Debating and Dividing
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Debating and Dividing:

The Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society of Ontario West 1925-1927

By Pamela Cullen

Much has been written about the controversy in the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Québec (BCOQ) and the struggles that arose in this Convention during the 1920’s. Students and local Church historians alike are drawn to its key player, Dr. T. T. Shields, whose personality and writings so easily capture our attention. Less has been written about the ways in which this controversy was played out and shaped by the women within the Convention. A closer study of the Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society (WBHMS) of Ontario West thus serves as an example of how the women of this Convention participated in and were affected by this growing denominational controversy. This Home Missionary society in particular felt the reverberations of the struggle most keenly. This is due in part to its geographical proximity to the controversy, and in part to the mix of people who made up this particular Home Mission Board.1

A closer study of this society is useful in shedding light on important issues concerning this denominational controversy that have hitherto been largely overlooked: in particular, the participation of women in this struggle. A closer study of the Board’s minute book reveals much about these women’s own theological perspectives and personal convictions. Historians have often overlooked women’s history, in part because the women of the time were not key players in the public forum. Nonetheless, their participation constitutes an important area of study, adding a holistic dimension to our understanding of the history of the BCOQ as a denomination. In addition, the break up of this Board in November of 1926 illustrates the way individual lives were effected by the controversy. This is also an important aspect of denominational history, which needs to be captured. We would do well to remember that religious and theological controversy always has consequences that profoundly effect people’s lives.

The Women’s Baptist Missionary Societies of Ontario and Québec grew out of the vision of one man, the Rev. A. C. Timpany, the Canadian Baptist pioneer missionary to India. These societies united many women and churches in a common goal of reaching Canada with the gospel message. The Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society of Ontario West was founded in 1884, and from its creation had a keen sense of its own importance. As Mrs. R. A. McMaster, its first president, contended in the pages of the Baptist Visitor, "Home Missions are the foundation on which all other denominational enterprises depend." 2 In 1893, the Presidency passed to another able and enthusiastic women, Mrs. C. J. Holman, who served in this capacity for the next 31 years. Finally, the Society’s growth and development takes a new turn in 1925, when Mrs. E. J. Zavitz is elected as President. Soon after, the Society begins the process of restructuring or dismantling, depending on how one views the break up of its Board in November of 1926.

Mrs. Zavitz’ New Year’s message, printed in the Baptist Visitor in January 1927, clearly illustrates the pain and division that had characterized the WBHMS of Ontario West during the denominational struggles of 1925-1926. Her address included the following telling admission:

Our Mission Circles cannot leave 1926 without perhaps a regret for many things, which have come to us during its unfolding days. We have been torn by conflicting emotions and sometimes, with fears; we have come to the days of separation and parting of the ways. Yes, 1926 has been fraught with history making events. 3

Although her words continued on with an assurance that the year ahead would hold better things, these words indicate the painful consequences of the BCOQ’s escalating controversy. They are a clear expression of how deeply this struggle affected the lives of the women who made up the WBHMS of Ontario West.

As we begin to delve into this struggle, we can first look to the words of warning spoken by Mrs. Caroline Holman, then president, at the monthly board meeting of November 2, 1925. As the board looked ahead towards their annual Home Mission Convention, she urged the following:

The character of the day at convention, whether spiritual or otherwise, will depend largely on this board as we are the power house for this convention…are we going up in right spirit? How are you and I going to be responsible for the spirit of the day? Be much in prayer before you go. 4

Reading the Convention report as later printed in the Baptist Visitor, nothing other than business as usual seems to transpire and one begins to wonder what fears or concerns were in Mrs. Holman’s mind when she spoke these words. However, it is important to note that the election of officers for the future year was held at this convention. It is even more interesting to note that both Mrs. C. J. Holman and Mrs. E. J. Zavitz were nominated and allowed their names to run for presidency of the society. Mrs. Zavitz won the election and became the new president of this Home Mission Board.5 Perhaps Mrs. Holman’s warning refers to the importance of the coming elections, a suggestion that becomes more probable when we look ahead to the first business meeting conducted with the new board. At this meeting, held on November 13, 1925, the newly elected president had words of comfort to offer her sisters. As recorded by the secretary,

She greeted the members of the board with an assurance of love for all and sympathy for the members of the old Board who she believed were fearful of the future. The President counts upon the Board being women of faith, desiring to do God’s will.6

These words indicate that something was indeed amiss within the board, that division existed and that some needed the assurance of her confidence in them. Taken together with Mrs. Holman’s earlier warning, these comments make it probable that, in the minds of these women, this election was an important factor in determining the future health of the Home Mission Board of Ontario West.

Dissatisfaction and disunity among the members is also evident in the ensuing discussion concerning the board’s financial situation. At the time, the board had a slight deficit, requiring the establishment of a policy concerning the proper means of securing new funds. Policy ratified the previous year, in 1924, reflected guidelines created in 1899, stipulating that the board would not publicize any of its financial concerns, but would depend on God alone to provide the needed funds. In the minutes of November, 1924, a majority of the group expressed their belief that such a policy was more glorifying to God: "to depend on Him absolutely for financial needs, would be more glorifying to Him alone."7 The statement highlights their belief that this issue was not about money alone, but concerned the proper nature and expression of faith.

By November of 1925, however, the Board was divided on the issue. Some wanted the policy of 1924 to continue in force. A motion to this effect, moved by Mrs. D. W. Mcleod and seconded by Mrs. Kingdon, read as follows:

That for the glory of the Lord:

1. We do not go into debt

2. That we make known publicly only Spiritual needs and results

3. That we ask God alone for our material needs depending upon his promise, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you as well."8

On the other hand, an amendment to the policy, proposed by Miss J. Norton and seconded by Mrs. Starr, read as follows:

For the glory of the Lord and the extension of his kingdom:

1. This board does not go into debt

2. This board makes known continually its concerns to God who supplies all the needs of his       people.

3. That through the regular channels the Board make known its needs to its constituency.9

We read that a "frank and full" discussion followed, after which a vote was held, with 23 voting in favour of the motion and 20 for the amendment. This split is an indication of the division that existed among this Board on an important issue reflecting different perspectives on faith in God.

But this vote did not silence the issue. As president, Mrs. Zavitz was not happy with the decision, and asked at a December executive council meeting that the possibility of reopening discussion about this policy be presented to the Board at their December meeting. Accordingly, the question of reconsidering the financial policy statement was brought to the Board in December. A motion was put forward for a new vote to be taken in January, and much discussion followed. Mrs. Holman expressed her views at length, in particular "That having accepted the decision of the majority at St. Thomas as an indication of the will of God, the board would be disloyal to Him in re-considering the question."10 She suggested an alternative and an amendment, namely that instead of reconsidering the policy the Board should meet to consider solutions to their financial obligations. Again a vote was taken. The vote was close, with 13 for and 11 against the original motion and 11 for and 12 against the amendment.11

And so in January the financial policy came again to the table. The same two options were presented. Mrs. McLeod, seconded by Mrs. Whitelock put forth the motion to retain the policy as stated in November of 1924. Mrs. Reddick, seconded by Mrs. Ryrie, put forth the motion to make their financial needs known to the constituency. Again the vote was close, with 22 voting in favour of the original policy and 19 voting to amend it.

Once more Mrs. Zavitz was not happy with this situation and felt the need to explain her ardent opposition. She discussed her position at length in the Baptist Visitor:

I firmly believe that God expects each of us to use every faculty which he has given us, as he may direct, just as truly and faithfully as we use the prayer duty and privilege. We need to use our talents to bring about the salvation of souls, and for the bringing in of the tithes and offerings so He may fulfill His promise to us, and "pour out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it".12

She went on to express her disapproval of the existing policy, arguing that since she had outlined her views and opinions on the issue prior to the Board elections at Convention, she had assumed that since she was voted in, the majority of people accepted and supported her position. She further indicated that those women on the Board who were against the policy "feel disappointment at the decision made" but would submit to it for coming year. She closed her letter by urging people to pray earnestly for the society.13

It is possible that she received some criticism for her candid and straightforward article, because the following month she wrote another article in the Baptist Visitor, this time emphasizing what she deemed to be "the most important word spoken" about the Home Missionary society. She highlighted her sincere commitment to the spiritual aims of the society, affirming that "In all the spiritual aims of our Home Mission Board, I am in heart sympathy," and that all women should devote themselves to "bringing the kingdom to those of God’s children who are lost and straying."14

The extended discussion surrounding the financial policy of the Board indicates, first, how closely "official policy" was linked with matters of spiritual perspective and understanding. Second, it highlights the existence at this time of two distinct camps within the WBHMS of Ontario West.

At the February 11th Board meeting, another divisive issue surfaced, this one concerning the place of the Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) programme in the BCOQ. Members of the Home Mission Board had been requested to form a committee to work with the Girls Work Board in CGIT planning. Mrs. Holman spoke first. She felt that the WBHMS Board should respond in the negative, at the same time highlighting their dissatisfaction with the CGIT programme. Her reasoning was that the Board should be uncomfortable with Baptist young people receiving instruction under an interdenominational board, as was the case with CGIT. She went on to propose that if a girls group was needed in the BCOQ, then they should create a separate denominational group. Once again the group was divided on the issue. Mrs. C. J. Cameron and Mrs. Mills presented a motion that the Board respond to the issue as suggested by Mrs. Holman. The motion carried, with 15 in favour and 12 opposed. Mrs. Mills was chosen to draft a letter of response. Further indicating the extent of the disagreement on this issue, those in the minority requested the right to compose a letter stating their own views, to be forwarded and read at the same time as the letter drafted by Mrs. Mills.

A copy of the official letter of response, sent to Dr. Webb as Superintendent of Religious Education in the BCOQ, was attached to the minutes of the March 18th meeting. The letter further highlights concerns some of the Board members felt with regard to the CGIT programme. The first had to do with the programme’s inter-denominational character and oversight:

We are only too well aware also that in some other denominations (notably the Methodists, now the United Church of Canada) there is a very strong tendency towards modernism teaching, amounting in some instances to positive radicalism. We feel that our Baptist young people should be, as far as possible, kept free from all such influence, a thing quite impossible unless we hold ourselves separate.15

Furthermore, the letter indicated that the goals and ideals of the CGIT programme were not what they should be: that these girls’ groups should focus more on winning other girls to Christ and training them for Christian service. The letter suggested that a distinct Baptist group be created. Also attached in the minute book was Dr. Webb’s written response, attempting to deal with their concerns, which he concluded were based on a misunderstanding of the CGIT programme.

At the Board meeting of March 18, one group of members reported that they had since met with the Sunday School Board and that their letter had been very well received. Some Sunday School representatives had even commended them for "being on the right track and urged them to keep the focus on the spiritual." While some members of the WBHMS Board verbally expressed their appreciation for the group’s efforts, President Zavitz announced that Dr. Webb would be coming to their next meeting to address the fears of the group.16 This further indicates the extent of the division on the issue.

At the Board meeting of May 13, Dr. Webb appeared before the group. The minute book records a lengthy discussion, resulting in a compromise whereby Dr. Webb conceded that the "women could form a committee to meet with a committee from his board to discuss the possibility of their Home Mission Board creating a type of home mission training booklet which might be used in CGIT." After he left the meeting, a motion to form such a committee passed by a narrow vote of 21 for and 15 against. A second motion that they act as a unified Board on this issue was defeated by a vote of 21 against and 15 for.17 The CGIT issue was not raised again at the meetings of the Home mission board.18

The debate concerning the CGIT programme once again clearly highlights the existence of two definite schools of thought within the Board. This is evident both from close votes on the issue and especially from the desire of those in the minority position to draft their own letter. The letter drafted by those opposed to the CGIT programme reflects the concern of some that the threat of modernist thought was a very pressing problem within the BCOQ. Thus division within the Board parallels a division brewing in the Baptist Convention as a whole.

Within the Home Missionary Board of Ontario West, the summer months passed without recorded disagreement. Not until the meeting of November 12 does division resurface. At this meeting, a letter of resignation from Mrs. Whitelock was read, stating her "inability to consistently work on any board that does not uphold Christ as the living word and his book as the written word."19 These words come as a surprise after the quiet summer months. However, one must remember that a bitter BCOQ convention had just passed and her comments must be assessed in this light. In any event, her resignation was accepted, with Mrs. Zavitz expressing regret at Mrs. Whitelock’s resignation:

Everyone should understand there are going to be differences. But if we truly follow Christ we can still bear towards each other Christian love and give to each other the liberty to follow the line of action she feels is right. And we should uphold respect for anyone who is strong enough to stand for things she feels [are] right.20

At the close of this meeting, a special Board meeting was called for Monday, November 22, 1926.

The meeting of November 22 brought about the final division of what had over the years become a large and successful Home Missionary society. Unable to reconcile their differences, and reflecting the widening rift within the BCOQ, many key women resigned from the Board of the Home Missionary Society of Ontario West, among them Mrs. H. Brechin, Mrs. E. Clubine, Mrs. D. N. Cameron, Mrs. Allan Taylor, Mrs. H. C. Russel, Mrs. John Lillie, Mrs. W. L. Kingdon, Mrs. MacBain, Mrs. V. Mills, Mrs. E. J. Taylor, Mrs. Passmore and Mrs. Holman. Although Mrs. Holman spoke at length, her comments were recorded in the minute book only in the form of three headings: "I) The way she was led to make her decision, II) A discussion of a leaflet she had issued, III) The way Christian women should part."21 The resignations were accepted.22

It is hard to comprehend how the women who remained felt at that moment, although the minute book offers some insight. Mrs. Zavitz proceeded to lead a short time of devotion in which she read Isaiah 26 and Isaiah 41:10. The latter passage was written out in full in the minutes: "For I the Lord will hold thy right hand saying unto thee…fear not." She then read Ephesians 6:10-18, then predicted that the "coming year will be the richest and happiest one which our home mission has ever had," and reiterated her belief that God would supply all their needs. Finally there was a time of prayer, after which the meeting continued with its regular business.23 Despite Mrs. Zavitz’ hopeful prediction, many other people and societies wrote in to the Board over the next year, withdrawing their support. Significant to note is the fact that two of their missionaries also resigned: Miss Copp on December 13 and Miss Garbutt on January 10.24

The Board resignations must be seen in the context of the disastrous 1926 BCOQ Annual Convention. Division within the BCOQ was widening, with each side believing that their own viewpoint at triumphed at the annual meeting. Following the Convention, one person expressed the view in a Canadian Baptist editorial that "Every peace disturbing question has been settled by an overwhelming majority. Action has been taken by 1080 delegates. Every charge against McMaster, Chancellor Whidden, Dean Farmer and Professor Marshall was shattered and repudiated."25 However, in the Gospel Witness, Dr. T. T. Shields expressed another viewpoint: "Let our readers pursue these pages and read the speeches for themselves and we believe that they will reach the conclusion that practically every charge has been proved up to the hilt".26

It is also important to recognize that plans to accommodate women who felt unable to support the regular boards within the BCOQ were already being implemented. For example, on November 18, 1926, the Gospel Witness issued a call to organize a "new women’s missionary society of regular Baptists of Canada" so that those churches unwilling to support the BCOQ would have a place to allocate their funds. Shortly thereafter, at an organizational meeting held on November 25, Mrs. C. J. Holman was elected as President of the new society, with the first full meeting held in Annette Street Church on December 14, 1926. The Gospel Witness indicated that the newly-created society was to be "based upon the word of God and controlled by the Holy Spirit, where freedom to seek the will of God is permitted and Scriptural Baptist principles upheld."27

It is obvious that the formation of a new missionary society was common knowledge even prior to the initial meeting of November 25. This is evident from the minutes of the WBHMS of Ontario West, for in the November 22 meeting of the Board, the women who had just resigned were asked to take care in choosing a name for their new society.28 After a brief word from Mrs. Zavitz, the women were then asked to leave.

The resignation of these women and the withdrawal of support in various mission circles had a profound effect on the women who stayed. Although it is difficult to capture the intensity of their feelings on the basis of historical documents alone, it is important to realize that they saw what was as happening more than a theological controversy: it was the destruction of a ministry which many of them had poured their lives into. In an article from the Baptist Visitor of February, 1927, the Rev. John B. McLaurin offers some insight into the depth of the feeling among these women:

In the hearts of some of our most faithful workers, perhaps in these recent days, there has crept a feeling of anxiety for the future of the work to which they have given so many years of their lives in earnest prayer and self- sacrificial denial."29

It is equally important to recognize that the women who left this missionary society had also been committed members for years. Many of them had been the key players who had helped the society grow and develop. Together, members of the society had witnessed much of God’s activity in their midst. Some had been with the society since its early days, and had seen their vision of home missions in Canada bear fruit in a very powerful way. Mrs. Holman, for example, had been the president of this society for 31 years, while Mrs. Cameron had been the editor of the Baptist Visitor since 1915. All the women who left the society had also held important positions, having served for years in various capacities as vice-presidents, recording secretaries, superintendents of the Visitor, and committed board members.30 Thus their collective departure was felt deeply, as they all had had a significant impact on the work and development of this Home Mission Board.

On the other hand, the break up of the Board did not result in the closing of the Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society of Ontario West. The women who remained were committed to the group, and they continued with their work despite the struggles. In November of 1925, 31 members had been present at the monthly board meeting. As of November, 1927, the number remained at 33, despite the loss of so many key supporters in the previous year. Clearly, new volunteers had stepped in to meet the challenge of leading the society. Furthermore, the budget of the group was not cut, but maintained all previous commitments. In 1926, the total working budget was $24,901, whereas by 1930 it had risen to $27,492.79.31 These figures highlight the extent to which the women of this society were able to continue their work, despite the upheaval they had experienced.

In conclusion, the evidence reviewed here suggests a number of observations regarding activities and events that took place within the Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society of Ontario West during the period 1925-1927. The discussion, debate, and division that existed within this women’s group clearly demonstrate the extent to which they wrestled with the growing controversy within the BCOQ. Differing perspectives within the group regarding financial policy, the CGIT debate, and in particular the eventual resignation of a core group of leaders all indicate that women were both affected by and participated in the denominational controversy of the twenties. Their voices and story add a significant (and otherwise neglected) perspective to our understanding of this historical period. Certainly, the Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society of Ontario West continued its activities in full force, just as the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Québec survived the controversy and continued its own work. But the experience of these women, as documented in this study, speaks clearly not only of the effect that denominational controversy has on the lives and feelings of the constituency in general, but in particular of how historical and theological division left deep wounds in both the organization as a whole and its individual members.


Baptist Visitor No. 388 (December, 1925), 390 (February, 1926), 391 (March, 1926), 400 (January, 1927), 401(February, 1927).

Brouwer, Ruth Compton. "Transcending the ‘Unacknowledged Quarantine’: Putting Religion into English Canadian Women’s History," Journal of Canadian Studies 27.3 (Fall, 1992), 47-61.

Carder, W. Gordon. Controversy in the Baptist Convention, 1908-1929. Hamilton: McMaster University, 1950.

Hall, Alfreda. Wheels Begin to Turn: the Story of Helping to Move Nations Christward. Toronto: Baptist Women’s Missionary Society of Ontario and Quebec, 1976.

Maitland, C. E., ed. 1926 Baptist Year Book for Ontario and Quebec and Western Canada. [N.p.]: Standard Publishing Co., [1926].

Maitland, C. E., ed. 1930 Baptist Year Book for Ontario and Quebec and Western Canada. [N.p.]: Standard Publishing Co., [1930].

Women’s Baptist Home Missionary Society of Ontario West Minute Book, November 9, 1923 – March 13, 1933.

Archives of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Québec, McMaster Divinity College,
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.