Introduction

On October 21, 2023, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada (hence Fellowship or FEB) will celebrate seventy years of united gospel witness. The formation of the Fellowship in 1953, had a unique Ontario context in the merger between the Fellowship of Independent Baptist Churches of Canada and the Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec.[1] The expectations of the new organisation, however, lay well beyond the horizons of Ontario or Quebec. Rev. W. H. MacBain, the first president, expressed that well when he spoke of the hope that

“every evangelical Baptist Church in Canada would come together in a glorious fellowship of Churches, dedicated to the same great Baptist distinctive and employing the same methods of operation.”[2]

Buoyed by this optimism from its inception, the Fellowship actively pursued like-minded “fundamental Baptist groups” across the country, Like the Regular Baptist Missionary Fellowship of Alberta and the Convention of Regular Baptists of British Columbia (hence BC Convention or Regular Baptists).[3] The Alberta group joined the Fellowship in 1963. Our focus here, however, is on the BC Convention on the West Coast. If this convention could be persuaded into this new Fellowship, evangelical Baptists would finally have a truly trans-Canada Baptist fellowship.[4]

By all probabilities, any formal tie between the BC Convention and the Fellowship was an achievable objective. These brethren had been close allies in the fight against Liberalism in the 1920s and again, more recently in the struggle against Roman Catholicism in Quebec in the 1940s.[5] The Canadian Pacific Railway had carried many of these brethren to and fro between British Columbia and Ontario.

By 1955, therefore, the Fellowship brethren were so optimistic of delivering a trans-Canada fellowship that they formed an Eastern Advisory Committee and later inserted a page on Western news, in the Fellowship’s official magazine, The Fellowship Baptist, designed to inform the churches in the East, but also to encourage churches in the West and to build a relationship.

The Founding Fathers of the Convention of Regular Baptists of British Columbia (July 1927)

However, that optimism had been challenged often and would be again in the decade that followed, and it would be over ten years before the BC Convention formally associated with the Fellowship, and a trans-Canada Baptist fellowship finally became a reality.

To understand this, we need to go back to 1927. The fathers of the Convention could hardly have calculated the cost of separation as they stood for a photo shoot on the steps of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Vancouver, in July 1927.[6] If the years of controversy (1920-1927) were difficult and the separation painful, the years that followed were years of sifting and self-examination for the new Convention.

There were natural obstacles of course that impeded the formation of a trans-Canadian fellowship; the great distances that separated the Provinces, and indeed the churches within the Provinces. There was also the barrier of the Rocky Mountains that hampered fellowship even between churches in British Columbia and Alberta. These natural obstacles, however, were minor issues compared to the existential crisis through which the fledgling Convention struggled for almost forty years and which had tested and stretched it to its limits.

There was growth, and there were successes both in individual churches and in the Convention.[7] However, the loss of a missionary programme, the lack of an educational institution, a denominational magazine, Sunday school resources, and a suitable infrastructure for the youth left a void and created an echo chamber of disunity within the Convention.  That these difficulties lingered so long betrays a stubborn incapacity to identify the issues, or to find a solution. Two controversies, however, tore back the veil and revealed the lack of direction, and the need for a distinct Baptist identity and denominational loyalty—the Foreign Missions controversy in the 1930s and the Southern Baptist controversy of the 1950s.

Dr. J.B. Rowell, president of the Convention of Regular Baptists of British Columbia (1928-29, 1938-39). First principal of the Northwest Baptist Bible College (1945-46) and founding pastor of Central Baptist Chruch, Victoria (1927-58).

In this essay I will explore the tensions within the Convention, and, drawing from correspondence with Dr. J.B. Rowell, I will seek to discover the challenges that faced the Convention between 1927 and 1955, particularly focusing on the Southern Baptist controversy. In a follow-up essay, I will focus on the ministry of Dr. Rowell and the Central Baptist Church as a case-study in Church growth in the midst of and in contrast to the struggling Convention. I will seek to answer the question also, why Rowell and his Central Baptist congregation may have voted against a trans-Canada Fellowship in 1958.[8]

 

The Foreign Missions Controversy

After the split from the “Old Convention,” the conservatives had been cut off from the denominational foreign mission fields. In the years that followed the split, in an attempt to find a suitable outlet for missions, the Convention followed a number of avenues but found little success.[9] In 1929 an opportunity arose when Mr. Fred Savage and his wife, and her two sisters, Hilda and Victoria Holm, had returned from China to Vancouver Island. The two sisters settled in Duncan further north from Victoria, but the Savage family settled in Victoria and attended Central Baptist Church. The party of missionaries had been working with the North-West Kiangsi Mission (NKM) but were evacuated because of the threat of bandits in the Province.

The NKM was an independent mission, originally under the auspices of the Plymouth Brethren and at that point directed by Rev. E. J. Blandford who was soon to retire. Central Baptist Church had already supported the Chinese mission and in March 1929, at an Executive Council meeting, Rowell reported their Chinese interest for the first time. In June 1929 it was brought to the Convention and deferred to the Missionary Committee for consideration. The Executive Council arranged that Rev. Blandford would meet with them on August 22, while passing through Vancouver, on his way back to China.[10] The responsibility of the work included ten existing missionaries with varied denominational affiliations, and a property worth $5,000. Blandford informed the Council that if the Convention was to take over the mission, it would be responsible for two of the existing missionaries whose support would be withdrawn—an annual expense of $1,000. Blandford’s proposal also meant that the Convention would take ownership of the property after five years.[11]

Rev. Lorimar Baker, founding father of the Convention and missionary to China (1930-39).

In September, in a proposal tabled by Dr. Rowell and Rev. A. McLeod, who had spent many years in India, it was agreed that the Convention “take over this work in the Province of Kiangsi with our brother Blandford as the Director on the field [sic].”[12] An agreement was drawn up, which required, first, that the existing missionaries carry on as before and agree to the Regular Baptist Articles of Faith. Second, that additional missionary staff is appointed by the Convention of Regular Baptists of BC. Third, that the Convention undertakes to support all missionaries sent out and encourage the congregations to do so. Finally, that the Convention undertakes to contribute $1,300 annually to the work for a period of five years.[13]

On October 12th, Rev. A.J.L Haynes applied to be sent out under the Convention. A month later, Rev. Lorimar G. Baker applied also. It appeared that the Convention had finally secured a field and an outlet for foreign missions. Missionary funds that had been accumulating could now be spent on the Convention’s own foreign missions project.

The Bakers sailed for China the following March (1930). Three missionaries from the China Inland Mission had been captured by bandits in the Kiangsi Province and the Haynes’ departure was delayed. They never made it to China. In the 1930s several others applied also, but the Convention’s finances were insufficient to support them.[14] Miss Esther Peacock also applied and, supported by the Woman’s Missionary Society, was sent out on May 23, 1931.

But things were not what they seemed. Trouble erupted in a series of letters to the Executive Council in January and February 1931, when Rev. Baker brought charges to the Executive Council. First, Baker informed the Council that the mission had been acquired without proper investigation. Second, that Blandford was not a Baptist, that he could not be trusted and indeed, had been dismissed from the fellowship of the Plymouth Brethren.[15] He informed the Executive Council also, that the mission was more a Plymouth Brethren work and not Baptist. It came to light also, that the mission properties valued at $5,000 did not all belong to the mission, but to individual missionaries and that the “control” which the Convention thought it had, did not in fact exist.[16] In the end, Baker left the NKM and moved to another location. He wrote.

“In view of my conviction that no alteration or fixing can mend this matter. I hereby inform the council that I cannot work any longer under the circumstances as they are. I am utterly opposed to being in un-denominational work. I am opposed to the dishonest foundation on which the property arrangements rest. We would not want you to think that we are wanting to throw up mission work in China and would assure you that we are entirely willing to carry out the great commission [sic] in another part of China or wherever the Lord may lead.”

It will not be necessary to detail the long and complicated controversy that rumbled on until 1937. Suffice it to say that by the end of it all, the Convention had made little progress on the missionary front. Although Baker’s furlough had proved a huge success and helped to settle the situation, the controversy had shaken the Convention to the core and “sapped the spiritual resources of the denomination.”[17] The net effect of the whole affair was threefold. First, the Convention was reduced in number and the withdrawal of three churches. Second, it left the Convention with a “lack of solidarity and direction among those who remained.” Third, finance was being withheld from the Convention and diverted to interdenominational and independent organisations.[18]

By the end of the first decade, the BC Regular Baptists had made little progress in securing a sustainable foreign missions outlet, and the subject remained high on the agenda. The diversion of funds to outside organisations, remained a matter of special concern. For the BC Convention, therefore, any discussion of a trans-Canada fellowship would necessarily include foreign missions as a particular and immediate item of concern. In 1960, when the Eastern Liaison Committee was preparing its report for the Fellowship, the BC Convention requested that foreign missions be included as an item for “immediate cooperation.”[19]

 

The Southern Baptist Controversy                       

The 1940s were a little more optimistic for the Convention with the establishment of the Northwest Baptist Bible College.[20] The formation of a Regular Baptist Association in the BC Interior also, in 1940, lead to the establishment of Sunnybrae Bible Camp in 1945. However, a definite denominational Baptist identity still proved elusive and the Convention continued to struggle. One major area of frustration was the inter-denominationalism that existed within the Convention and, ironically, on which the Convention still depended. Many of the young people were heading off to interdenominational colleges and missionary organisations and Regular Baptist money was following them. Early in 1950, in an article for the Western Regular Baptist, titled “While Baptists Slumber and Sleep,” John H. Pickford wrote, [21]

the naked truth is that we are doing so little not through lack of funds but through our dissipation of funds. We are being bled white by foolishly responding to the sentimental high-pressure appeals of unbaptistic organizations who after getting all they can turn and disdainfully look down on our emaciated condition and pronounce us “dead.”

Dr. J.H. Pickford President of the Fellowship of Regular Baptist Churches in British Columbia (1976-78), and author of What Hath God Wrought: Sixty Years of God’s Goodness in the Fellowship of Regular Baptist Churches in British Columbia

The recently established college had provided the Convention with a long-awaited theological institution of its own, but this had minimal impact. There were so many other missing elements in the mechanics of the Convention, and many of the pastors were grasping at straws for direction, and for an effective denominational outlook. “They sought,” writes Pickford, “proven methods and tools to do the job of building strong Baptist churches and reaching out into cities and communities of a rapidly growing population.”[22]

The Convention had tried on many occasions to construct within itself a functioning and effective fellowship and build a solid structure for expansion. In 1928 they organised a Sunday School Association and a Boy’s Work Committee in 1931, but these were short-lived.[23]  In 1940 the Interior Fellowship was formed and with some success, but these associations were not well maintained and fell into disuse.

The problems facing the Convention were multiple and well known and they stretched back to its inception and any solution proved elusive. In a typed letter, dated December 4, 1953, Rev. Lorimar Baker, then president of the Convention, wrote to Rowell, outlining the difficulties that had “handicapped” the Regular Baptists for many years.[24] As an old friend, and as one founding father to another, Baker was candid in stating that “it would take hours to go over all the phases of the situation, as you well know.” He spoke of the needs of the home and foreign missionary work, the college, and also the lack of a suitable plan for denominational literature. “It has been a great hindrance all these yea