Fonds MSS 063 - John M. King fonds

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John M. King fonds

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  • 1822-1900 (Creation)
    King, John M.

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1.8 m of textual records.
1 album: 39 photographs.

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Biographical history

John M. King was born in Yitholm, Scotland in 1829. While still quite young, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology graduating with an M.A. in 1856. After furthering his theological studies at the University of Halle in Germany, he came to Canada to take up Presbyterian ministries in Galt, Ingersoll, Columbus and Whitby, Ontario (then known as Canada West). In 1863, he was appointed minister of Gould Street, later St. James Square Church in Toronto. Twenty years later, while serving as moderator of the General Assembly, he accepted the principalship of Manitoba College in Winnipeg, forerunner of the University of Winnipeg. King lived in Winnipeg until his death in 1899. He was widely-known and highly regarded as a leading Presbyterian theologian, educator and administrator. His daughter, Helen, married the Reverend Charles William Gordon (Ralph Connor).

(This eulogy-like overview of Rev. King's life is attributed to a colleague, Hugh Robertson, see box 14, fd.12)
"John Mark King was born in the village of Yitholm, Boxburghshire, Scotland, on 29 May 1829, descended from a long line of godly ancestors. There brought up in rural surroundings, in view of the Cheviot Hills, he became imbued with a love of nature which continued strong to the end of his years. In the parish school he laid the foundation of a sound and solid education. while still quite young he entered the University of Edinburgh, where he gained distinction in several departments, especially in mathematics. Under the influence of Sir William Hamilton he became a faithful adherent of the system of Scottish Philosophy, and continued its exponent to the end of his life. While attending the university he engaged in tutorial work and after completing his course there spent some time in Germany, having under his charge two long lads, who later rose to eminent legal prominence in Scotland.

In due course he enrolled in the Divinity Hall of the United Presbyterian Church, receiving there his training in Theology. In that institution he associated with a band of earnest and devoted fellow students and with whom he formed lifelong friendships--such men as Professor Calderwood and David Cairns and others. In Germany he attended the University of Halle, enjoying the teaching of such erudite and distinguished men as Muller, Thorluck and Neander. There too he acquired that proficiency in the German language which he afterwards turned to good account as a teacher and also qualified him for preaching, as he sometimes did to a German congregation in their native language.

At that time few students at the University of Edinburgh took a degree in arts, which could be obtained, not upon passing the annual or terminal examination, but only after a special and entirely distinct course of examinations. This examination he passed with success in the spring of 1856, and obtained the degree of M.A.

In the same year, 1856, upon completing his theological course, he came to Canada under the auspices of the colonial committee of the United Presbyterian Church. Desirous of becoming thoroughly acquainted with the country and its needs, and imbued even then with that zeal for home missions and church extension, which was a leading feature of his whole life, he for a time declined all overtures for a permanent settlement, and gave himself to exploring and home missions, with the result that not a few flourishing congregations were founded and nourished, among them Galt, Ingersoll and Columbus.

After more than a year spent in this important work he accepted a call from the congregation of Columbus and Brooklyn in The Presbytery of Whitby. There in a settlement of farmers mostly from the south of Scotland, he spent about six years in the active discharge of pastoral duties.

In 1863 a call to leave this rural parish came from the congregation of Gould Street church, Toronto, which afterward became St. James Square Church. This congregation had been first organized in 1853 as the Second United Presbyterian congregation and had in 1856, when everything in the city seemed flourishing, incurred considerable debt in building a new church. Soon after, hard times set in and stopped the growth of the congregation. The first pastor resigned and returned to Scotland. The continued existence of the congregation seemed doubtful. But Dr. Burns of the college came to the rescue and carried on for two years, then advised and encouraged the people to call a young man and Mr. King was invited to come.

Mr. King was already well known to the congregation through his intimacy with the first pastor. To extend this call, offering even the moderator stipend which they did, required faith on the part of the people. To accept it required no less exercise of faith on the part of him to whom it was given.

Having put his hand to the plough, Mr. King never looked back and devoted all his energies to building up the congregation. Before many years it held a foremost place in the Canada Presbyterian Church. Its early debts had been paid off: the building had been enlarged and enlarged until a new site had to be secured on St. James Square, where a handsome stone church was erected and opened for public worship in 1879.

In 1873 Mr. King was married to Miss Janet Macpherson Skinner, a lady who had for some years carried on with her sister, in Toronto, a large school for young ladies. Of Mrs. King it is scarcely possible to speak in too high terms; she was a woman of the finest sensibility and beauty of disposition, highly educated and refined, sanctified by earnest and humble piety. During a married life, alas too short, she was the support and stay of her husband, assisting him in every good work.

In 1882 Knox College, having received the power to confer degrees in divinity, recognized the merits of Mr. King, and as the first exercise of its newly acquired power conferred the degree of D.D. upon him.

As a preacher and pastor the work of Dr. King was outstanding. His sermons, prepared with the utmost care, dealt with the great things of the Kingdom and were distinguished at once by their thorough exposition of Divine truth and by their faithfulness of application to the heart and conscience of the hearer. There was nothing showy either in the sermon or its delivery, but the mental power of the preacher, the completeness with which he handled his theme, and his intense desire to reach the soul, made a very deep impression. His style was polished and earnest, and everyone listening to him felt that he was speaking on the theme which he had thoroughly mastered, and of the importance of which he was convinced. That his preaching was of a high class was amply proved by his having as members of his congregation, such men as Sir Oliver Morvat, Principal Caven, and Honourable George Brown. Students of the University seemed especially attracted by his preaching, although no doubt his hearty sympathy with them and interest in them had great magnetic power. Gould Street Church was known as the students church, and at one time the names of over seventy students in arts, medicine, and divinity could be found on the communion roll. Not only students of the Presbyterian Church came under his influence. A prominent clergyman of the Episcopal Church once said on a public platform, that to Dr. King he owed a great deal of his theology. While a student at the university, he had attended Dr. King's Bible Class.

In the discharge of pastoral duties, he was ever painstaking and conscientious. Of a sensitive and sympathetic nature, he felt an interest in every member of his congregation. His interest in them did not end when they removed to a distance, but followed them to their new homes. In the last year of his life, at the close of the summer session he paid a lengthened visit to Toronto, where he visited every family still remaining which had been connected with the congregation during his ministry.

To the importance of church extension in such a growing city as Toronto, Dr. King was fully alive. He constantly noted signs of progress in every part of the city, and with the assistance of one or two members of his congregation, was in the habit of buying a lot in any locality in which there seemed an indication that a church might in the near future be judicially planted. Sometime the expectations were not realized and then the lot not required was sold, where an advance on the price was got, the gain was always applied to further the great end in view. Several congregations in Toronto benefited in their earlier years from Dr. King's forethought in this direction.

To the interests of Knox College no small amount of time and labour was devoted. He was an active member of the board of management and of the Senate, and was for years chairman of the board of examiners. The providing scholarships for students still in their university course, but intending to study for the ministry, was first prepared by him, and for many years the founding and endowing such scholarships occupied much of his time and attention.

In 1883 he was chosen moderator of the General Assembly. At the Assembly that year a memorial from the Presbytery of Manitoba, asking the appointment of a professor of theology in the College of Manitoba, came up to be considered. After deliberation, it was resolved to grant the request and Dr. King was the unanimous choice of the Assembly, called to be the first principal and professor of theology in that college. The appointment to this important position was accepted by Dr. King and in accepting it he gave striking proof of his readiness to follow that he believed to be the line of duty.

His fitness for the office was beyond all doubt. Leaving the University an accomplished scholar, his acquirements in that line had not been allowed to deteriorate, even during the years of a busy pastorate. A good classical and Hebrew Scholar, he was thoroughly acquainted with German, and had a competent knowledge of French. Although the department in which he seems chiefly to have excelled at the University had been mathematics, he was well read in mental science, and had thought deeply on the great problems with which it dealt. He had all his life been a devoted student of Scripture, and while holding firmly by the faith which he learned in his youth, made himself acquainted with modern theological literature, and with the views held and promulgated by critics of the more advanced school.

To leave a comfortable position in Ontario, an attached congregation, and the companionship of men with whom he had been closely associated in church work, and by whom he was highly esteemed and honoured, involved no small sacrifice. As coming to Toronto twenty years before required faith and courage, so to undertake the duty now assigned to him required the exercise of the same qualities, for it was no light one.

The College of Manitoba had its beginning as a school in connection with the congregation of Kildonan, which, after obtaining an act of incorporation as a college was removed to the city of Winnipeg. Here valuable property was acquired and a large building erected during the period of excitement and inflation, so memorable in the history of that city. In connection with this building and the carrying on of the institution a considerable debt had been incurred, amounting to $40,000. This debt, a heavy burden under any circumstances, was felt the more heavily owing to the depressed condition of the city and province following the era of wild speculation which to so many brought financial ruin. To clear off this debt and place the institution upon a stable and satisfactory footing was the task undertaken by Dr. King, in addition to the work of teaching both in Arts and Theology. Dr. King had the faculty of inspiring the Church and the public with confidence in any undertaking which received his advocacy and by perseverance and hard labour he succeeded in a few years in removing the entire debt.

Almost as soon as this had been accomplished the improvement of the college building, enlarging and remodelling was begun. This work which cost $43,000 was completed in 1892. Not only was Dr. King a very liberal subscriber to the building fund originally but when the time came round at which a large subscription promised conditionally upon the total cost being raised within a given time became payable he, in order to secure it, advanced several thousand dollars taking the risk of collecting the subscriptions then remaining unpaid. A great part of these, it is believed, he never succeeded in collecting but on this head no definite information could ever be got. Such was the large generosity of the man.
In 1886 Dr. King met with a severe bereavement in the death of Mrs. King, who was taken away after years of suffering from a painful and incurable malady borne with Christian resignation and even cheerfulness. This stroke was soon followed by another in the death of his son, a bright and handsome boy who died after a little more than twenty-four hours illness during his father's absence from home. In the convocation hall of the college Dr. King placed a beautiful window as a memorial of his wife and, by his will, he made provision for endowing a scholarship in memory of his son.

As a teacher Dr. King was most successful. A friend, himself a professor in one of our colleges, has written of him: "Although he always contended that the pulpit was the minister's throne, his friends thought that, in his case, the professor's chair was the centre from which he touched the lives of others to largest issues. He focused his resources upon his class-room. With interest in each of his students, with a special gift for awakening thought and stimulating inquiry, he moved men to seek something of the mental activity and thoroughness that has so distinctively characterized himself."

Besides teaching theology, Dr. King taught in the faculty of Arts both mental science and German. Ever since the summer session in theology was begun in 1893, his teaching in Arts during the winter months went on, and thus for years he taught eleven months continuously in each and every year. So pressing did he feel the claim of the College that he could not be induced to take a rest and vacation. When his last illness came, it came to a frame enfeebled by the excessive work of years. An attack of pneumonia, following influenza, though his life was at one time despaired of, was overcome, and for nearly a month restoration to some degree of strength was hoped for even though progress might be slow. But after the excessive toil of body and strain of mind for years the vital powers were so enfeebled that he could not rally and so on the 5th of March, 1899 he passed away--passed away from here to receive yonder the welcome: Good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."

Custodial history

The fonds was donated to University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections by the King family in 1989.

Scope and content

The fonds contains over 1,000 handwritten, nineteenth century letters from family members and friends, an impressive selection of an equally large number of his original sermons, a large selection of his biblical commentaries and lecture notes, a few photographs, and a fewer number of materials on the early development of Manitoba College.

This Collection will be of value to a great many scholars with wide-ranging interests. To begin, the correspondence is rich and diverse. Every one of the 1,435 handwritten letters was written in the nineteenth century, dating from an 1822 letter from Rev. King's father to an older son, to a letter dated 1900, shortly after King's death (1829-1899). Of these four hundred and thirty-one of the letters are in King's own hand, mostly written to his wife and family between 1874 and 1886. The rest are from family members and a large number of friends and professional acquaintances including a score of fellow Presbyterian ministers from Scotland, the United States and eastern Canada, a good number of the leading theologians of the day (including Henry Calderwood, William Craven, William Kerr, James Parlane, and others), and leaders in the Winnipeg community of the early 1880's and 1890's who worked with Principal King in developing Manitoba College (George Bryce and Daniel W. Gordon). His family correspondence is particularly full with letters not only from wife and children but also from his son-in-law, Charles William Gordon (Ralph Connor), a collection which clearly documents an unfavourable rift between these two noted ministers. A compulsive letter writer, the collection offers fine insights into the man and his times.

The correspondence reveals much about the degree to which, among Presbyterians at least, Canada and Scotland formed a single community in the latter half of the nineteenth century. And in conjunction with King's sermons and lectures, the papers represent one of the best primary resources available to understand the theological currents of the times--i.e., Biblical criticism, the rising social gospel, and liberal theology. Of particular interest to a Manitoba audience, the letters tell much of early Winnipeg and indeed of Western Canada since King took up his calling here in 1883 soon after the famous boom and bust days of very early Winnipeg. His descriptions of local life, as well as those offered by his wife, have never before been seen. Moreover, his travels throughout Canada and the United States are well documented and his scores of friends everywhere discuss matters as divergent as the U.S. Civil War, Canadian elections, and small town life. In short, the letters are an intimate insight into the daily life of the time, of social conditions, of intimate personal problems and aspirations, and of life in the Church.

Throughout the finding aid, the number of letters in any one folder are bracketed for control purposes. And it is possible that unknown to us, some of the letters filed under "friends" may in fact be from distant, or at least unidentified, family members.
The sermons and discourses, on the other hand, are of one mind and soul--that of King himself. Such an extensive collection of over one thousand handwritten sermons given by this student of the scriptures (King received his D.D. degree from Knox College in 1882 after a life time in the pulpit) and preached between 1865 and 1889, is incredibly complete and replete with his theological perspectives and views. No student of the social gospel or of the liberal theology of the day, King preached a very scriptural, Christ-centred gospel, very much attuned to such topics as the Atonement, Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Faith, Charity and Grace. More than a moral philosopher or religious commentator of his time, King was a leading theologian and a powerful, preaching Christian minister and educator more concerned with ultimate salvation than mere ethics or social improvements of the day. There are few such extensive collections of sermons extant anywhere else in Canada today.

Professor Gordon Harland, a retired professor of Religion here at the University of Manitoba, transcribed several of King's most often-delivered sermons.

Much the same can be said of his lectures, Biblical commentaries, and philosophical studies. Unfortunately less is found here about his work in operating Manitoba College, forerunner of the University of Winnipeg, than one might expect. However, from the cash books and letters available, it is obvious that King contributed significantly to the much improved financial strength of the young.
A small photograph collection (PC 82), mainly of family and students, embellishes the papers.

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This collection is organized into 7 series.
A. Correspondence 1822-1899
B. Sermons 1847-1885
C. Lectures/Notes/Commentaries 1853-1896 and n.d.
D. Administrative Records 1884-1888 and n.d.
E. Personal Records 1873-1875 and n.d.
F. Publications 1843-1920 and n.d.
Photograph Collection, [ca. 187-?]-1885 and n.d.

The collection arrived in little or no order. Consequently it was decided to arrange the collection by major groupings, beginning with the correspondence, then sermons, discourses, and lastly, peronal items and his publications. The correspondence was sub-ordered by family letters, special event letters and ministerial and friendship letters. Sermons were kept in the sequential order in which they arrived. Some re-ordering was required for the lectures and commentaries. The exegetical studies were re-arranged according to Biblical order. The collection contains some six or more published pamphlets of his sermons or essays, but whether or not this is a complete collection of his works is not know.

Other sub-groupings of manuscripts include his personal essays, a very few administrative records of early Manitoba College including, however, the original Bank book, some of Rev. King's own personal and financial records, a scrapbook and various dedications to him, and, lastly, essays and sermons by Rev. King which were printed and circulated during his lifetime.

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Inventory prepared by Heinz Kattenfeld and Richard E. Bennett (1992). Finding aid encoded by Julianna Trivers (June 2002). Revised by N.Courrier (November 2018).

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