W. Stanford Reid — A Classic Case of Exclusion

Don MacLeodA. Donald MacLeod (pictured at right) is the minister of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Trenton, Ontario, and a Board member of The Renewal Fellowship.

Stanford ReidIn the fall of 1935, when W. Stanford Reid (pictured at left) set off for Westminster Theological Seminary, shockwaves reverberated throughout the Presbytery of Montreal. As a candidate for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in Canada since 1931 he had already been certified to Presbyterian College. Indeed, the College register still has his name inscribed there. Now he had turned its back on the College, on his denomination, and on his country, to go elsewhere. And what a theological school he had chosen. Westminster Seminary of all places!

His father had taught at Presbyterian College following church union. Minister of the prestigious Stanley Church, W.D. Reid had a wide reputation in the denomination. Almost at the end of a distinguished ministry he was concluding a quarter-century in one of the larger churches in the denomination. The Reids were a name to conjure with in the continuing Presbyterian Church. Alan S. Reid, Stanford's uncle, had — as Superintendent of Missions for the Synod of Montreal and Ottawa — brought the fortunes of the denomination in many places back from extinction. In a three-year period following union he had reestablished — and often rebuilt — a hundred churches. What is more, one of the three Reid brothers in the ministry, Andrew D. had entered church union at the cost of family solidarity and union. As so often happened in 1925 families had been severed in a test of loyalty to the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Given their record of loyalty — often sacrificial — to the Presbyterian Church in Canada, why would W. D. Reid support Stanford's decision to go to a seminary with dubious denominational commitments? In 1935 Westminster Seminary was heading for what many regarded as the ecclesiastical wilderness. The previous year the Independent Board For Presbyterian Foreign Missions had been established by J. Gresham Machen. Machen's dramatic exit in 1929 after the reorganization of the Princeton Seminary Board had birthed the seminary. Forming an independent board had raised the stakes. It would only be a matter of time before an ecclesiastical trial of Machen's home Presbytery would disbar him from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. A splinter denomination would be formed, named ultimately the "Orthodox Presbyterian Church." Not a situation calculated to ease the fears of those in a denomination that a decade earlier had gone through a cataclysmic split of its own.

Stanford Reid remained in Philadelphia for six years. He completed his ThB and ThM at Westminster in 1938. He went on to the University of Philadelphia and received a PhD in mediaeval history in 1941. As his course came to its conclusion, Reid was in a quandary as to his future. He had just been married to the daughter of another pillar of the post-1925 Presbyterian Church in Canada, Henry S. Lee. But an academic career in the United States beckoned to him. Negotiations were proceeding rapidly with the History Department of the University of Maryland. The previous year the Canadian Presbyterian General Assembly had been cool to his application for ordination. Not only was he asked to take "a course under the direction of the Senate of either Knox or Montreal College on the doctrine and polity of The Presbyterian Church, and to pass an examination thereon which will be considered satisfactory by the Senate and the Board of Education." He was also required to provide "a written pledge that if admitted to the ministry of The Presbyterian Church in Canada [he would] serve in a spirit of loyalty to the Church and its institutions, including its theological colleges." Did the Canadian Church want him or did it not?

At that point his father-in-law died suddenly and the pulpit of Fairmount Taylor Church in Montreal became vacant. Clergy at the beginning of World War II were in short supply. Responding to the urgent plea of the congregation he allowed his name to go forward to the Assembly a second time. The Board of Education recommended that "before [he] be taken on trials for license by the Presbytery [he] satisfy the Faculty of the Presbyterian College, Montreal, in the matter of the doctrine and polity of the Presbyterian Church in Canada." Frank Morley, his father's successor at Stanley Church moved an amendment "that the conditions set forth in the recommendation be deleted, and that the Presbytery of Montreal be granted leave to take him on trial for license." The motion carried and Stanford was ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada September 19, 1941, and installed into Fairmount Taylor Church. To supplement his initial salary of $1900 per annum he became a sessional lecturer at McGill for an additional $900. Thus began a partnership between the parochial and the academic that would last a lifetime.

The imprint of Westminster was stamped on Stanford Reid for the rest of his life. Combative by nature and by inheritance — the Reids were famous for their frontier-like pugilism throughout the area of rural Quebec in which they had settled in the 1830s — Stanford would always be known as a fighter. He was never afraid to express his opinion. But Westminster provided for him a depth of theological exegetical thoroughness which would make a daunting opponent for anyone who had the audacity to take him on in an argument. His course on the intellectual history of Western Europe, offered for almost twenty years at McGill, owed a great deal to Cornelius Van Til, Professor of Apologetics at Westminster. Reid embraced Van Til's unique presuppositional defense of the Christian faith. Westminster — leaving aside its ecclesiology — provided the theological framework for his research and writing on Calvinism and the Reformed faith. Without his training at Westminster, his biography of John Knox — often regarded as his seminal work — would have been inconceivable.

And Westminster owed — and owes — a considerable debt to Stanford Reid. Appointed a Trustee of the Seminary in 1946 he remained on its Board until 1983, representing thirty-seven years of commitment. In the 1960s, it was Reid's name and reputation that helped him gain the school accreditation for its PhD in church history. At Westminster, Stanford Reid would sometimes be challenged as to how he could remain a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. When he was being considered for the presidency of Westminster in 1964 he was pilloried for being in a denomination affiliated to the World Council of Churches. Stanford never fit into neat categories. His critics would assail him from left and right. But his continuing loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Canada could never be questioned. It was more than loyalty — it was love. Love of the denomination and also love for the country of his birth. Patriotism kept him in Canada. It also led to his departure from Quebec in 1965 to found the History Department of the newly-established University of Guelph.

That loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Canada was often tested. In 1945 Stanford moved from Fairmount Taylor Church to the Presbyterian Church in the town of Mount Royal which he had helped establish the previous year. Again he was straddling academia and congregation. Frank Beare had just left Presbyterian College thus creating a vacancy in the Church History chair. Colleagues at McGill and in the church at large urged Reid to apply for the position. But in 1949 the Board of the College nominated Keith Markell instead. Markell had no postgraduate degrees and no teaching experience. Stanford Reid had four post-graduate degrees and not only had taught for eight years but also was increasingly respected as a scholar and writer. It seemed a clear case of injustice.

When Markell's name came forward to the General Assembly of 1949 J. Marcellus Kik, minister at Cote des Neiges Church in Montreal and a fellow Westminster graduate, moved that Reid be nominated instead of Markell. Two names on the ballot being contrary to the rules of the church, it was sent back to the Board. The following year the Board sustained their nomination of Keith Markell. The 1950 Assembly, meeting in Montreal, was the scene of a bitter floor fight in which Reid was attacked personally by one of the faculty at Presbyterian College. (Reid would later note wryly that he would later go to him for help "in a difficult situation.") Keith Markell won the vote.

The perceived travesty of justice was personally devastating to Reid. It raised issues not only of fairness but also called into question the whole future direction of theological education in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. One of the reasons given for Markell's appointment was that he was a graduate of Presbyterian College. Did this mean that the denomination would be increasingly insular, inward-looking, a closed shop in which academic and intellectual excellence would be sacrificed for safety, comfort and (some claimed) mediocrity? Was the charge made in 1925 by those championing church union that the remaining Presbyterians would be a tired and trivial rump retreating into isolationism and cronyism really true? Evangelicals such as Kik and Lyall Detlor quickly made their exit. Kik would subsequently become an editor of the prestigious new publication Christianity Today in the United States. Detlor, called to an American pulpit, declared on departure that he had no hope for the future of evangelicalism in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The cards appeared stacked against those whose faith was steeped in conventional (Barthians at the time would say scholastic) and confessional Reformed faith. Reid abandoned his dual role as academic and pastor to become Associate Professor of History at McGill and Dean of the University Residences. Professionally it was a much better move. He would maintain as a Calvinist a strong belief in the sovereign purpose of an Almighty God. But it was a disappointment. His Church had let him down.

The situation at the Montreal College seemed to repeat itself at Knox College Toronto on the death of William Bryden. Reid was asked to submit his credentials to a nominating committee. Allan Farris, who had neither the experience or the academic credentials of Reid, was chosen. Farris's theological position was much closer to Reid's. He was widely admired and loved. But again the question of fairness and impartiality were at stake. Farris was chosen because he was not only a Knox College graduate, he was "safe" in a way that Reid would never be.

In a savage twist over two decades later Farris, then Principal of Knox College, would die suddenly during the summer of 1977. With no advance notice Reid agreed to teach two courses in church history that fall: the Political and Social Thought of John Calvin and the History of the Church in Scotland since 1500. Nominations followed from Presbyteries for Reid not only to be Professor of Church History but also Principal of Knox College. Again his candidacy was dismissed. Explaining the disappointment to a sponsor he observed that he was almost 65. The time had passed. But there was no alternative within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. By a narrow vote the General Assembly appointed Calvin Pater to be Church History Professor at Knox College. Pater was an outsider to the denomination whose sole qualification appeared to many to be a doctorate from Harvard.

On May 9, 1979, in the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montreal, Stanford Reid finally received from a Canadian Presbyterian theological institution recognition that had been his due for many years. "Your letter inviting me to accept the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, came to me as something as a surprise," he wrote Principal William Klempa. "But I am replying immediately to inform you that I shall be glad to accept this honour. In a sense I feel that it is somewhat a family affair as both my father W.D. Reid and my uncle A.S. Reid received their doctorates from Presbyterian College, and my father-in-law, H.S. Lee was also a graduate of the institution." To his erstwhile sparring partner, Professor Joseph McLelland, he noted whimsically "You are by now recognizing my true and golden worth." Stanford Reid's sense of humour was always his salvation.

The story does not end there however. Another sudden death of a theological professor — this time in Australia — brought a final rewarding experience in theological education to Stanford Reid. In 1982 the Presbyterian Theological Hall in Melbourne needed quickly a replacement in its church history department and turned to Canada. Reid, who had retired in 1979 as Professor of History at the University of Guelph, responded and taught for three terms — 1982, 1983 and 1984. He saw in that time in Australia an opportunity to relive the vision that he never realized in Canada. A continuing Presbyterian minority, reeling from its fragmentation in 1977 with the formation of the Australian Uniting Church, needed reassurance and direction. With great acceptance he taught and preached with a pastoral warmth that would have surprised many who knew him in North America. In Australia he achieved a popularity which had never been his in his homeland.

After my time in Melbourne researching (for a biography to be published hopefully next year) Stanford's brief encounter with hands-on theological education I found myself speculating what might have been the impact of his tenure had the Assembly of 1950 appointed him to be Church History Professor at McGill. If the church he loved had honoured one of its most gifted sons with that position could he have had an influence on the theological direction of the Presbyterian Church in Canada? In Australia the continuing Presbyterian minority has maintained (often with difficulty and even rancor) a much more homogeneous theological identity.

Will the Presbyterian Church in Canada acknowledge its historic richness of its traditions? Will it regard its evangelical roots as a source of strength not weakness? Will it, in its theological education, respect the both so-called theological "left" and "right"? How much diversity is possible if our church is to have coherence and credibility? Have we learned anything from the past seventy-five years? Do the frustrations encountered by Stanford Reid during his lifetime of service to the Presbyterian Church in Canada have something to teach us?

On their deaths two, and two-and-a-half years ago, Stanford and Priscilla Reid left the bulk of their considerable estate to the establishment of a Trust Fund "to support Reformed and Presbyterian Theological education in Canada." The administration of this Trust will hopefully ensure those goals in theological education for which Stanford Reid strived and serve as a continuing reminder of the principles which dominated his career. As he would often say "as go the seminaries, so goes the church." Perhaps a denomination chastened by secularism and postmodernist despair will discover in the richness of its theological heritage cause for hope and for reformation and renewal.