ESSON, HENRY (baptized Hary Easson), Presbyterian minister, educator, and author; baptized 7 March 1793 in Balnacraig, Aboyne and Glentanner parish, Scotland, son of Robert Easson; d. 11 May 1853 in Toronto.
Henry Esson was the youngest son of an Aberdeenshire farmer. He studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland at Marischal College, Aberdeen, entering in 1807, winning prizes for academic excellence, and graduating ma in 1811. Six years later the Scotch Presbyterian Church in Montreal, later known as the St Gabriel Street Church, true to traditional ties with the Church of Scotland, wrote a letter of procuratory to the Reverend John Stuart, professor at Marischal College, declaring “their anxious desire of forming a more intimate connextion with their Mother church,” and requesting that a clergyman ordained by the Church of Scotland and “sent out to America under [its] particular sanction and authority” be selected to assist their present minister, the Reverend James Somerville*. The salary offered was substantial, £400 per year, not including fees received, but was guaranteed for only four years. Stuart selected Esson, his former pupil, who accepted the position. On 15 May 1817, eight days after it had licensed him to preach, the Presbytery of Aberdeen ordained Esson for the overseas charge.
By the fall of 1817 Esson had settled in Montreal, was familiar with the city and its Presbyterian inhabitants, and was becoming recognized by the members of his church’s affluent congregation as both an exceptionally gifted scholar and a brilliant conversationalist. He was also being drawn into the leadership of the church in the Canadas. Rallying his fellow clergymen in opposition to a plan of Canadian secessionist Presbyterian ministers to unite all branches of Presbyterianism in the Canadas, he attempted instead to form “a more intimate connextion” with the Church of Scotland. Dr Duncan Mearns of Aberdeen, moderator of that church’s General Assembly, informed Esson in 1821 that he despaired of the Canadian church effecting a formal connection with its mother church until it found a permanent source of financial support. With other clergy and laymen Esson undertook a long and fruitless campaign to obtain recognition of his church’s claims to co-establishment with the Church of England and to a share of the revenue from the clergy reserves. They encountered stiff opposition, especially from Archdeacon John Strachan*. Esson vented his frustration in the June issue of the Canadian Miscellany, a short-lived religious journal he published between April and August 1828: “Wherever we turned – through whatever channel – with whatever secrecy – we made, or thought we made, our representations to His Majesty’s Government, still the Archdeacon of York – like our evil genius – stood prepared to oppose us.”
Esson was more successful in the field of education. He had opened the Montreal Academical Institution with the help of the Reverend Hugh Urquhart in 1822. By the end of the following year the school had 78 students, 58 of whom were studying the classics. In 1836 Esson was elected a member of the management committee of the École Normale de Montréal, and he was the only clergyman of his affiliation among the founders of the High School of Montreal in 1844. He was also active in protesting efforts to make McGill College an exclusively Church of England institution [see John Bethune*].
Esson’s personal life was marred by troubles and disappointments. His 24-year-old wife, Maria Sweeny, whom he had married on 7 July 1823, died in 1826, and his two sons, Campbell Sweeny and Henry Robert, died in childhood. He did not remarry until 1842, taking as his second wife Elizabeth Campbell of Edinburgh. Moreover, Esson’s ministry was beset by problems. In 1822, while his contract was being renegotiated, his congregation arranged for Somerville’s retirement with pension and called another minister, the Reverend Edward Black*. Black’s evangelical style appealed to a group within the congregation which perceived Esson as cold and intellectual. Within a few years, realizing the impossibility of supporting the three ministers, the management committee suggested that either Black or Esson resign. A vicious struggle between the clergymen which distracted and divided the congregation deadlocked the church. On one occasion members of the faction supporting Black barricaded themselves inside the church while those supporting Esson tried to break down the door. Aspersions, later discovered to be completely unfounded, were cast on Esson’s character. The quarrel probably hastened the formation of a superior church body in the Canadas, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, in June 1831. A synodical committee dictated the solution: that Esson remain at the St Gabriel Street Church and that Black go elsewhere. Esson’s prestige remained undamaged – in 1842 he was elected moderator of the synod – and his travail seems to have mellowed him. His contemporaries observed changes in his theological views; his concern for people and their problems intensified and he began to preach with evangelical fervour.
In 1844 the disruption among Canadian adherents of the Church of Scotland occurred, triggered by the disruption in the mother church [see Robert Burns*]. Esson supported the Free Church, perhaps as a result of his increasingly evangelical views, and he began to develop the strong voluntarist position later demonstrated in his pamphlet A plain and popular exposition of the principles of voluntaryism (1849). In November 1844 he accepted an appointment to teach history, literature, and philosophy at a college (later Knox College) established by the Free Church in Toronto. The atmosphere in Esson’s Toronto dwelling must have reminded him of his Montreal home. Two or three teachers and ten or more students had lived with him in Montreal and his several Toronto residences formed the nucleus of Knox College. His nephew, the Reverend Alexander Gale of Hamilton, joined the staff in 1846. Late in 1851 Esson applied for the newly constituted chair of civil history and English literature at the University of Toronto but he died before an appointment was made. His body was taken to Montreal and buried in Mount Royal Cemetery near those of his first wife and sons.
Esson’s outstanding achievement was without doubt his work as an educator. Shortly after his death, the Reverend Michael Willis*, principal of Knox, paid tribute to his scholarly and contemplative nature, as well as to the “noble simplicity and ingenuousness of his temper and manners, united with an ardour of spirit which he carried into his professional pursuits.”
Henry Esson is the author of An appeal to the ministers and members of the Presbyterian Church, under the jurisdiction of the Synod of Canada, on the question of adherence to the Church of Scotland as by law established (Montreal, 1844); Answer of the Rev. Henry Esson, to the charges and statements of a committee of the session of St. Gabriel Street Church, Montreal . . . (Montreal, 1832); A plain and popular exposition of the principles of voluntaryism, in opposition to the misapprehensions of those who have imputed to them an infidel tendency; being an humble essay, to mediate between the advocates and antagonists of the establishment principle, and to promote generally the catholic unity of evangelical churches (Toronto, 1849); “Review of a speech of the venerable John Strachan, D.D., archdeacon of York, in the Legislative Council,” Canadian Miscellany: or, the Religious, Literary & Statistical Intelligencer (Montreal), 1 (June 1828), no.3: 65–85; Statement relative to the educational system of Knox’s College, Toronto; with suggestions for its extension and improvement (Toronto, 1848); Strictures on the present method of teaching the English language and suggestions for its improvement (Toronto, 1852); and Substance of an address explanatory and apologetic, in reference to the late disruption of the Synod of Canada, in connexion with the established Church of Scotland, delivered to the congregation of Saint Gabriel Street Church, on Tuesday, the 20th of July, 1844 (Montreal, 1844).
GRO (Edinburgh), Aboyne, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1773–93. PAC, MG 24, D16, 25: 21544–50; 13, 8. PCA, St Gabriel Street Church (Montreal), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 7 July 1823–9 Dec. 1830. QUA, Presbyterian Church of Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland, Synod papers, overtures, 1836–38; reports, 1821. UCA, Biog. files; Montreal–Ottawa Conference (Montreal), St Gabriel Street Church, parish records, box II. Testimonials of literary and educational qualifications, in favour of the Rev. Henry Esson, A.M., professor of mental and moral philosophy, Knox’s College (Toronto, 1851). Fasti Academiae Mariscallanae Aberdonensis: selections from the records of the Marischal College and University, [1593–1860], ed. P. J. Anderson (3v., Aberdeen, Scot., 1898), 2. Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiœ scoticanœ, 7: 632–33. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church. The centenary of the granting of the charter of Knox College, Toronto, 1858–1958 (Toronto, ). Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church. “Death of the Rev. Professor Esson,” Ecclesiastical and Missionary Record for the Presbyterian Church of Canada (Toronto), 9 (1852–53): 117. “The following is the minute of Synod with reference to the lamented deaths of Professor Esson, Mr. John Burns of Toronto, and Mr. John Fraser of London,” Ecclesiastical and Missionary Record for the Presbyterian Church of Canada, 9 (1852–53): 152.