KEIR, JOHN, Presbyterian clergyman and educator; b. probably 2 Feb. 1780 in Bucklyvie, parish of Kippen, Scotland, and baptized in the same parish 4 Feb. 1781; eldest child of John Keir, a farmer, and Christian Wood; m. 2 Sept. 1808 Mary Burnet in Glasgow, and they had at least one son and two daughters; d. 23 Sept. 1858 in Truro, N.S.
John Keir was born into a family who were Presbyterian seceders, a group so called because of their origin in Ebenezer Erskine’s separation from the Church of Scotland in 1733. Keir matriculated to the University of Glasgow in 1799 but did not graduate. He taught school before and during training in divinity, from 1803 to 1806, at the theological hall of the General Associate Synod in Whitburn. In 1807 or 1808 he was licensed by the anti-burgher Presbytery of Glasgow. Although the New Light controversy in Scotland had left a number of congregations there without preachers, Keir was attracted to the colonial missions, undoubtedly in part by his college companion the Reverend Peter Gordon, who had been serving in Prince Edward Island since 1806. In 1808 Keir formally offered himself for the Secession congregation in Halifax, and in September he sailed with his bride for Nova Scotia. Despite the application to Halifax, the Presbytery of Pictou assigned him to Prince Edward Island, where he wintered at Princetown (Malpeque). Gordon’s death in April 1809 left Keir the only Presbyterian clergyman on the Island. Although he preached at both Halifax and Merigomish, N.S., during the summer, the presbytery approved his call in June 1809 from the Princetown congregation, and there he was ordained in June 1810. The ordination proceedings, attended by Duncan Ross* and Thomas McCulloch* among others, concluded with a sermon by the Reverend James Drummond MacGregor* in Gaelic, the language of the Argyllshire settlers of the district, but not of their new minister.
Apart from serving his widely dispersed congregation in west-central Prince Edward Island, Keir itinerated throughout the Island and even paid a missionary visit to the Miramichi region of New Brunswick in 1817. He largely escaped the disruptions experienced by his Pictou brethren in the 1820s as a result of territorial and jurisdictional disputes between the well-established Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia and newly arrived Church of Scotland clergy. In 1825, when his adherents at New London proposed applying to the Church of Scotland’s recently formed Glasgow Colonial Society for a Gaelic-speaking missionary, Keir persuaded them to remain with the Nova Scotian church. The following year the Reverend Hugh Dunbar, a Gaelic-speaking Nova Scotian, began work at New London, Cavendish, and New Glasgow, and the Reverend Robert S. Patterson, one of the first divinity graduates of the Nova Scotian church’s Pictou Academy, settled at Bedeque. In 1848, 87 per cent of Keir’s district still adhered to the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia, and it was claimed that 3,000 people attended the celebration of his jubilee in 1858.
In 1821 the settlement of the Reverend William MacGregor at Richmond (Malpeque) Bay and the Reverend Robert Douglas at St Peters had permitted the formation of a separate presbytery on the Island. Keir was its first moderator and frequently thereafter either its official moderator or its moderator pro tem. Already looked upon as the father of the Island’s Presbyterian church, he was diligent in his attention to the disciplinary, instructional, and political issues which occupied the presbytery’s numerous gatherings. Keir apparently penned many of its documents and acted regularly as its messenger to the Nova Scotian synod, of which he had been a member since its formation in 1817. Although he served as the synod’s moderator in 1823, his participation in that body remained occasional until the mid 1840s, when his appointment as the synod’s professor of divinity and his interest in the issue of establishing a foreign mission led to his greater involvement. Keir was a strong proponent of a larger union of adherents to the Westminster Confession, but he did not live to see the union of his church and the Free Church of Nova Scotia in 1860.
Keir was also active in the promotion of education. As early as 1820 he supported Walter Johnstone*’s mission to encourage sabbath schools on the Island. By 1827 the Prince Town Female Society, which had been established two years previously in Keir’s congregation and of which his wife was treasurer, was purchasing books for such schools. In October 1822 he had presided over the creation of a school at Princetown of which he was named rector. When the legislature provided provincial funds for education in 1825, Keir’s school was recognized as the district grammar school. He is also said to have established a library for his parishioners. Keir worked in the 1830s to have the province’s reserved glebe and school lands, claimed exclusively by the Church of England, appropriated for the general support of education. In the 1850s he was president of the Literary and Scientific Society, the first such organization on the Island, and a member of the provincial board of health. In 1852 he received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Amherst College in Massachusetts.
The synod’s appointment of Keir as its divinity professor occurred following the death of McCulloch in 1843. From 1844 until the naming of the Reverend James Ross* as professor of biblical literature in 1846, Keir taught ministerial candidates in his own home and was the synod’s sole professor. With Ross’s appointment, the theological hall was relocated in West River (Durham), N.S., where, in 1848, the synod established a seminary under Ross’s principalship. Two years later Keir resumed teaching in the six-week fall term at the West River seminary. His Course of study in systematic and pastoral theology and ecclesiastical history, for students attending the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia was published in Charlottetown in 1857. The synod rejected his proffered resignation in July 1858 and that September Keir was at Truro for the opening of the church’s new seminary there.
Himself a missionary to a foreign land, Keir provided essential support to John Geddie* in launching a foreign mission by the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia, apparently the first undertaken on the sole responsibility of a colonial church. Geddie’s call to Cavendish and New London in 1837 formally introduced the issue on the Island. At his ordination a year later Geddie’s dedication and enthusiasm inspired the formation of a bible and missionary society, over which Keir presided. Thereafter, while Geddie promoted his cause in the public sphere, Keir carried the issue formally in the Island presbytery and also in the synod, where a missionary society was formed in 1840 and a petition proposing the establishment of a foreign mission was introduced in 1843. When the synod directed that the proposal be further investigated the following year, Keir was named convener of the church’s first Board of Foreign Missions, whose responsibility it became in 1845 to select a mission station and choose a missionary. After they had settled on Geddie and an island in the Pacific Ocean, Keir chaired the contentious synodical session which confirmed the decision. In November 1846 Geddie departed for the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). Keir remained a faithful supporter and a member of the Board of Foreign Missions until his death; his congregation was regularly the most generous contributor to the foreign mission fund.
Keir’s contemporaries noted his meekness, his disinterested benevolence, and his untiring service. At his death it was claimed that “not one of the old Presbyterian congregations on the Island, whether in connection with the Scottish Establishment, the Free Church or the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia . . . did not to some extent enjoy his missionary labors, or experience his fostering care in its infancy.”
John Keir is the author of Course of study in systematic and pastoral theology and ecclesiastical history, for students attending the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia (Charlottetown, 1857).
Amherst College (Amherst, Mass.), Office of the Registrar, record of subject’s dd degree, 1852. GRO (Edinburgh), Glasgow, reg. of marriages, 2 Sept. 1808; Kippen, reg. of marriages, 19 Nov. 1779; reg. of births and baptisms, 4 Feb. 1781. MCA, Presbyterian Church of N.S., Theological Seminary, Board of Superintendence, minutes, 1848–58, including Bye-laws of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia (n.p., 1852); Presbyterian Church of N.S. (United Secession), minutes of the Synod, 1 (1817–42)–2 (1842–60); Presbytery of P.E.I., minutes, 1 (1821–30); 3 (1836–47)–5 (1856–60); Prince Town Congregation (Princetown [Malpeque], P.E.I.), Prince Town Session, minutes, 1807–58. Univ. of Glasgow Arch., Matriculation records, 1799. A brief sketch of the life and labors of the late Rev. John Keir, D.D., S.T.P. (Pictou, N.S., 1859; annotated copy available in the George Patterson papers, PANS, MG 1, 742, no. 18). Walter Johnstone, Travels in Prince Edward Island . . . (Edinburgh, 1824), 37, 113. Missionary Reg. of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia (Pictou; Halifax), 1 (1850)–9 (1858). Presbyterian Witness, and Evangelical Advocate (Halifax), 11 (1858): 102, 106–7, 154, 169. “Rev. John Kier, D.D., Professor of Divinity to the Presbyterian Church in Nova Scotia,” Canadian United Presbyterian Magazine (Toronto), 5 (1858): 352. James Robertson, History of the mission of the Secession Church to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, from its commencement in 1765 (Edinburgh, 1847). Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 24 March 1838, 30 March 1839. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 4, 25 March 1834. P.E.I. calendar, 1855: 43, 47, 49–50; 1857: 44, 48. E. A. Betts, Pine Hill Divinity Hall, 1820–1970: a history (Halifax, 1970). Duncan Campbell, History of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown, 1875; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). C. J. Crowdis, The Prince Town United Church; until 1925, the Prince Town Presbyterian Church, Malpeque, Prince Edward Island (Halifax, 1958). Gregg, Hist. of Presbyterian Church. Life of Rev. Dr. John and Mrs. Geddie, and early Presbyterian history, 1770–1845, comp. W. E. Johnstone (Summerside, P.E.I., 1975). George Patterson, Memoir of the Rev. James MacGregor, D.D. . . . (Philadelphia, 1859); Missionary life among the cannibals: being the life of the Rev. John Geddie, D.D., first missionary to the New Hebrides; with a history of the Nova Scotia Presbyterian Mission on that group (Toronto, 1882). D. C. Harvey, “Glebe and school lands in Prince Edward Island,” CCHS, Journal, 10 (1968): 120–47. George McMillan, “A Canadian minister of a hundred years ago,” Presbyterian (Toronto), new ser., 13 (July–December 1908): 767–69.
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Cite This Article
Susan Buggey, “KEIR, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keir_john_8E.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:
|Author of Article:||Susan Buggey|
|Title of Article:||KEIR, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||April 1, 2023|