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Religious History of the County

Pictou County is probably the strongest Presbyterian community in Canada. Presbyterianism was first on the ground, and has continued in. possession. So far as known, all who came in the "Hope" and "Hector" were Presbyterians, with the exception of one man on the "Hope" and one family on the "Hector" who were Roman Catholics. The South of Scotland settlers were, without exception, Presbyterians.

The first settled minister, Rev. James McGregor, D. D., was an ardent Presbyterian, as was also his coadjutor, Rev. D. Ross. These two, with Dr. McCulloch who came later, for over forty years upheld the blue banner of Presbyterianism and planted the seed out of which grew many of the leading churches, not only in the County but in the Maritime Provinces.

The early settlers in Pictou were almost exclusively Scottish. They and their descendants have proved themselves worthy of their nationality. They believed profoundly in the Word of God and in the blessings of education. They were ardent lovers of the Sabbath and the Sanctuary. The great truths and principles of Presbyterianism they brought with them to their new home, where they had much to do with the making and molding of Pictou's religious life and history. No group of Scotsmen could long be content without the ordinances of religion; and hardly had the first ground been cleared and the first seeds planted in Pictou before its pioneers began to ask for the ministrations of their Church.

One hundred and fifty years ago, there was not so far as known, a single Presbyterian minister in Nova Scotia.

One hundred years ago there were but eight or nine, and none at all in any of the other Maritime Provinces. Indeed, there were then only three other Presbyterian ministers in all Canada; Revs. George Henry and Alexander Spark of Quebec, and Rev. John Bethune of Montreal, the latter of whom held the first Presbyterian service in that city, on March 12, 1786. West of Montreal there were at that time no Presbyterian ministers. Ontario was an almost uninhabited wilderness, and the Great North West was unknown.

The first minister who labored in Nova Scotia was Rev. James Lyon who was an Ulster Scotsman. He arrived here in 1764 or 1765 and remained about seven years. He was a graduate of Princeton, N. J., and was ordained to the ministry in 1764. He was a member of the Philadelphia Land Company which sent the pioneer settlers to Pictou in the "Hope"; and in all probability it was arranged that he should be the minister for the new settlement. But it is found that for several years he ministered to the people of Halifax, Onslow and Truro. In 1769, he removed to Pictou with his family, remaining only about two years, after which he went to Maine. The only memorial of his visit to Pictou is that he gave his name to Lyon's Brook.

A few years after Mr. Lyon's departure, James Davidson, a schoolmaster, established a Sabbath School at Lyon's Brook for the religious instruction of the young. Mr. Davidson came from Scotland to Truro with Rev. Mr. Cock in 1772. Soon afterwards he removed to Pictou with his family; secured a lot at Lyon's Brook, and made his home there. On week days he taught the children reading, writing and arithmetic; on the Sabbath he gathered them together in his house to teach them the Shorter Catechism and the Word of God.

It is said that his was the first Sabbath School in the County, and probably in the Province. If this is true, then to an old time school master belongs the honor of originating the Sabbath School idea, and Mr. Davidson was the first in line of a noble band of teachers, to whom, the county of Pictou owes much of its fame. This was many years before Robert Raikes began his world wide Sabbath School movement. Mr. Davidson returned in 1776, to Truro, where he ended his days.

In April, 1818, a Sabbath School was organized in Prince St. Church, Pictou. Its promoters were Robert Dawson and John Geddie. Rev. Thomas McCulloch was pastor when the school started. It began with about eighty scholars. Ten years later the school had increased to 260. The first superintendents were Robert and James Dawson. The first teachers were John Geddie, F. Ross, David Fraser and R. S. Patterson.

In 1823 a Sabbath School Society was formed for the purpose of organizing schools in the outlying districts. In four years the number had increased to 75, chiefly through the agency of this society. The first Sabbath School in New Glasgow was organized about 1838, in St. Andrew's Church, by Rev. John Stewart who was then pastor. He taught the Bible Class, which was held in the church during the summer months, and in the winter months in the manse. Among the first teachers were John McKay, Alexander McKay, Dr. Forrest and the wife of Rev. John Stewart.

From the time of the arrival of the "Hope" and "Hector" the colony increased in numbers and influence. A steady stream of immigrants continued to pour into the county till, in 1786, the total population was about five hundred. These were settled principally along the three rivers, East, Middle and West with a few families scattered around the shore, from Pictou to Merigomish. Rev. Mr. Cock of Truro frequently visited the people and preached to them. Indeed, many considered him their minister, and traveled thirty miles on foot to Truro to observe the Lord's Supper sometimes carrying their children there for baptism. But the time had come for them to have a minister of their own.

Accordingly, a committee was appointed, consisting of Robert and John Patterson of Pictou, William Smith of the West River, Robert Marshall, Middle River, and Donald McKay of East River, to secure a minister. They agreed to pay eighty pounds for the first and second years. The call was sent to Scotland. It came before the General Associate Synod of Scotland at its meeting on May 3, 1786, when it was accepted by Rev. James McGregor who accordingly sailed for Halifax, from Greenock, in the brig Lily, on the fourth day of June, 1786.

Dr. McGregor was born in Perthshire, Scotland in 1759. He arrived in Nova Scotia in July 11, 1786, when he was 27 years of age. He had had some experience in ministerial work in Scotland. He was a good scholar and a sound theologian. His knowledge of Gaelic was accurate and his mastery of the language complete, as may be seen from his "Gaelic Poems and Hymns," which are still in demand among Highlanders.

He landed in Halifax, after a voyage of 37 days, and at once proceeded to Pictou, where he arrived on Saturday, the twenty-first day of July, 1786. His welcome was cordial. His first sermon was preached in Squire Patterson's barn about a mile west of the present town. He preached in English in the forenoon from the text, "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners", and in Gaelic in the afternoon on "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost."

The second Sabbath after his arrival, July 30th, he preached at the East River, a little below what was afterwards Albion Mines. The third Sabbath's preaching took place at the lower end of the Middle River, at what was then Alexander Fraser's homestead. It was at this time he first met Robert Marshall, who was afterwards his life long friend and helper. Early in October he visited the upper settlement of the East River. His first sermon in that section was preached at James McDonald's interval, (now Cameron's) under the shade of a large elm tree, which forms the frontispiece of this book. The tree is still standing and flourishing vigorously. Occasionally, he preached at Mr. Charles McIntosh's, about six miles farther up the River in a grove of trees, and at West Branch at Mr. Donald Chisholm's or at James Cameron's. Late in the Autumn, he paid his first visit to Merigomish, where for thirty years he continued at intervals to give supply. During the summer he preached in the open air, then during the winter, in private dwellings.

For nine years, Dr. McGregor was the sole minister in Pictou County, preaching, visiting, traveling on snowshoes in winter, and in summer literally paddling his own canoe. His congregation was widely scattered, and his mission field extensive.

Among the settlers who came to Pictou in 1783, were three Frasers, who all settled on the East River. Their names were; Thomas, Simon and Alexander Fraser. They are noteworthy because they were the first elders chosen to that office. Having been previously ordained as elders before leaving Scotland, they were elected by the people, and these three men, with Dr. McGregor, as Moderator, formed the first session in Pictou, Sept. 17, 1786, thus completing the organization of the congregation which at that time comprised the whole county.

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Pictonians at Home and Abroad, 1914


Pictou County

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