The Dayspring

This article is based on archival research by Scott MacDonald of Charlottetown PEI, amplified by David D. Stewart, a member of the Channels editorial committee.

On the wall of the Memorial Hall in Zion Presbyterian Church, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, is a matted and framed picture of a ship, the Day Spring or Dayspring, with what appear to be crew and passengers.

What follows is a brief account of the life of this ship, whose birth came about in response to martyrdom and whose career was to be associated with the first great period of Canadian Presbyterian missionary outreach, and thus with the first and distinguished Presbyterian missionary from Canada, Rev. John Geddie.

This is not Geddie's story except almost incidentally. But by way of background for the Dayspring we need to report that John Geddie first went to the New Hebrides on July 13, 1846, joining others in what often must have seemed a desperate attempt to bring Christianity to the islands. The island of Erratonga had witnessed the murder of John Williams, a missionary of the London Missionary Society, within weeks of his arrival from England in November 1839. And on May 20, 1861, Rev. George N. Gordon, born in Cascumpeque P.E.I., together with his wife, were killed by the natives, who blamed them for a measles epidemic. And here is where the story of the Dayspring begins.

We witness a truly astonishing response back in Canada to the murder of these Presbyterian messengers of the gospel. The appeal went out to their home churches for a larger ship to be built and for three missionaries to join the cause! We might almost imagine a misprint or at least a non sequitur here; the missionary bridgehead on the island of Erratonga is more or less wiped out and the people back home, in the tiny Secession Synod of Nova Scotia, barely 5000 souls in all, not only embrace this request for a ship of some 50-60 tons but, demolishing all Presbyterian stereotypes, they subscribe so generously that the ship can be built at 115 tons, and well appointed throughout! The contemporary data gleaned from newspaper and other accounts suggest a smart brigantine rigged, i.e. a two-masted ship with a square-rigged topsail on the main mast.

This was missionary vision and a spirit of sacrifice, for sure. And the call for three new missionaries was taken up; at a meeting of the Board of the Presbyterian Church of the Lower Province on February 10, 1862, an offer was received from Rev. Donald Morrison. Then in March James D. Gordon, a brother of the late martyred Rev. George N. Gordon, then a second-year student of theology, came forward to take his brother's place. One more volunteer was yet to come.

Such was the climate of bold faith in which the Dayspring was launched at the New Glasgow shipyards of W. Carmichael, setting sail for Charlottetown in September 24, 1863, under the command of Capt. W.A. Fraser, with both Gordon and Morrison on board. And so began the long service of this vessel, "being the first Presbyterian mission ship that ever left British North America." The stages stir the imagination:

Sept. 24, 1863: Arrived Queen's Wharf, Charlottetown. Reports of the day speak of crowds of children on hand at the quay, not least because their own money had gone into the building of the Dayspring. A few days later the ship made for Pictou, and thence to Halifax. It is reported that there, on the eve of the departure of the Dayspring for Cape Town, South Africa, set for November 7, "the Rev. William McCullagh tendered his services and boarded with his wife." Thus the call for three new missionaries was fully answered. What a capacity for bold obedience these drab words conceal — and this with the prospect of a voyage that would take them to South Africa, then, via Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, eventually to the New Hebrides, arriving at Aneityum on June 5, 1864, only after six months at sea. Some maiden voyage!

The story of the Dayspring intertwines with that of the first and great missionary statesman of the Canadian Presbyterians, John Geddie, but against a sombre background. In a letter of September 15,1863, we read of his intention to begin an extended furlough back in Canada by sailing to Australia early in the following year. He was determined to await the expected arrival of the Dayspring before setting sail for Nova Scotia. Sixteen years of wise and fruitful preaching, teaching and church planting lay behind him. The Dayspring eventually landed in the New Hebrides. But not long afterward, with Geddie out of the picture, the other workers and the Mission Council apparently succumbed to a strange and familiar human appetite for redress or revenge.

The murder of George N. Gordon in 1861 that had given rise to the ambitious Dayspring project, and had led to the coming of his brother James, now also provoked reprisals. The British warship H.M.S. Curacoa bombarded the area where the murder had been committed. It is reported that the Dayspring was also on hand to provide translation services, bearing on its stern, now in unintended irony, the words "The Dayspring from on high hath visited us." Far off in Canada by now, and unable to influence events on the field, Geddie was broken-hearted to hear of this action.

We may categorize the bombardment as one more case of nineteenth-century "Western imperialist folly." But alongside it runs a moving saga of obedience to Christ, of wise initiatives toward an indigenous church leadership affirmative of tribal traditions, and imaginative strategies for church planting and widespread literacy. For all of this the Dayspring provided the "mobile infrastructure."

Closing the Circle

The search for archival material about the Dayspring yielded one touching strand of personal narrative. Amongst the crew of the Dayspring on its epic first voyage to the New Hebrides in 1863-64 there appears the name of a Hugh Angus Robertson as Ship's Steward. Eight short years later we meet Robertson again, but now he is returning to the New Hebrides along with his young wife as the Reverend Hugh Angus Robertson, and this was to be his place of service for the next 41 years. Behind this long obedience lie not only the responsive heart of that erstwhile ship's steward but also a Synod quick to discern the young man's calling, and the Presbyterian College in Halifax that equipped him for it. But there is still more to this saga; upon arrival at Aneityum in June of 1872 Robertson received the news of yet another martyrdom on Erromanga just a few weeks earlier — that of James Gordon, brother of the first Canadian martyr, George Gordon, (see Dying for the Gospel: The Gordons of Erromanga by Peter Bush in this issue), that same James Gordon whom Robertson had accompanied and, doubtless, learned to admire and emulate, on that maiden voyage of the Dayspring back in 1863. He immediately took up the challenge and went to Erromanga to take James Gordon's place.

And so the circle of obedience was closed.

Sources Consulted:

Provincial Archives of Prince Edward Island; The Protestant & Evangelical Record, for the years 1862-64; John S. Moir, Enduring Witness. A History of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. (Toronto: Presbyterian Publications, 1975); W. Stanford Reid (ed.), Called to Witness. Profiles of Canadian Presbyterians. (Toronto: Presbyterian Publications, 1975) with article by J. Graham Miller on John Geddie; Dr. H. A. Robertson, Erromanga, the Martyr Isle (London: Hodder & Stoughton,1902; and Kenneth Scott Latourette, A of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row,1943), vol. V.