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JOHNSTONE, WALTER, Sunday school teacher; b. in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, probably in the parish of Hutton on Dryfe and Corrie; fl. 1795–1824.

Little is known of Walter Johnstone apart from autobiographical references in his two published books, A series of letters, descriptive of Prince Edward Island (1822) and Travels in Prince Edward Island, . . . in the years 1820–21 (1823). Brought up with a strict religious training and just enough common education to read his native tongue, the boy was taught the trade of shoemaker which he followed most of his life. Despite his humble station and limited education his religious fervour and commitment were such that he began, about 1795, to organize and teach Sunday schools in various parishes around his home. He married and began raising four sons, but his thoughts often turned to work as a foreign missionary outside Scotland, which was rapidly expanding such efforts in the opening years of the 19th century.

In 1816 the Sabbath School Union for Scotland was formed and around 1820 the Scottish Missionary Society opened a Dumfries and Galloway branch; the two foundings encouraged Johnstone to offer his services to the missionary society as a “hewer of wood and a drawer of water.” It could not accept all those who applied for support, however, and it rejected Johnstone’s overtures. Still anxious to help, he contemplated undertaking a missionary venture on his own account, but his wife understandably preferred that he remain at his trade and continue to support his family. Only when his master’s business unexpectedly failed and “friends” (probably including the Reverend John Wightman, to whom his first published letters were addressed) offered to finance his efforts, did Johnstone decide to pursue his dream, choosing Prince Edward Island as his mission field.

The Island had long been a preferred destination for Scots emigrants (including many from Galloway), and it was known to have a substantial Scottish population in need of religious ministrations. Moreover, for both himself and his contemporaries in Scotland (who were experiencing unemployment and depressed economic conditions), Johnstone wished to explore the possibility of making a new life on the Island. He found a Dumfries brig preparing to depart for the Gulf of St Lawrence, and on 18 April 1820 he sailed with a number of emigrant passengers for Prince Edward Island.

Lacking both formal ordination and support from Scottish missionary agencies, Johnstone as a loyal member of the kirk did not intend to engage in preaching. His plan, the execution of which was begun on shipboard, was to create Sunday schools. In that day such schools commonly provided the rudiments of literacy while conveying moral precepts to the children of working-class parents. In the 18 months he spent on the Island, itinerating virtually from one end to the other dispensing books, tracts, and offers to set up schools, his efforts were scrupulously non-sectarian. Johnstone claimed that, with the aid of a published report from the Sabbath School Union, he had persuaded Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith* to approve his activities and patronize Sunday schools, and indeed during the summer of 1823 such a school was established in Charlottetown under Smith’s sponsorship. Johnstone spent much of his time with Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, including the settlers brought by the Earl of Selkirk [Douglas*], and regarded them as most in need of missionary assistance. But, despite his best efforts, he could not create any long-term employment for himself on the Island, and apparently decided he was too old to undertake the rigorous life of an agricultural pioneer. On his return to Scotland he received patronage from two “learned gentlemen” of Edinburgh, one helping him prepare his books for publication and the other supporting his family. At this time he was living at Maxwelltown, near Dumfries.

Johnstone’s two books were intended to serve several purposes. He hoped to arouse his readers to provide financial support and encouragement for fellow Presbyterians on the Island. But into this plea was woven a careful and detailed report of Prince Edward Island, designed to appeal to people interested in reading about foreign parts and especially to those considering emigration to British North America. Johnstone was extremely enthusiastic about the Island as a destination for the younger industrious lower classes of Scotland who had some financial resources. It had “pure and healthful air, water of the very best quality . . . seldom a failing crop but when the cultivator has himself to blame for it” and a location “convenient for trading in all directions and none of the inland parts far from the shore. “He was not only a shrewd observer but – despite his lack of formal education – an author highly sensitive to place and mood. Writing of fine June weather he remarked: “The sun, whose rays are more vertical than in Scotland, appears to have both more light and heat; the sky is generally so pure that the eye cannot discern the least vapour or cloud to intercept the sun’s rays; and being without the least breath of wind to fan the opening leaf, the air is sultry and enervating in an astonishing degree.” Some of his descriptions of Island scenes and locations remain classic.

Johnstone hoped to return to the Island. In 1824 he tried to obtain an appointment as superintendent of a monitorial school in the colony but he apparently was unsuccessful. None the less, he made a contribution to education. His concern over the absence of books there led him to collect nearly 400 volumes, mainly works suitable for Sunday schools, which he sent out in 1824. This “free gift to the Islanders” was handed over to a committee organized by prospective subscribers “for a Public Library in P.E.I.,” meeting at the Wellington Hotel in Charlottetown on 9 July 1824. The committee sold the school-books at low cost and kept the remainder as the heart of a public lending library that was subsequently established. In his unspectacular way, Johnstone was thus instrumental in the advancement of learning on the Island.

J. M. Bumsted

Walter Johnstone is the author of A series of letters, descriptive of Prince Edward Island, in the Gulph of St. Laurence . . . (Dumfries, Scot., 1822), and Travels in Prince Edward Island, Gulf of St. Lawrence, North-America, in the years 1820–21 . . . (Edinburgh, 1823). The former was republished in full and the latter in part in Journeys to the Island of St. John or Prince Edward Island, 1775–1832, ed. D. C. Harvey (Toronto, 1955).

Sabbath School Union for Scotland, Annual report (Edinburgh), 1832. Scottish Missionary Reg. (Edinburgh), 1 (1820): 71. Prince Edward Island Register, 2 Aug. 1823; 3, 17 July 1824.

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Cite This Article

J. M. Bumsted, “JOHNSTONE, WALTER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnstone_walter_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/johnstone_walter_6E.html
Author of Article:   J. M. Bumsted
Title of Article:   JOHNSTONE, WALTER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   June 4, 2023