McLEARN, RICHARD, Baptist minister, college administrator, and merchant; b. 1804 in Rawdon Township, N.S., son of James McLearn and Elizabeth Fenton; m. 26 June 1838 in Sydney, N.S., Harriet Stout, youngest daughter of Richard Stout*, and they had four daughters; d. 17 Aug. 1860 in Dartmouth, N.S.
The son of an Irish Protestant immigrant, Richard McLearn attended the local school and then worked as a farmer and woodcutter. While still a youth he was caught up in the Baptist revival of the early 1800s inspired by such preachers as Edward Manning and George Dimock, and by the age of 19 he had become a member of the Rawdon church. McLearn originally aspired to be a schoolteacher, but after feeling the call to preach he chose instead to “venture on the Lord.” With the encouragement of Manning and Dimock he obtained his licence to preach in 1827, and on 8 March 1828 was ordained pastor of the church in Rawdon. The enthusiasm at his ordination ceremony was not unqualified, however. Afterwards Alexis Caswell, the first pastor of the Granville Street Baptist Church in Halifax and formerly a professor at Columbian College in Washington, D.C., wrote to Manning that although McLearn was obviously a young man of splendid natural abilities, he lacked the educational qualifications which a preacher should possess. At the time of McLearn’s ordination no formal instruction was required for the Baptist ministry. The combination of zeal, experience, and self-education had served the church well in preachers such as Manning, but it was becoming clear that the further expansion of the Baptist denomination required a ministry with higher educational attainments. Caswell’s call for the establishment of a theological seminary thus found a receptive audience among many of the Baptist clergy.
No one was more desirous of a better education than McLearn himself, and in July 1828 he went to Halifax to study English grammar with Caswell. After Caswell returned to the United States to become a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., McLearn was tutored by Lewis Johnston and Edmund Albern Crawley* of the Granville Street congregation. As well as taking steps to overcome his own lack of formal instruction, he took a leading part in the attempt to improve the level of education throughout the Baptist ministry. He became a director of the Nova Scotia Baptist Education Society when it was formed in 1828 to provide financial assistance to young men preparing for the ministry and to establish a seminary which would give instruction in English literature, classics, science, and other subjects “which usually comprise the course of education at an Academy.” The initial outcome was the founding of Horton Academy at Wolfville in March 1829.
Owing to the small size of the Baptist congregation in Rawdon, McLearn was able in 1829 to add pastoral duties at the Windsor church, where he preached every second Sunday to a “large and very attentive congregation.” Within a few years, after receiving letters from the eastern part of the province complaining of the “destitute condition” of the church there, McLearn decided to put his preaching abilities at the service of the Nova Scotia Baptist Home Missionary Board. These abilities were apparently exceptional: he was noted for his “clear and full” voice and, according to a contemporary, his “presentation of truth was searching as well as lucid.” In 1832 McLearn embarked on an evangelical tour, spending about three months preaching throughout present-day Colchester, Pictou, Guysborough, and Antigonish counties before crossing over to Cape Breton for another three months. In addition to preaching and administering the ordinances of the church, McLearn encouraged the formation of female mite societies to raise funds for the Baptist mission to those “lying in pagan idolatry” in Burma. He also attempted to direct the attention of those he visited to their intemperate habits. His promotion of temperance societies was not always successful: one group of Gaelic-speaking immigrants in Cape Breton, to whom he spoke through an interpreter, did not “approve” of his reasoning when he “laboured to show the absurdity of expending the enormous sum of three hundred dollars in that poor little settlement for rum, while they neglected educating their children, and had not the gospel preached amongst them.” This experience was apparently the source of his later proposal to the 1853 meeting of the Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces that a missionary be sent to minister specifically to the Gaelic-speaking population of Cape Breton. At the conclusion of his arduous six-month tour McLearn was able to report that he had “preached ninety-five times; administered the Lord’s Supper fifteen times; attended eighteen conference meetings, besides prayer and temperance meetings; and baptized thirty-eight persons.” Because of the hospitality of the people along the way his total expenses amounted to only 50 shillings.
While returning home from Cape Breton, McLearn received a request from the Nova Scotia Baptist Education Society to visit the churches throughout the Maritime provinces in order to collect funds for Horton Academy. This fund-raising activity took him in 1835 to the United States, where he spoke to Baptist congregations from Bangor, Maine, to Savannah, Ga. McLearn felt that the warm reception accorded him, particularly in the southern states, was partially attributable to his Irish descent: “This is in my favour, as they dislike the meddling English and Scotch more than the open-hearted honest Irish.” By the end of his trip he had raised more than £400 for the academy and had received a promise from the Northern Baptist Education Society of New England to maintain five young Nova Scotians throughout a regular course of education for the ministry.
During the 1830s McLearn also continued his pastoral duties at Rawdon and Windsor. After 1834 he was responsible for the church at Windsor only, and he sought to strengthen the Baptist cause there in 1837 with a series of revival services conducted with Ingraham Ebenezer Bill*. The sudden loss of his voice, however, forced him to resign his charge at Windsor shortly thereafter. He wrote to his mentor, Edward Manning, in June 1838: “I have not been able to preach for nearly two months and I cannot converse much. . . . My complaint is called the laryngitis.”
McLearn’s affliction coincided with an event of great importance for higher education in Nova Scotia. In September 1838 Edmund Crawley was denied appointment as a professor at the newly established Dalhousie College in Halifax. Interpreting this decision by the Dalhousie board of governors as a deliberate attempt to place the college under the exclusive control of the Church of Scotland, Crawley and other prominent Baptists called for the establishment of a Baptist college. The Nova Scotia Baptist Education Society, meeting in Horton Academy two months later, passed a resolution “to establish and support a college in addition to the Academy.” At this time McLearn was a member of the managing committee of the society and in 1839, when Queen’s College (renamed Acadia College in 1841) came into operation on the same grounds as Horton Academy, he was made superintendent and bursar of both the college and the academy. His involvement in higher education did not end here. Still unable to resume preaching, he decided to use the extra time available to him to acquire the formal education he had always desired. The Church of England no longer required religious tests for entrance to King’s College, Windsor, and McLearn took advantage of his residence there to enrol in 1838 in the ba program, from which he graduated in 1843.
McLearn had hoped that in the mean time his voice problem would be overcome, but by 1842 there was still no improvement. He therefore decided that same year to support himself by entering the mercantile business in Halifax in partnership with W. L. Evans; by 1849 he had taken over the business at the Commercial Wharf in his own name, importing flour, molasses, salt, and tobacco in his ships the Actress (59 tons) and the Angelique (31 tons). McLearn made his home across the harbour in Dartmouth where he was active as a trustee of the mechanics’ institute and the Dartmouth Burial Ground, as president of the local temperance society, and as chairman of a public meeting organized to protest an increase in the price of ferry tickets made by the Halifax-Dartmouth Steamboat Company. He was also one of the founders of the Dartmouth Baptist Church in 1843, acting for several years as clerk and treasurer of the church as well as superintendent of the Sunday school, and administering the ordinances when there was no pastor available. Yet his involvement with the church was limited and it was with evident regret for his earlier preaching days that he wrote to Manning: “My life is spent in an office at Business and in my family except the few hours that are devoted to the meetings of the church. Though in a City I am solitary.”
The financial and organizational experience derived from his business activity did, however, fit McLearn for a renewed role in education and missionary work, the areas where he had made his principal contribution to the expansion of the Baptist denomination in Nova Scotia. In the hope that he would be able “to control his secular business” sufficiently to devote himself to the organization of the home missionary enterprise, he was made secretary and chairman of the Home Missionary Board. Moreover, when the Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces decided in 1859 to set up provincial committees to raise funds for the support of those preparing for the ministry, McLearn was appointed chairman and treasurer of the committee for Nova Scotia. The convention’s plans for McLearn were not to be realized, however, for a year later he was, in the words of his fellow committee members, “called to engage in a higher sphere of service.”
ABHC, Edward Manning, corr., Richard McLearn to Edward Manning. PANS, RG 1, 442, doc.11; RG 5, P, 70, 1834; 71, 1839; 72, 1835. Baptist Missionary Magazine of Nova-Scotia and New-Brunswick (Saint John and Halifax), 1 (1827–29)–3 (1833); new ser., 1 (1834)–3 (1836). Christian Messenger (Halifax), 2 June 1837, 21 April 1842, 22 Aug. 1860. Morning Journal and Commercial Advertiser (Halifax), 3, 15 June, 6 July 1859; 20 Aug. 1860. Times and Courier (Halifax), 18 Jan. 1849. Bill, Fifty years with Baptist ministers, 59, 66, 91, 96–98, 284–300, 399, 403, 628. Levy, Baptists of Maritime prov., 93, 112, 117–42, 186.
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Cite This Article
Phyllis R. Blakeley, “McLEARN, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mclearn_richard_8E.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:||Phyllis R. Blakeley|
|Title of Article:||McLEARN, RICHARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|