Review: A. Donald MacLeod, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy

Stanford ReidStanford Reid (pictured at left) lived from 1913 to 1996. He was a well-known minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, a professor of history at two of Canada's universities, a prolific writer in church and religious history, and perhaps above all, a man with a strong desire for the renewal of his denomination.

Reid was well-prepared for his task. His father came from the somewhat isolated Presbyterian community of Quebec's rugged Megantic Country, slap against the border of the state of Maine. In this setting, traditional Presbyterian orthodoxy was much valued — with its roots in the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Westminster Confession of Faith of the seventeenth, and the Evangelical Awakening of the nineteenth — expressing itself in the conviction that the Bible when properly interpreted spoke the truth, that the death of Jesus Christ was a substitutionary act that atoned for sin, and that the justification which brought acceptance into the family of God was received by faith alone. When Stanford's father in the late 1880s arrived at Presbyterian College, Montreal, to prepare for the ministry, in certain sections of the Church these views were beginning to be downplayed, but he received great encouragement from Principal MacVicar to carry on with what both believed to be at the heart of the Christian faith. From his father's quarter century of ministry at Stanley Church in Montreal's Westmount, from 1912 to 1937, Stanford received his basic introduction to Christian faith and life, from which he would never depart.

Stanford was also prepared by his mother for a lifetime of Christian service. She was an Englishwoman who grew up in what were called the mission halls, which sought to minister to the poor and those in the labouring class through bright, simple services with an evangelistic and missionary emphasis. She had sailed for India at age twenty-three with the transdenominational Zenana Bible and Medical Mission, and on her first furlough, travelling across Canada, she met Mr. Reid, who for a few years was superintendent of missions for the Synod of Alberta, and it seemed to have been mutual love almost at first sight. She provided a remarkable home for her husband and for Stanford and his brother, as well as being involved in Stanley Church and all sorts of missionary activities. As the father expressed it, "No minister ever had a more wonderful helpmeet. She had a particularly bright, happy disposition. She would get up in the morning singing, and go to bed at night the same way. She had a fine sense of humour, and often the house rang with laughter." In this ambience Stanford was made ready for the crucial response to Jesus Christ, known as conversion.

In 1927, Stanford's Bible class leader invited him to attend an open-air service in east-end Montreal. The preacher concentrated on the faith that justifies, and the teenager reciprocated with a whole-hearted response to Jesus Christ. He perceived and experienced the love of Christ for him, and throughout his life, the reality of this relationship never left him.

In these early days, another essential in Stanford's life emerged, namely his loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Canada, which refused to enter into church union with the Methodists and Congregationalists in 1925. But Continuing Presbyterianism, as it was sometimes called, caused a great problem for Stanford. He held to the distinctives of traditional and evangelical Presbyterianism, and he was delighted to know how many Continuing Presbyterians shared a similar point of view. People had remained Presbyterian for a variety of reasons, however, and as a result, their commitment to Presbyterianism often evinced little concern for the theological commitments which he regarded as indispensable. After completing his undergraduate studies at McGill, Stanford entered Presbyterian College, Montreal, to undertake his theological studies. It was here that he encountered not only what he considered an emaciated form of Presbyterianism, but also distinct theological liberalism among a few of the faculty. In reaction, he switched to Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, where he found what he believed to be a scholarly exposure to Presbyterian or Reformed theology, which was very much to his liking. However, there was somewhat of a tension for Stanford at Westminster, for while he appreciated its theology he did not like the sectarianism of some, which seemed only too eager to pronounce apostasy on certain denominations, including his beloved Presbyterian Church in Canada. When Stanford completed his work at Westminster he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for a doctorate in history, concentrating on late medieval Scotland, which might also be described as the background to the Scottish Reformation and John Knox. In this way he considered that he had prepared himself for a position at Presbyterian College when one should become available. Conscious of the fact that Presbyterians had usually expected theological professors to have had pastoral experience, Stanford spent a good deal of the 1940s in parish ministry in Montreal, where he was particularly noted for planting and effectively developing the Town of Mount Royal congregation.

On the other hand, there was also a somewhat different side to Stanford. He was a big man with a strong voice, who could appear overbearing to many. He could be very strident in his criticisms of the Presbyterian Church and sometimes had around him a body of associates who were even more fault-finding. Most of them ultimately left the denomination with a very condemnatory attitude. As a result, when the church history position at Presbyterian College became vacant in 1949, by the vote in the General Assembly he did not receive the appointment. This was a terrific blow, but although the rest of his working life would be spent in university positions, he was a very active Christian in these spheres, also still seeking to serve the Presbyterian Church as well as he could.

Stanford had a very deep love for the Presbyterian Church. He cherished its official theology, only wishing that it was more studied. He valued the system of church government, even when he might be rebuffed by it. He also found signs of life in the denomination, even though he might not agree with everything in their portfolio. This was the case with the neo-orthodox theology that emerged for a generation from the 1930s through the teaching of W.W. Bryden at Knox College, Toronto. It opposed the unbelief of liberalism and affirmed a supernatural and saving faith, expressed in the Church's doctrine, even though Stanford feared that in certain themes it was shallow and even sadly lacking. Yet he spoke well of it where he could, evincing a particular large-heartedness, since neo-orthodoxy could be seen as a competitive renewal movement to his own traditional orthodoxy. He also appreciated the movement known as Presbyterian Men, which emerged in the 1950s, and for whom he spoke on occasion, the new ordination questions of 1970, and the new statement of faith of 1984, known as Living Faith. From personal conversation I know that Stanford was encouraged by the number of Presbyterians who were taking some of their training at Regent College or Tyndale Seminary, and any friend would know that if he had remained on earth he would have rejoiced in the appointment of John Vissers and Clyde Ervine to Presbyterian College half a century after his rejection, which would only have illustrated God's love for his whole Church and our need of faithfulness and patience.