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WILLIS, MICHAEL, Presbyterian minister, educator, and abolitionist; b. 1798 at Greenock, Renfrew, Scotland, son of William Willis, a prominent minister and theologian of the Original Associate Synod (Old Light Burghers), one of the groups deriving from the first secession of 1733 which protested the abuses of patronage in the Church of Scotland; d. at Aberlour, Banff, Scotland, 19 Aug. 1879. The name of his wife is not known.

Michael Willis obtained his ma at the University of Glasgow in 1817 and received theological training in the Divinity Hall of the Old Light Burghers. After his ordination on 23 Jan. 1821 he served the Albion Street Church, Glasgow, until in 1839 he was called to Renfield Street Church in that city. In 1835 he had been given added responsibility when he succeeded his father as professor of theology at the Divinity Hall.

Willis played a leading role in the negotiations which led to the reunion of the Old Light Burghers with the Church of Scotland in 1839. The same year he received the dd from Glasgow University. His stay in the Church of Scotland was short-lived, however, as he joined with those who separated from it in 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland. He was sent to Canada in 1845 to represent the Free Church cause and to cement relations with those in Canada who had separated from the Church of Scotland synod in sympathy with the Free Church. While in Canada he taught on a temporary basis at the newly founded Knox College in Toronto. Two years later, upon the unanimous recommendation of the colonial committee of the Free Church of Scotland, he was appointed professor of theology in Knox College. His scholarly and administrative gifts were recognized when he was appointed its first principal in 1857. He assisted in drawing up the constitution under which the college was incorporated the following year. During his principalship Willis kept Knox College in the paths of Calvinist orthodoxy. A popular preacher and churchman, Willis visited extensively throughout the church.

Named to the senate of the University of Toronto in 1851 by the governor general, Lord Elgin [Bruce*], Willis also served as a university examiner. However, he resigned from both posts in 1863 when objections were raised against him as an examiner. The objections appear to have stemmed from his sympathy for the point of view reflected in the findings of the university commission, which had published its report early in 1863. Willis openly supported the claims of the denominational colleges to a share of the university endowments and thereby incurred the displeasure of his synod and college, both of which were bitterly opposed to the granting of financial aid to denominational colleges. Such grants, they believed, would be destructive of the “unsectarian System of Education in Canada West.” Queen’s University in Kingston conferred the lld on him in 1863.

Willis was the first and only president of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, founded in 1851 to find ways and means to provide relief for, and to rehabilitate, fugitive slaves from the United States. Included on the executive with Willis were George Brown and Oliver Mowat*. Prior to his coming to Canada Willis had published a lengthy pamphlet against slavery, describing it as degrading and contrary to the will of God. He took a personal interest in the Reverend William King*’s Elgin settlement in which King attempted to prepare the Negro fugitives for productive participation in the Canadian community. Willis preached at the first communion service held for the little congregation of fugitives at Buxton.

Willis retired as principal and professor of Knox College in 1870. He was elected moderator of the first general assembly of the Canada Presbyterian Church in that year. He retired to London, England, but frequently travelled to the Continent or to Scotland as a guest preacher, and in 1877 he represented the Presbyterian Church in Canada at the first general Presbyterian council held in Edinburgh. He died in 1879 while preaching for a friend at Aberlour, Banff, Scotland.

Allan L. Farris

Michael Willis edited Collectanea graeca et latina: selections from the Greek and Latin fathers; with notes, biographical and illustrative (Toronto, 1865), and was the author of A discourse on national establishments of Christianity (Glasgow, 1833); Pulpit discourses, expository and practical and college addresses (London, 1873); Remarks on the late union between the Church of Scotland and the Associate Synod in opposition to certain statements of the dean of faculty, with the documents pertaining to the union (Glasgow, 1840); Slavery indefensible: an essay (Glasgow, 1847).

Presbyterian Church of Canada, Synod, Minutes (Toronto), session 28, 1857, 26, 54. Canada Presbyterian Church, Synod, Minutes (Toronto), session 2, 1862, 54–55; session 3, 1863, 26–27. Canada Presbyterian Church, General Assembly, Acts and proceedings (Toronto), 1870, 61. Presbyterian Church in Canada, General Assembly, Acts and proceedings (Toronto), 1880, 59. Constitution and bye-laws of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada (Toronto, 1851). Documentary history of education in Upper Canada (Hodgins), XVII, 171–72; XVIII, 15. Ecclesiastical and Missionary Record for the Presbyterian Church of Canada (Toronto), IV (1847–48), 35; VII (1851–52), 180. First annual report, presented to the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, by its executive committee, March 24th 1852 (Toronto, 1852). Presbyterian Record (Montreal), IV (1879), 263. Hew Scott, Fasti ecclesiae, the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation (new ed., 9v., Edinburgh, 191561), III, 431–32. Our Scottish clergy; fifty-two sketches, biographical, theological, & critical, including clergymen of all denominations, ed. John Smith (Edinburgh, 1840), 120–25. G. S. Pryde, Scotland from 1603 to the present day (London, 1962), 182. W. J. Rattray, The Scot in British North America (4v., Toronto, 1880–84), III, 823–24. William Caven, “The Rev. Michael Willis, D.D., LLD,” Knox College Monthly (Toronto), IV (188586), 97–101.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Allan L. Farris, “WILLIS, MICHAEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 30, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/willis_michael_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/willis_michael_10E.html
Author of Article: Allan L. Farris
Title of Article: WILLIS, MICHAEL
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: August 30, 2014