A Presbyterian past

Queen’s religious roots still have a present-day impact 

Religious elements were part of convocation ceremonies — like this one from 1959 — until the early 1980s.
Religious elements were part of convocation ceremonies — like this one from 1959 — until the early 1980s.
Supplied by Queen’s Archives

Despite more than a century as a secular institution, vestiges of the University’s Presbyterian heritage continue to impact student life today. 

The student population is more diverse than it’s been at any point in the institution’s 174-year history. Efforts to support and promote diversity have combated earlier notions of the university’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture. 

But the Judeo-Christian influence that dominated the early history of Queen’s persists.  

According to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowall, the “very powerful Presbyterian legacies” of the University’s past remain on campus today.

“You pick this up in the daily life of Queen’s,” McDowall said. “It permeates the university in ways we don’t overtly acknowledge now.”

The tradition of Presbyterianism at Queen’s

Until recently, the Queen’s Board of Trustees began each of its meetings with a Christian prayer. McDowall believes this was less an act of religious observance than it was a “Presbyterian reminder [to] be moral, make good judgments, be guided by your better instincts.”

Although the prayer no longer occurs at Board meetings, McDowall says the Presbyterian influence on Queen’s persists in an undercurrent of Presbyterian values across the Queen’s community. 

McDowall said the egalitarian culture at Queen’s was due to the “flat” hierarchy and inclusive nature of the Presbyterian religion. The desire to eliminate hierarchy drove the AMS to ban of fraternities and sororities in the 1930s, he said. 

For McDowall, this was a clear decision on the part of Queen’s to forgo exclusive groups in favour of “one society for all students.” 

A sense of egalitarianism was also reflected in the ability of Queen’s students to participate in the governance of the university. Unique positions, such as the student Rector, provided students with greater access to senior administration, McDowall said.

“One of ‘us’ [the students] will go in there to the trustees, and say we want something done,” he said.

The University Council — an advisory body of alumni that provides recommendations on matters impacting the university’s well-being — allows a similar level of access for Queen’s alumni. According to McDowall, this body is “often likened to a Scottish clan meeting — once a year you get the clan together.”

McDowall says a commitment to public service was yet another vestige of Presbyterian values. 

Throughout the 20th century, this commitment manifested itself in the legacy of the “Ottawa men” — leaders from Queen’s who assisted the government in confronting the Great Depression, going to war and developing the modern welfare state. Chief among them was Principal Emeritus Ronald Watts, McDowall said.

The commitment to public service, he said, still lies at the heart of the numerous student organizations that contribute to various social causes today.

Student life at a Presbyterian college

Early campus life at Queen’s was intimately intertwined with the school’s religious heritage. According to McDowall, the campus community was held together by a common Presbyterianism.

“Until the turn of the 20th century … to be a student at Queen’s was to be very consciously a part of this Presbyterian definition of Canada,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the university’s first student cohorts hailed from areas of Canada that were “quintessentially Presbyterian.” Religious community was central to recruitment. 

“You came to Queen’s because your minister or your Presbyterian schoolteacher said ‘that’s the place for you’,” McDowall said.

Once students reached the campus, they were met with an overtly religious life on campus. 

“The theology college was larger. It was quite clear that there were ministers being trained on campus,” the historian said. Religion was much more present in student life, including a Sunday church service that students were pressured to attend. 

Until the mid-20th century, Queen’s principals were exclusively Presbyterian ministers. 

“If you read their speeches … or their annual report, they’re quasi-sermons. There’s this sense of mission and religious purpose in them.” 

George Grant served as Queen’s principal from 1877 to 1902 and has been described by historians as a ‘muscular Christian’, McDowall said — as “a man who was “forceful” in his commitment to saving Queen’s for what he believed to be a ‘special Presbyterian mission.’” 

“There was no doubt what this place was about,” he said.

1912: a secular campus

In 1912, Ontario tightened its regulations on funding for religious institutions, paving the way for an increasingly secularized campus.

“The Province … made it clear they weren’t going to freely fund theological education,” McDowall said. 

Despite a strong provincial mandate, it took almost a decade for Queen’s to work towards secularization. McDowall said the delay was due to the strong “rearguard action” to defend the Presbyterian mission of the school. 

Ultimately, the province won out. The threat of losing provincial funding eventually pushed Queen’s to secularize in what McDowall describes as a “financial practical arrangement.” That said, the school’s strong Presbyterian identity continued to persist.

Theological Hall was a hub for religious education during Queen’s years as a  Presbyterian college. Theological Hall was a hub for religious education during Queen’s years as a Presbyterian college. (Supplied by Queen's Archives)

1980s: convocation under fire  

Until the early 1980s, Queen’s convocation involved several religious elements, included the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. 

Beginning in 1980, pressure from a small group of Jewish professors — largely from the Faculty of Law — spurred a lengthy debate about including a Christian prayer in a secular graduation ceremony.

The pressure to “strip out Christian elements”, which received extensive coverage from local media, was a divisive issue across the Queen’s community, McDowall says.

On March 19, 1981, the Senate endorsed a motion that “no changes be made to the religious elements contained in the Convocation ceremony,” according to the meeting’s minutes.

The decision was supported by the AMS. On October 23, 1980, the AMS Outer Council met and discussed the issue of religious content in the Convocation Ceremony. The request “that all elements of religious observance be removed from the Convocation Ceremony” was defeated 23 to 10.

Then-AMS President Donna Findlay relayed the decision to the Principal in a letter sent in November 1980.

Despite this, continued pressure to secularize won out once again.  The Senate removed the Lord’s Prayer from the Convocation ceremony at a meeting on April 26, 1982. The decision was a controversial one. 

Only 27 Senators were present, as the meeting was held just before the end of exams. Despite this, the motion succeeded with a four to one vote in favour, and the decision held going forward.  

Although the decision prompted outraged responses from many alumni and members of the Queen’s community, MacDowall said it still didn’t eliminate all religious elements from the convocation ceremony. 

In the May 4, 1982 issue of The Kingston Whig-Standard, Queen’s Principal Emeritus Ronald Watts was quoted saying the ceremony would continue to contain “significant religious elements — the prayer, hymn and benediction.”


The Chaplaincy: a second turning point

A second turning point came in the form of changes to the chaplaincy at Queen’s. 

The Office of the University Chaplain was first established in 1947. McDowall says university officials at the time believed that all students should “receive some religious moral guidance”.

The university’s first chaplain, who hailed from the United Church of Canada, held a weekly service students could attend. 

Following his retirement in the mid-1980s, the University questioned whether the position still had relevance. Eventually, the University decided to hire Brian Yealland, who went on to fundamentally alter the role of the chaplaincy at Queen’s.

Yealland attempted to cater to all students regardless of their background or faith. To do so, he created an Interfaith Council and introduced sub-chaplains from various religious denominations.

According to McDowall, Yealland believed his role was to support “the pluralism of Canadian society and the spiritual needs of Canadians.” 

Over time, McDowall said the chaplaincy — much like the rest of Queen’s — has modified its traditional practices to adapt to a more diverse campus.

“The chaplaincy has changed from being a dedicated Christian ministry to being a kind of spiritual ombudsman to help students who may not be religious,” he said.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.