T.T. Shields, Perry F. Rockwood, and Fundamentalism in Mid-Twentieth Century Nova Scotia

in ACBAS, Front Page

When one talks about fundamentalism in Canada, it doesn’t take long for early-twentieth-century Baptist pastor, T. T. Shields (1873–1955), to enter the picture. Put simply, he was the central personality in a major schism in the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec in 1927. His influence reached far beyond his pulpit at Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto: through his newspaper and involvement in conservative Baptist networks, he soon took an active role in fundamentalist controversies across North America.

In the late 1980s, preeminent Canadian historian George Rawlyk looked at the role Shields played in the development of fundamentalism among Baptists in Nova Scotia. Through the untouched and protected records at Jarvis Street, he discovered that Shields served as an unofficial consultant to the schismatic independent Baptists in Kingston, NS, during the 1930s. Despite Shields’ input, those fundamentalists—led by the likes of pastoral duo J. J. Sidey and J. B. Daggett—were ultimately unsuccessful in a bid to wrest control of church property from the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces. And that was where Rawlyk left it.

As printed in The Lethbridge Herald, 5 March 1947, 2.

Several years ago, while digging in the same archive, researching for my dissertation, I discovered a series of letters from the late 1940s between Shields and an upstart Presbyterian fundamentalist from Truro named Perry Francis Rockwood (1917–2008). Those familiar with his later radio broadcasts, the Peoples Gospel Hour, will know precisely what a provocateur this young man would become. At the time he connected with the elder fundamentalist, however, he was still a credentialed minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). Within a few months, that would change when he would depart from the PCC in a spectacular protest that made headlines across the country. As I soon discovered, Shields had influenced and guided Rockwood in several noteworthy ways during these formative years.

Born in New Glasgow, NS, in 1917, Rockwood was a graduate of Acadia University (1940) and Knox College at the University of Toronto (1943). After graduating, he returned to his home province, eventually settling at St. James Presbyterian Church in Truro. Here, he soon made waves in the PCC. In the summer of 1946, he began a sermon series in which he took an antagonistic stance toward the Roman Catholic Church by implying that Rome was aiming to destabilize Western democracy and remove the Bible from the laity. He followed those sermons with a series that was critical of the PCC for its alleged modernism, noting that it, as a denomination, was “disloyal to Christ.”[1] In December 1946, the Halifax-Lunenburg Presbytery notified Rockwood that he was under investigation; and the following March, they warned him that they were going to revoke his ministerial credentials and terminate his employment unless he publicly relented. Rockwood, unwilling to do so, tendered his resignation.

Shields took an early interest in the young Presbyterian. Shields had always exhibited a particular animosity toward the Roman Catholic Church, which had been exacerbated during the Second World War. In Rockwood, then, he saw a potential ally. Although news outlets would report on the incident in March, Shields had published accounts of this bubbling controversy in his newspaper, The Gospel Witness, as early as December 1946, which resulted in a months-long exchange of letters between the two fundamentalists.

Advertisement printed in newspapers across the country. This copy is from The Gazette, 29 March 1947, 9.

Under Shields’ guidance, Rockwood became much more baptistic in his theology. Unsurprisingly, given the termination of his ministry, he confided in Shields that he saw the appeal of concentrating authority in the local congregation (instead of a presbytery). He also noted that he was ready to denounce infant baptism in favour of believer’s baptism. In his personal correspondence, he noted how strongly Shields and The Gospel Witness had influenced him and that his ministry would be “a work which will stand for that faith identical to [Shields’].”[2]

Perhaps now seeing Rockwood as a co-labourer in the faith, Shields gave Rockwood’s provocative sermons a broadcast boost in The Gospel Witness. Shortly after the events in March 1947, Shields published a 32-page edition of his newspaper (twice the usual length), which he titled “Rev. Perry F. Rockwood Edition.”[3] He also committed to sending this edition of the newspaper to every pastor, minister, and denominational official of every major denomination in Canada. This technique was not unusual for Shields, but it does indicate the level of importance that he clearly ascribed to Rockwood’s protest. Letters from across the country in support of Rockwood (and, by extension, Shields) soon poured into the Jarvis Street mailbox. Significantly, documentation from the archives showed that Shields also contacted every major newspaper in the Maritime Provinces (73 in total) to run a pro-Rockwood advertisement for five weeks.[4] He also obtained a Truro telephone book and sent Rockwood’s sermons to “every telephone subscriber” in the town.[5]

With this foundation established, Shields began offering more direct advice to Rockwood in order to see him succeed in establishing a notable fundamentalist presence on the East Coast. He recommended that Rockwood relocate to Halifax, which he believed had the population to sustain this new fundamentalist work. Although Rockwood didn’t immediately take this advice, he did years later. Shields also guided Rockwood on how best to publish and distribute his sermons.[6] Not only that but—perhaps with his experience in Kingston echoing in his mind—he provided legal advice, namely to exercise restraint rather than take the PCC to court. Such a move, Shields advised, would make Rockwood look more honourable and thus would best position him as a champion for truth among dissenting Presbyterians.[7]

While Shields provided this support behind the scenes, he also offered Rockwood his largest platform to date: Jarvis Street and all its public and financial support. In April 1947, only a few weeks removed from the controversy in the PCC, Shields had Rockwood fill his pulpit. Shields viewed this event as a commissioning service for the new fundamentalist leader. In their personal correspondence, he noted: “I am anxious to make that day at Jarvis St. an occasion for assisting you in launching you in your work.”[8] Not only did Rockwood’s message reach a much larger audience, but Shields also took the opportunity to raise finances for him. When the offering didn’t reach the sum Shields had in mind, he sent the plates back into the audience.[9]

The documents I discovered when researching for my dissertation showed that Shields had helped Rockwood by promoting his work, supplying him with advice behind the scenes, amplifying his voice, and covering his finances. Together, these contributions from the elder fundamentalist very likely encouraged Rockwood and helped him find his footing as he set out in his new ministry, which would be almost as divisive as Shields’ own—a story for another time.

Awareness of Shields’ contributions to Rockwood’s early ministry adds another layer to the research Rawlyk started in the 1980s. While Rawlyk demonstrated that Shields had had a moderate influence over fundamentalism in the east in the 1930s, these newly unearthed documents suggest that Shields was still interested in the fundamentalist world in Nova Scotia in the following decade and, when faced with the opportunity, took a much more active role in its development than he had previously.

 

Taylor Murray, PhD

Instructor of Christian History and Creative Producer of Distributed Learning at Tyndale University

 

 

 

 

The material printed here was the basis for an article published in the American Baptist Quarterly: Taylor Murray, “An Examination of T. T. Shields’s Influence on the Early Stages of Perry F. Rockwood’s Fundamentalist Ministry, 1946–1947,” American Baptist Quarterly 39.4 (2020), 357–75. For more information, consult that article.

[1] Shields reprinted the first three sermons from this series as Perry Rockwood, “What is Wrong with the Protestant Church?” The Gospel Witness, March 13, 1947, 24–30; and Perry Rockwood, “The Church Sick Unto Death Ecumenically Abroad,” The Gospel Witness, March 20, 1947, 10–12.

[2] Letter from Perry Rockwood to T. T. Shields, 11 March 1947, JSBC. Rockwood also notes Shields’ influence in Letter from Perry Rockwood to T. T. Shields, 13 February 1947, JSBC

[3] The Gospel Witness, 13 March 1947.

[4] “AD. Sent to the Following Papers,” 17 March 1947, JSBC.

[5] Letter from T. T. Shields to Perry Rockwood, 8 March 1947, JSBC.

[6] Letter from T. T. Shields to Perry Rockwood, 18 March 1947, JSBC.

[7] E.g., Letter from T. T. Shields to Perry Rockwood, 27 March 1947, JSBC.

[8] Letter from T. T. Shields to Perry Rockwood, 18 March 1947, JSBC.

[9] “Jarvis St. ‘Hot Potatoes’ Mean $4,000 to Rockwood,” Toronto Daily Star, 22 April 1947.

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