William Sommerville & the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanters) Church

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1 William Sommerville & the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanters) Church By Brian McConnell* Located in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia on the north side of Route 221, between the roads to Harbourville and Black Rock, the Cornwallis Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanters) Church in Grafton has been a landmark since it was built in The church is a testament to the devoted ministry of Reverend William Sommerville who was born July 1, 1800 in Ballyroney, County Down, Northern Ireland, oldest child and only son of William and Jane Kirk Sommerville. He was minister to the church for its first 47 years until his death at age of 78.(1) William Sommerville was educated at the University of Glasgow in Scotland where he went in 1816 and received his Master of Arts four years later. In 1826 he was licensed to preach by the Southern Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanting) Church of Ireland. He was ordained a missionary to the Colonies in 1831 and went from Londonderry to Saint John, New Brunswick. He preached in New Brunswick for several months in Shepody, Westmoreland, and a few other places before going to Horton, Kings County, Nova Scotia in the mid 1830s. (2)

2 Page 2 Sommerville was an avowed Covenanter. The Covenanters originated in Ireland and Scotland. They were a group of religious dissidents who objected to a King being both head of church and state. The Covenanters derived their name from the word covenanting as set out in the 1638 National Covenant of Scotland. By the nineteenth century the Covenanters were best known for their refusal to use any musical instruments in worship; allowing only the singing of Psalms. Hymns were unacceptable. Sommerville decided to go to Grand Pre, Nova Scotia when the congregation of its Presbyterian Church agreed to conform strictly to the particular usages of the Covenanter Church. After preaching at Grand Pre, a group of Presbyterians at Grafton (formerly West Cornwallis) requested he minister to them as well which he consented to do on the same terms as he had for Grand Pre. In the congregation erected a church, a simple edifice in style and in keeping with the Covenanter tradition. Sommerville married Sarah Barry Dickey of Amherst, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia on June 20, A brother of hers, Robert Dickey, became a Father of Confederation. Their first of ten children was a girl, Martha, born in Amherst, Nova Scotia on June 28, A son Robert followed his father into the Reformed Ministry. He was born on October 14, 1937 and attended Queen s University, Belfast where he studied Theology at the Reformed Theology Hall.(3) After graduation he was offered a congregation in Coleraine, Northern Ireland but returned to Nova Scotia to assist his father. He later moved to the USA and became a Minister in New York. Sommerville was known as a sound scholar. His pen was seldom at rest, sometimes in the newspapers, sometimes in a pamphlet, sometimes in a bound volume. Now is was the Arminian tenets of the followers of Wesley that he was controverting, now it was the practice of Baptists, and he was fighting valiantly for exclusive use of Psalms as matter of practice in public Worship. At same time he was an eminent preacher of truth in Jesus. (3) During his ministry in Nova Scotia, Sommerville contributed greatly to the intellectual growth and development of the Nova Scotia identity. His powerful personality, both charismatic and evangelical assisted him. He also taught the advanced department in a school opened in Somerset in Selena Parker was responsible for the primary department. Somerset was an outstanding educational centre in the County and the school was at one time known as the Kings County Academy. Scholars came from long distances to attend this school. Many of the families living in the area of the church at Grafton had the same Ulster or Scottish roots as Sommerville. When the congregation was formed in 1842 it began with eighteen people and the land was donated by Jonathon Newcombe. Members of the congregation were: William Cochrane, Samuel Kennedy, William White, John Parker, John Caldwell, Solomon Woodworth, Eben Condon, Henry Ewing, William Morton, Guy Morton, Andrew Woodworth, David Cogswell, Samuel Beckwith, Eliakim Tupper, Leander Woodworth, Lemuel Morton, Jonathon Newcomb, and George Parker.(4)

3 Page 3 One of the early documents surrounding the formation of the congregation in 1843 was signed by a woman, Ann M. Morton. This was most unusual for the time. Reverend William Sommerville In 1854, Reverend Robert Stewart, another native of Ulster, recently ordained to the work of the ministry, came to Nova Scotia as assistant to William Sommerville. He shortly after became Pastor of the Wilmot branch of the congregation under Reverend Sommerville s charge Reverend Thomas McFall, born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 1848, succeeded Sommerville as Pastor on his death in He was also a pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church and received his training in a Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Whereas Reverend Sommerville had a reputation for being aggressive and evangelical, Reverend McFall was steadfast and kind. He ministered not only to those of his own faith but to those of any, or no faith, a ministry of love, and was held in the very highest esteem by all. For 49 years he served as Minister of the church. After the death of Reverend McFall in 1929 several Covenanter ministers came from the U.S.A. until in 1930, Dr. Robert Park, a Professor of Church History and later Dean at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania took charge of the congregation. He built a summer home at Harbourville not far away on the Fundy Shore. A communion service was held in the church each summer in the manner of the Covenanter Church of Scotland.

4 Page 4 Professor Park told the story how at one time, when Reverend Sommerville was approached for a brief autobiography, he wrote: William Sommerville - Born, July 1, Died - A sinner saved by grace. (5) This he said was characteristic of his humility. He was buried in the churchyard of the congregation at Grafton. Obelisk Style marker at grave of William Sommerville Since the congregation had by the time of the death of Reverend McFall in 1929 declined to the point it could not support a full time minister Dr. Park agreed to take on the summer services. This lasted until his death in Upon his death the congregation was dissolved and an organization formed to maintain the church and grounds. This organization, called the Cornwallis Presbyterian Association opened the church during the summer for services and visitors. On the tenth anniversary of the last service conducted by Revernend McFall, on August 8, 1971 Reverend Renwick Wright of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, formerly of Northern Ireland, along with Dr. Norman Carson and Reverend Willard McMillan, both of the faculty of Geneva College, Pennsylvania, held a service.(6) Since then a local committee has organized an annual summer service.

5 Page 5 Perhaps the most noteable member of the congregation was Margaret Florence Newcome, a farmer s daughter who became the first woman to graduate from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in She is buried in the cemetery beside the church. The little wooden church at Grafton, Nova Scotia has remained unaltered since its construction and it is the only church of the Covenanter faith remaining in Eastern Canada. In 1991 it was recognized by the province of Nova Scotia as a Provincial Heritage Site.(7) Provincial Heritage Site Plague is displayed to right of Church entrance

6 Page 6 Notes: * Article prepared by Brian McConnell on April 27, To contact him please (1) The History of Kings County Nova Scotia, by Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton, Salem Press Company, Salem, Mass., 1910 (2) Covenanters in Canada: Reformed Presbyterianism from " by Eldon Hay, McGill - Queen s University Press, Kingston, 2013 (3) Referred to in John Bugess Calkin ( ): Educator and Churchman in Truro, Nova Scotia, published in Historical Papers 2002, Canadian Society of Church History (4) The Social Position of Reformed Presbyterians or Cameronians by Rev. William Sommerville, published by Steam Book Printing House, Londonderry, N.S., 1869 th (5) Grafton Heritage Covenanter Church holds 165 years service, published article by NovaNewsNow, July 31, 2008 (6) Grafton Covenantor Church - Built in ", article with photos and history at: (7) Cornwallis Reformed Presbyterian Covenanter Church, Canada s Historic Places Initiative,

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