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Article posted: April 5, 1998
Methodist Church Records In Ontario
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
The largest religious group in Canada today is the United Church. It began as a group of smaller churches in the nineteenth century, principally the various Methodists. Many of us have Methodist ancestry because they were the only church in town.
Methodism grew out of the Church of England in the eighteenth century. John and Charles Wesley preached a new and simpler religion hoping to revive the state church. Their followers became so abundant they eventually formed a denomination of their own. At the beginning of the ninteenth century, renegade Methodist preachers began their own congregations if they had differing theological views with the main church.
Both Mainstream Methodism (called Wesleyanism) and the break-off groups came to Ontario in its early days. In the early census columns under "Religion" you will find entries which say merely "Methodist" but most will give you the name of the particular sect. There were Primitive Methodist, New Connexion Methodist, Episcopal Methodists, Bible Christians and the largest, the Wesleyans. These are often shortened in the census entries to their initials (P. Meth., N.C. Meth., B.C., )
Because Methodism had evangelism as its base, there was a tradition of Circuit- riding missionaries through out the province. Small churches were established even in remote villages. Tiny country churches sprang up at crossroads without any houses around them. They served the farming community in the vicinity.
The farmers in a given area would be glad to have their own church nearby, however small it was. They might also find themselves in a disagreement with their neighbours or the local preacher on some theological point and begin a new congregation. The result was a proliferation of these little log cabin churches dotted on back concessions.
The Primitive Methodists based one of their circuits in Drayton and Arthur, with many congregations throughout Peel township. There were so many Primitive and other Methodist churches in Peel, we cannot name them all any more. Evidence tells us that in the 1860's there were about twenty-four Methodist churchs on the nineteen concessions of Peel.
Most of these churches have left little evidence beyond a line in an annual report of the time or mention in a newspaper account of evangelistic meetings. One, in the country near Alma, is now a farmer's field. The only sign that a church and its cemetery were once there is a single gravestone propped against the fence.
Eventually all these various groups began to join together one again. By 1884 the smaller sects had come together with the Wesleyans to form the Methodist church.
In 1907 the Congregationalists joined them. They was an independent group whose history went back to the dawn of Protestantism. If your family was Congregational before 1907, you should look at Douglas Warkentin's unpublished history of the sect, available at the United Church Archives.
In 1925 the majority of Presbyterian churches came together with the Methodists to form the United Church of Canada. The few Methodists Churches which stayed out of the union were known as Free Methodists. One of their churches remained in Galt. (Cambridge)
Because each Methodist congregation was independent and self governing, they were responsible for their own records. This often meant that records were not kept in an orderly way or were lost. Fires at the church, manse or secretary's house damaged many more.
To find Methodist records, enquire at the church itself or at the United Church Archives, which is in the University of Toronto , 75 Queen's Park Cresc., East, Toronto, M5S 1K7. When there were so many small churches in a district, you may find it difficult to tell which one your ancestors belonged to.
In the Kitchener/Waterloo area, the majority of Methodist churches seemed to spring up in the period 1840-1870. Their early records consist of marriages and baptism often beginning about 1865. Burials were kept later.
The Wesleyans recognized the importance of baptismal records and kept a central registry of baptisms which antedates the records of many individual congregations.
Microfilm copies of this registry for the whole province are available at the Kitchener Public library. Norma Huber prepared an index to the entries for Waterloo and Wellington counties, also at the Kitchener Public Library. It is wise to check the surrounding counties when looking for your ancestors in the Wesleyan records, keeping in mind those far-reaching circuit riders.
The Ontario Register CD contains many early Methodist records which were originally published in the Ontario Registers and several of Methodist publications by Hunterdon Press.
Guide to Family History Research in the Archival Repositories of the United Church of Canada" compiled by the Committee on Archives and History, The United Church for Canada.
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources