Baptist-Catholic Relations: The Ecumenism of David Graham “D.G.” Whidden and his History of Antigonish Town

in ACBAS, Front Page

Within Nova Scotian history, incidents of sectarianism were relatively rare. While there were some infamous violent moments such as the Gourley Shanty Riot of 1856, a vicious clash between Catholic and Protestant labourers working on the railroad from Halifax to Windsor, and some vitriolic doctrinal disputes within the columns of provincial newspapers, Nova Scotians were spared the sectarian violence that plagued many Christian communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While there are various reasons for this – early Scottish Presbyterians and Catholics, for example, cared more about cultural and linguistic similarities than religious differences – historians rarely focus on the ecumenism that existed between Christian denominations.

Photo of D.G Whidden

One reason that interdenominational cooperation in Nova Scotia has received little attention is because religious communities tended to be of different ethnic character and often occupied different geographic spaces. As the geographer Andrew Hill Clark demonstrated, migrants into Nova Scotia settled in ethnic clusters, which meant that there was a distinct denominational ascendency in most counties. Consequently, historians have generally restricted their cultural and religious enquiries into any given denomination to specific geographic spaces or ethnic groups. By examining denominations in spaces where they were demographically dominant, we have missed an opportunity to explore ecumenism from the experiences of those who worshipped in communities where they were denominational minorities.

As an example, we can learn much about Baptist-Roman Catholic relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Nova Scotia through the experiences of the businessman, author, and genealogist David Graham “D.G.” Whidden (1857-1941). The son of Charles Blanchard Whidden (1831-1902) and Eunice Caroline Graham (1831-1889), D.G. was born in Antigonish town to a prominent Baptist family in a heavily Highland Scottish Catholic district. His father was the son of John Blair Whidden, who arrived in Antigonish in 1807 and prospered as a saw-mill owner. Active in the tiny Baptist community (there were seven members in 1823), John Blair was ordained in 1832 by Rev. Edward Manning and ministered in Antigonish until his death in 1864. D.G.’s mother, Eunice Caroline Graham, was the daughter of the wealthy Antigonish Presbyterian merchant and shipbuilder, Captain David Graham (1793-1869) and his Baptist wife Mary Elizabeth Bigelow (1809-1890) whose family’s congregationalist roots went all the way back to Connecticut.

Due to the reading of Nova Scotia’s religious history through the lens of the dominant spatial denominations, it appears that Christians mostly worshipped in silos; however, as the narrative of D.G. Whidden demonstrates, many faithful were immersed in environments of doctrinal and cultural diversity. In D.G.’s case, his maternal aunts and uncles were split between the Presbyterianism of their father (Captain Graham) and the Baptist traditions of their mother’s family. While D.G.’s uncle, Matthew Graham, remained Presbyterian until his death in 1873, another uncle, Sir Wallace Nesbit Graham (1848-1917), an Acadia University graduate from the class of 1867 who would go on to become Nova Scotia’s Chief Justice, was a prominent Baptist.

Yet, besides these doctorial differences that percolated within his own family, it was membership in a small Baptist community that lived, worked and worshipped in a predominantly Roman Catholic county that shaped D.G. Whidden’s ecumenical outlook. His grandfather performed baptisms in the calm waters of the Brierly Brook that meandered through Antigonish town and the congregation gathered in the small wooden church, which lacked pews until 1857 and was lit, in the evening, by tallow candles. In 1875, one year after local Catholics finished their commanding stone Romanesque St. Ninian’s Cathedral, the Baptists constructed a new wooden sanctuary, complete with a large cistern for baptisms, on the former site of the local courthouse known as “Court House Hill.” In 1877, the road leading up the hill from the town’s main throughfare was renamed Acadia Street.

Although the Whidden children were educated in the local schoolhouse for Protestant students (D.G. would later attend Horton Academy), the family was integrated into the Catholic community. D.G.’s grandfather, Captain Graham, was so friendly with the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Arichat (the diocese was later renamed Antigonish), the Highlander William Fraser, that he named his first-born son William Fraser Graham. D.G.’s father, Charles Blanchard was a successful businessman, one of Antigonish’s “honoured citizens,” and was elected to represent Antigonish County in the Nova Scotia Legislature from 1882-1886 (replacing the first Roman Catholic Premier of Nova Scotia, Sir John Thompson, who had resigned to take a seat on the province’s Supreme Court). Charles Blanchard would later make the long journey from Antigonish to Wolfville to serve on Acadia University’s Board of Governors.

Antigonish Baptist Church 1923.
photo credit: Antigonish Heritage Museum

In 1880, D.G. married the Canso native Lois Emma Bigelow (1860-1949), who was the daughter of James William Bigelow and Sarah Payzant. The following year, he and his brother, Charles Edgar (who was educated at Horton Academy and Acadia University), went into business in Antigonish town as C.B. Whidden & Sons, while another brother, Howard Primrose, went on to Acadia University, graduating with a BA in 1891. As D.G. and Charles explored further business opportunities, Howard continued his theological studies in preparation to become pastor of the Baptist Church at Morden, Manitoba, and was eventually propelled to the presidency of Brandon University, chancellorship of McMaster University, and member of parliament from Manitoba (his son, Rev. Evan MacDonald Whidden, would return to Acadia in 1938 and later serve as Dean of Theology).

Having pursued various business interests across North America, D.G. returned to Nova Scotia during the Great War and settled in Wolfville where his wife’s family now resided (by this time, his father-in-law, James William Bigelow, was a celebrated horticulturalist active within the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association). In 1922, D.G. was elected as a Wolfville Town Councilor, before being appointed a Stipendiary Magistrate the following year. His ten children all remained active in Baptist circles; a daughter Eunice worked as general secretary for the Young Women’s Christian Association in Edmonton, while another daughter, Hilda, graduated from the New England Baptist Hospital.

A well-known personality around Wolfville, D.G. remained connected to the Catholics of Antigonish County (he still had plenty of family in his native town). When the St. Francis Xavier University (St. F.X.) Extension Department took Catholic social teaching to the people of eastern Nova Scotia in the form of study clubs, cooperatives and credit unions in 1928, D.G. followed the progress closely, writing to the St. F.X. agriculturalist Father “Little Doc” Hugh MacPherson that the Antigonish Movement was “wonderful,” and that the former inspector of schools Angus Bernard “A.B.” MacDonald, “was the right man” to serve as Monsignor Moses Coady’s associate. Whenever Father (later Monsignor) Leo B. Sears, a native of Antigonish town whose father had conducted business with the Whiddens, took the St. F.X. hockey team to Wolfville to play Acadia, D.G. was always prepared with a warm welcome.

A man of intellect and experience, besides commenting in the press on various public issues, including telegraph systems, D.G. had an abiding interest in history and genealogy. When visiting his old home in 1928, he was persuaded by C.J. MacGillivray, the publisher of the local Catholic newspaper, The Casket, to write a history of the town for serialization. The articles were printed in the paper until August 1934, and afterwards were published from Wolfville as History of the Town of Antigonish. A mix of genealogical information and historical facts, D.G. offered a counterbalance to the traditional genealogical tracts of Antigonish County that were dominated by the Highland Catholic narrative. In the introduction, he spoke to the “younger people of Antigonish” who did not know him, and warmly assured them that as a native of their town, he could “remember happenings in general for seventy years and occasional ones back to 1860.” His book had biographical sketches of the earlier settlers, both Catholic and Protestant, and weaved together information about all the denominations in a balanced and inclusive fashion. Whidden’s spirit of ecumenism is evident in the writing, and he dedicated the history to the local Catholic college “in appreciation of the part that institution has played in making the Town of Antigonish what it is today.”

David Graham “D.G.” Whidden, buried in Wolfville’s Willowbank cemetery, is claimed by both the Baptists of Wolfville and the Catholics of Antigonish. His cultural and religious ecumenism was partly necessitated by spatial realities and demographic forces, but it was cultivated by a personal desire to transcend denominational boundaries. In a deeply secular modern Canadian society, ecumenism among Christian denominations will increasingly become the norm. While historians have traditionally searched for sectarian incidents that have demonstrated division, there are plenty of examples, like that of D.G. Whidden, that tell a different story.


Submitted by

Dr. Peter Ludlow, Adjunct Professor of History at Acadia University.