A History of the Free Church of Scotland in Toronto

by: Tim McCabe[1]

By the providence of God, the Free Church of Scotland, as the predominant form of Presbyterian Christianity in mid-nineteenth century Canada, had a profound impact on Toronto and what became Ontario. But in 1875 the four branches of Presbyterianism in Canada joined together. Thereafter, although the Free Church heritage continued to manifest itself, the Free Church as a distinct body ceased in Canada.

By 1921, however, a number of Highland Scots, recently emigrated to Toronto, men and women of faith and resolve, formed the "Toronto Gaelic Mission", The Mission was undenominational, but pledged to unqualified devotion to the Lord revealed in the Bible, and to adherence to the Westminster Confession, the Shorter Catechism, and to a simple form of worship. Its leader was Alexander MacKenzie, formerly of Inverness.

Mr. MacKenzie served diligently through the 1920s and well into the 1930s. From time to time, ministers and students of the Free Church came to Toronto (as well as to nascent congregations in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Vancouver and Detroit), at the invitation of our grateful predecessors in this place, to conduct services and otherwise provide encouragement. Throughout this period, the Colonial Committee of the Free Church kept a watchful and sympathetic eye and assisted as it was able.

In 1928 the people, most of whom had belonged to the Free Church in their native land, petitioned the General Assembly to be raised to the status of a fully-sanctioned charge. That same year, the Rev. Duncan Macdougall of Vancouver, while ministering in Toronto in October, "reorganised the congregation".

Some time prior to 1931 seven faithful men were appointed "Trustees of the Ellis Street Free Church of Scotland (in connection with the Free Church of Scotland)" to hold property. By the grace of God in those days of economic depression, the people managed to raise sufficient funds to purchase land (from the Salvation Army of Canada) on the north side of Davenport Road just west of Yonge Street, and constructed the church building that was to be our temporal home from 1931 to 1976.

Original Mortgage for Land on the Davenport Site

The seriousness with which these men and women took their responsibilities directed by passages like Deut. 12:32 and chapter 21.1 of the Westminster Confession is clearly shown by the terms of the trust under which the trustees took the property (and under which our trustees today continue to hold our property). For example, the sixth condition of the trust is:

UPON TRUST, that the said Trustees acting for the time shall, at all times, permit and suffer the said Building or Place of Worship, to be used as aforesaid, only under the following conditions and limitations, which are hereby expressly provided and declared to be binding and irrevocable, namely:-

That the Congregation worshipping in the said Building or Place of Worship, and the Elders and Deacons, or Elders acting as Deacons, having the charge and management thereof, and each and every person permitted or suffered to preach and expound the Holy Scriptures, or to perform any act of Religious Worship, therein, adhere steadfastly to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Divinely inspired Word of God, and to the Evangelical Doctrines contained therein, as these are set forth in the Subordinate Standards of the said Free Church of Scotland, namely:- The Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and Directory for Public Worship:

That at no time shall the Service of Praise be other than vocal in the worship of the congregation, and that no instrumental accompaniment be permitted, nor any musical instrument be allowed at any time within the said Building or Place of Worship, nor in any Sabbath-School or Prayer-Meeting in connection with the said Congregation: That no hymns or songs of human composition be used in the religious services of the Congregation or Sabbath-School, but the Inspired Psalmody of the Church as contained in the Metrical Version of the Book of Psalms shall alone constitute the medium of Divine Praise: That no liturgical forms of Prayer or Worship be at any time introduced or allowed at any of the Religious Services of the Congregation:

That the services shall be maintained by the free-will offerings of the Congregation, and that no social function or secular entertainment, as a means of raising money for the support of the Lord's Work, be allowed in the said Building or Place of Worship, or in connection with the Congregation worshipping therein:

They also had due regard to the language of which they were heir. The fifth condition of the trust is:

UPON TRUST, that so long as there are resident within the district served by the said Building or Place of Worship, a sufficient number of people capable of understanding the Gaelic language and desirous of having services in that language, at least one service every Sabbath-day and one Prayer-Meeting every week shall be conducted in Gaelic; and that the Trustees shall not be bound to permit or suffer any person to preach or expound the Holy Scriptures, or to administer ordinances, or to perform any act of Religious Worship, in the said Building or Place of Worship, who is not capable of conducting such services in the Gaelic language, even although such person should be authorized or appointed by the General Assembly or other court of the said Free Church of Scotland:

The purchase of the property and construction of the building was financed by a loan of $5,000.00 The mortgage securing the loan was paid off in 1940.

Throughout the depression and war years of the 1930s and '40s our forebears continued in true "doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance" (2 Tim. 3: 10). As a report to the General assembly in 1931 observed:

Our brethren across the Atlantic are very much in need of settled Ministers. When deputies go out they are entreated to stay for a reasonably long period. The response to this request is not always encouraging, especially during the Winter. Nonetheless, many good men did respond to the "entreaty" and "went out" to serve in Toronto for varying periods, alongside the faithful leaders and people here.

The Davenport Road Building

Sunday School Picnic c. 1942-43

In the fullness of God's timing, in 1947, the Rev. John Macsween was sent to help out in Canada for a period of ten months. After returning home he was given by the Foreign and Overseas Missions Committee a roaming commission to serve the several congregations in Canada which were without pastors. He settled first in Fort William and helped also in Toronto, Winnipeg and Detroit. In 1951 he moved to Toronto where he became our first settled minister, serving until 1966. It was truly said of Rev. Macsween at the time of his death in 1982 that the focal point of his ministry was the edification of the Church of God and that "no one who sat for any length of time under his ministry could ever doubt that [that aspiration] was richly and blessedly fulfilled in a ministry that lasted over forty years".

A Wedding in the 1950s

Rev. John Macsween

Our minister from 1967 to 1973 was the Rev. J. N. (Jack) MacLeod, later Moderator of the Free Church. Again, we were greatly blessed by means of a true servant of God and His people.

Rev. Jack MacLeod

Sunday School Picnic c. 1970

Throughout the period 1947 to 1963 a young man named David Compton was part of the church. In 1977 he became our first (and so far only) Canadian Minister, serving until 1992. During that period, notable changes occurred in our life together. The Davenport Road site was sold and the church moved to our present location on Sheppard Avenue; we changed the name on our signboard to the "Evangelical Presbyterian Church"; and we adopted the North American Book of Psalms for Singing for purposes of worship. But, as before and after, we maintained under Rev. Compton a pure and uncompromising witness to the God revealed in the Bible and to the good news for all.

Rev. David Compton

Rev. David and Flora Compton

Letter to North York Alderman (1976) about the Congregation's Relocation to 593 Sheppard Ave. East

593 Site with the Original Pulpit and Pews from the Davenport Road Site (before renovations)

Letter by David Compton in North York Mirror regarding Hope for a Canadian Reformed Presbyterian Church

593 Sheppard Ave E (in winter) before Parking Lot put in Front of Church building

In 1993 the Rev. Kenneth Stewart, another very godly young man, became our minister. Until he was "translated" to Stornaway in Lewis in 1996, he preached and served in Toronto with much distinction and much edification of the people.

Induction of Rev. Kenneth Stewart (behind are Rev. Donald McClure and Rev. Leigh Powell)

Rev. Kenneth Stewart and Family

In 1997, God’s faithfulness to us was once more demonstrated by the coming of the Rev. D, Allan MacLeod to be our minister. May we prayerfully serve him and his family, even as he, and his fellow elders, lead and minister to us.

Rev. D. Allan MacLeod at Graduation

593 Sheppard Ave. East before the Subway Construction Commenced

We of the Free Church of Scotland in Toronto are a local congregation of the church universal, the body of Christ. We marvel and give thanks that we, with our brothers and sisters world-wide, are continuous with Israel, the seed of Abraham and God's covenant people. We acknowledge that we exist in and through the Lord Jesus Christ and are therefore part of the reality in which His people are called out from every tongue and tribe and nation in order to fulfil the covenantal promise to bless all families and nations.

In the meantime, we joyfully share in the life of this local congregation, worshipping in spirit and in truth, accepting the nurture and discipline of the church, and sharing its ministry and witness. Amen, until the Lord returns.

"Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually." (1 Cor 12.27)
… to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church …" (Eph 3.10)


Our thanks go to Tim McCabe who wrote the text of this history and to the other members of the McCabe family who designed and produced the Church history display for our Congregation's 75th Anniversary. Our thanks also go to all those in the congregation who provided pictures and shared their memories with us, making the production of this history possible.

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