Reverend Walter Ellis

Rev. Dr. Ian RennieIan Rennie retired from the post of Dean at (now) Tyndale Seminary, Toronto. He lives in Vancouver with Lee, his wife, and attends Fairview Church.

Since returning in retirement to Vancouver just over a year ago, and having the privilege of worshipping again in Fairview Presbyterian Church, where I ministered from 1964 – 1972, my mind has frequently turned to Walter Ellis. I had been minister of Fairview Church for only a few weeks when I began to realize the profound influence he had exerted upon the congregation, although he had passed away twenty years before that time, and during the subsequent eight-and-a-half years or so I became aware to at least some extent of the impact that he had made upon the Greater Vancouver area in particular, and in a more general way upon the Province of British Columbia. Such a person is a forebear of those of us in the Renewal Fellowship within the Presbyterian Church in Canada today, and his life reminds us that we have much for which to give thanks to God for in the faith, faithfulness and effective service of such people, and that we have much to learn from them.

I am so glad that in writing about Walter Ellis I do not have to rely entirely upon my partial and fading memory, but that I have before me the outstanding volumes, Pilgrims in Lotus Land; Conservative Protestantism in British Columbia 1917 – 1981, written by Robert Burkinshaw of the history department of Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C., and published in 1995 by McGill — Queen's University Press. The third chapter is given over almost entirely to Walter Ellis, and it is stated without qualification that "the central figure for nearly three decades (1917 – 1944) in the Province's mainline conservative community was the Rev. Walter Ellis," with the words "mainline" referring to denominations and "conservative" to Evangelical Protestant.

Walter Ellis was born in Derbyshire, England, in 1883, coming to faith in Christ in a congregation which was part of the Evangelical movement within the Church of England. He always looked back with gratitude to the minister of this Anglican parish, Archdeacon Joynt, who placed Jesus Christ and him as crucified at the heart of his ministry, who grounded his congregation in the confidence that the Bible was God's revelation and that whatever it taught was to be accepted as true and obeyed, who stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian along the lines of the Keswick Convention and who had a great heart for missions. Walter Ellis never got away from this foundation which he had in his youth and which he had seen lived out in the congregation. He did not hang on to these views of his childhood because he was stupid — far from it — but because he never found a more biblical, life-giving or practical Christianity.

Walter Ellis came to Canada in 1903, launching upon an honours BA at the University of Toronto, specializing in Old Testament, and proceeding to an MA at the Semitics department under the famous scholar, James F. McCurdy, known from an academic point of view as the "father of biblical studies in Canada." He then proceeded to Wycliffe College, the Evangelical Anglican theological college at the University of Toronto, where he secured his BD — the counterpart of today's MDiv — being greatly encouraged and strengthened by the teaching and ministry of Professor Griffith Thomas who came from England and from a similar strong Evangelical background. As an indication of his ability and promise, Ellis was asked by McCurdy to be his associate in the School of Archeology in Cairo, but he turned this offer down, believing that his life-work was to be within the church. After ordination he served for a year as a curate in Toronto and then moved west to Vancouver to serve a one-year locum at St. Mark's Church in Kitsilano. From there he moved in 1914 to teach Old Testament and Apologetics, as well as some Church History, at Latimer Hall, one of the antecedents of Anglican Theological College and thus the Vancouver School of Theology.

During the period of World War I, Walter Ellis was a prime mover behind the Vancouver Evangelistic Movement, which sponsored a city-wide transdenominational evangelistic campaign in 1917 under the leadership of French Oliver of the extension staff of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, the meetings being held in a large, specially constructed wooden tabernacle at Victory Square downtown. Ellis was not present for the meetings on the account of previous commitments in Toronto, but was saddened to hear that there had been a rift in the Protestant community, with the more liberal opposing Oliver and the more conservative in support, with some fairly strong words having been spoken. It may not be expected that a theological professor would be a leader in evangelism, but it may be even more surprising that he sided with the conservatives. Such, however, was Walter Ellis. Where what he believed to be the truth of the gospel was involved, he would take his stand, whether all the accompaniments were to his taste or not. Holding to such a position was to cost Walter Ellis dearly.

From the evangelistic campaign there were many new Christians and other lay people who needed and desired biblical instruction, so Walter Ellis was asked to instigate a series of teaching sessions. By 1918 the success of these classses gave the impetus to the formation of the Vancouver Bible Institute, with Ellis being asked to be a part-time principal, a position which he accepted. He believed that he could handle his responsibilities at Latimer Hall and VBI, and remain a loyal Anglican at the same time. Unfortunately for him others did not see the situation as he did, and he was deprived of his professorship, which was followed by the bishop revoking his ministerial licence. To all intents and purposes, Ellis was now a layman, but for the next eight years he still sought to be as faithful an Anglican as possible. The Bible Institute developed rapidly, seeking to follow the pattern cultivated by another Presbyterian, John McNicol, at Toronto Bible College, later Ontario Bible College and now Tyndale College. In fact McNicol asked Ellis to join him in Toronto in 1923, but Ellis declined, believing that his call was to the Vancouver area. So VBI emerged as a institution which sought to be loyal to the gospel and to the churches, refusing to adopt an anti-intellectual stance, to major on minor issues or to engage in attacking others. From VBI some would go on to further training in order to prepare for ordination in their respective denominations, others would be ordained in certain situations without additional preparation, many would go into various forms of missionary service overseas and in Canada, while others continued as active lay leaders in many congregations.

In 1925, when minority groups from Chalmers Presbyterian Church and a couple of other congregations on Vancouver's west side decided to remain Presbyterian at the time of the formation of the United Church in Canada, they coalesced to form Fairview Church. In addition, they invited Walter Ellis to become a Presbyterian and be their minister with the understanding that he was free to continue his work at VBI. It was a very difficult decision, but he was impressed with the fact that the Fairview people, and many others, had remained Presbyterian in order to seek to maintain a biblical faith. Finally he accepted the invitation and because of his preaching ministry people began to be drawn from all over Vancouver. As one young woman recorded her impressions, she stated that "Ellis's scholarship and his expository preaching combined with his gentle culture had won my full confidence and I was willing to learn from him."

Fairview Church was situated at the corner of 11th Avenue and Fir Street, and the Bible Institute occupied a building just a block away at 10th and Fir. This brought about a very healthy relationship between the church and the institute, with the former providing a place of worship for many students and the latter supplying a source of teaching, often in evening classes, for members of the congregation. Then just three doors west of the church was the missionary home of the China Inland Mission, now Overseas Missionary Fellowship, where missionaries were given their final preparation before leaving for China by sea. Walter Ellis in his younger days had considered missionary service in China, so he was eager to be as closely involved as possible with the representatives of this missionary society at the doorstep. So the CIM contributed greatly to VBI and Fairview, and received correspondingly in turn. The pattern was laid which would see Fairview Church between 1926 and 1981 send thirty-one of its members into the pastoral ministry or full-time missionary service. It would also be recognized for its generous financial stewardship, being known, for example, for contributing to the Presbyterian mission fund at a higher rate per member than nearly all other Presbyterian churches in the city, while heavily supporting transdenominational causes such as the CIM.

Another great interest of Walter Ellis was the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which was founded at UBC in the 1920s. He often spoke at the group's meetings, while he and his wife so strongly supported the student movement that they purchased a large home near the University gates in order to provide a suitable meeting place. As a result many students attended Fairview during their years of university or nursing training.

As I sit in Fairview Church today, I think of many whose lives were nurtured and shaped by Walter Ellis. I remember David McGlashan, whose prayers led us into the presence of God, Leslie Gear, who had suffered much but who allowed his sufferings to impel him to Jesus, resulting in a life of rare gentleness, love and joy, and of Bill Walker, who is still the Clerk of Session, constantly expressing faithfulness to Christ and his church. Then there are members of the Ellis family. I am so grateful that during my years as minister of Fairview Mrs. Ellis was still actively involved in the congregation. There were times when like any minister I felt that I was facing intractable problems, and on many such occasions I would knock on Mrs. Ellis's door. I would be graciously invited in for tea, and then this refined English lady would lead me in prayerfully claiming the promises of God. There was also David, the eldest of the five Ellis sons, and for many years the church organist and also Ted, the youngest, who for many years served in Taiwan, latterly serving in Wexford Church, Toronto, where he passed away two years ago. Thank God for such Christians who have had an important influence on our congregations, our denomination and our lives.