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Memoir of the Right Reverend John Strachan
Chapter I

Parentage.—Early Life in Scotland

have, in various existing documents, brief sketches of the early life of the late Bishop of Toronto. He was born at Aberdeen, in Scotland, on the 12th of April, 1778; his parents names were John Strachan and Elizabeth Findlay son. Of his father little is recorded, save that he earned a modest stipend as overseer of the granite quarries in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen; which, as long as he lived, sufficed to maintain his family in respectability and comfort. His death was sudden and very sad. A blast of the quarry had one day been prepared; and as the time for ignition seemed overpast, the overseer went forward to see what was the matter. The blast took place; a splinter of rock lodged in one of his eyes, and he died two days after, in May, 1794, at the age of 52. He was much respected as an honest and trustworthy man, and his death excited universal pity; so that, at his funeral, there was such a concourse of volunteer mourners that the procession exceeded a quarter of a mile in length. In the midst of Presbyterians, he was attached to the non-jurors; and, in principle and practice, might be regarded as an Episcopalian.

His wife, the mother of the late Bishop, appears to have maintained through life her connexion with the Presbyterians; but, though differing from her husband in religious creed, she lived with him in the utmost harmony and affection; and each were kindly tolerant of the other’s opinions. It is stated as a curious fact, that she used to make her children every night, before going to bed, sign themselves with the sign of the cross.

The father’s religious predilections were, at an early age, shared by his son, the subject of this memoir, who frequently accompanied him to St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel in the Gallowgate, and was a gratified hearer of the then Bishop Skinner. No doubt, the foundation was, at that time, laid of those partialities which ripened afterwards into so decided and zealous an adoption of the principles of the Church.

His mother, though without the opportunity of many early, advantages, was evidently a woman of superior understanding and acute discernment, as the following extract from her letters abundantly prove. In May, 1801, when this son was so far removed from her, and in a land which was deemed wild and barbarous, she addressed him in these terms: “As God has laid the stress of me upon you, I hope you will not be angry at my advice, which is, prefer not a moral precept to the counsels of Jesus Christ, or the dictates of his apostles; vainly opposing the dim candle of man’s reason to the sunshine of the gospel light, as displayed in the scriptures. My dear son, you know better than I do; but my earnest desire is for your welfare, soul and body.”

If these are the conceptions of one in whom is the root of a genuine faith, they are the expressions also of a cultivated mind. Not less so are the thoughts and language of a letter addressed to him in August, 1806:

“My dear son, we are looking every day for a letter from you, and that is all I can expect, for I am now in the seventieth year of my age, and I cannot think to live long, but I have been blessed with very dutiful and affectionate children. I entreat you, dear son, take heed unto yourself and to the doctrines of Christ; for in doing this, thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee. For all his followers are enquired of by him, and are enabled to speak the word in due season; and this, I hope, by his assistance, you are. Take not this amiss from your mother, though you know better yourself.”

When his father died, the subject of this memoir was only fourteen years of age; and as then the whole support of the family ceased, he was, as he himself has expressed it, thrown upon the world without a single friend or relation capable of affording him any assistance; his mother and two sisters reduced by that sudden bereavement almost to actual want. When his prospects were thus gloomy, and to all appearance hopeless, he found a timely benefactor in the late Dr. Beattie, of whose son he had been a friend and companion. He found him a situation as tutor in a family who were spending a few months in Scotland, and who had a little boy and girl to be instructed. The little earnings obtained from this short engagement he carried to his mother, and with great delight placed them as a gift in her hands. The recollection of this, he said, often gave him happiness in after years.

He appears to have entered the University of Aberdeen, in 1794, when he was sixteen years of age; and, as here the sessions or terms lasted only five months,—that is, from the latter part of November to the end of April,— the remaining seven months of the year were at the disposal of the students. This was a great advantage to a young man situated as he was. He could employ himself in teaching during this interval, and return to his mother, at Aberdeen, with the amount of his earnings; and, without being burdensome to her, avail himself of the College lectures during the winter months. In this University there were a number of bursaries, or scholarships, and frequently ten or twelve of them became vacant in a year. They were of small amount each, only five or six pounds per annum; they were given to those who were found best qualified after an examination in Latin; and were tenable for four years. One of these Mr. Strachan easily gained; and through the influence of the Professors, with whom he was a great favorite, he obtained one or two private pupils during the session. This added three or four pounds more to his slender income; making it, with the addition of his summer earnings, hardly £20 per annum in all. Trifling as this sum appears to be, it enabled him not only to get through his studies at the University, but to afford material help to his mother and sisters. And nothing delighted him more than this; for, he says, “never was there a more excellent mother than mine. She made religion amiable to me, and the source of moral strength.”

The getting employment during the long vacation was always an uncertainty, and a cause of much anxiety. Yet, as he has recorded, God was ever kind; and during the three years of his stay at the University, something always turned up, and he was enabled to take his degree of Master of Arts.

After this, he obtained a parish school in the neighborhood of St. Andrew’s, worth about £30 a year. A portion of this he managed to save for his mother, and placed it in her hands at his usual visits in harvest time; travelling on foot ninety miles in order to save expense. At St. Andrews he became intimate with Dr. Chalmers and Professor Duncan, who were about his own age; and with these eminent men he kept up a frequent correspondence to the time of their death. In this University he joined the Divinity class in April, 1797; though, from his other occupations, he was unable to give a very regular attendance at the usual lectures. He obtained, however, on leaving, this testimonial from Dr. Hill, the Principal: “In each of the sessions, Mr. Strachan delivered a discourse which appeared to me a very favorable specimen of the acuteness of his understanding, and of his talents for composition; and from all the opportunities I have had of conversing with him, as well as from the reports of others, I consider him a young man of excellent parts, who is qualified to discharge with ability and success the duties of a public teacher.”

At St. Andrew’s he soon discovered that his income of. £30 a year, derived from his parish school in the neighborhood,—with the maternal claims upon it which were always so affectionately recognized,—was, as he expressed it, rather pinching; so he felt himself obliged to look about for something better. Hearing that the parish school of Kettlo, worth £50 per annum, was vacant, he proposed himself as a candidate. He was then scarcely nineteen, and learning that there were five other candidates, all much older than himself and of more experience; and hearing, too, that the examination was to be a very strict one, he felt discouraged, and disposed to withdraw. But Dr. Barclay, the minister of the parish, who had taken a strong liking to him, insisted on his persevering; bidding him have no fear, but to come up boldly to the examination. This Dr. Barclay was the father of the gallant Captain Barclay, who lost both his arms in the contest with the United States fleet on Lake Erie; and the father also of the Rev. Mr. Barclay, who had charge, from 1822 to 1826, of the ^congregation of the Kirk of. Scotland at Kingston, in this Province. His friend’s counsels were a great encouragement to him; but, still afraid of losing credit by a failure, he went to St. Andrews, and waited on Dr. John Hunter, from whom he had received many kindnesses, and requested that he would do him the favor of examining him. He did so; and told him he “was no great things, but would be the best there notwithstanding.”

This remark, little flattering as it was, gave him great encouragement; for the good Doctor had sifted pretty closely his knowledge of Greek, and Latin, and Mathematics. Mr. Strachan realized the predictions of his friends, and proved the successful candidate. He undertook the charge of a school numbering 106 pupils,—rising sometimes to 120,—many of them older than himself; and, as he said, learning every thing. In this condition of things, he bethought himself of the system of monitors; for which Dr. Bell and Mr. Lancaster afterwards obtained so much credit. But in attempting this, he frequently experienced difficulty: parents sometimes demurred, contending that, instead of teaching their children, he made them teach others. It was found hard to convince them that, in teaching others, their sons were effectually teaching themselves. At length, by increasing the number of monitors, and thus assigning a smaller share of work to each, and by frequently changing them, those objections were quietly overruled, and the system was found to work most successfully. The discipline and order of the school, too, was so excellent, that children were sent to it from other parishes; and Dr. Barclay and other leading persons of the place, who had preferred having their children taught at home, now sent them to the parish school. Wilkie, the painter, who became afterwards so eminent, was one of his pupils at Kettle. His turn for the art in which he subsequently excelled, was soon discovered by his youthful tutor; and he urged his father to use every means to have it fostered and improved.

Mr. Strachan was very happy at Kettle, and out of his increased means was able more largely to befriend his mother. But this state of pleasantness and contentment came soon to be disturbed. Dr. Brown, the minister of the parish near St. Andrew’s, in which he had taught school before removing to Kettle, was promoted to the chaif of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. He was an excellent mathematician, and an elegant writer; but so exceedingly nervous that he was unable to perform,' with satisfactory skill, the experiments required in his department. He, therefore, proposed to make Mr. Strachan his assistant, as he was considered well fitted for the post; but, somehow, the arrangement was never carried into effect. This was a great disappointment; as the obtaining a chair in a University,—to which the proposed appointment would undoubtedly lead,—was, at that time, the highest object of his ambition. A happy opportunity for the ultimate gratification of this hope, was closed as soon as opened.

In the midst of the conflict of feelings thus awakened, between golden visions and their speedy dissipation, an application was received from Upper Canada for a person qualified to take charge of an academy, which was afterwards to become a college, under the patronage of the government of the Province. The situation, it is said, was first offered to Dr. Chalmers, and then to another person of literary distinction; and when declined by them it was offered to Mr. Strachan and accepted. He accepted it, as he stated in a letter to a friend, chiefly on account of the situation of his mother and sisters; whose wants, out of the emoluments of his present situation, he was unable adequately to supply. His prospects of obtaining any thing better in his native land, were remote and uncertain; and so filial. affection constrained him to become an unwilling exile. The promise of £80 sterling per annum, with free board and lodging, and all the expenses of the journey provided, gave him hope that, if his own personal happiness should not be increased, those nearest his affections would not be allowed to want.

Having formed this determination, and sundered his connection with his parish school, he obtained the following testimonial from Dr. Barclay, dated, Manse of Kettle, July 20,1799.

"The bearer, Mr. John Strachan, student in divinity, taught our school, at Kettle, for about two years, with much approbation and success; always conducting himself with decorum and respectability in his private deportment; and is hereby heartily commended to the notice and attention of all into whose hands these presents shall come.”

The wording of this testimonial incidentally disproves the statement which, in various quarters, has been affirmed and believed, that the late Bishop of Toronto was once a licentiate, or probationary minister, of the Church of Scotland. He merely, as we have seen, attended the Divinity Lectures at St. Andrew’s; but had never taken orders, or received a license to preach, in that church.

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