Project Canterbury

Leaders of the Canadian Church
Edited by Canon Bertal Heeney

Toronto: Ryerson, 1943. 191 pp.


THE subject of this sketch had but a brief career. He died in his thirty-sixth year, having been only ten years in Holy Orders. Yet during that short ministry and the collegiate years which preceded it, he exercised an influence, abiding in its effects, upon fellow students, pupils, parishioners and friends--an influence which the Editor of this series thinks entitles him to a place among the Leaders of the Canadian Church. It is the writer's congenial task to try to give some justification to that opinion.

Frederick Julius Steen was born in the city of New York on September 7, 1867. His father, Christian A. Steen, was of Danish stock; his wife, Julia, was an American.

When their son was still a child, the Steens came to Canada and settled in Toronto, where Frederick was educated in the Toronto Grammar School--now the Jarvis Collegiate Institute--and in the University of Toronto, which he entered in 1884. During his Arts course he took honours in Modern Languages and Mathematics, and was awarded two scholarships for general proficiency. One of his fellow-students says of him:

He was a very able student, and during his undergraduate career took part in the debates, public and regular, of the University College Literary Society. He had a deep, clear, carrying voice and never said unnecessary words. He would build up a logical statement of his case, nor in debate did he ever suffer fools gladly.

He took his B.A. in 1888 and his M.A. in 1896. Shortly after his graduation he taught for a time in Woodstock College--a preparatory boys' school--where he made the acquaintance of the Reverend J. C. Farthing, Rector of St. Paul's Church, Woodstock, and afterwards Bishop of Montreal--an acquaintance which deepened into a lifelong friendship, based on mutual esteem.

On the opening in September, 1889, of Ridley College, St. Catharines, Ontario, Steen was engaged as teacher of Modern Languages, which post he occupied for three years, winning recognition as an excellent teacher and a strict disciplinarian. The Headmaster wrote this regarding him:

He was one of the best teachers I ever saw in a classroom, wonderfully clear in exposition, patient and hardworking to a most unusual degree. Devotion to duty was the keynote of his life as a Master.

It was during his teaching years at Ridley that he decided to take Holy Orders. Having done no Greek in his university course, he began the study at a summer school at Chatauqua, N.Y. With this beginning, he carried on the study of Greek by himself during the remainder of his time at Ridley.

In the autumn of 1892 he entered Wycliffe College, Toronto, and covered the whole Theological course in a single year, receiving his Diploma in 1893. Among those who completed their Theological course with him that year were, H. J. Cody, now President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Toronto, G. A. Rix, now Bishop of Caledonia, and the late S. H. Gould, for many years the able and energetic secretary of the M.S.C.C.

He was ordained Deacon in 1893 by the Bishop (Baldwin) of Huron, and priest in 1894. The Bishop was shown Steen's answer to a question on the meaning of Justification by Faith, which he said was one of the finest and most scholarly treatments of the subject that he had ever seen.

In 1893 he was appointed Rector of Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. During his three years pastorate there he made the beginning of his reputation as a preacher of unusual power and charm, original and convincing, with a fine voice and a striking presence. One of his hearers in later days says of him:

His success as a preacher is to be attributed to his admirable lucidity in dealing with his subject, the keenness of his analysis, the aptness of his illustrations and his perfect command of a rich, resonant voice that rivets the attention, and mental force that sustains the interest of the hearer.

In 1896, Steen resigned his charge in Berlin to accept the chair of Apologetics and Ecclesiastical History in the Montreal Diocesan Theological College. He began his duties in September of that year and in the following May was appointed Special Preacher at Christ Church Cathedral. Within about a month after Steen's arrival in Montreal, Dr. Henderson, Principal of the College, died, and for the next two years the duties of Acting Principal devolved upon Professor Steen.

The preceding outline of Steen's early career shows him possessed, in an eminent degree, of the learning and ability required in the Head of a Theological College. But he was young, and young men were not as yet sought to fill responsible positions. Also the tradition, of long standing in Canada, of looking to the Motherland for leaders in academic work, still held. If Steen felt disappointed when the choice of the Governors fell on Dr. M. M. Hackett, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he showed no sign of it, and the cordiality of his greeting to Dr. Hackett, as he stood on the College steps to welcome him, literally with open arms, remains as a vivid mental picture in the memory of at least one of the spectators of the scene.

The energy and intensity with which he worked and lived had by this time seriously affected his health and he was advised to take holiday for an academic year. Soon after Dr. Hackett's arrival he sailed for Egypt, where he spent the winter at Assouan. Returning he visited Palestine, Greece, Italy, Germany, France and England. His mind was stored with memories of all that he had seen and he gave a series of lectures on Egypt. Refreshed and stimulated, he began again his work at the College and his preaching at Christ Church Cathedral.

But little over a year had passed before storm clouds began to gather about him. Rumours regarding his Theological views were being circulated. It must be remembered that forty years ago the effect of geological, astronomical and biological studies on the early narratives of Genesis, and the results of literary criticism of the authorship and structure of the books of the Bible, already widely accepted in the Old World, had not penetrated far into the thought of Canadian Churchmen of our Communion. When Dr. Kirkpatrick, Dean of Ely, a devout and conservative Old Testament Scholar, visited Montreal, he was not permitted to speak in the Diocesan College, and those who were pained at the slight to a great scholar and loyal churchman could only hear him through the courtesy of McGill University, where he was invited to lecture in Molson Hall.

The leaders of the clergy in those days were men of high character and deep religious conviction. But they belonged to the old Evangelical School and lived too soon to appreciate, as most educated people do today, the fresh light that scientific thought and methods have thrown upon sacred history, the teaching of the Bible and the tenets of our faith.

To these influences and their effects Frederick Steen was fully alive. And he fearlessly taught them, while at the same time holding firmly to the Faith as this Church has received the same. Today, if he had lived and had not grown--as of course, however, he must have done--with the growing light, he would have been considered quite conservative.

But in November, 1900, the storm which had been threatening, burst upon him, and he became the protagonist in one of the most painful tragedies in the history of the Canadian Church. One would fain pass over the months of bitter controversy and recrimination which followed. But that cannot be. If Steen's memory is to be vindicated, the truth must be told, albeit in charity and with a sincere desire to be fair to all concerned.

The trouble started, it is generally understood, with an answer given in an examination which seemed to deny the uniqueness of the inspiration of the Bible. The statement in question Professor Steen said he had no recollection of having made. Interrogated at a meeting of a committee appointed by the Board on January 17, 1901, he gave a full exposition of his views on Revelation and Inspiration which satisfied the committee as being perfectly sound. His method of instruction, however, as well as the content of his teaching as it appeared in a student's note book supplied for their inspection, the notes in which were accepted by the Professor as substantially correct, did not seem to the members of the committee to be satisfactory.

They objected to the amount of attention given to German theologians, Schliermacher in particular, also the content and method of his general presentation of the subject of Apologetics. As a matter of fact, the methods and arguments of the older Apologists had already fallen into disuse, and Professor Steen's treatment of the subject was of the kind adopted in contemporary Apologetic works. In the process of the enquiry, the Professor declared that he was not only surprised but amazed that the Committee should take exception to anything in the notes which they had read.

But the Committee held to its opinion and Steen was advised to tender his resignation to the Board of Governors, which he did in a letter dated January 24th. The resignation was accepted at a meeting of the Board held on February 1st, with an expression of regret and of the hope that Professor Steen would, if possible, arrange his plans to remain on to the end of the Session. There was also an expression of appreciation of his ability and of the faithfulness, energy and enthusiasm which he had displayed in the discharge of his duties as lecturer and Dean of Residence.

Toward the end of April, Mr. Steen left the College and on the 21st of that month he preached what he believed to be his last sermon at the Cathedral, negotiations having failed to alter the determination of the Bishop not to permit him to continue as special preacher there.

Meanwhile his friends in the congregation had been busy in his behalf. On April 6th, a deputation waited on the Rector, Ven. Archdeacon Norton, who told them that he was willing to continue Mr. Steen if the Bishop withdrew his objection. On April 8th, they waited on the Bishop, who, it was learned, had been elected that day to the title and dignity of Archbishop of Montreal and Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada; but, while he would make no charge against Mr. Steen, he held to his former decision not to allow his services at the Cathedral to continue.

The committee reported to an adjourned meeting of the Vestry, held on April 22nd, which meeting, on hearing the report, adjourned until April 29th after passing a resolution asking the Rector to continue Mr. Steen's services.

On April 16th, Mr. Steen was invited to have an interview with the Archbishop, who at the interview stated that he thought Mr. Steen would be happier and under less restraint if he were to leave Montreal and that his departure would make for harmony in the Diocese. Subsequently he announced that he was prepared to make a public statement of his reasons for refusing to allow Mr. Steen to continue serving at the Cathedral if Mr. Steen would consent, which he readily did. The promised statement was made in a letter to Archdeacon Norton under date of May 4th. It was in the main a summary of the evidence submitted to him by the Committee of the Board of Governors of the Diocesan College upon their examination of the student note-book. The Archbishop then demanded the return of Steen's licence, which he, on advice, refused to surrender. The Archbishop forthwith inhibited him from preaching or officiating in the Diocese of Montreal.

Thereupon a number of Mr. Steen's friends in the Cathedral, who had already made arrangements to finance a trial either in the Ecclesiastical or secular Courts, decided on taking the latter course.

On June 10th, a suit in civil action was issued and served on the Archbishop. Before it came to court, however, an amicable arrangement was made whereby Mr. Steen and his friends consented not to proceed with the suit, on the understanding that the Archbishop would withdraw the inhibition and restore to Mr. Steen his standing in the Diocese.

Soon after, on the nomination of Archdeacon Norton, and with the consent of the Archbishop, Steen was appointed Senior Assistant Minister of Christ Church Cathedral, and later on, in February, 1902, was made Vicar, the Rector agreeing to leave under his direction all matters relating to the congregation and parochial services, while he himself retained his authority as Rector in other respects.

Thus finally did Frederick Steen receive his vindication. As Bishop (then Rev. J. C.) Farthing said in a sermon from which more lengthy quotation will be made presently:

He stood before the world as an honoured and trusted priest of the Church which he loved and was in a position where his great ability, his wide scholarship and his natural eloquence could be used to the best advantage of the Church.

He had neither yielded aught nor changed his point of view regarding the doctrines or methods in question. Although some attempt was made to give the impression that he had recanted, he made it clear in his first sermon in the Cathedral that this was not so.

"I have withdrawn nothing: I have recanted nothing," he said. "So far as I am concerned, I shall teach a doctrine that on the one hand is loyal to the Book of Common Prayer and on the other is neither afraid of modern thought nor hostile to it, and that has as its object the application of the religion of Christ our Saviour to the needs and aspirations of the twentieth century."

After long and bitter controversy Steen had won. The point at issue, as Bishop Farthing has pointed out, was "liberty of expression within the broad lines of the Church of England. Had Steen." he continues, "been silenced, liberty would have been curtailed and the history of the Canadian Church would have been vastly different." Steen won a victory not only for himself, but for the Church. After this settlement, there could not have been another "Steen Case" in Canada.

Shortly after his appointment as Vicar, Mr. Steen took a two months holiday in Bermuda and then resumed his duties at the Cathedral. In September, 1902, he married a clever and attractive English girl, Catharine Rayson, who had taken a medical course and received the Degree of M.D., in the University of New York.

It was a happy union of two kindred spirits, but it was not to last long. In the late autumn his health, never fully restored and doubtless much impaired by the trying experiences of the previous year, began again to fail. After the turn of the year he grew rapidly worse and died on February 4, 1903.

After a funeral service, at which the Cathedral was crowded to the doors, Professor Henry F. Armstrong, whose recollections have been most helpful, at the request of the Church Wardens travelled to New York with the casket and was present, representing Christ Church Cathedral, at the interment in Green Wood Cemetery.

The future Bishop of Montreal was one of the staunchest of the many friends and sympathizers who rallied to Steen's side as soon as his withdawal from the Diocesan College was made known. Bishop Farthing, who has kindly permitted reference to the sermon which he preached at the Memorial Service held in the Cathedral on March 8, 1903, spoke thus of Steen in the course of his sermon:

He was a man of strong character and great intellect. His ideals were lofty, his mind pure. He was conscientious in the discharge of Duty, possessing a marvellous capacity for work. Being graciously gifted by God, he cultivated these gifts and strove to perfect them for his service. Naturally shy and painfully reserved about his personal convictions and inner life, he agonized in secret, being misunderstood, but shrank from exposing to public view the inner thoughts of his heart. His scholarship was sound. In his reading he doubtless found, as every true man has, that cherished traditions and beliefs of childhood must give place to the convictions of the maturer mind of manhood. Through mental struggles he lived his way into fuller truth.

To unite men in the love of the Faith, and to bring them to tolerate each other's differences in the Church, was one of the purposes of his life. For he felt that Christ, the Divine Lord, was the need of the men of today, as he was the need of the men of past ages. In his last sermon in this Church, on December 14th, he said:

Christ is the Life of the world and in the mysteries made known in him are centered the world's hopes and the attainment of its most glorious ideals. And the work of each generation is to interpret these mysteries for its day, and by all the resources of experience and knowledge, life and conduct, to make them luminous for the age and its problems. The clearer, the more intelligible we make them, the more we dissipate cloud and darkness from them, the greater the blessing they will bring,"

Other sympathizers also, after his removal from the College, wrote letters to the daily press in Mr. Steen's defence. Among these were Professor Charles Colby, Professor Walton, Dean of the Faculty of Law in McGill University, and several others to whom Steen was little known personally or not at all.

The students of the College, to a man, signed a memorial in the course of which they said:

You have given us points of outlook and views of truth which will grow with our growth in knowledge and character. We wish to assure you of our hearty sympathy with the courage and candour, as well as the wise moderation, which have marked your teaching here.

Your life among us will stand out in memory as a protest against ignorance and prejudice and intolerance; and those, we feel sure, are the real enemies the Church of today has to face. You have given us views of history that are broadening and uplifting and an apologetic that need not fear to meet modern thought on its own plane. We shall think of you, Sir, as a Knight without fear and without reproach in the cause of Truth.

Several friends--a former fellow-student and some of his first pupils--consulted with a view to the writing of this biographical sketch, have given impresssions and recollections from which the following extracts are taken.

Dr. H. J. Cody, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Toronto, besides giving information relating to his fellow-student's life in the University and at Wycliffe College, writes thus regarding Frederick Steen:

There was always a kind of reserve about him and I don't think any of his friends ever came very close to him. Sometimes he was rather caustic in speech even to them.

But always he was a man of broad outlook, wide reading and forceful character.

There was a kind of eagerness in his walk--his head always slightly bent forward. He had flashing dark eyes and always made upon his fellow-students an impression of forcefulness.

The Editor of this volume, Canon Bertal Heeney, D.D., gives these as among his impressions and recollections:

I look upon Frederick J. Steen as one of the best minds I have met, particularly of the thoughtful kind. He had not a great memory, but a very keen penetration. His grasp of a problem of thought was full and his power of exposition unrivalled. He had little personal charm and rather delighted in brusqueness. He was very impatient of limited mental powers in others and scorned lack of thoroughness in study. To know and to understand and to expound were his great gifts and ambitions. Steen was a great man, far in advance of his time in Theological study, particularly in his perception of the significance of Higher Criticism and Evolution in Christian thought. His chief failing was harsh criticism of those differently equipped and trained. In Theology he was a great liberal: a religion which had to shield itself from investigation was self-condemned. There was a pearl in the heart of the Christian Faith which no man need fear to seek. His fearless confidence in truth made Steen's path straight and he walked in it with firm and steady eye.

Dr. R. C. Balgrave, Rector of St. Thomas' Church, Hamilton, and formerly Archdeacon of Peterborough, Ontario, gives this pen-picture of a student's memories:

The popularity he won among the students was not sought by him. He was severe in outward appearance and not easy to approach. He would pass through the corridors without noticing anyone and rarely stopped for conversation. But his aloofness of manner only won devotion, as it was felt to be natural to him. He was not given to small talk and in conversation was sparing of words. But he had an engaging smile which was most attractive. One can see him still--wide of brow, with a pair of glasses precariously perched on his nose, and which constantly threatened to respond to gravitation when in speaking he shook his head vigorously for emphasis. His powerful voice was not loud but strong--almost too heavy for his frail body. But he knew well how to use it and it never failed to reach his hearers and to attract immediate attention.

Dr. John James Willis, Canon of Christ Church Cathedral and Rector of Vaudreuil (Hudson Heights), gives a revealing account of Professor Steen's influence on himself:

Professor Steen guided me through a stormy period. In the course of his lectures on Apologetics he showed me that Theology was a Science not at all at odds with the Natural Science courses which I had had at McGill. On the questions arising out of Criticism he helped me to escape from the Fundamentalism in which I had been nourished. Later, when I read Gore and found that one could accept the new critical outlook and remain Catholic, I remembered my debt to Steen. It was a wonderous privilege to sit at his feet for two years. He was the equal of the best at McGill, and superior in outlook and scope to most of the men who taught me there. All through the past years I have kept him before me as a model of exact thinking and of broad interests. I can read in my life narrowing tendencies and broadening tendencies as well: Mr. Steen has ever remained with me to reprove the one and encourage the other. The fact that his influence is still hovering around me proves what a strong man he was and shows that he was a long way ahead of his time. His method in the lecture room was the best I ever experienced. He dictated slowly and carefully for a few minutes. Then, with both hands holding securely the edges of his Master's gown, he stepped to one side and talked delightfully around his notes, inviting questions and answering kindly. Then back to his manuscript. He set us essays during the two years with him. And very pleasant were the hours spent with him in going over one's feeble efforts--pleasant because with his wealth of knowledge he never belittled one. He stands in my grateful memory because, from the nature of his work, it was his privilege to lead me from the Secular to the Spiritual and to do so in a highly scientific manner.

There remains but little to add to these recollections and impressions. To those who did not know him they may help to fill in the outlines of this brief sketch of Frederick Steen's career. The writer's task has brought back to him in sharper outline the memories which have never left him of a congenial acquaintance which ripened into a real friendship. Although, as others have said, one never fully came to know him, his was a stimulating companionship and his reticence, being recognized as part of the man himself, never gave offence or any sense of slight. He had an ever-ready welcome to extend, however busy he might be, to one who knocked at his door. Even in his most serious moments his face would, on occasion, break into the winning smile so characteristic of him. It was good to have known him: sad to have lost him so soon. But the Church and the world, as Bishop Farthing has said, are better for his life and his ministry. As long as there are living any of those whom he influenced for good, that influence will remain. It was deep and widespread during the short time he lived to exercise it, and the more intensive because he would seem to have said to himself regarding it, "This one thing I do."

Surely the Editor is right, and Frederick Steen, teacher and leader of men, deserves a place among the Leaders of the Canadian Church.

NOTE. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the late Dr. Frank D. Adams for the use of a packet of newspaper clippings deposited by him in the McGill University Library where they are now mounted in a scrap-book for convenience of reference. They contain a fairly full account of the correspondence in the daily press, including the letters of Archbishop Bond, Archdeacon Norton and Steen himself. Without the help of these clippings it would have been difficult to reconstruct the progress of events which took place after Steen's leaving the Diocesan College.

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