People: Scots of Windsor's Past
Rev. Robert Peden:
"[O]ur deep sympathy with you in your sufferings in the gospel, and in the unscrupulous and sometimes undignified persecution to which you have been exposed; and the assurance of our hope and prayer that you may be still enabled and long spared to fight the battles of our common Lord, and uphold a banner because of truth."
~ Letter from Dr. John Guthrie in the name of the Seventh Annual Conference of the Evangelical Union to Rev. Robert Peden
Robert Peden, the first missionary for Windsor's Scottish community was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1815. His father, John Peden, a coach-builder on Bank Street, "was a thoroughly consistent Christian, and a man of high moral attainments," and served as an elder at the Clerk's Lane Church. 1 Both sides of Robert's family were strict adherents of the Presbyterian Church, and his father's people had been Covenanters: his great-grandfather, in fact, was none other than the famous Covenanter "The Prophet" Alexander Peden.
It should be of little surprise, then, that Robert found that he had a calling to the ministry. As a child he was quiet and thoughtful; he excelled in academics and showed a propensity toward religion at an early age, often abandoning sports and games to study the Bible. Afterwards he would compose short sermons, which he would deliver to the girls at the sewing school next to his house. He entered Glasgow University in 1833 and spent four years there before transferring to the Theological Hall of the United Secession Church in Edinburgh, where "his mind first became inoculated with ... those wide and liberal views of divine truth which he ever afterwards taught, for which he suffered, which he nobly defended, and in the faith of which he died." 2
Peden, however, fell sick during his third year of study. At the same time, a relative by the name of Dougall, had returned from his new home in Amherstburgh, Canada West, to Scotland for a visit. He suggested that Peden sail back to Canada with him, where his health might improve with the climate, and work as a private tutor for his family. Peden's diary entry for Thursday, 9 January 1840 reveals the difficulty of making such a decision:
"This day I complete my twenty-fourth year. When I think of how much time I have lived, and to what little purpose, I feel ashamed of myself. The year on which I now enter will probably be an eventful one. I intend leaving my native country for Canada, if God should grant me heath and strength to do so. O what a trial it will be to my natural feelings, to leave father and mother, and many near and dear to me, and that too, perhaps, never to see them again in this world, and sojourn among strangers, who will not feel bound to me by the same natural ties. O! it is an important step. It is my anxious desire that I may not do so through curiosity or love of enterprise, but for usefulness - for real love to the souls of men. O Lord! make this my aim, and then I shall have thy blessing, and be made a blessing." 3
So in April 1840, the twenty-four-year-old Robert Peden departed Scotland aboard the Belona. He was quite anxious to leave his homeland and his family, but his diary entries show that he had faith that the Lord was guiding his way: "I pray for God's guidance and direction in this important object," he wrote on 21 January 1840. "O may he be pleased to be my counselor - may I act in dependence on his strength. May I acknowledge him in all my ways, in the belief that he will direct my steps."
The young reverend spent three years as a tutor for the Dougall family, during which time he was connected with Amherstburgh's Church of Scotland, where he occasionally preached. The congregation was pleased enough with his performance that it invited him to be their pastor when Rev. Mr. Cheyne, the former pastor, was transferred to Saltfleet. Shortly after accepting this office, the Free Church split from the Church of Scotland in the Great Disruption of 1843, and Peden, along with the majority of his congregation, moved over to that body. He believed in a simple Gospel that Christ had died for the salvation of all mankind, not just a few elect, and preached this philosophy with full purpose of heart.
This belief, however, was heresy. A small 1847 publication entitled "A Hidden Gospel the Cause of the Loss of Souls," in which he set to prove the unlimited extent of Christ's atonement for the sins of all mankind, landed him a libel charge served by the Presbytery of London. He was called before the Synod, which met in Toronto in 1850, and was expelled from the Free Church after he refused to recant his views.
This expulsion did not cause much damage to Peden at home, however; his congregation in Amherstburgh bore strong attachment to his Gospel and to him personally, and continued to host him as their pastor. He also launched a monthly periodical, the Canada Evangelist, to promote his views on a wider scale.
Reverend Peden lived in Amherstburgh for three years following his expulsion from the Free Church and then moved with his family to Hamilton, where he could serve larger populations. For eight years he preached and published in that vicinity, working while he should have been resting his weakening body. He passed away in October 1858; the last words he uttered to his wife and three young children were "peace, peace, through believing in Christ." Mrs. Peden, who continued to publish the Canada Evangelist in her husband's absence, died suddenly in 1861. Their children all returned to the Windsor region to marry and have families of their own; Jessie, the oldest daughter, married the prominent William McGregor, a prominent member of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Windsor.
It may be of interest to note that Rev. Peden was fond of poetry throughout the duration of his life, finding it to be a medium appropriate for the expression of his innermost feelings. One of his early poems appeared in the Kilmarnock Journal in November 1838, and "A Childless Widow's Lament" appeared the following year in the Ayr Adviser. He continued to publish in Scottish journals even after settling in Canada.
He wrote his most famous poem in September 1846, but it was not published until 1880, when it appeared posthumously in The Christian. Occasioned by the death of his first-born, "Lines on the Death of an Only Child" revealed Peden's "firm and childlike faith in that God whom he served, honoured, and glorified all through life, till its very close." 4
Lines on the Death of an Only Child
"They shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his first-born."
~ Zech. xii. 10.