On June 15, 1949, an article appeared in Maclean’s Magazine featuring Dr. T.T. Shields of Toronto; the title was “The Battling Baptist.” This perception of Shields as a controversialist, rightly or wrongly, has become the most defining feature of his life and ministry.

In some respects, it is understandable how this perception has developed; there were a number of controversies associated with Shields’ ministry.[1] Two, in particular, shaped his life. In the 1920s the battle against theological Modernism led to the commencement of the Gospel Witness, the formation of the Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec, and Toronto Baptist Seminary (T.B.S.), all of which Shields led for many years. Then in the 1940s, the struggle against a Quebecois nuanced Roman Catholicism developed into a nationwide protest movement and the formation of the Canadian Protestant League (C.P.L.).[2] The first few years of the C.P.L. witnessed meteoric growth among grass-roots Protestants under the leadership of Dr. Shields. For almost a decade the C.P.L. was a thorn in the flesh of the Ontario provincial and federal governments, as well as ecumenical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In those first years, the name of the Canadian Protestant League appeared frequently in the newspapers and periodically in parliamentary debates. Leaders of the League were censured, mail was banned to certain addresses by the Postmaster General and in some cases intercepted by Canadian Customs. There were also calls for Dr. Shields to be hanged or imprisoned.[3]

As a Baptist pastor with over thirty years of ministry behind him, Shields had already voiced his opinion on Roman Catholicism, as many other protestant pastors had done. However, conditions in the 1940s created an atmosphere in which Protestants could not remain silent. Other Protestant groups who disagreed with the methods or language of Shields and the C.P.L. formed their own opposition group called the Inter-Church Committee on Protestant-Roman Catholic Relations (ICC).[4]

In this article, I will examine Shields’ reaction to Roman Catholicism in the context of the religiopolitical climate of the 1940s. Why was this fight particularly so intense? How did it differ from his previous opposition to Romanism and why did this brief part of his ministry (1941-1949) become such a defining feature of his life?

In the years leading up to the formation of the C.P.L., a trend began to develop in the Jarvis Street pulpit ministry and in the Gospel Witness. First, Shield’s began to move more into the public square. Sermons relating to social and political issues begin to appear in the Gospel Witness in late 1934 in response to the election of Mitch Hepburn to the Premiership of Ontario. At first, Shields took Hepburn to task on new Ontario laws on alcohol, later on, the issues of publicly funded separate schools for Roman Catholics. With the commencement of the war in 1939, the Prime Minister, McKenzie King, became the target on the issue of conscription for oversea service in the war effort.[5]

Then, a further development occurred; these social and political skirmishes began to move from weeknight lectures and addresses to the pulpit of the Jarvis Street church in the Sunday evening services. By 1940 Roman Catholicism and related political and social issues were a regular topic on a Sunday evening, and Shields was becoming a political commentator and a protagonist of British Protestant Imperialism.[6] The creation of the League and its close connection with the Jarvis Street church and the Gospel Witness meant that the offices at 130 Gerrard Street E., became a political headquarters during the war years and for some time after. The war had drawn Shields into this preoccupation with Rome.

Wither Shields was right or wrong in his preoccupation with Rome is not within the scope of this paper. Looking at his entire ministry, Shields’ resistance of Romanism clearly falls into three category headings, theological, pastoral and political. This threefold distinction is important and, I believe it is only by making a distinction like this will we understand the interface between “The Battling Baptist” and Roman Catholicism.

Let’s go back a few years to the 1920s. At this period in his ministry, Shields was preoccupied with the Fundamentalist/Liberal controversy that was raging all across North America. At the end of May in 1922, he began publishing the Gospel Witness, a weekly paper that would become the voice of his Jarvis Street pulpit and of Canadian fundamentalism. By the 1940s the Gospel Witness had over thirty thousand subscribers and was being sent to over sixty countries.[7] In 1922 the Gospel Witness was a single-column twelve-page paper, in the September 1927 edition it changed to double-column and maintained the twelve pages.[8] Page numbers varied through the years, but in the 1940s it generally consisted of twelve pages, often sixteen pages and sometimes special editions of twenty-four pages. Shields was a prolific writer, an astute and analytical thinker with a reasoned opinion on many areas of life. His methods of dealing with controversy were such that he printed everything. Newspaper columns, letters, and articles that his opponents were writing against him were all reproduced in the pages of the Gospel Witness, in addition to his own responses. This makes the Gospel Witness a rich and fruitful resource in the study of Shields’ life.[9]

Reference is made only periodically to Roman Catholicism in the Gospel Witness during the 1920s and early 30s.[10] There are a few sermons however that give us a window into his mind on the subject and help us identify the categories through which he addressed his concerns with Romanism.

First, considering the theological irregularities, Shields opposed Rome because he believed it to be contrary to Scripture. Although he had no formal theological training, Shields was no fool, he understood the theology of the Roman Catholic Church and its development, and he respected it.[11] He was not about to throw himself into denunciations without an honest understanding of the battleground. While he held strong views, that “there never was a more abominable system invented by the devil himself than that of Roman Catholicism,”[12] yet he valued the right of the individual to hold to it, and treated their views with respect. “Let us be fair,” he said, “let us try to get the other man’s point of view. Let us discover what he believes, as well as what he does not believe.”[13]  He also defended the right of any individual to be Roman Catholic; “if people want to be Roman Catholics, they have a right to be, it is their responsibility before God, and they ought not to be forbidden by law to become Roman Catholics.”[14]

Christian liberty, not only included the right to hold to and proclaim what one believes, but also the right to discuss what others believe.[15] Shields, therefore, exercised his right to discuss Romanism, and oppose it. His messages on the subject display a conciliatory, respectful and thoughtful side of Shields. More often than not as he dealt with the subject during this period, Shields commended his “Roman Catholic fellow-citizens.” He commended their zeal, their belief in supernatural religion, their unashamed boldness in their faith, and he repeated his wish that Protestants would emulate them. “There is much about the Roman Catholic Church,” he said, “which I am frank to say I admire: I wish too, some Protestants would emulate their Roman Catholic neighbours in some respects.”[16] He acknowledged that Rome still maintained many of the fundamentals of the faith over which he had fought with his Protestant counterparts—Rome had not denied the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, or the essential work of Christ.[17] In fact, more than once, Shields went as far as to admit he favoured Rome over Liberalism. “I frankly say, that If I had to choose between being a Modernist—denying the inspiration of Scripture, denying the Deity of Christ, denying the blood atonement, denying all religious authority, and being a law unto myself—and a Roman Catholic, I would rather be a Roman Catholic any day.”[18]

But he was not blind to the errors of Roman Catholicism, nor was he afraid to deal with its theological aberrations. In 1936 a series of sermons appeared in the Gospel Witness, identifying six areas of theological concern.[19]

  • May 3, 1936— “The Church of Rome The Church of the Antichrist.”

  • May 10, 1936— “Roman Catholicism—The World’s Greatest Racket.”

  • May 24, 1936— “The Atrocious Doctrine of Purgatory”

  • May 31, 1936— “The Idolatry of the Mass”

  • June 7, 1936— “The Divine Masterpiece in Contrast with an Ugly Human Counterfeit.”

  • June 14, 1936— “Why Do Certain Ministers Apologise for the Apostate Church of Rome?”

There is no discernable reason why this series of sermons appeared when it did. It seems to appear out of nowhere. It may have been the rise of interest on the political front, with Mitch Hepburn, or it may have been connected with a sermon preached by his brother, Rev. E.E. Shields a few months previously in Jarvis Street Baptist Church, titled “What is the Matter with Protestantism? Why Surrender to Roman Catholicism?” This was not so much a sermon about Catholicism as it was a critique of a Modernistic/Liberal Protestantism that had “ceased to protest,” it had “ceased to have a message,” and was “barren” while Roman Catholicism maintained its position.[20] Perhaps this message of his brother was the stimulus to Shields’ series on Romanism, it seems to have been, if the introduction to the first message is a reliable indication, in which he echoed the sentiment of his brother.

I fear that Protestantism is at rather a low ebb in our day… Protestantism, in the sense in which that term was originally employed, is almost, in some quarters, a thing of the past… We need another Reformation.

Shields returned to the subject of Romanism again four years later; [21] Sunday, October 13, 1940, in a sermon titled “Why I am not a Roman Catholic.”[22] In that sermon he provided eight reasons, included the denial of the absolute authority of the Scriptures, the mediation of Mary and the saints, confession of our sins to a priest, the superstition of transubstantiation in the Mass which perpetuates the sacrifice of Calvary. The doctrine of purgatory also, he said, was “The Church’s Klondyke, because it enables the priest to wring the last penny from the hands of the superstitious,” and “is why Roman Catholicism builds great churches—because It sells salvation.”[23] In short, Roman Catholicism denied the heart of the gospel. “Some Protestants,” he said,

Assume Romanism is just another form of Christianity. No, it is not. It is not Christian. It professes to be Christianity, but it neutralises and nullifies every single principle of the gospel. Romanism is not Christian. It is a pagan system.[24]

 A Second category that helps us understand the interface between Shields and Roman-Catholicism is his heart as a pastor. This is an important point before we consider the political arena— the third category—in which Shields was most vocal and for which he is most renowned and judged.

Shields’ anti-Catholicism should not be seen merely as a theological polemic against aberrant theology, or opposing religion, but as a pastoral defense of souls. He did not stand aloof from French-Canadians, whom he often referred to as “fellow citizens.” He supported missions to Montreal and Quebec and indeed sent out students from his seminary.[25] He resisted Roman Catholicism because it held men and women in darkness and damned souls. Rome, he said, “interposes its own interpretation … between the Bible and the individual soul,[26] and stands in the way to God; “I have said everything I can in favour of your Church. Its great mistake is that it stands in the way of your access to God.”[27] On another occasion he said, “it is the practice of the Church of Rome, where is has the power to do so, to deny to the people the possession of and privilege of reading the Scriptures for themselves.”[28]

Again, he said, “we have such an inspired and infallible chart by which to make our way from earth to heaven, we speak for the instruction of those who, from infancy, have been trained in the darkness.”[29]Furthermore, when dealing with his theological differences which he held to strongly, Shields often made a clear distinction between Romanism as a system of thought, and the individual Roman Catholic. He was careful always to assure his hearers that he meant no personal offence. “I believe,” he said for example, “that the Roman Catholic conception of the Church is the antithesis of the scriptural principle. I do not intend to give offence when I say that.”[30]

To highlight this often-overlooked aspect of his ministry, it will be helpful to notice two lengthy quotations, the first from 1935;

I venture now to assert that in my discussion this evening, I bear no ill-will toward my Roman Catholic fellow-citizens … It would be beyond the scope of matters germane to this discussion for me to discuss the merits of Roman Catholicism as a religion, except to say there is mush in it that commands my respect and admiration; and that I reject it because, in my opinion, the error of the system outweighs its truth. I should expect my Roman Catholic friends to say just as much in opposition to Protestantism in any form. Nor should I be offended by their saying it…I would contend for absolute religious liberty for everybody—for Roman Catholics quite as much as for Protestants. [31]

In 1940 he said,

This evening I shall distinguish as carefully as I can between Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholics … With Roman Catholicism, as a religious system, I have no agreement. Yet I would contend for the religious liberty of my Roman Catholic fellow-citizens as earnestly as I would for my own. It is one thing to demand liberty for one’s self, it is an entirely different thing to demand it for other people—especially for those with whom we are not in agreement. But people who are wrong religiously, paradoxical as it may seem, have the right to be wrong if they want to; hence, for absolute freedom of conscience, we shall always contend. But it is to Roman Catholicism as a political system we are especially opposed, a political system that claims religious sanction, and special privileges because it is religious.[32]

 The next level or sphere in which Shields interacted with Roman Catholicism was political. As we move on to consider that area of his life, we need to keep in mind what we have seen here of his life as a Christian theologian and pastor, if we are to maintain balance.


[1] Jeff Straub, “Thomas Todhunter Shields, Jr. (1873–1955) ‘The Canadian Spurgeon’” in A Noble Company, Vol. 12. Edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Terry Wolever (Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2019), 377-415.

[2] Donald Wicks, T.T. Shields and the Canadian Protestant League 1941-1950 (Toronto: Unpublished Thesis, The University of Guelph, 1971)

[3] Gospel Witness, Vol. 21, No. 31 (December 3, 1942): 13. See also Leslie K. Tarr, Shields of Canada, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), 132.

[4] Brent Reilly, “Baptists and Organised Opposition to Roman Catholicism 1941-1962” in Costly Vision: The Baptist Pilgrimage in Canada, (Burlington: Welch Publishing Company), 192.

[5] See Doug Adam’s thorough account of Shields’ interaction with Hepburn and King, “Fighting Fire with Fire” in Baptists and Public Life in Canada, edited by Gordon L. Heath and Paul R. Wilson, (Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 53-105.

[6] Of the seventy-two “Sermons on the War” advertised in the January 23, 1941 issues of the Gospel Witness, fifty-five were preached on Sunday evenings between September 1939 and January 1941 (17 months). That is an average of more than three war sermons per month on Sunday evenings during that period. Seven were preached during the Great war, and four were mid-week addresses at JSBC between September 1939 and January 1941. Others include messages preached by assistants and associates of Shields in JSBC Sunday evening services (e.g. Nov. 21, 1940). See Gospel Witness, Vol. 19, No. 38 (January 23, 1941), 12.

[7] Gerald Anglin, “The Battling Baptist” in McClean’s Magazine, June 15, 1949, 15. See also, Leslie Tarr, Shields of Canada (Grand Rapid: Baker Book House, 1967), 110.

[8] Gospel Witness Vol. 6. No. 20 (September 22, 1927). This was in the heat of the Fundamentalist/Liberal Controversy. The following month Shields led the Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec out of the old Convention.

[9] This paper relies heavily on the Gospel Witness. I must thank Mr. Jim Tomlinson, a member of Jarvis Street Baptist Church, for the digitized copies of the Gospel Witness.

[10] During this period the Gospel Witness has only a few examples of Shields’ ministry his fellow-citizens to Roman Catholics. Why Baptists Should Proselytise Roman Catholics and Others, Gospel Witness Vol. 2, No. 32 (December 20, 1923): 1;  In 1924 Dr. J. Frank Norris preached a series of messages on Romanism in Massey Hall, The Doom of the Papacy Foretold in the Word of God, Gospel Witness, Vol. 3, No. 16 (August 28, 1924): 5; Why Peter was not the Pope, Gospel Witness Vol. 3, No. 18 (September 7, 1924): 1; Do Baptist’s Need a Pope or a PriestGospel Witness, Vol. 4, No. 34 (December 17, 1925): 1-6; The Rejection of the Revised Prayer Book, Gospel Witness Vol. 6. No. 32, (December 22, 1927): 4;

[11] Gospel Witness, Vol. 6, No. 24 (October 27, 1927): 18. See Shields explanation of the development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

[12] Gospel Witness, Vol. 15, No.4 (June 4, 1936): 5.

[13] Gospel Witness, Vol. 2, No. 32 (December 20, 1923): 4.

[14] Gospel Witness Vol. 6. No. 32, (December 22, 1927): 6.

[15] Gospel Witness, Vol. 13, No. 43 (March 7, 1935): 1.

[16] Gospel Witness, Vol. 5, No: 41. (February 17, 1927): 2.

[17] Gospel Witness, Vol. 6. No. 19. (September 15, 1927): 5.

[18] Gospel Witness Vol. 2, No. 32 (December 20, 1923): 4. In 1926 Shields preached a sermon titled Why Baptists Should Prefer Roman Catholicism to Modernism, Gospel Witness, Vol. 5, No. 6 (June 17, 1926): 1-6.

[19] Gospel Witness, Vol. 14, No. 52 (May 7, 1936): 1-6; Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 21, 1936): 1-5; Vol. 15, No. 3 (May 28, 1936): 1-6; Vol. 15, No