Early Days, 1864-1914

The year 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of The Presbyterian College, which was granted its Charter in 1865. It would open two years later in 1867. Presbyterian College was established with the intention to serve Quebec and Eastern Ontario. It was believed that Montreal needed a theological college in its proximity in order for more congregations to flourish in the area. With no nearby college it was difficult to maintain the necessary number of ministers to serve in Quebec and Eastern Ontario. Several prominent Church leaders and laypersons, such as John Redpath, William Dawson, the President of McGill, and the future first principal of Presbyterian College D.H. MacVicar, agreed with this sentiment and met in 1864 to form a committee to discuss the foundation of a Presbyterian Theological College in Montreal. They would get the College’s Charter passed by the Quebec Legislative assembly in 1865, but were not able to open up the College immediately because the College still had no building or faculty. Once the board raised the money necessary to fund operations classes would begin, although a building was still being thought of for the time being. There were several challenges which had to be addressed in the early days of the College, such as establishing a permanent facility and faculty.

The Creation of a College

This was the original home of the college

This was the original home of the college

Early days

The first class at Presbyterian College was held in 1867 in the basement of Erskine Presbyterian Church in Montreal.  Reverend William Gregg was the first professor to teach at the College. The first class had ten students in attendance. Classes were held in the basement of Erskine Presbyterian Church until 1872. The graduates from this time period became known as “The Cellar Graduates” in academic circles. During this point in the College’s history many felt it was not worth keeping a College open in Quebec. Principal of Knox College Michael Willis was among those initially opposed to the idea of having another college, “Dr. Willis openly stated on the floor of the Synod assembled at Hamilton, in 1869, that he had come to propose a motion which contemplated the closing of the institution.” However he would not end up doing this because of Rev. Donald MacVicar’s insistence that there was a need for the College to serve Presbyterians in Quebec and French Canadians in General. The first faculty members of the new College would work hard to establish it as a centre of theological learning.

Donald MacVicar in 1865, When he first joined the College.

Donald MacVicar in 1865, When he first First Prinicjoined the College.

First Principal

The first Principal was Donald Harvey MacVicar from 1873 to 1902; he was also the College’s first full time professor in 1868. In the early days of the College when the faculty was not quite as developed as it would later be he would often have to take on many different roles in many different areas. He would guide the College through the opening of the new building, and its cellar days.

Early Student Life

Students and Alumni were engaged in College community activities from almost the moment it opened. In 1867 students would form the Literary and Metaphysical Society, which would later be renamed the Philosophical and Literary Society in 1873. They were responsible for publishing the Presbyterian College Journal in 1885. They would also organize debate club meetings, in which they would debate other colleges on various topics. They would often face off against Knox College and also the McGill Debating team. The Student Missionary Society was set up in 1869 and promoted home missions during the summer and evangelization in Quebec; it would continue its work until the Second World War and would cease to exist in 1943. The Alma Mater Society would be formed in 1875 and they primarily worked towards creating a sense of community among all those who had attended Presbyterian College and who were currently in attendance. They would set up scholarships for students, and would raise funds to purchase items for the College such as paintings of past principals.

Early Student Activity

From an early stage Presbyterian College would be closely affiliated with McGill. William Dawson was a founding member of Presbyterian College and was also the President of McGill from 1855 to 1893. In 1873 Presbyterian College students were allowed to use McGill facilities free of charge and could also take their arts courses there as well. In 1887 they were exempted from paying many of the class fees. This relationship began with close ties but would cool off and would be renewed once again in 1969 when Presbyterian College would join the McGill Faculty of Theology.

In 1912 the College would form the Joint Board of Theological Colleges, with the Anglican, Methodist and Congregationalist Colleges. This early effort at ecumenical cooperation ended in 1925 with the creation of The United Church of Canada and would not be renewed until 1969.

The Original Faculty

The original faculty of Presbyterian College had four professors

The Original Faculty of The Presbyterian College

The Original Faculty of The Presbyterian College

Donald Harvey MacVicar

He was the first Principal of The Presbyterian College, serving from 1873 – 1902. MacVicar would begin teaching at the College in 1868 as a Professor of Theology. He initially rejected a previous offer to teach at The Presbyterian College but would end up being the longest serving Principal in the College’s history. In the early days of the College he made up for a lack of faculty by teaching multiple subjects, such as mathematics, Greek, logic, and Latin, to name a few. He was a strong supporter of French Evangelization and was the convener of the church’s Committee on French Evangelization in 1875.

John Campbell

In 1873 Rev. John Campbell would join The Presbyterian College as a full time faculty member after lecturing there the year before. He was appointed Professor of Church History and Apologetics and served for the next 31 years until he passed away. He also served as the Registrar and the Secretary of the Senate for most of his time with the College. He was also briefly the acting Principal following MacVicar’s death in 1902.

John Scrimger

Rev. Scrimger was born in 1849 in Galt, Canada West (now Ontario), and was the first Canadian to teach at The Presbyterian College and the first Canadian to become Principal. He began teaching in 1874 as a professor in exegesis. He would be appointed Principal in 1904 and would also be named Professor of Systematic Theology, taking over for Donald MacVicar.

Daniel Coussirat

Rev. Daniel Coussirat was in charge of the French Department at the College. He was appointed as a Lecturer in French Literature and Theology in 1869 and remained in this position until he passed away in 1907, except when he returned to France for a brief period of time in the years 1875-1879. He played a large role in training French Canadian Presbyterian ministers, and in his time as a professor the mission in French Canada grew.

New Building

In 1871 the decision to create a building for the Presbyterian College was made by the Board of Management. In 1872 the College would purchase a piece of land on MacTavish St, in the heart of McGill campus and would begin construction of their new building. The new building was completed in 1873 and was financed by donations. By 1874 it was quickly apparent the building was too small. David Morrice was the president of the Board of Management during the early years of the board’s existence. He would finance the expansion of the building entirely out of his own pocket. As a result of his actions the hall is now known as Morrice Hall. Expansion began in 1880 and finished in 1882. The Presbyterian College would be at this location until 1963 when a new building was built. The new library was provided books from many generous donors, such as Knox College and other individuals.

Scenes from Morrice Hall


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