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McDOWALL, ROBERT, clergyman of the Reformed Protestant Dutch and Presbyterian churches; b. 25 July 1768 in Ballston Spa, N.Y., the son of John McDowall, an officer in the British army, and a Miss Graham; m. December 1800 Hannah Washburn, daughter of Ebenezer Washburn*, and they had one daughter and three sons; d. 3 Aug. 1841 in Fredericksburgh Township, Upper Canada.

Robert McDowall’s parents married at Dumfries, Scotland, and settled in the colony of New York shortly before his birth. Early in 1790 Robert was licensed to preach by the Classis of Albany, the local organization of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, and was sent to Upper Canada as a missionary. The reasons for this trip are uncertain, but after McDowall’s death it was claimed that he had been invited by loyalist leader Peter Van Alstine, who had come from the region of Albany.

After visiting loyalist settlements on the north shore of the St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario and gathering several “congregations” during the summer of 1790, McDowall was asked by those in Ernestown, Fredericksburgh, and Adolphustown townships to become their permanent minister. He decided, however, to obtain a formal education before accepting their call. He attended Williams College at Williamstown, Mass., completed his education at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and was ordained in 1797 by the Classis of Albany. Despite petitions for ministers from Presbyterians in the Bay of Quinte region to churches in Scotland and the United States, no clergy had arrived by the time McDowall returned to his early mission field in 1798 as official representative of the Classis of Albany.

McDowall preached briefly at Elizabethtown (Brockville) but refused an invitation to stay there. He moved westward to settle at what is now Sandhurst, in Fredericksburgh Township, where he opened his first church on 6 July 1798. From this base McDowall itinerated over the hundred-mile stretch from Meyers’ Creek (Belleville) to Elizabethtown. He also visited the York (Toronto) region, and a contemporary source asserts that he once journeyed as far west as Sandwich (Windsor). It was his custom to herald his arrival in an isolated settlement by blowing a moose horn. He was noted as a strong sabbatarian, and as a strict Calvinist who, in 1804, engaged in a day-long debate on predestination with Samuel Coate, a Methodist itinerant. He also debated episcopal ordination that year with John Langhorn*, the local Anglican clergyman.

Within a year of his arrival in Upper Canada McDowall had six organized and one unorganized mission districts with about 425 families. Encouraged by his success, the Classis of Albany sent five other missionaries on tours of the province. In 1806 McDowall reported that he had three formed congregations in the Bay of Quinte area and that although he preached six to nine times per week he could visit his whole mission only once every three to six weeks. Missionaries from other churches were visiting the area and, he warned, unless the people “have immediate assistance, they will be rent into so many sects that they will be unable to support a minister of any denomination.” The classis continued to send missionaries, at least 18 by 1818; McDowall, however, remained its only settled minister-missionary in Upper Canada. By 1810 he had founded 14 churches between York and Elizabethtown, but prospects for consolidation of his efforts by the church were destroyed by the anti-Americanism engendered during the War of 1812. In 1819 the whole mission enterprise in Upper Canada was abandoned, but McDowall had already joined the indigenous Presbytery of the Canadas when it was formed a year earlier [see Robert Easton*].

In 1819 this presbytery was reorganized as a three-presbytery synod and McDowall was elected its first moderator. The synod, however, proved ineffective and was dissolved into two independent presbyteries, for Upper and Lower Canada, in 1825, just as the Church of Scotland’s mission auxiliary, the Glasgow Colonial Society, was organized to send its clergy to British North America. By claiming religious, political, and social superiority over other Presbyterians the Church of Scotland disrupted many local congregations, and at last, in 1832, the provincial presbytery proposed a union with that church. As senior member of the local Presbyterian clergy, McDowall was drawn into the negotiations, only to discover that his American background made him ignorant of Scottish Presbyterian traditions. He withdrew from the talks but did, along with most local Presbyterians, join the Church of Scotland synod which had been organized in 1831.

McDowall had been on the committee that set up the Ernestown Academy in 1811 [see William Fairfield*] and he was a trustee of the school that opened in the front concession of Fredericksburgh in 1817. In the early 1830s he was involved in an abortive attempt to establish a Presbyterian seminary near Picton, and reputedly he was also involved in the early stages of the creation of Queen’s University. In his later years he spent considerable time farming. An active member of the Midland District Agricultural Society, he won its prize for the best farm in the district in 1835.

McDowall was buried at the site of his first church. An obituary remarked that “as a Preacher, Mr. McDowal excelled in doctrinal exposition – he stated his sentiments with great clearness, singular vivacity of style and manner, and with powerful application to men’s consciences and hearts.” The record of his 40-year ministry is evidence both of the extent of his travels and of the scarcity of clergy: his baptismal register (of which one-third has been lost) lists 1,638 christenings in 24 different townships and it is estimated that he performed some 1,300 marriages. The centenary of his settling in Upper Canada was celebrated at Sandhurst in 1898 with religious services, and with speeches by such prominent figures as principal George Monro Grant* of Queen’s University and Lieutenant Governor Sir Oliver Mowat*, who had been baptized by McDowall 77 years earlier.

John S. Moir

[Robert McDowall is the author of an early Upper Canadian pamphlet, A sermon on the nature of justification through the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer (York [Toronto], 1805), and a collection of sermons, Discourses, on the sovereign and universal agency of God, in nature and grace (Albany, N.Y., 1806). Most of his personal papers were destroyed by fire in 1876. A manuscript volume containing the surviving portion of his baptismal and marriage registers is preserved along with a few other items in the McDowall papers, QUA, 2189; extracts from this volume were published as “Rev. Robert McDowall’s register,” ed. T. W. Casey, OH, 1 (1899): 70108.

In the absence of extensive documentary remains it is impossible to verify much of the legend surrounding Robert McDowall. Accounts of his mission work are in the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church in North America, General Synod, Acts and proc. (New York), 1 (17711812): 30710, 35057. Biographical references can be found in the Kingston Gazette, 21 Oct. 1817; Chronicle & Gazette, 25 Aug. 1841; William Canniff, History of the settlement of Upper Canada (Ontario), with special reference to the Bay Quinte (Toronto, 1869; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1971); Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church (1885); R. J. McDowall, “Items of Presbyterian history,” Canada Presbyterian (Toronto), new ser., 1 (1877–78): 804 (a letter from one of McDowall’s grandsons); J. S. Moir, “Robert McDowall and the Dutch Reformed Church mission to Canada, 1790–1817,” Halve Maen (New York), 53 (1978), no.2: 3–4, 14–16; and the same author’s “Robert McDowall, pioneer Dutch Reformed Church missionary in Upper Canada,” Presbyterian Hist. (Hamilton, Ont.), 23 (1979), no.1: 1–4; no. 2: 1–4; 24 (1980), no.1: 1–4.  j.s.m.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

John S. Moir, “McDOWALL, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcdowall_robert_7E.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/mcdowall_robert_7E.html
Author of Article:   John S. Moir
Title of Article:   McDOWALL, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   June 21, 2024