Pioneer Days

(actualisé le ) by Ray

This is the initial chapter of the booklet issued in 1982 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Zorra Presbyterian Church in Embro in 1832.

It recounts in vivid detail the atmosphere of life in the Presbyterian community of Zorra township in those pioneer days.


Our story begins in 1811, a year which was to mark the beginning of the final and most devastating of the infamous Highland clearances. From that year until 1820 a total of 15,000 people were evicted by the second Duke of Sutherland from his ancestral estates. For centuries these poor tenant farmers had lived on small rented plots in the Scottish Highlands. They and their fore-fathers had served their laird well, secure in the mystical con­cept of true clan loyalty. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, however, changing economic circumstances had made their land more valuable for other uses. The crofters were to be denied the use of the soil and they were to be ejected from their low stone cottages.

They were a deeply religious people and their simple unadorned belief was to serve them well in the difficulties that were to follow. Homeless, they made their way to the seashore where they attempted to make their living on small potato plots, or by farming kelp from the sea. Thousands huddled on wharves to embark on emigrant ships for Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

It is small wonder, therefore, that the first trace of Highland settlement in Zorra was in 1819. Until that time there had been only a few scattered loyalist settlers on the fourth line, and even by 1822 only 150 acres had been cleared. The story of Zorra’s first Highland settlers has been well documented in several books written by Zorra people. We are deeply in­debted to those inspired early authors, including W. A. MacKay, W. A. Ross and W. D. Macintosh for preserving the details of early settlement which follow hereon.

Legend has it that the first Sutherlandshire settlers to arrive were two McKay brothers by the names of William and Angus. They arrived in Zorra in 1819, having worked on the Erie canal before taking up their homestead on the ninth line of West Zorra. It appears that before a decade had pass­ed, the boys had convinced many of their dispossessed Sutherlandshire neighbours and relatives to join them in the Zorra forests. A trip home by Angus in 1829 prompted the sailing of an entire shipload. Among those to come was the boys’ mother, Isobel, who was to die within three months of arriving. Her grave was to be the first in the pioneer log church cemetery on Zorra’s seventh line.

Early worship took place in the homes of these Scottish pioneers. By 1832, however, a decision had been made to erect a church. Through the generosity of Squire Gordon, one of their more affluent brethren, the new settlers were able to erect a log church of approximately 1,500 square feet. It was eighteen logs high and a gallery was located across the rear. It stood at the brow of the hill on lot 9 concession 7 where the burial ground had already been located in 1829. It doesn’t appear that the settlers had necessarily looked upon this church as a permanent place of worship. In 1833 they took advantage of a £50 grant from the Synod of Upper Canada to furnish their present church and to establish also a new building in the village of Embro. There appears never to have been a question of a separate congregation forming. By 1836 a large frame structure known in later years as "the auld kirk" was erected in Embro in the park opposite our present sancturary. This new church was to become the central building for the Zorra congregation. Despite this fact, many meetings of session continued to be held in the old log church on the seventh line. It stood for a good fifteen years after the erection of the "auld kirk" in Embro and it apparently served for a variety of church functions.

"I have the greatest pleasure to inform you that we have got a minister of our own confession, one Mr. Donald McKenzie from Rosshire. He is go­ing to be married to our church in Lorra the first of June" So wrote Alex McKay to his mother Christena on March 8, 1835. It is difficult in our day to realize the immense satisfaction that such an event gave to the young con­gregation meeting in that log structure on the seventh line. Presbyterian Scots had always placed considerable importance on the services of a duly ordained and properly educated minister. That their choice in 1835 came from Rosshire must have been an added bonus. Despite the preponderance of Sutherlandshire people in Zorra there were also large numbers from the other neighbouring Highland shires of Ross and In­verness. They must have known that their new minister shared an understanding for their recent sense of loss and desolation. Scottish Presbyterians never exhibited the enthusiasm of their Methodist neighbours for lay preachers, or for any type of spontaneously trained clergy; hence their delight at the prospect of having found a pastor who was impressively educated and duly ordained.

Their search for an ordained minister had been the result of a planned conscientious effort. Once the new log church had been completed in 1833 the Zorra congregation had appointed a committee to solicit the ser­vices of such a clergyman. It was while they were involved in this quest that their attention was drawn to the young Scottish missionary, Rev. Donald McKenzie. He had been sent to Upper Canada as a missionary by the Synod of Ross following his ordination in the Presbytery of Dingwall on April 16, 1834. Shortly after his arrival the young McKenzie had responded to an invitation to visit Zorra and made his way to the home of Squire Gor­don.

We are indebted to Hugh Matheson for the anecdote of Mr. McKenzie’s arrival. His horse, apparently had foundered in a bog on the eighth conces­sion. Ready help was available, and the impression made by Mr. McKenzie while his horse thrashed in the mud was apparently a noteworthy one. The local farmers concluded that a man who didn’t "cuss" while in the midst of such frustrating misfortune must have been a "saintly man indeed".

The Zorra congregation was immensely impressed with their new mis­sionary for other reasons as well. He spoke the Gaelic as well as English and on the subsequent Sunday he delivered his sermons in both tongues to the delight of the congretation. Donald McKenzie then continued his mis­sionary venture to other small communities in the wilderness. The church in Zorra never forgot him. In January of 1835 the congregation issued a call signed by eighty-one men asking that McKenzie return to be their pastor for the sum of £ 90 per year.

Return he did. Zorra was to be Reverend McKenzie’s first and only charge. He served the congregation for thirty-seven years with the faithfulness and determination which are hallmarks of his race. Despite the fact that he was now a resident with a particular congregation, he con­tinued to exercise some responsibility for servicing those of Presbyterian faith in all the mushrooming pioneer communities of what is now Southwestern Ontario. Sacraments were held yearly only, and on those special five-day-long occasions the Zorra church with its highly respected and ordained minister acted as a focal point. Presbyterians who thirsted for the privilege of communing in their own faith came to these yearly com­munions from a wide radius.
People travelled from London, Thamesford, Nissouri, Easthope and the Williams townships. Stories are told of a crowd of 5,000 celebrating com­munion on the hills of Dent’s bush to the south of the village. One descen­dant of an early family recalls the stone in Thames creek about a mile west of the village where communion visitors as well as regular church goers would stop, wash their feet and put on their shoes, before continuing for the rest of the journey.

The Glenness house

Reverend McKenzie built a large stone home to the east of Embro on the south side of the side road that is south of the village (Snakes Trail). While his home was being erected he boarded with Squire Gordon. The stone house which he called "Glenness" was to become home for his bride, and it was there that Donald McKenzie was to raise his family of six children. The house keeps its lonely vigil even today. To the south it overlooks the log church cemetery on the seventh line. Its northern windows face toward Embro.

The years following 1835 must have been prosperous years indeed for the Zorra church which was now established in the new frame building in Embro. Further Highland settlement was encouraged by better roads and quickly organizing school sections. Donald McKenzie took a keen interest in education and he appears to have done a significant amount to en­courage at least two residents to pursue Ontario certification. Mrs. Alex­ander Rose and her family had settled on the tenth concession of East Zorra and she had begun an informal school in her own kitchen for the ser­vice of her own family and for neighbouring children. When she and her husband moved to Zorra’s third line she continued the practice. It was at that time (1843) that Mr. McKenzie encouraged her to travel to London for certification. Egerton Ryerson’s remarkable administrative skills were just beginning to make order out of the hodge-podge of pioneer schooling in Ontario. Obviously Donald McKenzie was well-attuned to the developing trends of his day.

Likewise he coached another devoted student, Mr. Hugh Matheson, and he too was prompted to apply for certification. With teacher certification came government grants. It appears that Embro’s first Presbyterian minister was no laggard when it came to saving a few hard-earned dollars (he wasn’t born a Scot for nothing). McKenzie became Superintendent of Education for Zorra in 1844. He continued to fill that post intermittently until 1857.

The years in the "auld kirk" building were years of rapid expansion and growing confidence. Scottish immigration prompted by high rents and potato blight, continued to strengthen this frontier community. As one reads through the old session minutes, one struggles to capture the essence of a developing frontier community. The seriousness with which they took their faith, and the sterness with which they carried out their duties are two striking themes of these early records. A modern minister, well-drilled in carefully treading discretion’s fine line, must feel some astonishment on reading some of the issues which received the attention of Reverend McKenzie and his session. On occasions they sat almost as a court, rendering judgements on such accusations as blasphemy, drunkeness and sacrilegious conduct. Those accused of such varied sins were "cited" and "compeared" to defend their actions. What is even more astonishing, is that the decisions rendered were frequently as blunt and specific as were the original accusations. The elders may not have ap­proved of playing cards, but they firmly believed in calling a spade a spade.

Not only did the minister and his session feel free to render unequivocal judgements in correspondingly forthright language, but they were ap­parently able to make such decisions stick. Confessions and contrite pro­mises of reform were not uncommon. In one particular case an elder himself had his long confession (regarding his uncharitable conduct toward a neighbour) written into the session minutes. His efforts at atone­ment were apparently of little avail because his neighbour had him hauled up again before the subsequent session meeting accusing him of only pretending to be sorry.

In those years, however, a gradual softening and tempering can be observed. Session business gradually progressed from questions involving personalities to less sensitive issues. One brief entry shortly before Mr. McKenzie’s retirement noted the need for an elder to sit in the balcony to oversee and to use his constraining influence on the conduct of boisterous young boys. Was it really that long ago? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Zorra Church Embro

On June 20, 1861, Reverend Donald McKenzie, now approaching his sixty-third year, laid the cornerstone for the new brick building which until 1925 served as Knox Presbyterian Church. The land for the new church was donated by Donald Matheson and it was built some two hundred metres north of the "auld kirk". In the cornerstone were placed a glass bottle containing the list of elders and deacons, copies of the Montreal Witness, the Toronto Globe, and the Embro Review, and some coinage of the day. In the midst of a February thaw the gracious and expansive new church was officially opened in 1863. It had been built at a cost of $8,217.15 and, as was the custom, had doors at the end of the pews. The communion table stretched down the centre of the church and the original puplit was so elevated that it was level with the gallery. Three services were held on that drizzly nineteenth day of February and they were attended by over 1,400 people.

Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie had been living in their stone home on Glenness Farm since 1838. The property had been personally theirs and, with an eye no doubt to the future, the church managers decided to buy a manse in the village. In 1867, a large red brick home in the southeast corner of the village was purchased for $1,000 along with a considerable parcel of land. Rev. McKenzie would not now have to make the arduous journey from his farm to the village. Close to this same time, the session minutes give some indication of his declining health. A short leave of absence was followed by a longer one. Both were to provide time for recuperation.

Before Mr. McKenzie was permitted the contentment of eventual retire­ment in 1872, he and his church had to endure a painfuI disagreement which resulted in the creation of a Congregational Church here in Embro. From our modern day vantage point, it would appear that the doctrinal dif­ferences were small and scarcely worthy of such dissension. Lest we be too smug, we need to remember that our days are different from those of a century ago. Two hour sermons were common, and matters of church law were taken with a supreme seriousness by a minister and his session. Furthermore, the rift probably was aggravated by other social changes taking place in the young nation. The evangelistic fervor of the tent meeting provided a keen satisfaction for many people who wished a more demonstrative and uninhibited form of worship. It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1870 we read of a crusade being held in Embro, and be­ing conducted by travelling evangelists. In meetings held in the church there were fervid sermons followed by testimonies and conversions.

Such spontaneous demonstrations of belief probably did not sit well with some segments of the congregation. Hard life on the Highlands and stern challenges of a virgin frontier had bred in many of those old settlers a distaste for open emotion. Their religion, too, reflected their phlegmatic nature, for it was serious and stern. In some eyes it may even have been considered severe.

Whatever the causes, the disruption appears to have been complete by 1872. The newly formed Congregational Church worshiped in the "auld kirk" while the Presbyterians continued in their new sanctuary.

Despite this fleeting cloud of sadness at the twilight of his ministry, Reverend Donald McKenzie must have derived considerable satisfaction as he followed the careers of the many men who under his influence had joined the ministry. One of these young men called George Leslie MacKay was sent out from this congregation as a missionary in 1872, the year Mr. McKenzie retired. He was to travel to Formosa and undertake a campaign of mission and service that would last a lifetime. Mr. McKenzie must have followed his student’s career with great pleasure. MacKay returned home frequently to sustain enthusiasm for his new school in Formosa which was fittingly called Oxford College. Like his mentor, MacKay too must have had a keen interest in education. He respected local cutlure and was thus able to avoid some of the paternalistic overtones of nineteenth century mis­sionary endeavours. His goal was to see mission fields become self- supporting entities within the societies where they had been planted. He is still revered in Formosa for his supportive and sensitive contributions.

George Leslie MacKay was not the only acolyte of Rev. Donald McKen­zie’s. His Zorra congregation was to become famous in later years for the number of students who entered the service of the ministry. Rumour has it that by the time Mr. McKenzie retired thirty-eight young people had followed in his footsteps - an average of one per year. Today the number stands at fifty-four.

Mr. McKenzie was to live in retirement in Ingersoll with his wife for another twelve years. With his retirement the pioneer segment of our church’s history comes to a close. In contemplation of the efforts and sacrifice of our Highland ancestors it seems entirely appropriate that our anniversary theme should speak of faith and strength. These early church pioneers cemented both these qualities into an inseparable iron-clad legacy which 150 years later continues to endure.