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HOLMES, ELKANAH, Baptist missionary; b. 22 Dec. 1744, probably in Canterbury, N.H.; m. first c. 1763 in New York City, and he and his wife had two sons and one daughter; m. secondly in Bedford, N.Y., and he and his wife had two sons; m. thirdly 26 June 1802 the widow of James Bingham in New York City; d. 17 Jan. 1832 in Bedford.

After a military career during which he took part in the British captures of Fort Carillon (near Ticonderoga, N.Y.) in 1759 and Havana, Cuba, in 1762, Elkanah Holmes was baptized around 1770 and ordained to the Baptist ministry about four years later. An ardent republican, he served in the American revolution as a chaplain and combatant with a New Jersey regiment. Following the war he held a number of pastorates, the last and most notable being on Staten Island, N.Y., where in 1786 he was instrumental in establishing the first Baptist church. In 1791 he was one of the founders and the first moderator of the New York Baptist Association. Six years later he published A church covenant, embodying a strict Calvinism and the principle of “close communion,” for the use of Baptist churches.

In 1796 Holmes had told the association of his inclination to travel among the Indians of western New York, thus foreshadowing the missionary career for which he is chiefly remembered. In 1797 and 1798 he visited the bands of Oneida County and two years later he was employed by the New York Missionary Society, a coalition of Baptists and Presbyterians, to open, missions among the Indians east of the Niagara River. Establishing his residence at Tuscarora village near Lewiston, Holmes preached the Gospel to the Tuscaroras and Senecas, and for a time he seems to have enjoyed the support of Seneca chief Red Jacket [Shakóye:wa:thaˀ]. Early in 1801 he visited the Grand River to solicit the advice of Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*], whose interest proved to be mainly in placing Indian boys in missionary schools. This trip marked the first time an accredited Baptist minister from the United States had ventured into Upper Canada. During the early 1800s several Baptist associations in the United States were actively promoting the establishment of congregations in the province. Holmes’s station near Lewiston became a regular stopping-point for their agents, and on several occasions he crossed the border with them to preach.

In 1807 Holmes was dismissed by his society, from which the Baptists had withdrawn the previous year. Having preached on occasion at Queenston, Upper Canada, he proceeded in 1808 to organize a small church there with support from the Baptist missionary societies of Massachusetts and New York. Until 1810 he was also the minister of a church in what is now Beamsville. Like fellow Baptist preacher Elijah Bentley* in York (Toronto), Holmes welcomed invading American troops in 1813, and on one occasion he entertained their officers. That December, when forced to retreat, their commanding officer sent a wagon for Holmes and his wife. The family reached safety, however, only after capture by British troops, a dramatic rescue by Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrenius Chapin, and another flight from Buffalo when it was burned by the British. Holmes remained in the Canandaigua area for several years, removing to Bedford in 1818 at the age of 74. From 1814 until his death in 1832 he held no regular charge but continued to preach in “destitute churches” and to encourage support for the missionary cause. The Queenston congregation did not survive his departure, although as late as 1817 he reported that much of his income was provided by Canadian friends.

Those who had visited Holmes at Tuscarora village reported with unanimous enthusiasm on his religious and educational program and on the response of the Indians to it. After he left it, however, the directors of the New York Baptist Missionary Society stated that, in view of his inability to speak an Indian language, the Tuscarora mission had never shown promise in proportion to its expense. Probably Holmes’s chief importance before coming to Upper Canada was as a publicist within his denomination for Indian missions. For many years he carried on correspondence, duly reported to his association, with a variety of bands. Among these were the Iroquois of Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), Lower Canada, who asked the Baptists for agricultural instructors while showing little interest in their beliefs.

Holmes had many qualities typical of self-educated frontier preachers of his time, notably strength of conviction, readiness for argument, and quaintness of manner. He also possessed qualities of leadership that led his fellows to place confidence in him. In 1814 he resolved to put politics behind him and thenceforth could seldom be drawn into controversy or even public appearance. According to a contemporary, William Leete Stone, Holmes looked “truly patriarchal” in his latter years. “His hair, long and white, fell down upon his shoulders; his manner was remarkably impressive, and his whole demeanor that of one who was ripe for heaven.”

J. W. Grant

[A snapshot print purported to be of a portrait of Holmes is in the collections of the American Baptist Hist. Soc. (Rochester, N.Y.). The portrait does not resemble a late description of Holmes, but could be from an earlier period.  j.w.g.]

A church covenant; including a summary of the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, compiled by Elkanah Holmes, was published in New York in 1797. A subsequent edition, adopted by the First Baptist Church of Baltimore, Md., appeared there in 1818. Some of Holmes’s correspondence has been published under the title “Letters of the Reverend Elkanah Holmes from Fort Niagara in 1800: his work among the Tuscaroras, the Senecas, and in Buffalo” in the Buffalo Hist. Soc., Pub. (Buffalo, N.Y.), 6 (1903): 187–205.

American Baptist Hist. Soc., Elkanah Holmes, personal papers. Canadian Baptist Arch., McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ont.), First Baptist Church (Beamsville, Ont.), minute-books, 1807–32 (typescript). Baptist annual reg. (London), 3 (1798–1801): 369–76, 421–23. Buffalo Hist. Soc., Pub., 6. Mass. Baptist Missionary Magazine (Boston), 1 (1803–8)–2 (1808–10). New York Baptist Assoc., Minutes, 1791–1839. New York Missionary Magazine and Repository of Religious Intelligence (New York), 1 (1800): 381–88. William Parkinson, The funeral sermon of Elder Elkanah Holmes, preached in the meeting house of the First Baptist Church in the city of New-York, Lords Day, Feb26, 1832 (New York, 1832). Deidamia Covell Brown, Memoir of the late RevLemuel Covell, missionary of the Tuscarora Indians and the province of Upper Canada . . . (2v. in 1, Brandon, Vt., 1839). S. [E. H.] Ivison and Fred Rosser, The Baptists in Upper and Lower Canada before 1820 (Toronto, 1956). W. L. Stone, Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea . . . (2v., New York, 1838; repr. New York, 1969, and St Clair Shores, Mich., 1970), 2.

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Cite This Article

J. W. Grant, “HOLMES, ELKANAH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/holmes_elkanah_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/holmes_elkanah_6E.html
Author of Article:   J. W. Grant
Title of Article:   HOLMES, ELKANAH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 28, 2023