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BALFOUR, JAMES, Church of England clergyman; b. 15 Aug. 1731 in the parish of Banchory-Ternan, Scotland; m. 13 Oct. 1766 Ann Emray in Trinity, Nfld, and they had four children; d. 1809 in Newfoundland.

James Balfour was baptized in the Presbyterian Church and left Scotland in 1757 to seek employment in England. There he became a schoolmaster at Wadley (London) and joined the Church of England. Early in 1764 he applied to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to be appointed a missionary, and the SPG decided to send him to Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. He was ordained by the bishop of London and by the end of the year had settled in his mission at Trinity.

Balfour’s first impressions were unfavourable. He was shocked to find that a frequent form of sexual union was common-law marriage with several temporary changes of partner. No one would offer him lodging lest his presence “should check some favourite Vice.” His congregation at Trinity itself consisted of only ten families, but they built him a house and by 1766 he was asserting that there was “the most agreeable Harmony & Contentment Subsisting between my People and Me.” Such euphoric comments soon ceased, and in the 11 years of his ministry in Trinity Bay he made frequent complaints to the SPG. The population of Trinity feuded, probably intercepted his letters, and, if Irish, were prone to “mob and housebreak.” The Sabbath was broken by music, dancing, and work. At Scilly Cove (Winterton) on the east side of Trinity Bay, a “barbarous lawless place,” the inhabitants paraded behind a piper every Sunday, while down the coast at New Perlican a state of civil war existed between Irish and English. Nor was Balfour himself immune from personal danger: in March 1769 he was attacked by a German surgeon and a merchant’s clerk for no apparent reason. “I received several blows,” he reported, “this I did not in the least resent, but bore patiently, as our Order must not be Strikers.” When Governor John Byron* visited Trinity that July Balfour recounted the incident and offered his forgiveness on a promise of future good behaviour. However, the governor insisted that his assailants apologize “very Submissively” and pay a small fine.

Balfour had problems beyond the unruliness of the population. His congregation melted away in winter and, since it consisted of planters and servants, was too impoverished to afford the cost of repairs to the church. The rich of Trinity were Quakers, Presbyterians, or Roman Catholics and refused to help; as a result, the church was in “a ruinous condition.” Nevertheless, by 1771 Balfour was able to report steady progress, greater concern for divine worship, and a subscription to repair the church, and the following year he stated that he had nearly 40 communicants. Even so, lawlessness persisted, and he had to be careful at burials. On one occasion the marks on a corpse aroused his suspicions, a murder was discovered, and a criminal hanged. By October 1774 Balfour was complaining, “Believe me! these are Uncouth Regions here indeed, for a Man to spend his short Life in.” That year the SPG acceded to his request to be transferred to Harbour Grace, where he expected to find peace and more money.

Balfour arrived in Harbour Grace on 6 Oct. 1775, but although he was well received by the people of the town his hopes were soon disappointed. The inhabitants of Carbonear had been influenced by the Methodist teachings of his predecessor Laurence Coughlan* and consequently wanted either a Methodist or a Presbyterian minister; moreover, they claimed the church was their property and refused him entrance. An order from Governor Richard Edwards* in 1780 enabled Balfour to use the Carbonear church, but in January 1784 he was bothered when a Methodist preacher intruded into the pulpit in the middle of a service. These difficulties foreshadowed the sectarian troubles of the 19th century.

During the 1780s Balfour became increasingly dispirited and ill, claiming that he could get no money from the people in the dislocation of trade following the American revolution, complaining about the poor weather, and noting apprehensively that the congregation had expressed a wish for a younger man. The nadir came in 1791 when he quarrelled with the schoolmaster of Harbour Grace, William Lampen, who had a low opinion of him. Lampen appealed to the SPG, enclosing a petition from some of the inhabitants which complained that Balfour was frequently drunk and that he performed divine service only five or six times a year, and adding his own allegation that Communion had not been administered for a year and a half. After receiving some counter-petitions and after consulting with Judge John Reeves* and others, in March 1792 the SPG dismissed Lampen and discontinued Balfour as a missionary. An unhappy and harassed man, Balfour suffered a fate not uncommon to old and tired missionaries. In view of his age, infirmities, and length of service, he was allowed his salary of £70 as a pension, and he continued to hold it until his death in 1809.

Frederick Jones

Lambeth Palace Library (London), Fulham papers. USPG, B, 6; C/CAN/Nfl., 1; C/CAN/PRE; Journal of SPG, 16–26. [C. F. Pascoe], Classified digest of the records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1892 (5th ed., London, 1895). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1896).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Frederick Jones, “BALFOUR, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 25, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/balfour_james_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/balfour_james_5E.html
Author of Article: Frederick Jones
Title of Article: BALFOUR, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: October 25, 2014