Presbyterianism has deep roots in the agricultural communities of the St. Mary’s River valley, settled largely by emigrant Scots in the initial decades of the nineteenth century. The tradition of Presbyterianism in the St. Mary’s region stems from Pictou and the work of two of its most important Scots ministers, reformers, and educators: Rev. Dr. James MacGregor and Rev. Dr. Thomas McCulloch.
One of McCulloch and MacGregor’s intellectual and spiritual heirs was Rev. John Campbell, the son of illiterate Gaelic-speaking Scots emigrants from the isle of Eig. He was born at Scotch Hill, Pictou County, on December 16, 1809. On May 2, 1837 he was licensed to preach by the Pictou Presbytery. In a period when most Presbyterian clergy were expected to study abroad in Scotland rather than locally, Campbell trained for the ministry in Nova Scotia.
By May 11, 1837, Pictou Presbytery sent Campbell to preach in St. Mary’s, and he travelled by foot from Pictou to Caledonia, on the west branch of the St. Mary’s River, a distance of some 40 miles (65 km). He led several sabbath services there, and local settlers were so impressed with the young minister’s abilities that they quickly called him to the community on a permanent basis.
Campbell became one of the first established clergyman in the St. Mary’s River valley when he was ordained at Glenelg on November 1, 1838. Prior to his arrival, the area had been sporadically served by mainly travelling ministers, and there were no substantial church buildings. Area farmers welcomed the young Rev. Campbell and his wish to help the early settler-colonial residents establish an active church and thereby a community, both spiritual and physical.
Campbell set to work building the Presbyterian church in St. Mary’s, preaching the gospel at Sunday services (often in the Gaelic language) in Glenelg, Sherbrooke, and Caledonia, of which each had one-third of his labours. He comforted sick, troubled, or grieving congregants, performed weddings, baptized the young, and transitioned the elderly through the final days of their lives. He also oversaw the construction of new church buildings in his charge communities, and travelled throughout wider Guysborough County and Cape Breton, ministering to the Presbyterian fold who had no access to clergy.
In his biography Sketch of the Life and Labours of the Rev. John Campbell, of St. Marys, N.S. (1899), historian Rev. George Patterson relates some of the early hardships Campbell faced when he first arrived in St. Mary’s, including a small salary and harsh physical conditions:
“For some time all his travelling between the different sections of his congregation, as well as in pastoral work, was on horseback, so that he was for days in the saddle. He was six or seven years a minister before he had a carriage, partly from want of means to get one, and partly from the state of tho [sic] roads, which rendered riding on horseback the quickest, safest and most convenient mode of travel. Even after he did get a carriage most of his travelling continued to be by the same mode.”
Patterson goes on to describe that under Rev. Campbell’s guidance the region improved in “liberality, intelligence, morality and religion.” In addition to his pastoral work, Campbell was noted for encouraging education and a strict adherence to temperance, which became a popular cause in St. Mary’s. He was also involved in the promotion of agricultural improvement in the region though his active role in local agricultural societies.
By 1861, with the discovery of gold, the continued success of lumbering, and a growing population, Sherbrooke became a separate charge. Rev. Campbell thus served the village as minister while other clergy were called to Glenelg and Caledonia. Campbell ministered to the village of Sherbrooke for ten years, but with his health in steady decline for some time, he died in Sherbrooke on September 4, 1872. No known portrait of Rev. Campbell has survived.
Rev. John Campbell remains a pioneering figure of the early Presbyterian Church in Northeastern Nova Scotia. While many other Christian denominations established churches in the St. Mary’s region, including Baptist, Anglican, and Catholic, historically Presbyterianism is the largest and most dominant faith community in the agricultural districts, in no small part because of Rev. Campbell’s influence.