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LIDDELL (Liddle), THOMAS, Presbyterian minister and educator; b. St Ninian, Stirlingshire, Scotland, 18 Oct. 1800, son of John Liddell and Janet Martin; m. Susan Anne Jane Stewart, by whom he had two daughters; d. Edinburgh, 11 June 1880.

Thomas Liddell was educated at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh (receiving from the latter the honorary degree of dd in 1841). He was licensed to preach in 1827 and ordained two years later. In 1831 he became assistant minister, later minister, of Lady Glenorchy’s Church, Edinburgh.

On 27 Oct. 1841 Liddell was nominated by the colonial committee of the Church of Scotland as principal of Queen’s College at Kingston, Canada West. This Presbyterian foundation, established to break the monopoly of the Church of England in higher education in Canada West, was granted, by royal charter in 1841, full university powers as a liberal arts college and would be open to students of all denominations. Liddell’s appointment was confirmed by the Board of Trustees of the college in Kingston at a salary of £400 per annum and he arrived in December 1841. He found, however, that no provision had been made for opening the new college and he was obliged to canvass presbyteries near Kingston for funds and students. The college opened on 7 March 1842 with one other professor, Peter Colin Campbell, later principal of the University of Aberdeen, and 12 students; Liddell himself taught Hebrew, church history, theology, logic, mathematics, and moral philosophy.

In 1842 Liddell conferred with Egerton Ryerson*, then principal of the Methodist Victoria College in Cobourg, about a plan to transform King’s College, Toronto (due to open in 1843 after having obtained its charter in 1827) into a “University of Toronto” with Queen’s, Victoria, and Regiopolis (the Roman Catholic college in Kingston) as affiliated theological colleges. These would be located in Toronto and would be represented on the council of the university. Canada West, Liddell argued, could support only one arts college, which should be open to all denominations each sharing in the endowment. Ryerson agreed that King’s endowment should be shared, but would not consider moving to Toronto, and was not, in the end, willing to confine instruction at Victoria to theology. Bishop John Strachan* of the Church of England and president of King’s College vehemently opposed any alteration in King’s charter, and Regiopolis, not yet operating above the secondary school level, was unenthusiastic. Nevertheless, Liddell persuaded the trustees of Queen’s and the synod of the Presbyterian Church in Canada to petition the government to alter the structure of King’s College. A modified form of the plan was incorporated in Robert Baldwin*’s university bill of 1843, despite objections by Strachan, but Baldwin resigned before it came to a vote. When William Henry Draper’s university bill was being prepared by the new government in 1845, Liddell renewed his agitation and tried in vain in a series of letters to Ryerson to win the support of Victoria College.

The defeat of Draper’s bill was a disappointment to Liddell. In addition, his health had suffered following the death of an infant daughter in 1842, and he was unhappy with the slow progress of Queen’s College. To make matters worse, the Free Church party in Scotland sent to Canada as an emissary the Reverend Dr Robert Burns* of Paisley, Scotland, who proceeded to disrupt the Church of Scotland in Canada. Although Dr John Machar*, incumbent of St Andrew’s Church in Kingston, refused him the pulpit of the church, Burns so swayed the Presbyterians from Methodist pulpits in Kingston that Queen’s College lost two-thirds of her students and supporters, including ten trustees. Liddell took up the challenge and preached against the secessionists, but his sermons were said to have been “especially noted for their length.” The Free Church movement prospered and plans were laid to open a rival theological institution, Knox College, in Toronto. Adding insult to injury, Burns had accused Liddell of failure to acknowledge gifts of books to Queen’s which he and a prominent benefactress in Edinburgh had made; he now threatened legal action to recover the books for Knox College.

Dissident students had departed and Liddell’s class in divinity was reduced to one pupil. Utterly discouraged and pessimistic about the future, he resigned, 13 July 1846, and returned to Scotland, despite a plea from the moderator of the synod, George Romanes, that he reconsider. Machar was immediately appointed principal pro tem. At the end of the following academic year, the trustees invited Liddell to resume his duties but he replied that he saw no reason for changing his mind.

In 1849, when the fortunes of Queen’s had somewhat improved, Liddell was again offered the principalship. By this time a third university bill had finally been passed, setting up the University of Toronto as a non-religious institution. Liddell strongly opposed this solution and agreed to return to exert all his influence in demonstrating the necessary connection between religion and higher education. His only conditions were that he should have at least six divinity students and the same salary as before. By the time negotiations were concluded, the last ship had sailed for Montreal. Liddell hoped to get a passage to Halifax and arrive in Kingston by late October. He failed to appear. Finally, in March 1850, after learning that only four students had registered for divinity and following the death of his father, he wrote to the chairman of the Board of Trustees announcing his decision to sever all connection with Queen’s College. Before the end of the month, he had taken up an appointment at Lochmaben, Scotland, where he served acceptably but without distinction until his death.

As principal of Queen’s College, Liddell was described by Machar as “a pious man possessing much energy, serious character, and practical wisdom and [he] seems zealously devoted to the work . . . . one better fitted to his office with all its difficulties and discouragements could not have been found.” The portrait of Thomas Liddell gives the impression of an intellectual rather than a man of action, a character which Liddell’s career in Canada and in Scotland would appear to sustain.

H. P. Gundy

Queen’s University Archives, Queen’s University Records, correspondence series 1, Liddell correspondence; James Williamson papers. Chronicle and Gazette (Kingston), 1 Dec. 1841; 24 Apr. 1844; 5, 15, 19 March, 21 May, 3 Aug. 1845. Documentary history of education in Upper Canada (Hodgins), V, 4–9, 12–17; VI, 29. Report of the discussion on the late disruption in the Presbyterian Church, which took place in St Andrew’s Church, Galt between the Rev. Principal Liddell . . . and the Rev. John Bayne (Galt, C. W.,1845). Hew Scott, Fasti ecclesiae Scoticanae, the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation (new ed., 9v., Edinburgh, 1915–61), II, 215. D. D. Calvin, Queen’s University at Kingston: the first century of a Scottish-Canadian foundation, 1841–1941 (Kingston, 1941). [John Machar], Memorials of the life and ministry of the Reverend John Machar, D.D., late minister of St Andrew’s Church, Kingston (Toronto, 1873). C. B. Sissons, A history of Victoria University (Toronto, 1952).

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Cite This Article

H. P. Gundy, “LIDDELL, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/liddell_thomas_10E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/liddell_thomas_10E.html
Author of Article:   H. P. Gundy
Title of Article:   LIDDELL, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   May 25, 2024