Blood in the Mortar – The British Methodist Episcopal Church of Guelph, Ontario: faith, family, community and continuity.

by Jerry Prager with information from the Waterloo Region Record

Black migrants had come to Guelph since the 1840s. Many were formerly enslaved individuals from the American south who had reached Canada via the Underground Railroad. They brought with them their allegiance to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1856, the Church separated from this American organization and formed the British Methodist Episcopal Church. Perhaps this move was made to better express their allegiance to Britain, which had abolished slavery in 1833.

The Essex Street neighbourhood had been established by English Methodists and was largely a working class area, anchored on the east by the Market Square and on the west by the Guelph Brewery and adjoining tannery. Many of the residents of Essex Street worked in these industries as labourers and tradesmen.

By 1869, the community was large enough to seek a church of its own. On January 18 of that year, the Guelph Mercury records that “the Trustees of the Methodist (coloured) Episcopal Church of our Town have made arrangements for the purchase of a town lot whereon to erect a suitable place of worship” with the intention of appealing for public assistance with funding. Rev. G.R. Blount duly began fundraising and a frame church, “Bethel,” was erected the following year in 1870. The Guelph Directory for 1873 notes that the “Coloured Methodist” church stood on Market Street (now Waterloo Avenue) but was entered from Essex Street.

The stone BME Church building has stood at 83 Essex Street since its base stones were first set in late June 1880. Its cornerstone was set on September 18, 1880, as recorded in the Guelph Mercury and Advertiser. The contents of the cornerstone were described in the same article, “Copy of the Holy Scriptures, Hymn Book of the BME Church, copy of the Missionary Messenger, the organ of the church, and copies of the Mercury and Herald.”

In 1783, after the American Revolution, formerly enslaved individuals accompanied their Loyalist masters into Nova Scotia and other British colonies north of the border, some travelling to Upper Canada (Ontario.) There had been slavery in UC as early as the French regime, as there were known enslaved people in the Windsor area in the mid 1700′s.

In 1793, Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe, an Anglican, regarded slavery as anti-Christian, and so he ensured the passage of “An Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves and to limit the term of contracts for servitude within this Province.” It was the first anti-slavery legislation in the Empire, and while it met with resistance from local owners of enslaved people, it abolished the lifelong enslavement of the children of slaves, and prevented further enslaved individuals from being brought into the colony.

Once news of Simcoe’s legislation reached slave states in the US, Upper Canada became the destination for many escapees, often with the help of natives on highland trails. It was upon those trails that the Underground Railroad was created in the late 1820′s.

The fugitive enslaved Railroad was originally a loose knit coalition of anti-slavers, most of whom were Hicksite Quakers, who began to aid and abet the movement of escaped slaves into non-slave states and Upper Canada. Once those slaves got beyond the reach of American law, they created communities in border towns like Windsor and Niagara, while others moved inland towards towns like Chatham and the Queen’s Bush settlement on a tributary of the Grand River.

Guelph was established as a village in 1827 and most former fugitives who came through or stayed in the town came north from Lake Ontario and the Niagara River crossings.

Between 1793 and 1865, tens of thousands of African-American enslaved people entered Canada via the network of natives and white anti-slavery activists. President Lincoln ended the slave economy through an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, although slavery was not formally abolished in the United States, until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment became law after the defeat of the South.

Guelph’s place in all that activity was at first no more than a stopping place for most on their way to the Queen’s Bush in north Wellington and Waterloo counties, the largest settlement of escaped formerly enslaved people in the colony. By the 1850′s that settlement was disbanded, and many of the families and individuals dispersed to various communities, some to Guelph, north to Owen Sound and Collingwood or west to Chatham and myriad other paces throughout the province.

Although Black benevolent societies and fraternal organizations were significant players in helping formerly enslaved people in Canada adjust to freedom and the climate of the north, they had a great many allies including Quakers, Native Americans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Anglicans. Other allies included Anti-Slavery societies, of which George Brown’s Toronto newspaper, the Globe was a staunch supporter. There were a number of reformers in the Guelph area who almost played local roles.

As for the BME church in Guelph, it was created after the Civil War in 1870, but starting in the 1860′s and leading up to the time that the BME was built in the 1880′s, the neighbourhood of Essex-Nottingham had first become home to Guelph’s English Methodist who named the streets, and then to Black settlers who found the community welcoming. Some of the Black individuals had Caribbean or Loyalist origins, but more were from Queen’s Bush families. In the 1881 census of the province, two thirds of the 107 Guelphites of African-American origins lived in the neighbourhood.

The story of Guelph’s Black community and its place in the larger picture of the Underground Railroad in southwestern Ontario can best be told through the families who settled here, the Bollens, Crawfords, Duncans, Groats, Harrisons, Hissons, Jewells, Johnstons, Kellys, Kelsos, Lawsons, Mallotts, Millers, Pannells, Raybers, Sticklands and Waldons among other names more difficult to trace.

The building at 83 Essex Street ceased to operate as a BME church for more than 20 years from the 1970′s to 1994. In 1994 a congregation was reformed under a minister from the Caribbean. The minister and her congregation left the BME Church in 2009. The building was purchased by the Guelph Black Heritage Society in 2011 and is now known as “Heritage Hall”.