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PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM, Presbyterian minister, editor, and educator; b. 23 May 1788 near Peebles, Scotland; m. 8 June 1814 Isobel Aitchison of Biggar, Scotland, and they had six sons and five daughters; d. 16 Jan. 1851 in London, Upper Canada.

William Proudfoot, after attending the Lanark grammar school, went on to the University of Edinburgh and then, in 1807, entered the Associate Synod of Scotland’s divinity hall at Selkirk. Licensed by the Associate Presbytery of Edinburgh on 6 April 1812, he worked for a short time as a relief preacher before accepting a call from Pitroddie, where he was ordained on 11 Aug. 1813. A popular, energetic man, he built up a large congregation, constructed a new church, created a bible society, and opened both an elementary and a grammar school. However, the congregation, deep in debt from rebuilding the church and hurt by the general recession, could not meet his salary. He was forced to apply for one of the three missionary postings to the Canadas proposed by the United Associate Synod of the Secession Church. Successful, he resigned on 5 June 1832 and, a month later, set out across the Atlantic in search of a new congregation.

He and his two companions, Thomas Christie and William Robertson, were charged with spearheading the church’s penetration of the North American mission field. After having made a rapid survey of the Canadas that took him as far west as Goderich, Upper Canada, Proudfoot concluded that his synod should concentrate on the western part of the province since the existing Presbyterian groups were well established east of Hamilton. He decided in late 1832, after some wavering, to settle in London.

Hoping soon to be self-sufficient, he bought a 200-acre farm just outside the town. He organized congregations in and around London and established a number of preaching stations in the surrounding region. However, he found his charges inconveniently far apart and, though he ministered conscientiously to them for the next seven years, he was happy when the Reverend James Skinner relieved him in 1840 of two of the remoter congregations, allowing him to concentrate on London and its immediate neighbourhood. The London congregation’s first place of worship, a schoolhouse, was shared by Methodists led by James Jackson and Anglicans under Benjamin Cronyn*; its church, First Presbyterian, was built in 1836.

A forceful man, Proudfoot had immediately assumed command of the Canadian mission and, during his first two years in the colony, he assessed the religious needs of western Upper Canada, channelled requests for missionaries to Scotland, and briefed the new men as they arrived. By the end of 1834 he and the eight others labouring in the Canadas needed a more formal organization. After a brief flirtation with the idea of cooperating with the independent United Synod of Upper Canada, in December 1834 Proudfoot and his colleagues, fearful of compromising their voluntarist principles, founded the Missionary Presbytery of the Canadas in connection with the United Associate Synod of the Secession Church in Scotland. He was at the heart of the new church. A lifelong clerk of the presbytery and, after its creation in 1843, of the synod, he cajoled, conciliated, and directed his colleagues. He was able to minimize the arcane religious disputes and fratricidal quarrels that at times threatened to dissipate the energies of the small group, which numbered 18 ministers in 1843. Determined that his church should become an influential force within the colony, he undertook preaching tours throughout western Upper Canada, helped create new missionary stations and congregations, and founded in January 1843 the Presbyterian Magazine, of which he was editor and chief contributor during its 12-month existence. Proudfoot’s other writings, especially his diary and letters, in which he commented on both secular and religious matters, are interesting sources of information about the colony.

Despite his efforts, the growth of the church was painfully slow. Closely tied to the Scottish synod and imbued with a conservative, Calvinistic theology, it appealed mainly to recent lower class immigrants from the Scottish lowlands and, to a less degree, to those from northern Ireland. Yet it was hard pressed to serve even this limited group, for the home synod, its attention divided between the West Indies and the Canadas, sent out few missionaries. Desperate, Proudfoot argued from 1837 for a Canadian seminary that could fill the gap. He eventually overcame local indifference and hostility from Scotland and in 1844 was authorized to open a divinity school in London while retaining his pastoral charge. The students boarded with him and he received periodic teaching assistance from other ministers, but there were never more than four students at any one time and, although it was a step in the right direction, the college failed to resolve the church’s difficulties.

The paramount influence Proudfoot initially exercised within his church began to wane in the 1840s as more ministers took their seats in the synod. His colleagues, mindful of the powerful appeal among the colonists of the newly formed Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, popularly called the Free Church, pressed for a merger with that body. Proudfoot was fearful that his church’s staunch voluntarist principles might be compromised but, despite his misgivings, he led the negotiating team that conferred with the Reverend John Bayne and his committee. Proudfoot was relieved when, after three years of talks, negotiations broke down in 1846. The following year, as the result of mergers in Scotland, the synod formed in 1843 was renamed the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church in Canada in connection with the United Presbyterian Church in Scotland. In the summer of 1850 the church decided to transfer its seminary to Toronto so that students could take advantage of the courses offered at the University of Toronto. Proudfoot opposed this move but he was overruled and he taught there while retaining his congregation in London. That fall, in Toronto, he caught cold and the complications which followed led to his death. His successor as pastor in London was his son, the Reverend John James Aitchison Proudfoot*.

A sensitive, intelligent man, Proudfoot was conscious that he retained his Scottish ideas along with his Scottish brogue. In religious matters he had little sympathy for other denominations and in politics he was a convinced Whig in Scotland and a staunch reformer in the Canadas, championing with undiminished vigour constitutional reform, secular education, and the complete separation of church and state. Yet he was keenly aware of the nature of the society around him and, recognizing that the colony was not Scotland, pressed for Canadian ministers, who might preach with Canadian cadences to Canadian ears. Although he himself did not wish to change his ideas on theology and his assumptions about church, state, and society, he helped ensure that his church was able to evolve and merge into the mainstream of Canadian Presbyterianism.

H. J. Bridgman

[Proudfoot’s journals and papers held by the UWOL, Regional Coll., and the PCA, together with the minutes of the presbyteries and synods named in the text, provide the main insights into his life. Portions of his journals have been edited and published in several periodicals, including “The Proudfoot papers . . . ,” edited by Harriet Priddis, which appeared in volume 6 (1915) and pp.20–33 of volume 8 (1917) of the London and Middlesex Hist. Soc., Trans. (London, Ont.); after her death a further selection, edited by Fred Landon, appeared in volume 11 (1922) of the same journal. Another series, edited by M. A. Garland, was likewise published under the name “The Proudfoot papers . . . ,” in OH, 26 (1930): 498572; 27 (1931): 43596; 28 (1932): 71113; 29 (1933): 14159; 30 (1934): 12142; 31 (1936): 91113; and 32 (1937): 92103. Garland also edited “From Upper Canada to New York in 1835: extracts from the diary of the Rev. William Proudfoot,” which appeared in the Mississippi Valley Hist. Rev. ([Cedar Rapids, Ind.]), 18 (193132): 37896.

For two differing interpretations of Proudfoot see J. A. Thomson, “Proudfoot and the United Presbyterians; research into the Proudfoot papers” (mth thesis, Knox College, Toronto, 1967); and H. E. Parker, “Early Presbyterianism in Western Ontario,” London and Middlesex Hist. Soc., Trans., 14 (1930): 5–79.  h.j.b.]

GRO (Edinburgh), Errol, reg. of marriages, proclamation of banns, 5 June 1814. SRO, GD1/92/1–22. UCA, Biog. files. Presbyterian Magazine (London), 1 (1843). Canadian Free Press (London), 17 Jan. 1851. Annals and statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, comp. William MacKelvie et al. (Edinburgh, 1873), 672. Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church. John McKerrow, History of the foreign missions of the Secession and United Presbyterian Church (Edinburgh, 1867), 115. Robert Small, History of the congregations of the United Presbyterian Church from 1733 to 1900 (2v., Edinburgh, 1904), 2: 579.

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Cite This Article

H. J. Bridgman, “PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM (1788-1851),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/proudfoot_william_1788_1851_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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/proudfoot_william_1788_1851_8E.html
Author of Article:   H. J. Bridgman
Title of Article:   PROUDFOOT, WILLIAM (1788-1851)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   December 9, 2023