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LAING, MARJORY (McLaren (MacLaren)), missionary society president; b. 1830 or 1831 in Scotland, third daughter of Isabella Thomson and James R. Laing, a factor and farmer; m. 20 Feb. 1854 William McLaren (MacLaren), and they had a son and a daughter who reached adulthood; d. 15 March 1910 in Elmira, N.Y.

Marjory Laing emigrated with her family to the Canadas in 1843; by 1851 they had established themselves as “agriculturalist[s]” in Melbourne, Lower Canada. In 1854 Marjory married William McLaren, a Presbyterian minister who had been a classmate of her brother John at Knox College, Toronto. William served congregations in Amherstburg, Boston (Mass.), Belleville, and Ottawa, and lectured for a session at the Presbyterian College of Montreal before joining the faculty of Knox in 1873.

Together the McLarens exerted a significant influence on Canadian Presbyterian missionary activity during the heyday of zeal for foreign missions. In 1868, in Belleville, Marjory had organized a group of women to work on their behalf. When denominational union created the Presbyterian Church in Canada in 1875, William became convenor of its Foreign Missions Committee (Western Division). He promptly took steps to establish a women’s missionary organization, of the sort that existed in several branches of American Presbyterianism. At a meeting he called for February 1876, Marjory was one of a group of 14 prominent Toronto churchwomen appointed to a committee to draft a constitution. A month later the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (Western Division) was organized as an auxiliary of the all-male FMC. Marjory was chosen president, a position she held until 1881 and again in 1897–99. Following each of her terms she remained involved in the WFMS as first vice-president on the board of management.

Under Marjory’s leadership the society uncritically accepted its subordinate relationship to the FMC and eschewed activities and organizational links that could be construed as reflecting non-missionary or feminist goals. With similar caution, it urged members to raise money through personal sacrifice rather than through the sponsorship of social events or the diverting of resources from other church work. Even if Marjory had not been personally inclined to take such a conservative approach in administration, family influences would have prompted her to do so: William was known for his orthodoxy in Presbyterian theology and practice and her brother John became an opponent of women’s suffrage.

The WFMS nevertheless became a powerful organization. Besides publicizing and supporting the educational, medical, and evangelistic activities of single female missionaries in Central India and East Asia, it funded virtually all of the church’s work among native people in British Columbia and much of it in Manitoba and the northwest. In the early 20th century the society began sponsoring small-scale work among Chinese and Jewish immigrants. It came to play a prominent role in the selection and training of women missionaries, particularly with the establishment in 1897 of the Ewart Missionary Training Home, named for Catherine Seaton Ewart [Skirving*], the society’s second president.

Near the turn of the century, as the Presbyterian Church responded to the challenges of large-scale immigration and western settlement, the WFMS came under pressure to take up home – as well as foreign-missions work (its existing Canadian work was classified as foreign). Along with other members of the old guard in the foreign-missions community, Marjory and William McLaren resisted, maintaining that any diversion of resources would weaken the WFMS’s effectiveness abroad, where the work it supported was essential, in that only women could do it. The establishment in 1903 of the Women’s Home Missionary Society did not end the pressure. Following William’s death in 1909 and Marjory’s the next year, and in the face of organizational changes within the church that affected fund-raising procedures, the FMC abandoned its support for the position of the WFMS and urged it to unite with the WHMS. In 1914 the merger took place, producing the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Marjory McLaren had died in Elmira, N.Y., where she had gone “for a period of rest.” Leaders of the WFMS noted in tribute that she had missed only two or three annual meetings during all the years of its existence and recalled particularly her “gift of prayer” for the society’s work. They reprinted a poem she had written in 1907 to commemorate the death of medical missionary Agnes Maria Turnbull, thereby suggesting that, as much as the worker who had died in foreign service, she had contributed to the cause of evangelizing and assisting non-Christian women.

Ruth Compton Brouwer

Marjory McLaren’s obituary in Foreign Missionary Tidings ([Toronto]), 26 (1909–10): 194, reproduces the poem she prepared in 1907 upon the death of Agnes Maria Turnbull.

AO, F 1003, MU 7110, no.5 (copy at the Presbyterian Church in Canada Arch., Toronto); RG 22, ser.305, no.22198. NA, RG 31, C1, 1851, Melbourne (Sherbrooke county). UCC-C, 127, 79.205C, box 4, 1877: 1; Biog. files, John Laing, William McLaren; Church records, Toronto Conference, St Andrew’s United Church (Toronto), records, Old St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Woman’s Foreign Missionary Soc. Auxiliary, minutes, 22 Feb. 1887. Ruth Compton Brouwer, New women for God: Canadian Presbyterian women and India missions, 1876–1914 (Toronto, 1990). Foreign Missionary Tidings, 26: 193–94; 27 (1910–11): 19–21. E. L. Macdonnell, “The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society,” Knox College Monthly and Presbyterian Magazine (Toronto), 15 (November 1891–April 1892): 175–82. Presbyterian (Toronto), new ser., 9 (July–December 1909): 123–24, 128. Presbyterian Church in Canada, Woman’s Foreign Missionary Soc. (Western Div.), Annual report (Toronto), 1877: 7; Women’s Missionary Soc. (Western Div.), Our jubilee story, 1864–1924 ([Toronto, 1924]), 37.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ruth Compton Brouwer, “LAING, MARJORY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/laing_marjory_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/laing_marjory_13E.html
Author of Article: Ruth Compton Brouwer
Title of Article: LAING, MARJORY
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: August 31, 2014