Reverend William Jenkins and the Presbyterians
Miles' most important religious contribution came in 1817 when he and Robert Marsh, another early settler, took the lead in inviting the Reverend William Jenkins, a popular Presbyterian preacher, to settle in the community and serve their needs.
William Jenkins was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, in 1779, emigrated to America, married Mary Stockton of New Jersey, and was ordained a Presbyterian cleric. He distinguished himself as a scholar of Greek and Hebrew at Edinburgh University, and in America he speedily mastered several Indian languages. In 1807, he began preaching near Saratoga, New York, and serving as a missionary to the Oneida Indians. Published biographical records show Jenkins arriving in Upper Canada via Kingston in 1817. But in the oral tradition held by his descendants, he arrived a year earlier. The intervening twelve months, according to this account, were spent in itinerant preaching, which took him through much of the Bay of Quinte region and westward as far as the Caledon Hills of Peel County. 13
Early in 1817, Jenkins accepted invitations to form permanent congregations in both Scarborough and Miles' Hill. The call from Miles' Hill, described as "a portion of the Township of Markham and Whitchurch," came on April 10, and the church was organized that year. 14 While preaching at Miles' Hill and Scarborough, Jenkins struggled to support himself, his wife, Mary, and their eleven children - nine of whom survived infancy - on a two-hundred-acre (eighty-hectare) farm near Cashel in Markham Township.
Jenkins' first communion service at Miles' Hill was in keeping with the rough-and-ready gatherings he had been holding ever since he arrived in North America. His pulpit was a stump and the sanctuary was a clearing in a grove of pine trees on James Miles' property on the west side of Yonge Street, where the Presbyterian Church and its cemetery stand today. He spoke to a large congregation who must have been extremely dedicated, as they had "travelled distances of one to ten miles over rutted corduroy roads, on foot, on horseback and in wagons." 15
James Miles donated five acres (about two hectares) of his land on the west side of Yonge Street to the church. Parts of this plot not used for church building, manse, woodshed, driving shed, and stable were initially leased for crops and ultimately rented as lots for homes. Although Miles apparently intended the land to be a gift, he neglected to sign the deed over to the congregation, so the church ended up making a belated payment for the property after Miles' death in 1844. The land was purchased from Miles' niece, Elizabeth Arnold, and her husband, John, for £300, or about $300 an acre (about $750 a hectare). 17
Through the 1820s, 1830s, and early 1840s, the community's Presbyterians remained in the popular, although increasingly controversial, hands of Reverend William Jenkins. After twelve years, Jenkins turned his Scarborough charge over to another preacher and made Richmond Hill the centre of his activities. But that did not stop him from making his ministerial travels. In the ensuing years, he helped found congregations in several neighbouring townships, and visited as far afield as Peterborough, the Bay of Quinte, and the Grand River.
His availability and his reputation as a radical made Jenkins a popular clergyman among the isolated families in the countryside north of York - especially since for many years he was the only non-conformist minister in several townships permitted by colonial authorities to perform marriage ceremonies. One couple walked all the way from Caledon East to Richmond Hill - a six-day round trip - just to have Jenkins baptize their infant child.
Part of Jenkins' heavy wedding schedule has been preserved in a private marriage register the minister kept from 1819 to 1843. In it, he recorded 857 marriage ceremonies, beginning with the union of John Cooper and Mary McKennen of Markham on June 20, 1819. Some of the entries in the large leatherbound volume are indistinct, written in ink that has faded over the years. Names that can be deciphered are often spelled phonetically, and sometimes it appears the record was brought up to date by memory. 18
Jenkins proved himself a radical in both politics and religion. He was a committed voluntarist who believed in the total separation of church and state. He was a friend and admirer of William Lyon Mackenzie. Together with William and Robert Baldwin,Egerton Ryerson, and Jesse Ketchum, he founded a committee in December 1830 to promote religious equality in Upper Canada. Their petition, forwarded to Britain in 1831 on behalf of the "Friends of Religious Liberty," demanded the removal of clergymen from political positions, the institution of equal rights for clergy of all denominations, the modification of the pro-Church of England charter for Toronto's proposed King's College, and the secularization of the clergy reserves. 20
Such outside interests diverted Jenkins' attention from his own congregations. An 1835 report observed that "all the churches under Mr. Jenkins are in a languid state, owing in part, to the scantiness and desultory nature of the supply he can give them." 21 At the same time, his strenuous efforts in serving such a wide constituency and in advancing his own principles sapped his energies.
During the last three years of his life, Jenkins suffered from an illness that gradually restricted his travelling and lost him some of his congregations. But he continued preaching at Richmond Hill until two weeks before his death on September 25, 1843. He was buried in the cemetery that had developed among the pines where he first preached at Richmond Hill more than a quarter of a century earlier. "As though in additional memory, a descendant of one of the original pines still flourishes nearby," wrote A.J. Clark in 1931, "and on long summer evenings casts its lengthening shadow over monument and grave." 22
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991