The Reverend John Black

The Reverend John Black

Western Canada’s First Presbyterian Minister

by George Siamandas

The Reverend John Black was the first Presbyterian minister to come out to Canada’s wild North West. John Black died on February 11 1882. Black was borne in 1818 in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. Living too far from a school Black was educated by private tutors. While he became a teacher John Black always maintained a deep interest in spiritual and religious knowledge.

In 1841 at age 23, his family emigrated to Bovina Township New York, and after teaching for a period, Black entered the ministry. He chose to attend a school in Toronto that later became Knox College. He was ordained in 1851 and was persuaded to come to the needy Red River settlement. He did not really want to come and agreed to do so “only for a brief period.” He confided to his brother James that: “nobody else would go, so I am called to go.” The day after his ordination, Black was enroute to Red River. Black’s travelling companion was a John Wesley Bond an American journalist who wanted to see what Red River was like and they travelled up by birch bark canoe together with Metis carters.

The HBC had provided only for an Anglican church even though most of the Scottish Selkirk settlers were Presbyterians. It took 40 years to get their own Presbyterian minister. When Black arrived 300 of the Selkirk settlers left the Anglican church.

Just prior to his arrival the Hudson Bay Company had given the Presbyterian community a plot of land at Frog Plain and &150 pounds. Kildonan Church was built there in 1853 and John Black lies buried in its cemetery with his wife and three of his five children. Black had been sent in order to minister to the descendants of the original Selkirk settlers. But the church hoped with his knowledge of French that he would also work amongst the Metis and the Indians.

THE JOHN BLACK STONE
The church contains a rock from which Black gave a sermon in 1852 from a high and dry location at Stony Mountain during that year’s great flood. That flood was four feet higher that the 1950 flood.

BLACK MARRIES AN ABORIGINAL WOMAN
Black married Henrietta Ross, daughter of Alexander Ross and an aboriginal woman from the Okanagan and they had children. The man who came out for just one year went back to Toronto. But his love for Henrietta persuaded him to return. Black stayed all his remaining 30 years in Red River.

Black’s educational training enabled him to establish a school beside the Kildonan church. And in later years, Black’s interest in education saw the establishment in Manitoba College which later became the University of Manitoba.

Even though Kildonan Church had been used as a gathering point of forces against Riel, during the rebellion, Black together with other clergymen to keep peace. He attended the mass rally at which Smith spoke and was a member of the committee of delegates that chose the convention of forty. He also represented the first board of education.

In 1881 he was offered the position of first moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada but was unable to serve due to illness.

Reverend John Black was associated with every movement that was interested in education, temperance and morality. The “gifted minister” with a “kindly disposition” remained a household word in the northwest for decades after his death.

John Black Memorial church stands today in North Kildonan and Black’s commitment to the church and to aboriginals is shown by a series of spirituality workshops one of which was on aboriginal spirituality.

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