It is believed that a Methodist or Baptist Church was at the forefront in every area of Black activity in Canada. Strong religious belief and faith was often the centre of life for Black settlers, including escaped slaves, when they arrived in Canada. Those who settled in Owen Sound were no exception. The British Methodist Episcopal Church in Owen Sound was, from its inception, a safe haven for Blacks during the time of the Underground Railroad and after. It offered a sense of community through its many church-affiliated groups and activities. Although they were free, Blacks still faced racism and discrimination on a daily basis and the church served as a means of support in an environment that was at times hostile.
On September 29, 1856, an independent body known as the British Methodist Episcopal Church was constituted in Chatham, separating it from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was in direct response to the American Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (In brief, the Act’s purpose was to deter American citizens from aiding runaway slaves and to deter slaves from trying to escape. Anyone caught was subject to severe penalties.) The “British” was chosen in the hope that by designating Black churches as British/Canadian, this expression of allegiance would garner greater security, and provide citizenship for Black people settling here.
Owen Sound’s BME Church
Traditionally a black church, Owen Sound’s British Methodist Episcopal Church has been serving the spiritual needs of its congregation for almost 150 years. Established in 1856, it was a rallying point for the slaves who made it to the safe haven of Canada, both before and during the American Civil War. Loyalty to their church was a common characteristic of the Black residents of Owen Sound and elsewhere.
Almost as old as the City of Owen Sound, the history of the church is intertwined with the roots of the city, and is a vital part of Owen Sound’s history. Sydenham Village (now Owen Sound) was a link in a series of missions or religious centres dotted across Ontario from the head of the lakes. The escaped slaves, who reached Canada were passed on from mission to mission along the “Underground Railroad Routes”.
In Sydenham Village, early church services were held in different places throughout the new settlement. A lay preacher, “Father” Thomas Henry Miller, the son of a slave, informally served the congregation in 1851. After the Church was established, Father Miller continued to fill in during the absence of ordained ministers. He passed away on October 17, 1911, the same year the congregation moved for its fifth and last time.
The first church was a log building built on the east side of the Sydenham River near 8th Street, practically on the site of the Owen Sound market and was called “Little Zion”. Its first ordained minister was Reverend Josephus O’Banion.
In 1856, the second church, a log shanty, was located in the vicinity of Twelfth Street East, between First and Second Avenues. At this time, the Zion Church formed the British Methodist Episcopal group (B.M.E. Church). In 1862, a third church, on the east hill on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Ninth Street East, was home to the congregation. There were about 120 members in 1864.
Records show that in 1865, Sheriff Joseph Maugham and his wife, Mary, deeded a lot 25’ x 40’ to the Trustees of the Owen Sound Coloured Congregation of the British Methodist Episcopalian Church. The trustees listed are James Henson, Thomas Miller, Isaac Wilson, all of Owen Sound, Yeomen; Samuel Barnes and John Edwards of Derby Township, Yeomen. A little brick church was built on this site at 779 Second Avenue West, between Seventh and Eight Streets.
In 1911, the Westside Methodist Church outgrew its building at 245 11th Street West and sold it for $1 to the BME members. One of its trustees was “Dad” Henson, a cousin of Josiah Henson, Methodist preacher and founder of the Dawn Community and on whom Harriet Beecher Stowe based Uncle Tom of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The congregation moved into its new place of worship on February 19, where it remains today. Family names of the congregation in 1911 included: Ady, Patterson, Johnson, Miller, Molock, Branston, Harrison, Courtney, Porter, Smith, Thompson, Scurvy, Smoot, Roy, Green, Jackson, O’Bryan, Hall, Henson and Borey.
Originally built for the Methodists in 1889, the building was described in the Owen Sound Sun Times on October 3, 1889, as follows: “neat building 40 x 60 feet, veneered with red brick with white facing. Alex Green was the carpenter, Alex Urquhart the bricklayer, Ward and Fox the plasterers, P. Rickard the painter and glazer and Christian Agar the tin-work and gas fittings. The windows were glazed with glass in a variety of tints.”
Because many of the church members worked on the great lakes, “Sailors Suppers” were launched by the church members and became a drawing card for Owen Sound and area down through the years.
Over the years, the number of church members has steadily declined. In 1864, the congregation numbered approximately 120. By April 1926, the numbers had dwindled to 20, then to 16 just over a year later, in the fall of 1927.
Today, the BME Church still serves only a small congregation. The church has also struggled financially over its lifetime.
On July 25, 1987, the church was designated an Ontario Heritage site by Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander.
Two of the windows from the “Little Zion” Church were given to the BME Church in the 1990s, when Little Zion was torn down as it was deemed to be an unsafe building.
Early church members founded Owen Sound’s Emancipation Picnic Celebrations, an annual tradition held every Civic Holiday weekend. The picnic has been held, uninterrupted, for over 140 years.
BME Church Ministers
Lay ministers often filled in during the absence of an ordained minister to serve the church.
Ministers of the Owen Sound BME Church (where known):
1856: Rev. Josephus O’Banion
1906: Rev. S. Lucas
1907-13: Rev. W.A. McClure
1914: Rev. W. Hamilton
1915-18: Rev. L. Johnson
1919: Rev. H.M. Lewis
1922-3: Rev. A.R. Plummer
1924-27: Rev. E.A. Richardson (graduate of Toronto Bible College)
1927-29: Rev. H.F. Logan (died at Owen Sound 1929)
1931-34: Rev. L.C. Gow (from South Africa—grad of McMaster University and returned to South Africa in 1936)
1934-37: Rev. G.R. Crawford
1937-38: Rev. A.R. Plummer
1939-40: Rev. J. Ivan Moore
1977-78: Rev. Thomas Wilson
1985-??: Rev. Seymour Boyce