Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
In 1826, 12 formerly enslaved people, led by Washington Christian, came together in York to start a new church. They didn’t have a building to worship in for many years, and held services outside or at congregants homes for the first years. But that church has survived until today, and now, the First Baptist Church celebrates its history as the oldest Baptist church and the oldest Black institution in Toronto.
Father Christian, who was from Virginia, had worked in Boston and Connecticut before he came to York to serve the refugees fleeing slavery. Some of the members of what became the First Baptist Church had tried to worship in white churches and weren’t welcomed.
The congregation rented a space in a masonic lodge for Sunday service starting in 1827 and moved to a schoolhouse on Richmond Street in 1834. The first permanent building for the church was the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets and they moved in in 1841. Father Christian stayed as the pastor of the First Baptist until his death in 1850.
Christian presided over the First Baptist Church at a time of big changes for the Black community in Canada. In 1799, there were only 15 Black people counted in the town of York. By 1837, there were around 50 families, according to Black History Canada. It wasn’t until 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, including British North America.
Some abolitionist-inspired measures had been taken by the parliament of Upper Canada. In 1793, An Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada was given royal assent by Lieutenant-General John Graves Simcoe, who had initially tried to pass a bill that would abolish slavery in the colony. In 1833, the Fugitive Offenders Act detailed requirements for extraditing people accused of crimes in other countries. There needed to be evidence a crime was committed, and the accused couldn’t be extradited if they were going to face capital punishment that they wouldn’t have received for an equivalent offence in Canada. The act was passed in response to an extradition request for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who were escaping enslavement when they were accused in an assault on the sheriff of Detroit. The couple weren’t sent back, moved to Toronto the next year, and joined the congregation at First Baptist. In 1851, the year after Christian’s death, St. Lawrence Hall hosted the North American Convention of Coloured Freemen, which discussed how to respond to the Fugitive Slave Act recently passed in the United States.
The First Baptist Church moved twice more: first, in 1905 to a building at University and Edward Streets, and then, in 1955, to the brick church at Huron and D’Arcy Streets where it stands today. On the church’s 170th anniversary in 1996, the Star reported that there had been 40 pastors over its long history, and that the date of the founding was never recorded, so the church celebrates its anniversary in November. The current pastor, Reverend Wendall Gibbs, moved to Canada from Trinidad in 1974. One of the ushers at the time told Star reporter Philip Mascoll that many of the congregants were from Nova Scotia and could trace their Canadian roots back 300 years. The church held its 190th anniversary celebration in November last year.
February is Black History Month in Canada.
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