7): 125-33; “Political impurity once more”: 149-52; “Miracles,” 15 (1907-8), suppl.: 15-16; “Livingstone,” 20 (1912-13): 347-67; and “Our late chancellor,” a eulogy of Sir Sandford Fleming, 23 (1915-16): 111-23. Gordon’s “Sermon, 21st January 1872, on the occasion of the last service in the old church” is reproduced in J. G. Macphail, St. Andrew’s Church, Ottawa: the first hundred years, 1828-1928 (Ottawa, 1931), 74-82.
QUA, Alex MacLennan Gordon fonds; Daniel Miner Gordon fonds; Wilhelmina Gordon fonds. E. J. Chambers, The 90th Regiment: a regimental history of the 90th Regiment Winnipeg Rifles (n.p., 1906). Duff Crerar, Padres in no man’s land: Canadian chaplains and the Great War (Montreal and Kingston, 1995). Wilhelmina Gordon, Daniel M. Gordon: his life (Toronto and Halifax, 1941). J. G. Greenlee, Sir Robert Falconer: a biography (Toronto, 1988). John Macnaughton, “Principal Gordon,” Queen’s Quarterly, 10 (1902-3): 249. H. M. Neatby and F. W. Gibson, Queen’s University, ed. F. W. Gibson and Roger Graham (2v., Kingston and Montreal, 1978-83), 1. [O. D. Skelton], “The approaching retirement of Principal Gordon,” Queen’s Quarterly, 24 (1916-17): 131-32. Daniel Strachan, “Rev. Daniel Miner Gordon, d.d., ll.d., c.m.g.,” Queen’s Quarterly, 25 (1917-18): 365-67. [R. B.] Taylor, “Principal Taylor’s eulogy of late Dr. Gordon,” Queen’s Quarterly, 33 (1925-26): 111-13.
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Cite This Article
D. B. Mack, “GORDON, DANIEL MINER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gordon_daniel_miner_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:||D. B. Mack|
|Title of Article:||GORDON, DANIEL MINER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2005|
|Access Date:||June 5, 2023|