Samuel Dwight Chown

Samuel Dwight Chown

There are four items in the collage: a bronze plaque, the crest (before it was amended in 2012) of the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, a photo of a mountain in northern Alberta, and a Canadian postage stamp. What they have in common is their link to Samuel Dwight Chown!
Each one connects to his remarkable story. Our tie to this eminent church leader is his family’s long-standing place in the congregation of Sydenham Street Methodist Church. His powerful yet modest leadership of Canadian Methodists and his role in the founding of The United Church of Canada resulted in very special national recognition. Mount Chown has been identified on the map of Alberta since 1912. A Canada Post stamp from 1975 bears his image.

Our story helps put the words “distinguished son of this church” from the bronze plaque into perspective. 

Samuel Chown at Norway House, Manitoba 1925

Samuel Dwight Chown is prominent among the people whose shoulders we at Sydenham Street United Church, and The United Church of Canada (UCC) more generally, stand on today. He was recognized as one of Canada’s foremost Christian church leaders during the first few decades of the 20th century, and like many in The UCC, worked tirelessly for various social justice concerns. His role in the founding of The UCC in 1925 was pivotal. His gracious and timely ceding of the role of first Moderator of the UCC in 1925 meant the elevation of Presbyterian leader George Pigeon to this important leadership position in the new Canada-wide church. The Methodists led by Chown showed everyone how to collaborate and overcome personal ambition to further the common good. Chown was a powerful leader known across the country. 

Getting Started in the Methodist Church

One thing Samuel Dwight Chown was not was a prominent congregant at Sydenham Street Church. He spent little time there, apparently resisting the family tradition of support for the church and waiting until he was 16 to become a member. He worked briefly for his father in the family hardware and sheet metal business, graduated from Kingston Military School (now the Royal Military College of Canada) and served briefly in the Princess of Wales Own Regiment during the period of the Fenian Raids. In 1874, at age 19, Chown began a probationary period with the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Montreal. He attended Victoria College in Toronto, then worked in several churches, none in the city of Kingston. He served a congregation in Sydenham Ontario, north of Kingston, and participated in rural revival meetings, finding some behaviour excessive.  “Hysterical outbreaks, mob psychology” were phrases he used. Chown moved to churches in Toronto and later Vancouver and became known for his hard work on behalf of temperance, particularly in Ontario. One story is that Chown “took the pledge” – a pledge to abstain from drinking alcohol, at the age of four. His fervent opposition to alcohol was legendary: early in his career, local tavern owners in his parish of Kemptville, Ontario, threatened to kill him. Chown was undeterred.

He was a passionate advocate for several social justice causes, including temperance, women’s rights, municipal sanitation, improved mental health treatment. Chown was a firm believer in “social involvement” for Methodists, and would doubtless be pleased that an adult day care centre bearing his name thrives today in Vancouver and that SSUC has been for generations a community hub for a variety of social justice activities – his “social involvement”.

Prominent Church Leader 

In 1910, Chown was elected one of two General Superintendents of the Methodist Church. When Canada joined the Allied cause in World War I, Chown worked with military chaplains and performed other services related to furthering Canada’s war effort. He later changed his support for the Allies’ war work, spoke in opposition to the world-wide conflict and became a proponent of the League of Nations. His cousin Alice Chown, who had abhorred the war, approved of this change.

Grace and Modesty for the new United Church of Canada

Chown appears on the right- hand side of the group in the photo taken at Norway House, Manitoba, in 1925. He is with church leaders and Cree friend John Memeno.

By the early 1920’s, Chown was recognized as one of the country’s most important church leaders. He worked faithfully to bring about the union of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, three significant Protestant denominations in Canada at the time. Methodists were the largest group, and the vast majority of them, encouraged by Chown, voted in favour of union. Because of the overall impact of the Methodists, the expectation was that Chown would become the new church’s first Moderator (senior elected official). However, because many Presbyterians opposed church union, Chown stepped aside in order to promote Presbyterian leader George Pigeon to the top position – a way to smooth the union of the 3 denominations.

Until his death in Toronto in 1933, Samuel Dwight Chown worked across Canada for social reform and world peace, finding common ground with Social Gospel activists. Some echoes of his thinking and work can be found in the activities of people at Sydenham Street United Church today, and his selfless gesture promoting the elevation of a Presbyterian to the top position in the UCC in 1925 is still occasionally cited by congregation leaders at SSUC in an approach that proclaims “we must do what is in the best interests of all, not just ourselves”. 

Chown’s accomplishments are commemorated on a plaque in the Sanctuary at SSUC. 

Sources:

Memory Sask. Saskatchewan Archival Info Network
Archives Association of Ontario Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Clarence Dunlop Mackinnon, author Barry Cahill)
Wikipedia December 2019. Author unnamed. 
To date there is no completed entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. 
Special thanks to Kaitlyn Macdonald, Queen’s University History student intern, 2017.
E. Deir. November 6, 2020.

Updated 2020 11 23