ELDER, WILLIAM, Baptist and Anglican clergyman and author; b. 15 Dec. 1784 in Falmouth, N.S., the second of eleven children of Matthew Elder and Rebecca Jenkins; m., probably between 1811 and 1813 in Chester, N.S., Elizabeth Fraile, and they had seven children; d. 10 Nov. 1848 in Sydney Mines, N.S.
The 19th century witnessed an astonishing religious controversy centred on the proper mode of baptism, and nowhere was this controversy more venomous and vituperative than in Nova Scotia. Scores of books and pamphlets were issued and, as Methodist historian Thomas Watson Smith stated it, “many pens, wielded by men of no mean skill, were worn out in the contest.” The genesis of the Nova Scotian debate is to be found in William Elder’s 1823 pamphlet Infant sprinkling, weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, and found wanting. Although treatises on the subject had appeared in Nova Scotia as early as 1811, Elder’s was the first work published to refute another author, and it sparked an outpouring of the printed word that filled the religious press of the Maritime provinces for the next half-century.
Elder’s father, a Presbyterian from County Donegal (Republic of Ireland), immigrated to Nova Scotia some time before 1780 and became a prosperous farmer in Falmouth. The family achieved considerable prominence in the next two generations. William’s brother John was a magistrate and later sat in the House of Assembly; a sister was the mother of David Allison, second president of Mount Allison Wesleyan College; a nephew, another William, became professor of natural sciences at Acadia University. Writing in 1841, Elder noted that his “early years were not spent in academic groves,” and he augmented his local schooling with disciplined reading and study. Certainly his publications demonstrate a profound knowledge of the writings of both classical and modern theologians.
As a young man Elder left home for Halifax, where he obtained an important position at the dockyard and began attending services at the Baptist church of the Reverend John Burton. He was deeply influenced by Burton and, under the latter’s guidance, became a Baptist licentiate. The Baptists had continued to grow in number since 1800, when Anglican bishop Charles Inglis* had noted “a great rage for dipping” in the province. The expansion was spearheaded by a group of remarkable preachers who made up in fervour and conviction what they lacked in formal education; among these men were Joseph Dimock, Harris Harding*, and Edward Manning*. On 4 Jan. 1820, Elder became one of them. Before an immense audience gathered at Dimock’s church in Chester, he was “set apart.” The Reverend David Nutter preached the ordination sermon which lasted for over three and a half hours. According to Ingraham Ebenezer Bill*, “the stillness of death reigned in the solemn assembly, and no one complained that the discourse was too long.”
Embarking immediately on evangelistic work, in 1821 Elder settled in Granville and began ministering to a church of 12 members. He was active in the Nova Scotia Baptist Association, serving as clerk and four times as moderator. Elder was diligent in touring the back settlements and his name figures prominently in the ordination of ministers and the founding of new churches. By 1823 he had moved from Granville to a new settlement soon to be named Bridgetown [see John Crosskill*], and was augmenting his meagre income from the church by making axes and horseshoeing. In 1828 he participated in the founding of the Nova Scotia Baptist Education Society, of which he became a director; this organization was the genesis of Horton Academy and eventually of Acadia University. In 1833 Elder and the Reverend Richard W. Cunningham made an extensive missionary tour of Cape Breton, an account of which was published in the Baptist Missionary Magazine of Nova-Scotia and New-Brunswick. It was the last labour of his ministry in the Baptist faith.
Elder’s 1823 pamphlet was written in response to the appearance in 1822 of a work by the Reverend George Jackson, a Methodist, whose purpose was to substantiate the legitimacy of infant baptism by sprinkling. Elder’s refutation was gentle and respectfully worded and in turn was skilfully rebutted by Jackson, the Presbyterian minister Duncan Ross*, and others. Now began a period of intense mental agony for Elder, culminating in 1834 with a second pamphlet and the reversal of his views – the only case on record where the great debate actually succeeded in changing someone’s mind. Elder’s Reasons for relinquishing the principles of adult baptism pleaded that his church be tolerant and recognize the legitimacy of other points of view. Baptist reaction was immediate. A council of elders convened in the same year expelled him from all Baptist fellowship in spite of his moving exposition to them. The deluge of print now began in earnest, led by Edmund Albern Crawley*’s lengthy attack and the scurrilous pro-Elder response by Thomas Taylor.
Meanwhile, Elder, after taking charge for a year of the Congregational Church at Liverpool, was ordained deacon in the Church of England and was appointed the first rector of Trinity Church, Sydney Mines, in 1841. His reasons for embracing the established church were set out in a pamphlet published that year. Elder was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop John Inglis on 23 July 1843 at Sydney. A tribute to Elder by his son Samuel, written in 1848, paints a revealing portrait of Elder’s ministry at Sydney Mines. Samuel, himself a Baptist clergyman, wrote on his first visit home in seven years: “On Sabbath morning last, I attended service in the little church, my father officiating. There was a queerness of feeling in looking at my venerable parent in his priestly robes, and somehow they did not seem to suit him. The Episcopalian character appeared on the surface but Dissent still looks through. . . . I can never see anything in my father but a Baptist minister – a bishop of Paul’s liking.”
Elder died suddenly on 10 Nov. 1848. The great controversy over baptism continued for many more years. Elder stands apart from others engaged in it because of his tolerance in an age of dogmatism and his ability to compromise in the face of overwhelming sectarian inflexibility.
In addition to his writings in the minutes of the N.S. Baptist Assoc. and in church magazines, William Elder is the author of Infant sprinkling, weighed in the balance of the sanctuary, and found wanting, in five letters, addressed to the Rev. George Jackson . . . (Halifax, 1823), Reasons for relinquishing the principles of adult baptism, and embracing those of infant baptism . . . (Halifax, 1834), and The claims of the established Church of England to the favorable consideration and affectionate support of British Christians . . . (Halifax, 1841).
Of the 13 books and pamphlets dealing with Elder’s theology published between 1823 and 1845, the most important are the following: Alexander Crawford, Believer immersion, as opposed to unbeliever sprinkling; in two essays . . . to which are added three letters to Mr. Ross of Pictou, containing strictures on his first letter to Mr. Elder of Annapolis (Charlottetown, 1827); E. A. Crawley, A treatise on baptism, as appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ . . . containing a reply, to Mr. Elder’s letters on infant baptism, and a solemn appeal, in favor of a spiritual church (Halifax, 1835); George Jackson, A further attempt to substantiate the legitimacy of infant baptism and of sprinkling, as a mode of administering that ordinance, in a series of letters addressed to the Rev. William Elder . . . (Halifax, ); Matthew Richey, A short and scriptural method with Antipedobaptists; containing strictures on the Rev. E. A. Crawley’s treatise on baptism, in reply to the Rev. W. Elder’s letters on that subject (Halifax, 1835); James Robertson, A treatise on infant baptism . . . (Halifax, 1836); Duncan Ross, Baptism considered in its subjects and mode: in three letters, to the Reverend William Elder . . . (Pictou, N.S., 1825); and Thomas Taylor, The Baptist commentator reviewed; two letters to the Rev. William Jackson, on Christian baptism . . . (Halifax, 1835).
Annapolis Valley Regional Library, Bridgetown Branch (Bridgetown, N.S.), “Book of Bridgetown pictures,” comp. E. R. Coward (ms photo albums, 4v., plus scrapbook, 1958), 1: 22–23. Atlantic Baptist Hist. Coll., Acadia Univ. (Wolfville, N.S.), Samuel Elder, diary. PANS, MG 100, 138, no.9 (typescript). Baptist Missionary Magazine of Nova-Scotia and New-Brunswick (Saint John; Halifax), 1 (1827–29): 256, 380; new ser., 1 (1834): 73, 126. Joseph Dimock, The diary and related writings of the Reverend Joseph Dimock (1768–1846), ed. G. E. Levy (Hantsport, N.S., 1979). [John Inglis], A journal of visitation in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and along the eastern shore of New Brunswick, by the lord bishop of Nova Scotia, in the summer and autumn of 1843 (3rd ed., London, 1846), 32–35. George Jackson, An humble attempt to substantiate the legitimacy of infant baptism, and of sprinkling, as a scriptural mode of administering that ordinance . . . (Halifax, 1822). N.B. and N.S. Baptist Assoc., Minutes (Saint John), 1820–21. N.S. Baptist Assoc., Minutes (Halifax), 1822–35. Morning Courier: Parliamentary Reporter and Literary Gazette (Halifax), 14 Nov. 1848. J. V. Duncanson, Falmouth – a New England township in Nova Scotia, 1760–1965 (Windsor, Ont., 1965; repr. with supp., Belleville, Ont., 1983). Bill, Fifty years with Baptist ministers. A. W. H. Eaton, The history of Kings County, Nova Scotia . . . (Salem, Mass., 1910; repr. Belleville, 1972). E. E. Jackson, Windows on the past, North Sydney, Nova Scotia (Windsor, N.S., 1974), 95. G. E. Levy, Baptists of Maritime prov.; With the pioneer Baptists in Nova Scotia; a sketch of the life of David Nutter (Wolfville, 1929), 55. Elizabeth Ruggles Coward, Bridgetown, Nova Scotia: its history to 1900 ([Bridgetown, 1955]), 69–70. Saunders, Hist. of Baptists. Smith, Hist. of Methodist Church, vol.2.