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Itinerant Methodist ministers the root of Newmarket's first meeting house for public worship

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls the challenges faced by the early circuit riders to establish the Methodist Society in Newmarket and area in the early 1800s

I’m continuing my series on Newmarket churches with a closer look at the Methodists, from which the current United Church was to spring.

Shortly after the beginning of the 18th century, the Methodists made their appearance at the new settlement north of York. An early reference to Methodism in the Newmarket/Yonge Street district comes from Nathan Bangs, who, in 1805, speaks of a settlement 30 miles north of York where there are no Methodists, just some Quaker settlements, small and isolated. Apparently, they welcomed him to their meetings and listened to his preaching but refused to adopt Methodism. This would be my relatives.

From a document in the County Registry Office, we know that the Methodists were established on Queen Street (now Leslie) just north of the village of Hope (Sharon) in 1809, but it seems the growth of Methodism was slow. David Willson, in 1814, comments on their refusal to countenance the Children of Peace.

John Reynolds from the Yonge Street Methodist circuit in 1810 reports an increase of 50 souls. 

John Ryerson, speaking of the same circuit in 1823, said it was harder to work than any other he had yet travelled. This circuit extended from York (Toronto) to Lake Simcoe and eastward to beyond Bowmanville. 

In 1824, prayer meetings multiplied throughout the circuit, hickory torches lighting the way through the forests; “sermons were followed by prayer and conversions.”

The Yonge Street circuit was 50 miles by 25 miles. Egerton Ryerson wrote again in 1825 that the Yonge circuit embraced York, Vaughan, King, West Gwillimbury, Whitchurch, Markham, Pickering, and Scarborough, and that the roads were bad beyond description, accommodation was primitive, but the Methodist ministers were received by the people as angels, their ministrations being their only supply of religious instruction.

The pioneer ministers in 1824-25 were William H. Williams and James Atwood and, in 1824, James Richardson was appointed along with Mr. Hyland to serve the new settlement and Yonge Street circuit along with Egerton Ryerson.

In 1829, the Newmarket and Lake Simcoe circuit was made a separate district with John Beatty as minister to a congregation of about 345. In 1829, the Newmarket circuit included East and West Gwillimbury, Tecumseh and Albion working with the Yonge Street circuit. Worship in those early days was conducted in the cabins of the settlers.

A report about the Yonge Street circuit in 1833 indicates that revival meetings were held in Tyler’s Meeting House, Petch’s barn in Whitchurch, Obadiah Rogers’s barn in Gwillimbury, in Tecumseh and in Holland Landing. Some of these meetings would continue for 22 days with more than 1,200 joining in. 

The circuit had 32 regular appointments with four local preachers.  They had three Missionary Societies, nine or 10 Temperance Societies and several Sunday schools.  

Newmarket was organized as a separate circuit in 1834 with Father Corson the first minister. In 1839, Newmarket contributed $500 for the centenary of Methodism and rejoiced in 100 new conversions. 

The circuit riders of Upper Canada were generally itinerant ministers on horseback, all their worldly possessions packed in saddle bags, Bibles in hand and wearing broad-brimmed hats. They roamed the forest trails, sleeping wherever they could. They became inextricably woven into the fabric of Canadian religion.

The salaries were meagre, boundaries far flung, and with very few parsonages established, lodging was shared. According to Father Corson, they were dressed in homespun the colour of a dingy Quaker drab produced by dye made from the bark of the butternut tree. These men established early Canadian evangelization.

The earliest recorded undertaking of organized Methodism in Newmarket was to take place in 1821 involving Robert Srigley, William Tyler, John Hartman, James McCuslem, William Kennedy, Bethuel Huntley, John McKay and John Fletcher, who with the sum of 2 pounds, 10 shillings, decided to erect a house for public worship by the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The property consisted of about one-half acre, Lot 12, on the east side of Prospect Street, then called Garbutt Hill, on the northwest corner of Timothy Street, later to become the Alexander Muir school. The Methodist Church was established in 1824 and served the society for 55 years until the church on Main Street was built.

There was an accompanying cemetery to the north of the church, which you will remember was back in the news in the 1990s when the graves were ‘re-discovered’ during the building of the Alexander Muir Retirement Residence. That is a topic for another article, I think.  

This was the first meeting house for public worship in Newmarket. Joseph Hewitt was the contractor and builder, and John Hartman was the manager of the board of trustees.  The church was built by local Episcopal Methodists but it was the public who assured that all denominations would be allowed to worship in it while not being used by the Episcopal Methodists.  

Funds for its erection were raised by public subscription and the Rev. Elder Ryerson preached the dedication sermon. The first Sunday school library in Newmarket, started in 1826, was kept in the Episcopal Church building until that building was taken over by the Wesleyan Methodists. 

Nelson Gorham left a record indicating that Bishop Strachan had conducted services within its walls and Sir Peregrine Maitland, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, had worshipped there. There was a long list of pastors who officiated here as the missionaries in Canada, having to be itinerant, were not permitted to reside more than two years in one place.  

The first Methodist Sunday school was organized in 1858 with James Dixon as superintendent, opening on the first Sunday in October.  

The last service in this Prospect Street church was held on Sunday, Jan. 18, 1880. The building was then torn down in 1883.

Erastus Jackson tells the story that before the erection of the church in 1824, an earlier building of logs had stood on Garbutt Hill opposite the public school, also on part of Robert Srigley’s land, which extended down to the river flats. The church was said to be large enough to accommodate 300 people, a two-storey building with a rough-cast exterior, having been a wooden building initially.  It had wooden benches.  With a pulpit about four feet above the floor at the north end.  There were two side galleries for the congregation and another on the south end for the choir and the building was located on the southwest corner of the property.

In 1856, at a cost of over 200 pounds raised by subscription, the wooden benches were replaced with box pews, each with individual doors. These pews were rented, bringing in a revenue of about 30 pounds a year (called pew rent), which went toward paying the minister’s salary.  

In the early 1830s there was considerable dissension as there were six Methodist Societies in Canada: Wesleyan, Episcopal, Primitive, New Connexion, Bible Christian and Canada Methodist. In 1833, a union was arranged between the Methodist Episcopal and the British Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada.  The new church was known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  

The earliest Minute Book records that the first missionary society in Newmarket was organized March 21, 1825, in the Prospect Street Methodist Church. Anyone who paid an annual subscription of 2 shillings, 6 pence could become members.

This society was largely non-denominational, several of those active were part of the Church of England which, until 1834, had no organized church at Newmarket.  

On Sunday July 23, 1836, the first anniversary, an important missionary meeting was held at Newmarket and was attended by several of the Indigenous peoples from Holland Landing and Lake Simcoe, the church overflowing (see the account in part one of my Holland Landing article).  The Society would continue to prosper.

Racial discrimination was not tolerated as evidenced by a passage from their constitution stating that they support the religious instruction of people of every colour and description within the extensive dominions under British Government, unique for the time.

By 1828, interest shown in the missionary work among the Indigenous was very intensive with the first 130 baptisms occurring on the Holland River.

This Missionary Society, a branch of the Episcopal Methodist body, was merged into the Newmarket Missionary Society by 1834, the first annual meeting being held June 25, 1836.  

The Methodist Society undertook the welfare of the Indigenous population, though it was supposed to be the responsibility of the government at York and Bishop Strachan. The author Lyman G. Jackson, in his book A Century of Methodism, states that the first Methodist Church at Newmarket was built of slabs by the ‘Indians’ near Mr. Tyson’s house. 

In his journal, Peter Jones tells us that John Law of the Methodists in Newmarket had offered to teach the Indigenous peoples, who,  in turn, planned to build a school and meeting house.  

Building began on a temporary chapel or school House of slabs, 24 feet long and 20 feet wide, near Tyson’s house. Examination of municipal records reveals that Tyson was Isaiah Tyson who, with his two sons, Thomas and John, had settled on Lot No. 107 on the east side of Yonge Street in East Gwillimbury, the lot became the site of the village of Holland Landing.  

There would be two church buildings constructed on the site. The first, erected in 1827, consisted of a temporary chapel house and schoolhouse/ The second church was a more substantial frame building of two storeys, built in 1840. 

However, by 1877, the congregation had expanded substantially, and a parcel of land was purchased on the northwest corner of Main Street and Park Avenue, the church’s current location at a cost of about $11,000. The cornerstone was laid in May 1879 by Danford Roche, George Williams, Elwood Hughes, Moses Bogart, David Lloyd, and Dr. Nash.

My article Who’s Who Attended Trinity United Church picks up the story with the building of the new church.

Sources: Articles from the Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Yonge Street Story 1793 – 1860 by F. R. Berchem; The History of Methodism by L. G. Jackson; Centenary of Methodism by L. G. Jackson; Article - The First Methodist Church 1824 - 1880; The Diary of Egerton Ryerson; Articles – Toronto Star


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.