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HÉBERT, LOUIS-PHILIPPE – Volume XIV (1911-1920)

d. 13 June 1917 in Westmount, Que.


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SPARK, ALEXANDER, teacher, Church of Scotland clergyman, journalist, and author; b. probably 7 Jan. 1762 in the parish of Marykirk, Scotland, son of John Spark and Mary Low; m. 13 July 1805 Mary Ross at Quebec, Lower Canada; they had no children; d. there 7 March 1819.

Alexander Spark received his primary education at the grammar school in Montrose, Scotland; he later entered King’s College (University of Aberdeen). After his graduation with an ma in 1776, he worked as a tutor until 1780 when he accepted an invitation to Quebec by a Mr Reid, director of an academy there, to act as his assistant. Although Spark enjoyed teaching, he turned down the offer of a partnership with Reid and accepted a proposal ultimately to replace the ageing Presbyterian minister at Quebec, George Henry. Spark moved to the country for a time to learn French, and then in 1783 he returned to Scotland to study for the ministry and receive ordination. He came back to Quebec, probably the following year, and became Henry’s assistant, but he earned his living as tutor to Henry Caldwell’s son, John*. By 1789 Spark had taken over all ministerial duties from Henry, and when the latter died in 1795 his replacement formally succeeded him.

A number of evangelical members of the Scotch Church, as Spark’s congregation was called, were dissatisfied with his theology, and in 1795 they left to form their own congregation. This action was a local manifestation of a dispute among Scottish Presbyterians “between moderates, whose views Spark espoused, and populars, or evangelicals. The moderates, of whom two of the most prominent, Alexander Gerard and George Campbell, had been Spark’s philosophy and theology professors at King’s College, constituted the church’s intellectual élite and were the dominant force into the latter half of the 18th century. Strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, moderates were broad-minded and humanistic, latitudinarian in doctrine, and erastian in their conception of the relations between church and state. They were more concerned with moral behaviour than with covenant theology. Spark summarized his “moderate” theology in 1799 when he wrote: “Religion corrects the irregular propensities of the heart, gives strength and stability to virtuous purposes, and cherishes those dispositions, and that temper of mind, which are most friendly to peace, order and good Government.”

To the populars, offspring of the 18th-century evangelical revival, the moderates lacked fire in the soul. In 1799 the dissidents who had left Spark’s congregation petitioned the Missionary Society in London for a clergyman. It sent Clark Bentom, who arrived at Quebec on 1 June 1800. He questioned Spark’s trinitarian orthodoxy and noted that his communion was “open to any person who chooses to partake without the least previous notice or regard to their character.” Having heard Spark preach once, Bentom remarked that “he did not attempt to stimulate his audience to obedience by such frightful Sounds as Hell and Damnation for . . . I am sure there was scarcely anything in his sermon to give them the remotest idea of the Devil, Hell or Wrath.” He acknowledged, however, that Spark’s moral conduct seemed unimpeachable.

One member of Spark’s congregation who appreciated the minister’s sermons for their erudition and literary quality was the printer Samuel Neilson*. In 1792 he had named Spark editor of the Quebec Magazine/Le Magasin de Québec. Moreover, on Neilson’s death in January 1793, Spark, whom Neilson had appointed guardian of his young heir, John Neilson*, took over as managing editor of the Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Québec. Spark’s main concern being to ensure the Gazettes financial strength, he abandoned Samuel’s late efforts to render the newspaper independent of government and accepted official inspection in return for government advertising. This policy was consistent with Spark’s support of British rule in the colony at a time of considerable political turmoil [see David McLane*; Robert Prescott]. John Neilson was a bit of a radical, however, and in late 1794 he was obliged to flee to the United States for political reasons. According to Spark, “the enemies of the house, taking advantage of so favourable a crisis to throw the business into disorder,” nearly succeeded, and only the greatest personal effort by Spark saved the newspaper for Neilson. Spark continued to manage the Quebec Gazette until August 1796.

Meanwhile, despite the withdrawal of its evangelical members, the Scotch Church had been growing steadily in numbers and prosperity under Spark. The minister’s income from subscriptions and fees for the performance of baptisms, marriages, and burials increased correspondingly. It was supplemented by fees for his services as estate executor for several of his parishioners and for tutoring; as well, beginning about 1802, he received a salary of £50 from government. By October 1794 he was in a position to lend £300 to Henry Caldwell, and two years later he lent £250 to Neilson. In 1797 he paid £450 for a house on Rue des Pauvres (Côte du Palais), which he rented out and which he would sell along with two lots for £1,200 eight years later. He acquired vacant land in the city in 1801 and 1806. In the latter year he was granted more than 1,200 acres of land in Aston Township. He maintained the social rank expected of a minister of the Kirk, replacing Henry as grand chaplain of Quebec freemasons and attending governors’ levees. He was a member of the Quebec Benevolent Society, an exclusive mutual aid society formed by a portion of Quebec’s upper class. In 1804 he received a dd from Aberdeen.

By 1800 the Scotch Church was an established institution in Quebec’s religious life and its minister a respected member of the minor élite; however, neither had much influence on government. In 1803, when Bentom was arrested on the instigation of Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain* for holding parish registers without legal authorization, the question arose as to whether Spark was authorized to hold them. He argued that, since the Kirk was the established church in Scotland, he had the same rights as the clergy of the Church of England. Attorney General Jonathan Sewell*, who prosecuted Bentom, but whose wife, Harriet Smith, appears to have been a member of the Scotch Church, tried to protect Spark. The judges of the Court of King’s Bench asserted, however, that only the Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy could legally hold registers. Thereafter, Mountain himself guided through the legislature a bill validating all past marriages performed by Church of Scotland and dissenting ministers, but a bill to authorize the holding of registers by Church of Scotland clergy was lost. Nevertheless, Spark continued to perform marriages. “If he has herein acted right,” Bentom wrote to the Missionary Society, “it follows all dissenters have the same privilege.” In February 1805 a petition by the Scotch Church for equal rights with the Church of England was rejected; not until 1827 were all doubts finally removed about the right of its ministers to hold registers.

The Scotch Church’s influence on government was, increasing, however. It counted among its members such prominent merchants as John Blackwood, Adam Lymburner*, and John Mure*. By 1805 it also boasted several politicians: Mure, Blackwood, and George Pyke* were members of the House of Assembly and Lymburner an executive councillor; James Irvine* became an executive councillor in 1808. In 1796, shortly after Spark had become titular minister, the congregation had petitioned for a grant of land, but without result. Six years later it petitioned for the site of the former Jesuit chapel on which it proposed to build a church, but again unsuccessfully. In 1807 the congregation was still occupying part of the Jesuit college, where it had been worshipping in a room for more than 40 years, when it received a peremptory order from the commander of the troops in the Canadas, Colonel Isaac Brock, to move out; most of the college had long since been converted to barracks, but Brock needed more space. Angered by the colonel’s arrogance, Spark suggested stiffly that Brock “suffer the matter to terminate, which will be gratifying to me, and may prevent a great deal of trouble.” The matter was settled later that year by Governor Craig, who accorded Brock the Presbyterians’ room and promised Spark land on which to build a church; meanwhile, the congregation worshipped in the court-house. On 30 Nov. 1808 a lot was granted on Rue Sainte-Anne and two years later, on St Andrew’s Day, Spark dedicated the church to the patron saint of Scotland.

The congregation became increasingly numerous and prosperous after 1810. In 1803 it had shared with the Church of England congregation one-third of the proceeds of a city-wide collection of funds to provide firewood for the poor. Thereafter, the money in its own poor relief fund increased steadily, and by 1816 Spark could write that none of the congregation’s poor was in “immediate extreme want”; he suggested that the money from another city-wide collection that year could best be used among the Roman Catholics. Although long-term charity from the poor relief fund was limited to members of the congregation, Spark often distributed alms to non-members, such as “Gautier – a poor woman,” “sick strangers,” and “a poor object, name unknown.” In 1818 five shillings were dispensed “to redeem slaves.” That year Spark, George Jehoshaphat Mountain* of the Church of England, and Joseph Signay*, of the Roman Catholic Church, formed a Committee for the Relief of Sick and Destitute Strangers. Spark personally benefited from his congregation’s prosperity since in 1810 he began to receive a stable salary of £200 per annum.

As well as establishing the Presbyterian church at Quebec, Spark participated prominently in early efforts to organize Presbyterianism in Lower Canada. In 1793 he joined with John Bethune of Upper Canada and John Young* of Montreal to form the Presbytery of Montreal, but it was short-lived. Ten years later he united with Bethune and an elder of the Scotch Presbyterian Church of Montreal, Duncan Fisher, in another ephemeral Presbytery of Montreal, mainly to ordain James Somerville*. Although Somerville was a licentiate of the Relief Presbytery of Glasgow, Spark had taken him under his wing and directed him to the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later known as St Gabriel Street Church. Spark played no part, however, in founding the first durable presbytery in the colony. Either from poor health or fear of jeopardizing his ties with the Church of Scotland, and hence his salary from government, he did not join four secessionist ministers in founding the Presbytery of the Canadas in 1818.

According to his close friend Daniel Wilkie*, Spark was “in stature . . . considerably below the middle size, of a ruddy complexion, and had a fresh, healthful appearance to the last. He pronounced his sermons in a clear and natural, but not a forcible voice. His hair, which he wore powdered, according to the fashion of his earlier days, had a very graceful appearance, and his aspect in the pulpit was venerable in the extreme.” Although unambitious, Spark was extremely conscientious; from 1795 until his death he left his post only twice for short visits to Montreal to attend to church business, and in the 15 years that Wilkie knew him he never absented himself from the pulpit at the hour of divine service. He disdained social visits, preferring the privacy of his study or discussions with a small circle of close friends, who were chosen independently of their religion.

Spark was a man of order – “The law of Order is the invariable rule of Divine Government,” he asserted – and his concern for order made him a conservative in theology and politics. He was a staunch defender of British colonial government, subscribing to the Association, formed in 1794 to support British rule in Lower Canada, and contributing to a voluntary subscription for the same purpose in 1799. In 1813 he was a director of the Quebec branch of the Loyal and Patriotic Society of the Province of Lower Canada, established to aid needy militiamen and their families. As well, on appropriate occasions he preached sermons stressing the importance of loyalty.

Spark’s love of order may also explain his passion for science. From December 1798 at least he daily recorded barometric pressure, wind direction, cloud conditions, and precipitation, if any, at 8:00 a.m and 2:00 or 3:00 p.m.; over a period of 20 years he did not record findings for only 20 days. In addition he was an amateur astronomer and botanist, and he performed electrical experiments with home-made apparatus. These experiments reflected his interest in medicine, for, according to Wilkie, “when electric shocks were supposed to convey relief to those who laboured under various distempers, his door was ever open to the sick, and especially to the indigent, who sought relief from that means.” Spark’s pastoral concern with emotional problems was characterized by a tendency to view depression as an illness; the ultimate cure was sound Christian faith, but treatment of specific cases of depression should be determined through observation and experimentation.

A well-rounded scholar, Spark was also devoted to the humanities. His library held more than 850 volumes in English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He made notations in his journals on philosophy, music, education, and literature, particularly poetry. The Quebec Gazette affirmed in 1819 that “he was not meanly skilled in letters”; he had a surprising interest in love poetry, which he wrote in a studied, formal style, when not in a light-hearted vein, such as in “To a Lady returning a lock of her hair”:

Take, dearest maid, your present back,
For e’er since I possessed it,
My heart has been upon the rack,
With cares and fears molested,
If one small lock culled from your hair,
Occasions such a pother,
God help the man, enchanting Fair,
Who gets you altogether.

Intellectually curious, Spark was at the same time a dedicated educator. After giving up teaching as a career, he tutored students in the classics and mathematics. His land grant in Aston Township had been made on the basis of his “well-known merit as a Public Teacher, & the tendency of his assiduous labours as a Public Instructor of Youth inculcating sound moral and loyal principles.” About 1814 the London-based Committee for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Upper and Lower Canada, an initiative of the Reverend Thaddeus Osgood*, asked Spark, Roman Catholic bishop Plessis*, Bishop Mountain, and other prominent Lower Canadians to help it establish schools for the poor. Of the clergymen only Spark accepted the committee’s principle of non-sectarian education and helped organize a colonial branch. The following year Spark was proposed as a trustee of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning, which administered Lower Canada’s public schools. He died, however, before the nomination could be formally made. On 7 March 1819 – a cold, fine day, he had noted at 8:00 a.m. – he was going to his church in the early afternoon when “he was seized by an apoplectic fit, and expired without a groan.” The weather readings for 3:00 p.m. were never recorded.

Few men have been as well suited to their situation as was Alexander Spark to the Scotch Church. Having immigrated to Quebec while still young, and before becoming a clergyman, he was able to adapt to urban colonial society and ideas. As a minister of the Kirk he naturally maintained good relations with the civil authorities, and he was able gradually to raise his congregation from a social position of marginal importance to one of consideration in the eyes of government. In so doing he laid the foundation upon which his successors would build their claims for a part of the clergy reserves. His “moderate” theology equipped him to minister to his young and ambitious middle-class congregation, which was more concerned with matters of practical morality than with theological arguments or spirituality and more attentive to the quiet voice of reasonable persuasion than to hell-and-damnation preaching. Finally, Spark’s views on toleration enabled him to work easily in an environment dominated politically by the Church of England and socially by the Roman Catholic Church. There seems little reason to doubt the Quebec Gazettes description of him as “a gentleman beloved and respected by every one in this society.”

James H. Lambert

[Most of the documents concerning Alexander Spark are in the archives of St Andrew’s Church at Quebec. His sermons (indexed by Spark himself) are of particular interest. His meteorological records for 1798 to 1819 are at McGill Univ. Arch.; there may have been one or more volumes covering the period prior to 1798. The registers often served as a diary, wherein Spark recorded scientific observations, poems, and comments on daily events.

Spark is the author of the following works published at Quebec: An oration delivered at the dedication of Freemasons Hall in the city of Quebec (1787); A sermon preached in the Presbyterian chapel at Quebec on Thursday, the 10th January 1799, being the day appointed for a general thanksgiving (1799); A sermon preached in the Scotch Presbyterian Church at Quebec on Wednesday the 1st February 1804, being the day appointed by proclamation for a general fast (1804); The connexion between the civil and religious state of society, a sermon preached at the opening of the new Scotch Church, called St Andrews Church, in the city of Quebec, on Friday the 30th day of November 1810 (1811); A sermon preached in the Scotch Church in the city of Quebec on Thursday the 21st April 1814, being the day appointed for a general thanksgiving (1814); and A sermon delivered in St Andrews Church, Quebec, by the late RevAlex. Spark, D.D., on the 7th March 1819, the day of his death; also a funeral sermon preached on that occasion, the 14th March 1819 (1819).  j.h.l.]

AAQ, 210 A, IX: 29; 60 CN, I: 22. ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 13 July 1805, 11 March 1819; CN1-16, 4 avril 1809; 28 sept. 1811; 30 juin, 4 juill. 1812; 28 juin 1815; 9 juill. 1817; 7 juin 1819; 20 mai 1820; CN1-92, 11 janv. 1793; CN1-230, 17 nov. 1803; 23 mai, 3 juin 1806; 12 sept. 1815; CN1-256, 31 Aug., 3 Dec. 1796; CN1-262, 30 mai 1801, 20 mai 1802, 29 juill. 1805, 4 févr. 1808; CN1-284, 24 avril 1797, 26 mars 1800, 28 avril 1801, 14 avril 1803; P-81, 1: 38; P-192; P-193. AP, St Andrew’s (Quebec), Corr., Ryland to Lynd, 15 July 1795, Ryland to Spark, 4 Oct. 1796, Ryland to Lymburner, 9 Nov. 1802, Stuart to the Scotch Church, 20 May 1803, Ryland to Spark, 23 Nov. 1804, Spark to Brock, 6 Oct. 1807, Ryland to Spark, 31 Oct., 3 Nov. 1807, Craig to Spark, 14 June 1808, Blackwood to Ryland, 13 Jan. 1809, Spark to Somerville, 13 March 1809, Esson to Spark, 22 Jan. 1818, Ramsay to Spark, 23 July 1818; Kirk session minute-book, 1802–23; Lists of subscriptions for ministers, 1793–1810; Plate collections, 1803–20; Poor relief accounts book, 1803–37; Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1786–1819. PAC, MG 24, B 1, 20: 75–85; 28: 34, 265; 38: 1006, 1009, 1013; RG 1, L3L: 508, 1308, 1664, 2134, 17744–48, 17751–59, 17781, 88982–86; RG 4, A 1: 3548–49, 4 Dec. 1816. PRO, CO 42/120: ff.6v, 9–10v, 12v–13v; CO 42/125: f.4 (mfm. at PAC). School of Oriental and African Studies, Univ. of London (London), Council for World Mission Arch., Methodist Missionary Soc., Clark Bentom, “Journal and observations on my passage to Quebec arrival &c”; Corr., folder 7, no.1–3, 6–8, 22, 24, 33, 46 (mfm. at ANQ-Q). Quebec Benevolent Soc., Rules of the Quebec Benevolent Society . . . (Quebec, 1812). [John Strachan], “The death of Dr Spark,” Christian Recorder (York [Toronto]), 1 (1819–20): 65–73. Quebec Gazette, 6 Dec. 1787; 18 Aug. 1791; 28 Nov. 1793; 13 Feb., 10 July 1794; 7 Feb., 18 July, 17 Oct. 1799; 21 April 1803; 14 June 1804; 4 July 1805; 1 Dec. 1808; 17 Jan., 2 March, 10 Aug. 1809; 27 Aug., 7 Dec. 1818; 8, 11 March, 25 Oct. 1819; 25 May 1820. Quebec Magazine, 1792–94. Hew Scott et al., Fasti ecclesiæ scoticanæ: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation (new ed., 9v. to date, Edinburgh, 1915– ), 7: 652. William Gregg, History of the Presbyterian Church in the dominion of Canada . . . (Toronto, 1885), 42, 148, 150–51, 160–61, 206–7. G. D. Henderson, The burning bush; studies in Scottish church history . . . (Edinburgh, 1957), 74, 130, 139, 164–79. E. A. [K.] McDougall, “The Presbyterian Church in western Lower Canada, 1815–1842” (phd thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1969), 10, 56–57, 83–84. J. S. Moir, Enduring witness; a history of the Presbyterian Church in Canada ([Hamilton, Ont., 1974?]), 19, 47, 51, 68, 74. W. S. Reid, The Church of Scotland in Lower Canada (Toronto, 1936), 25, 41–44, 68, 100–1, 119. St Andrews Church, Quebec (Quebec, 1908), 4. Robert Stewart, St Andrews Church (Presbyterian) Quebec: an historical sketch of the church and its ministers ([Quebec, 1928]), 8. W. C. Clark, “The early Presbyterianism of Quebec under Dr Spark,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans. (Quebec), new ser., 27 (1906–7): 28–31. Daniel Wilkie, “Memoir of the life of the Reverend Alexander Spark, D.D., minister of the Scotch Church, Quebec,” Canadian Christian Examiner and Presbyterian Rev. (Toronto), 1 (1837): 209–25. S. F. Wise, “Sermon literature and Canadian intellectual history,” United Church of Canada, Committee on Arch., Bull. (Toronto), 18 (1965): 3–18.

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Cite This Article

James H. Lambert, “SPARK, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 13, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spark_alexander_5E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spark_alexander_5E.html
Author of Article:   James H. Lambert
Title of Article:   SPARK, ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   June 13, 2024