Brown of Red Deer

by James Ernest Nix

Although he claimed to be "neither a prophet major or minor," the Reverend Mr. Walter G. Brown of Knox Presbyterian Church in Red Deer was a prophet nevertheless. A man of amazing consistency, he testified that from 1904 (when he entered his first debate on the proposed organic union of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches of Canada), until 1925 (when the union took place), "I cannot recall one moment when I ever doubted that it was our duty to maintain the Presbyterian Church in Canada in the interests of truth, sound church government, spiritual freedom and national righteousness." He said that this conviction was due not to stubbornness but to his 30 years of experience in the home mission work of his denomination.

Walter George Brown was born in Athelstan, Quebec, of Scots-Irish extraction. After he was educated in Quebec and graduated from the Presbyterian College and McGill University, he did missionary service in Northern Ontario and in the mining camps of West Kootenay, British Columbia. He came to Knox Church in Red Deer as a young man with a young family and stayed for 18 years as pastor, until June 1925. During that time he was called "indefatigable" in his service as convener of Home Missions for the Red Deer Presbytery of the church. It was a vast area stretching from the Saskatchewan border to the Rocky Mountains. A huge amount of supervision was required of the convener when Brown began in 1908. At that time there were three self-sustaining congregations and 15 missions. Many other offices of the church were also his, such as serving on the church's national Board of Missions and Church Union Committees.

In the church union debate Brown's contention was that greater benefits could be had through a form of federation or co-operation among the churches than by organic union. He travelled to Montana and to Chicago at his own expense to study the work of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. He held four votes in his congregation in Red Deer on the Union and later remarked: "we never had any trouble in that congregation over church union and not one person left when the congregation stayed with the Presbyterian Church." He believed that a positive, constructive policy of co-operation was the real world movement of the time, and it provided for natural diversity, essential liberty and Christian unity. He feared that a large union would simply build up an "ecclesiastical machine" rather than develop national righteousness. He took a fighting stance throughout the controversy and stated: "It has been said we are in rebellion against official authority in our own church and so we are, but I tell you that if this bill goes through you will see that the rebellion has only started." In fact, he continued his opposition for years after 1925.

Brown was released by his congregation in Red Deer for a six-week speaking tour in Eastern Canada in 1923, during the height of the conflict opposing the union. His itinerary was arranged by the Presbyterian Church Association, the organization dedicated to the continuance of the Presbyterian Church, and he addressed public meetings across the country in Halifax, St. John, and Sydney, as well as Ontario. Described as "a forceful and eloquent speaker," he became known nationally as simply "Brown of Red Deer." Brown was strongly seconded in his anti-union campaign in the Red Deer Presbytery by the Rev. Mr. James Sinclair Shortt, minister of St. Andrew's Church in Olds, and Shortt's predecessor, the Rev. Mr. F. D. Roxburgh. As a result of their efforts, the Red Deer Presbytery had the distinction of being the one Presbytery in Alberta in which the anti-unionists were in the majority, when the final votes were cast. Shortt accepted a call to St. Andrew's Church in Barrie, Ontario, in 1924, and remained there for 17 years.

In the midst of the pre-1925 bitter conflict, it is a remarkable thing that Walter Brown seemed to make no enemies. When a farewell dinner was given for him in Red Deer in July 1925, on the eve of his removal to Saskatoon, it was attended by unionists as well as non-unionists, a representative group from the town and district: "Many who have been unable to agree with him in his strong, persistent and consistent opposition to church union, have learned to esteem him for his manly, Christian personality." In Saskatoon he faced the task of forming a new Presbyterian congregation from the minority remnants of three congregations which had become United Churches. These remnants were left without church property or assets. He was honoured by the Church in being elected Moderator of the General Assembly in 1931. Soon he was faced with the Great Depression and devastating drought conditions in Saskatchewan. His prophetic nature rose to the challenge and he took a key role in organizing the United Reform party. He was twice elected by large majorities in his federal riding in Saskatoon, but died suddenly of a heart ailment on April 1, 1940, before he could serve. His rallying cry had been "Righteousness exalteth a nation!" and even avowed communists supported him.