Dr. John Crawford

“No one made a greater sacrifice for Baptist education [in Western Canada] than Rev. John Crawford, D.D. His name is loved and honored by many, despite his apparent failure.” —C.C. McLaurin[1]

John Crawford was born around the year 1819 in Castledawson, Northern Ireland, about thirty-five miles east of Omagh, where William McMaster, another Irish Canadian immigrant, and educator was born just a few years before. Crawford’s father was the owner of a large, landed estate and an ardent Presbyterian. Young John was sent to School in Belfast (most likely boarding). At the age of fifteen, he was converted to Christ and came under the ministry of Dr. Alexander Carson of Tobermore, just seven miles west of Castledawson.

Carson was ordained the minister of Tobermore Presbyterian Church in 1798 but left the Presbyterian Church for conscience’s sake. He later became a Baptist pastor, and under severe hardships established the Tobermore Baptist Church, opening the church building in 1814. One evening, John Crawford rode his donkey to Tobermore, where he met with the pastor and was examined by the church membership. Being convinced of his Christian testimony, and his strong Baptist convictions, the membership filled the baptistry with water and, despite the late hour, baptized Crawford that night.

When he returned home and informed his father, he was thrown out of the home and disinherited. Somehow John was able to attend Edinburgh University and later Regent Park College and for a time pastored a Church in London. It was while he was in London that he married a cultured young woman of a well-known London family and two daughters were born to them there. John loved to preach and to promote the truth. He was well-liked and enjoyed telling a good story. But he was most content when discussing and debating, especially on the subject of Pedo-baptism and Roman Catholicism—“without making an enemy.” He liked to tell the story of the time when he missed a train and had to walk twenty miles to keep his appointment because he was trying to convince a Presbyterian minister that there was no scriptural foundation for infant sprinkling.

Living in London in the 1850s John felt a call to work with the needy and he would often be found preaching in the streets. He was a visionary, with an adventurous spirit, and despite being raised with money (or perhaps because of it) he was not concerned at all about money. Sometime in the late 1850s he moved his family to Canada and settled north of Toronto where he built a log cottage for his family and preached wherever he could find an audience. He became the pastor of a church in Cheltenham, ON, and while there in the 1860s, he came to the attention of Dr. R.A. Fyfe, principal of The Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock. Fyfe had heard about this “brilliant young Irishman,” and made contact with him, securing Crawford to teach theology at the Canadian Literary Institute.

Dr. Fyfe died in 1878 and the future of the theological department of the Canadian Literary Institute was uncertain. Baptist leaders wanted to move it to Toronto and William McMaster donated a site for what would become Toronto Baptist College and later McMaster University. John Crawford was ever the visionary, and the change of circumstances at Woodstock opened his mind to the needs of pastors in western Canada. At his own expense, Crawford traveled to Manitoba to survey the situation and returned enthused at the possibility of opening a college in Rapid City, on the survey of the transcontinental railroad that was then being built.

It was a bold plan, for a self-sustaining college in which the students would, first of all, build the college, cultivate the land and provide for the continued support of the college. The Ontario Baptist Convention could not officially approve the project, but it did give him the liberty to raise support within the churches. In the summer of 1879, with $2000.00 secured or promised, nine young students and Rev. G.B. Davis, Crawford arrived in Rapid City to build a “college” and cultivate the land. The college building was simple; built with stone from the cultivated land, the basement would accommodate the large dining room and kitchen. The first level would have three classrooms and living quarters for Crawford and his family, and the second level would have twelve rooms, which would house the students.

In the spring of 1880, Crawford, now into his sixties, returned to Toronto to sell his large house and bring his family to Manitoba.  It was a beautiful old house, and it fetched an attractive $4000.00. With the money from the sale and the $2000.00 raised from the churches, Dr. Crawford set out for the prairies with his wife and two girls. The railroad construction had only reached Portage La Prairie at that time, and so part of the journey was by boat and in horse-drawn wagons. Traveling in the wagon was difficult and on one day the party (Dr. Crawford, his wife, and two girls along with Rev. Davis and his wife) only made five miles.

Prairie College, Rapid City, Manitoba (1880-1883)

Prairie College opened in the fall of 1880 with fifteen theological students and for the first few years the whole community lived as a “very happy family.” Crawford was principal, Davis was vice-principal, Mr. William Craig was treasurer, and Crawford’s two daughters also had teaching positions. The students would work the 1,100 acres farm, they were also active evangelizing and holding prayer meetings in homes. A Church was organized in Rapid City and five other churches also were started in the outlying area through the efforts of the students.

It would be wrong to give the impression that life was easy. It was a harsh existence on the prairies in those days; travel was difficult, the challenges of farming limited to one season, and enduring through the long harsh winters. However, while it seemed that these difficulties could be easily overcome, three years into the project, circumstances changed that would result in the closure of the college.

First, the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which had been surveyed to pass through Rapid city, moved twenty miles south to Brandon. Second, finances that had been expected from Ontario and the east failed to come. Third, the financial strain and Crawford’s indomitable optimism caused tension between Crawford and Davis. The college was forced to close in 1883. Dr. Crawford was left with nothing, he had given everything to the college, the library was seized to pay the debt, and the family was left without a dollar.

Dr. Crawford took a call to a Church in Dakota in the United States and had some success building up the congregation there. But it would seem that he never got over the loss of the college and returned to Toronto and died in 1895 “a broken-hearted man.” He was a man ahead of his time, with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and perhaps a little foolhardy. The Baptist historian, McLaurin, concludes, “No one made a greater sacrifice for Baptist education [in Western Canada] than Rev. John Crawford, D.D. His name is loved and honored by many, despite his apparent failure.”

Crawford’s life was not a failure. Sometimes things have to die to give life to something else. Crawford’s college had to die, and others after it, before Brandon College was opened in 1899. Furthermore, out of that small group of men who studied in Rapid City the Lord raised up useful and effective pastors and missionaries to fill important places in Baptist churches.

[1] This short biography of Dr. John Crawford is taken mostly from C.C. Laurin’s book, Pioneering in Western Canada. As a young pastor in Ontario, Lauran knew Crawford and helped fundraise for his expedition to Manitoba in 1880. He later met with Crawford’s daughter and collated a sketch of his life.