Project Canterbury

Leaders of the Canadian Church
Edited by Canon Bertal Heeney

Toronto: Ryerson, 1943. 191 pp.


FROM cobbler's bench to the episcopal bench is the record of David Williams; and from a village in Wales of a few hundred souls to London, Ontario, the See City of the diocese of Huron. Born in obscurity and reared in adversity, he became an Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Church.

He was born on Monday, March 14, 1859, at Siljan, a village by a wandering stream near Lampeter in Cardiganshire, North Wales, and the place and the time indicated the kind of background that forms the setting for his life. His father was a cobbler, but the cobbler of the village in the middle of the nineteenth century was not merely the mender of old shoes, unnoted and perhaps despised as is the cobbler of the twentieth century. His home was his shop and his shop was his home, and there the villagers foregathered to pass the time of day and tell how many head of cattle and sheep had passed on their way to Lampeter, the market-place of the district. It was the mid-Victorian era and in such a book as The Diary of Rev. Francis Kilvert, published in 1938, we have the picture of the typical Welsh life of that day. There was but little contact with the outside world, and the interest of the people lay in the baby born that morning or the old man who died the night before.

"In those days," says the introduction to Kilvert, "there was a commonly held idea that children were or ought to be innocent, pure and soulful. There was an appetite for snowdrops and sunsets, clinging tendrils, costly funerals, and orphans and virgins with big melting eyes."

The church was the centre around which the interest of the community gathered; the squire was the important person of the crowd and the parson went out and in among the people revered as a father in God, their counsellor and their friend.

In such surroundings David Williams began his life going to the village school, learning the three R's, leaving the desk and the schoolmaster to become apprentice to his father at the age of twelve. But like so many of the rurals of those days, the father was neither without a taste for culture nor without ambition for his family. On the cobbler's bench he propped the Bible and Shakespeare that his son might learn English and imbibe the spirit of the ages. By and by there appeared with the classic of literature and of religion a Greek grammar and the apprentice passed through the gate to a new world. He found his way so well there that he began to teach others, and a Maecenas was found to be a patron to this "child of parts." He was sent to Lampeter to pursue his studies and at Lampeter he justified the judgment of his sponsor. St. David's College had been founded, in 1822, by Bishop Burgess of St. David's for the training of students of the Welsh Church, and David Williams graduated at that college in 1883 with the degree of bachelor of arts, after a notable career. He was Bates prizeman in 1879, Barton Scholar in 1880, and Senior Scholar in 1881, and nothing would do for such a promising boy but Oxford, proceeding to the degree of B.A. in 1890 and in 1901 to his M.A. During his college career he was ordained. In 1885 he was made deacon by J. Colquhoun Campbell, Bishop of Bangor, and on December 19, 1886, was ordained by the same Bishop to the priesthood. He was a country curate for a couple of years, 1886-1887, of Festiniog with Maentqrog, Merions in the diocese of Bangor, but while there heard the call to the foreign mission field and volunteered for service in India, where he was offered a post at Karachi. He was advised by his physician, however, not to accept a position in such a climate, as his family had a tendency toward tuberculosis. An advertisement at this juncture of a vacancy in Huron College, London, Canada, caught his eye. His application was accepted and he set sail for Quebec.

Huron College was the dream child of Bishop Hellmuth. From its loins were to spring a preparatory school, a theological college, a university, a cathedral, all under the jurisdiction of the Church and its Bishop. Professor David Williams was to be a teacher of mathematics and classics, master in the school, lecturer in the college, preacher at the Cathedral. But the dreams of the Bishop were not fulfilled. Bishop Hellmuth's school for boys of which Arthur Sweatman, later Bishop of Toronto and Primate of all Canada, had been headmaster, had failed for want of support. It was succeeded by a private school situated on what is now the site of St. John's Church and was known later as Dufferin College. There in Dufferin School and in Huron College on week days David Williams taught, and on Sundays acted as curate of St. John's Chapter House from 1887 to 1888, and of St. Paul's Cathedral 1888 to 1892.

It was during this period that he laid the foundations of what was to be his life-work in Canada. In his teaching he became acquainted with the growing life of the city of London; met many who were to take a prominent part in the civil, military and educational life of the Dominion; and established himself as a keen teacher, scholar and preacher of repute, an enthusiastic and devoted priest of the Church, a man who with a high sense of faithfulness to duty could be relied upon on all occasions. He was not at ease in the social circles of the city, yet wherever he went he was held in high esteem for his integrity of character and for the evident strength with which he held his convictions regarding the questions of the day. It was during this period also that he married, beginning a union which was to continue not only as his happiest personal joy but as a constant inspiration for his public life. His bride was Alberta Eliza, youngest daughter of Hannibal Burwell, who had been prominently connected with the military pioneering days.

On October 1, 1892, Professor Williams became rector of St. James' Church, Stratford, and for almost thirteen years had a happy ministry in that railroad centre as a parish priest. Despite his keen interest in his flock and his love for his own parish, he found himself drawn to the wider circle of the Diocese, making many journeys through the parishes in the interest of Home and Foreign Missions. In December, 1903, he was appointed by Bishop Baldwin Archdeacon of Perth, and it was in that office he began to show the promise of the great power he developed later as administrator and statesman of the Church. Bishop Baldwin, the third Bishop of Huron, greatly beloved, the inspired and inspiring preacher, died on October 19, 1904, and the Diocese of Huron found itself face to face with an episcopal election. It was a difficult day for the Church. Baldwin, unworldly and otherworldly, had captured the imagination and the heart of the people and of the clergy, but the routine management, financial and parochial, of the affairs of the Church, was not his field. At the north-west end of the Diocese was the Rector of Stratford, known for his sturdy convictions and his evangelical zeal. At the southeast was the Rector of Woodstock, J. C. Farthing (later Bishop of Montreal); at the centre, London, was a group of clergy connected with the College and the Cathedral. The tradition of the Diocese was intensely evangelical, and at the voting for bishop the various elements showed their strength. As is the custom at such elections, all kinds of stories, absurd to us today, were recounted. It was alleged that a coloured stole had been found in the wardrobe of the vestry of St. James', Stratford, and that was a mark of the beast; the Rector of Woodstock took the eastward position and thereby identified himself with Romish tendencies, and so on and so on. But at length on November 29, 1904, David Williams was elected Bishop of Huron by the Diocese in session at the Cathedral in London.

Before outlining his work as Bishop it would be well to think of his qualifications for the office of Bishop, and his attitude to the vital questions before the Church. Physically he had abounding energy, five feet six or seven, weighing around two hundred pounds, square-jawed, square-shouldered with the suggestion of a rolling gait, black haired with black moustache and a keen flashing eye. Intellectually he was a teacher but hardly a thinker, content to accept the verdict of the leaders he trusted. He knew the Diocese, was familiar with the weaknesses in the machine, but with abounding faith and confidence in God and in His Church.

Early in his episcopate, "On the occasion of the Jubilee of the Setting Apart of the Diocese of Huron," he issued what he called "A Declaration of the Distinctive Principles of the Church of England," and from that statement we can judge his type of churchmanship. The Church of England, he says, stands for seven things:

1. The Divine origin of the Church;

2. The Divine and apostolic origin of the Episcopate and through it the Christian ministry;

3. The historic continuity of the Church;

4. Worship and reverence;

5. The supremacy of the Bible, for intellectual liberty, for the right of every believer to immediate and direct access to God through Christ;

6. For truth and righteousness as the supreme end of religion;

7. For the fulness of the Christian faith.

He adds in his conclusion the note characteristic of his own outlook:

The Church of England monarchical only in form, is thoroughly democratic in essence: in Canada it is a Church of the people. I believe with all the intensity of my being, that the Anglican Church is fitted beyond all other bodies to meet the future needs of the Dominion.

There was his charter and from the moment of his consecration he was Bishop indeed. Independent, forceful, with a drive in every word, he led. In the management of the affairs of the Diocese he developed the two qualities which were outstanding--his genius for finance and his statesman-like outlook. As a presiding officer he excelled. His knowledge of procedure was great; himself a born debater, he loved the dust of conflict, encouraging expression by every man, even the youngest deacon, of views on any question. The annual meeting of the Synod was the centre from which the activities of the Diocese radiated; it lasted as a rule a whole week, and woe betide a member of Synod who was absent from its deliberations. There were giants in those days among the laymen--Dyment of Brantford, Jenkins of Petrolea, Wilson of Chatham, Holt of Goderich, Henderson of Windsor; and in session the Synod was a House of Commons, speeches lasting sometimes sixty or more minutes, every motion keenly fought. Not a point escaped the alert chairman who followed every word of every speaker, betraying only by a restless tapping of his foot on the floor (hidden by the carefully hung tablecloth) his impatience with irrelevance or with dullness.

His "charges" delivered to the Synod were the high-light of the proceedings. Prefaced, as a rule, by a discussion of some problem of the thought of the day or of his favourite topic-- the missionary work of the Church, he gave the detailed statistics of the diocese--not a dreary record but an appraisal of the work done, of the improvements instituted, descending in practically every charge to the well-being of the clergy, not forgetting their houses even to the "installation of modern conveniences." But it was in finance above all that he shone. He found it a diocese of deficits; he left it a diocese of balances. A clerical humourist might dub him "Budget Bill," but throughout the tenure of his office he was the watch-dog of the exchequer, and after the establishment of the General Synod no appeal from a central board was ever made without a response, and no apportionment was allowed to be less than one hundred per cent.

His insistence upon business methods, and his somewhat brusque treatment of defaulters, may sometimes have seemed harsh, but no incumbent could ever suggest he was treated unfairly: He fought for the parish priest and stood by him when difficulties with his congregation arose, and above all saw to it that the stipend was paid. As a diocesan only one word can describe him: he was efficient. He knew every detail of every problem and his diocese was a model of management to the whole Church. As an administrator he was fair and honourable in all his dealings. As Father-in-God to his clergy, he entered into the happenings of their homes. He was a believer in families, yes, even in large families-- even though, as he often said, the children were hostages to fortune.

It was inevitable that such a personality should lead in the wider enterprises of the Church. His brother Bishops got to know him as others had already done, and when a great step was to be taken it was (perhaps somewhat unfairly) left to him to take the lion's share of the work. In every meeting, whether it was in the great gatherings of the General Synod or in the Executive Committee of the. Missionary Society of the Church of which he was chairman for a score of years, he dominated. Yet, with all his strength in debate, he was fair and conciliatory, and above all he never took refuge in mere episcopal authority.

There were three great movements during his episcopate where his genius for leadership and his sound judgment can be observed.

First there was the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. To suggest revision was at that day to stir up a hornet's nest. The directions to the Committee of Revision were specific, and the Vice-Chairman and directer of its labours hewed to the line throughout the long prparation of the book and its final presentation to the General Synod. It is perhaps easy for a later generation to suggest, that there was little revision and less enrichment, but Bishop Williams put " Canada" on the back of the book, and secured practical unanimity for its adoption from a very mixed body. For two days he piloted the book through the debate, meeting every speaker with courtesy, and it was due not alone to his skill as a debater but to his strong common sense as a loyal central Churchman that his motion was passed, and the Book of Common Prayer: Canada became the book of the people. No other man in the Canadian Church could have achieved such a difficult task, and we can pardon his pride in the completion of the work.

The Book of Common Praise has been largely superseded by another Hymn Book, but the task of the later compilers was made lighter by the labours of the makers of the former book. James Edmund Jones-- "Hymny Jamie" as he was affectionately known--was the Convener of the Committee entrusted with the compilation, and to his unquenchable enthusiasm and indefatigable labours it was largely due, but without the directing spirit and mediating influence of the Bishop of Huron its acceptance would not have been possible. Up to that time many books were used throughout the different parishes, and party ism and parochialism were nourished by the particular book that was used. It was no easy task to meet the assaults of Sacramentarians, Evangelicals, lay popes and musical cranks. Bishop Williams was not a specialist in Hymnology either ancient or modern, nor, in spite of his Celtic ancestry, was he a judge of what was or what was not good poetry or what was or was not good music, but he was a Welshman with a heart that sang, and he was a Canadian Churchman with a zeal for the worship of God and for the unity of the body of Christ, and through weather, fair and foul, he steered the work to its adoption.

But it was probably in the Forward Movement that David Williams achieved his greatest task. Bound by the closest ties to the Mother Church of England, and Imperialistic in his outlook, he was keen to make the Church of England in Canada less dependent on the resources and traditions of the homeland. The Church was a daughter of Canterbury, but at least she must be mistress of her own house and seek to provide for the necessities of her existence. To that cause he devoted himself and into the Forward Movement threw the vigour and strength of body and soul. His spirit was as contagious as his leadership was brilliant and his financial acumen precise. From Victoria to Halifax, from the Arctic to the boundary-line machinery was set up, enthusiasm aroused and layman and cleric answered the call. It was a great achievement of a great host of Churchmen and Churchwomen everywhere, and there was none to deny to the Bishop a generous hymn of prasie for his great work under God of leading the Church to a larger vision, a deeper sense of its responsibility and a greater realization of its oneness.

In 1926 Bishop Williams became the first Archbishop of Huron and the third Metropolitan of Ontario. In that high office to which he was elected by his brother Bishops he showed that same fortitude and wisdom which had characterized his other labours. Not given to display, he was impatient of the frills and furbelows of ecclesiasticism.

Behind the office there was the ruggedness of a man of God. Other Bishops were more familiar with the technique of episcopacy, others were more intimate with their brethren in the ministry, others were more eloquent as preachers, but when work had to be done the Church learned to rely on his sound judgment, untiring energy and invincible optimism.

His reputation as a Bishop spread not only from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but his own native land of Wales heard of him and invited him to come back to be bishop of his own boyhood ground, but his heart--his family--his home--his soul was Canada and he declined.

On Tuesday October 6, 1931, he returned from a confirmation tour. Who among those who were of his diocese can forget these tours? Three or even four services in a day; in each, alert, inspiring, business-like, a servant of God, a servant of man. On the morning after, he was found dead in bed; a heart strained by excess of labours, had warned him often to desist but the call of his office was the more insistent. He passed in the midst of his labours--a fitting end to a great career, an argument for life and action beyond the grave. The secret of his success is not hard to find: he was God's man. Full of years and honours, mourned by a grateful Church --laymen, priests, bishops of every party and section--mourned most of all by those closest to his side in his own diocese, he passed to God, a trusted and beloved diocesan, the truest friend a man could desire.

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