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MACKINNON, CLARENCE DUNLOP, Presbyterian and United Church minister, educator, and author; b. 11 March 1868 in Hopewell, N.S., son of John Ross Mackinnon, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and Margaret Tait; m. 6 Oct. 1896 Mary McGillvray Mackintosh in Edinburgh, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 9 Oct. 1937 in Halifax.

Clarence Mackinnon was born into a community where, ten years earlier, his father had become the first settled Presbyterian minister. He was also born into a recently united eastern Canadian Presbyterian church and was seven years old when Canadian national Presbyterian union occurred [see James Bennet*; William Caven*]. His later concept of the United Church of Canada, according to which “all things work together for good to them that love God,” owed much to his family’s Free Church tradition. He believed in a national Protestant reformed church, one that was part of a Christian commonwealth in which the church was the conscience of the country, its evangelizer and moral exemplar.

In 1881, after an early childhood spent in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Mackinnon accompanied his family to Scotland; there his father took up a Free Church pulpit but died in 1888. The following year Mackinnon obtained an ma at the University of Edinburgh, where he had embraced Darwinism, and then proceeded to New College, the Free Church theological hall in the city. Among his contemporaries in Edinburgh were the incipient intelligentsia of Canadian Presbyterianism: Robert Alexander Falconer* (future president of the University of Toronto), Alfred Gandier (later principal of Knox College and of Emmanuel College, Toronto), and Walter Charles Murray* (founding president of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon). All four would be in the vanguard of the church-union movement in Canada.

Invited to Nova Scotia as a student missionary, Mackinnon decided that he wanted to remain permanently in Canada. His time as a pastoral minister constituted a short, though diverse, period in his career. Between 1892 and 1909 he was to serve five different communities, two rural and three urban, the longest of these pastorates lasting five years. Licensed to preach and ordained by the Presbytery of Truro in May 1892, he was appointed to Maccan mission station, a sprawling field amid what was once the heartland of the Chignecto Covenanters. Having overseen Maccan’s transition to a ministerial charge in July 1893, Mackinnon was then given leave to complete his bd at New College.

Back in Nova Scotia the following year, Mackinnon was called to Middle Stewiacke, a farming and lumbering community at the far opposite end of the Truro presbytery. Inducted in July, in October he became a charter member of the Round Table, a sort of Mensa for younger Presbyterian intellectuals presided over by Daniel Miner Gordon*, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at the Presbyterian College in Halifax. After his marriage in 1896, Mackinnon unexpectedly found himself called to St Andrew’s, Pictou, an old and venerable Church of Scotland congregation whose young minister had accepted a call to Scotland. Mrs Mackinnon, however, proud daughter of a Free Church manse, would not have her brand-new husband ministering to an Auld Kirk that was reluctant to join the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC). She also thought it would be discreditable for him to leave a congregation that had prolonged his recent furlough in Scotland so that he could get married. Despite the high honour accorded a minister still under 30, and one who had a Free Church pedigree to boot, Mackinnon deferred to his wife. It would not be the only time that Mary Mackinnon vetoed a wise career move on the part of her husband. About 1904 he would be offered the pulpit at Second Presbyterian, Chicago, a well-paid charge that would have provided an entrée into the American church; this position he also declined, his wife not wanting their children to grow up as Americans.

The year 1899 found Mackinnon in Halifax, a city to which he would return permanently a decade later. Park Street, then the largest and most dynamic Presbyterian church in the city, had called him and he was inducted in April. In June 1902, while serving as a commissioner to the meeting of the General Assembly of the PCC in Toronto, he learned of an impending call to become associate minister at St Andrew’s, Sydney. His reputation as an evolutionist and a supporter of church union had preceded him. As he wrote in his Reminiscences, “The call had not been sustained without strong opposition in the Sydney Presbytery on the ground of my suspected scientific and unreliable views on certain points in the faith.” Inducted in August, Mackinnon added to his duties the editing of the presbytery’s monthly news magazine, the Blue Banner. His time at St Andrew’s was marked by the sudden death in January 1905 of the senior minister, whom he was expected to succeed. Two months later, however, he left Cape Breton for Winnipeg. During his four-year pastorate at Westminster Church there the congregation’s membership tripled. Among his initiatives was the founding of the Westminster Club for young men, which by 1907 was attracting as many as 200 to its meetings.

In January 1909 Mackinnon was called to St James Square, Toronto, then the most prestigious pulpit in the entire church. He might have accepted had he not also been more or less simultaneously offered the principalship of the Presbyterian College, Halifax, soon to be vacant because Robert Magill* was taking up a full-time appointment at Dalhousie University. Though Mackinnon had expressed no interest in the post, the invitation was one he could not refuse, since both the college board and the Maritime presbyteries were unanimous in choosing him. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Falconer, principal from 1904 to 1907, the college was on the cutting edge of Presbyterian intellectual life when Mackinnon took charge in the autumn of 1909. It warmly embraced every progressive cause, from the Social Gospel to church union, and was enthusiastic for higher criticism and Continental theology. Mackinnon set about converting the little college by the sea into a Canadian replica of New College, the flagship seminary of what was now the United Free Church of Scotland (formed in 1900 by the merger of the Free Church and the United Presbyterian Church).

Mackinnon introduced the students to the works of Sigmund Freud before they were read at Dalhousie. But he also made the bd program focus more sharply on advanced vocational training. There had always been tension within the PCC over whether it was educated ministers or education for ministry that the church required, and under Mackinnon the Presbyterian College became a school for preachers, not teachers or scholars. In his view, there was more to preaching than erudition, and pastoral care was not a learned profession in quite the same sense as engineering, law, and medicine. After World War I, when he gave up the chair of systematic theology in favour of teaching church history and homiletics, Mackinnon concentrated especially on contemporary homiletics. He took it as read that a successful pastoral minister had to be an effective preacher, and that preaching – the science of declamation – could be learned and should be taught. Not only did he bring in a lecturer to teach “voice culture,” but he also devised the “trial sermon” exercise, the bane of succeeding generations of graduating students.

His decision in 1916 to take a leave of absence in order to enlist as a chaplain in the 219th Infantry Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, may be attributed at least in part to the determination of his eldest son, Ian Forbes, to join up as soon as he turned 18. Two of Mackinnon’s brothers, one also a minister, had already answered the call to the colours. Back in Halifax in April 1918 on secondment, Mackinnon embarked on a countrywide speaking tour to explain and promote the work of the Canadian Chaplain Service, of which John Macpherson Almond was the director. Meanwhile, in 1917, the Khaki University of Canada had been established under the presidency of Henry Marshall Tory* and Mackinnon had become one of the assistant directors for England; after the armistice he was appointed senior officer for educational services in the Canadian armed forces. It was he who had originated the concept of providing academic instruction to servicemen. Mackinnon returned to Canada in time to be spoken of as prospective moderator of the General Assembly, meeting in Hamilton, Ont., in June 1919. As it turned out, he moved the nomination of the successful candidate – a fellow chaplain, John Pringle, senior to him in both rank and years and minister of his former church in Sydney. Mackinnon would eventually become moderator in 1924.

The very year MacKinnon enlisted – 1916 – the General Assembly had voted to merge the Presbyterian Church in Canada with the Methodist and Congregational churches. Mackinnon had probably been a committed church unionist from the early 1890s. By 1904, when trilateral discussions officially got under way, Mackinnon was already proposing a name for the new body: the United Church of Canada. No synod and presbytery had been stronger for union than Manitoba and Winnipeg when Mackinnon arrived there in 1905. William Patrick, principal of Manitoba College and a former Free Church minister fresh from the 1900 merger in Scotland, was the paramount leader of the movement in the PCC.

Elsewhere, however, especially in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, Presbyterian opposition to union existed almost from the beginning. Between 1904 and 1925 it grew into a resistance so intense that the consummation of union in June 1925 precipitated the disruption of the PCC. Like others on both sides of the question, Mackinnon had been anxious to avoid schism. Behind the controversy lay conflicting visions of Presbyterian ecclesiastical polity. Both unionists and non-unionists saw themselves as loyal churchmen. Some who favoured the merger, such as Mackinnon himself, regarded it as an annexation by the Presbyterians of two smaller churches in the interests of a greater PCC. Some who opposed it, Ephraim Scott and Mary Ellen Macnab [Braden] among them, rejected the right of the General Assembly, a representative rather than a democratic body consisting entirely of ministers and elders (and no women), to vote the church out of existence without the consent of its members.

Mackinnon’s moderatorial year, June 1924–June 1925, the most crucial in the church’s history, would see the federal bill incorporating the United Church of Canada become law. Granted a year’s leave from the Presbyterian College, Mackinnon travelled the country during this period, speaking to large audiences in churches and elsewhere. In May 1925 he was in Halifax presiding over the golden jubilee of the PCC. On 3 June, at the opening of the 51st General Assembly in Toronto, he preached his final sermon as moderator, “Life out of death,” which vividly evoked his concept of the United Church as the death and resurrection of the PCC. The climax of the assembly’s proceedings came on 9 June, with the tabling by the dissenting commissioners of a formal protest against the union. The non-consenting commissioners realized any adjournment by the moderator that day to a date and time after midnight on the 9th, when the United Church of Canada Act was to come into force, would effectively put an end to the PCC, and they wished to prolong the debate. Mackinnon, rising on a point of order, condemned the action; in so doing he was but expressing the mind of the assembly, which for many years had been dominated by unionist commissioners. The dissenting commissioners were, however, successful in ensuring the continuance of the PCC.

The following day the Basis of Union was signed by George Campbell Pidgeon*, Mackinnon’s successor as moderator, Samuel Dwight Chown, general superintendent of the Methodist Church, William Henry Warriner, chairman of the Congregational Union of Canada, and Charles Spurgeon Elsey, chairman of the General Council of Local Union Churches (a group that had come into the negotiations in 1921). Mackinnon gave the Presbyterian address at the ensuing celebration, and also contributed the introduction to John Thomas McNeill’s history of Canadian Presbyterianism from 1875 to 1925, the book that was the United Church’s valedictory to the PCC.

The Presbyterian College, Halifax, was the only one of the PCC’s three divinity schools awarded to the United Church by the Dominion Church Property Commission, set up under the chairmanship of Lyman Poore Duff* to divide the assets of the PCC between the continuing PCC and the United Church. Mackinnon proceeded to mastermind a merger of the college with the Methodist divinity faculty of Mount Allison College in Sackville, N.B., centralizing in Halifax the operations of the new United Church College, of which he became principal. “Wiley [sic] Clarence MacKinnon,” as one disgruntled theology professor at Mount Allison described him, remained principal of Pine Hill Divinity Hall, as the institution was formally renamed in 1930, until his death in 1937.

Relations between continuing and ex-Presbyterians in Halifax, where not a single Presbyterian congregation voted to remain outside the United Church, were especially difficult and improved only with the passage of time. Mackinnon himself unintentionally gave great offence in January 1926 by attending – in his capacity as inaugural president of the Maritime Conference of the United Church – the induction of Colin Mackay Kerr, minister of the one newly formed remnant Presbyterian congregation. Yet the arrival of this pastor direct from the Kirk in Scotland, a complete stranger to the prolonged crisis of Canadian church union, gradually eased tensions. Kerr, a serious scholar and sometime academic, was enthusiastically embraced by the United Church intelligentsia and the transition to normal relations between the estranged communions was nearly complete when Mackinnon died in the autumn of 1937. Personal reconciliation had come in 1932: that summer Mackinnon was summoned to the deathbed of Alexander Duncan Falconer, an influential anti-unionist who in happier times had been one of his elders in Sydney. Formal reconciliation between the churches they represented would be achieved in 1939, when the United Church relinquished exclusive legal rights to the name “The Presbyterian Church in Canada.” Still, Mackinnon harboured grievances against those who had led the resistance to union and refused to allow his daughter to marry into a prominent continuing Presbyterian family.

A proponent of the Social Gospel and trusted advocate of coalminers and steelworkers since his pastorate in industrial Cape Breton, Mackinnon had been best known to the wider world for his expertise in labour relations. In 1919 he was made chair of a conciliation board set up to address the wage demands of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick miners employed by the Dominion Coal Company Limited. To the Mackinnon Agreement of 1920, which established a schedule of increased compensation, he had, he modestly claimed, “contributed nothing … except the name.” Two years later he helped mediate an end to the strike that had shut down Nova Scotia’s coalmines [see James Bryson McLachlan].

Like other Presbyterian unionist leaders, Mackinnon did not play nearly so prominent a role in the United Church of Canada as he had in the PCC. The failure of the pre-1925 unionist collective leadership to deliver the Presbyterian communion intact was a residual embarrassment. In the 12 years after church union Mackinnon was active on behalf of the United Church in the Alliance of the Reformed Churches Holding the Presbyterian System. He travelled widely and became a sage, airing his views on international affairs and public questions. In common with some other Christian progressives, he believed in Christian social Darwinism and he was initially hoodwinked by Italian fascism, having visited Italy in 1926 and met some of the leaders of the movement. In declining health from 1934, Mackinnon devoted himself to writing, publishing a biography of fellow military chaplain and college principal Edmund Henry Oliver and composing his own Reminiscences, which appeared posthumously. In 1936 he tried but failed to be elected moderator of the biennial General Council of the United Church of Canada. Over the years his achievements had been recognized in honorary degrees from Manitoba College, Dalhousie, and Mount Allison.

Mackinnon’s son Ian, who studied under his father at the Presbyterian College and was ordained a minister of the United Church in 1925, served for 30 years as lecturer and professor at Pine Hill Divinity Hall (the Mackinnon Lectures at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax honour the memory of them both). A future moderator, Clarence Mackinnon Nicholson*, a coalminer’s son named for Mackinnon while the latter was pastor in Cape Breton, was Mackinnon redivivus. A graduate of Pine Hill Divinity Hall during Mackinnon’s principalship, Nicholson served as minister of St Andrew’s, Sydney, during World War II and became principal of Pine Hill in 1946. Mackinnon and Nicholson were alpha and omega, the first and the last principals of Pine Hill Divinity Hall, of which Mackinnon may be credited as the founder.

Barry Cahill

Clarence Dunlop Mackinnon is the author of A brief sketch of the life of the Reverend John Franklin Forbes (Saint John, 1905); “The kit bag,” an occasional series published in the Presbyterian Witness (Halifax, etc.), March 1917–March 1919; A journal of the 219th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders (Guildford, Eng., 1917); The life of Principal Oliver … (Toronto, [1936]); and Reminiscences (Toronto, 1938). There is no bibliography of Mackinnon’s published writing, nor has his extensive article literature been collected. The principal primary sources for his life are his memoirs and his papers in the Clarence Mackinnon fonds (F&I-148) at UCC, Maritime Conference Arch., in Sackville, N.B. His Reminiscences, written in haste in the shadow of death, concludes with his round-the-world tour in 1928 and covers the preceding ten momentous years in a mere 18 pages out of 235; the manuscript of Reminiscences is not among his papers. A microfilm copy of Mackinnon’s sermons, 2 vols., c.1916–36, is at NSA (no.10885).

LAC, R611-360-8, vol.4634, file R-MC-15; RG 150, Acc. 1992-93/166, box 6999-35, no.161040. New Outlook (Toronto), 1925–37. Pine Hill Messenger (Halifax), 1928–37. Presbyterian Witness, 1892–1925. Theologue (Halifax), 1894–1919. United Churchman (Sackville), 1925–37. M. E. Angus, “Living in the ‘world of the tiger’: the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Nova Scotia and the Great War, 1914–1918” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1993). F. E. Archibald, “The life and work of Principal Clarence Mackinnon,” in his Mostly Maritimers (Windsor, N.S., 1972), 71–83. D. F. Campbell, “A group, a network and the winning of church union in Canada: a case study in leadership,” Canadian Rev. of Sociology and Anthropology (Toronto), 25 (1988): 41–66. D. [W.] Crerar, Padres in no man’s land: Canadian chaplains and the Great War (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1995). Michael Gauvreau, The evangelical century: college and creed in English Canada from the Great Revival to the Great Depression (Montreal and Kingston, 1991); “War, culture and the problem of religious certainty: Methodist and Presbyterian church colleges, 1914–1930,” Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Toronto), 29 (1987): 12–31. J. G. Greenlee, Sir Robert Falconer: a biography (Toronto, 1988). Presbyterian Church in Can., General Assembly, Acts and proc. (Toronto), 1902–25. Presbyterian Record (Montreal), 1894–1925. UCC-C, General Council, Record of proc. (Toronto), 1925–36; Year book (Toronto), 1926–37. Westminster Church, the United Church of Canada, Winnipeg, forty-fifth year …, ed. J. D. Sinclair (Winnipeg, 1937).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry Cahill, “MACKINNON, CLARENCE DUNLOP,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackinnon_clarence_dunlop_16E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackinnon_clarence_dunlop_16E.html
Author of Article:   Barry Cahill
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2016
Year of revision:   2016
Access Date:   October 2, 2023