Essays Ancient and Modern

Excerpt: Chapter Eight


Church History III
November 9, 1967

Anglican Missionary activity in the Pacific Northwest could be said to have started when the Church Missionary Society sent out a young lay worker by the name of William Duncan in the mid-eighteen hundreds. This story is one of fantastic perseverance and hardship as well as one of personal striving and ultimate failure.

William Duncan decided to devote his life to the mission of the Church in Canada as the result of an appeal made during a meeting of the Church Missionary Society on a stormy, wet evening. He was a schoolmaster at the time and he had prepared for this profession at the Highbury Training College. He was offered passage to his field of work by Captain Prevost of the man-of-war "H.M.S. Satellite". Captain Prevost had previously been to the Pacific Northwest, had seen the people native to the area and was very concerned about their "deplorable and heathen" existence. The trip around the Horn took some six months and upon arriving in Esquimault, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Duncan found that he would have to wait there for three months until passage could be secured for Fort Simpson. Finally it was found and he arrived in Fort Simpson amongst the Tsimshean Indians faced with seemingly impossible work ahead of him. Many people had tried to persuade Duncan that he should abandon the plan altogether. The officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company and others felt that he was doing a very unwise thing. He found a supporter, however in Captain Prevost and he managed to continue on. In Fort Simpson Duncan found a Company stockade with a staff of 20 white men and breeds. The Tsimshean Indians lived outside the fort and were never allowed in.

To leave the fort was considered sudden death. The Tsimshean Indians were quite warlike and were also cannibalistic. Duncan began his work by conducting Sunday services and running a school, which was at first just for the residents of the fort. Soon he was to allow Indian children to enter for study then eventually the adult Indians. Soon after beginning his work he ventured outside the palisade to conduct a survey of the Native population. He managed to visit every single home and discovered that there were some 250 wooden houses and well over 2000 Indians. Duncan was to witness the murder and eating of a slave woman, which of course horrified him and spurred him on to convert these people from their heathen ways to the Christian Faith. Much of his time during the first months of his stay was occupied in learning the language of the people. A young Indian by the name of Clah helped him in this endeavour and after eight months Duncan was ready to attempt a sermon in Tsimshean. He went to each of the chief's houses and spoke to groups of about 100 to 150 and he found that they were most respectful and attentive.

He was surprised to find that the Indians knelt at his request spontaneously. To Duncan this indicated that they had some idea of prayer and of what he was speaking about. Just before delivering his first sermon he had a sudden fear that he would not be able to manage it and he asked Clah to deliver the sermon instead. The shock that registered on Clah's face soon put an end to that idea. One of the chiefs was a particularly wicked man according to Duncan, however, he commanded his people to be silent and to listen to the preacher. The medicine men of the tribe were particularly unhappy with the influence that Duncan was having on their people and his life was in constant danger because of this. After a year and a half there was a very noticeable change in the people to whom Duncan was ministering. Even Legaic, the chief who had been such an opponent, appeared at the school anxious to learn.

Three years after Duncan had arrived in Fort Simpson the Church Missionary Society sent the Rev L. S. Tugwell to work in the same area. He baptized the first converts on July 26, 1861. Bishop Hills was the first bishop to come to British Columbia. He took up residence in Victoria and was responsible for the whole of the province. The later controversy involving Dean Cridge of Victoria was not very helpful in dealing with Duncan who seems to have grown more and more unhappy with the authority structure of the Church. It seems that Cridge and Duncan were close friends.

Work in Fort Simpson seemed to be constantly held back because of the nearness of the heathen Indians. Duncan gradually conceived of the idea of leaving for a place away from other people where he could establish his religious colony. He felt that his sheep would be much safer away from the "miasma" of heathen life. The Natives were to be kept from visiting Victoria except on lawful business. This is the point at which one would almost immediately think that Duncan was trying to form a Victorian moral community rather than a Christian community, but perhaps at that particular time the distinction was difficult to make. The location for the new community was pointed out by the Indians themselves. It was a place from which many of them had come years before they went to live in Simpson. It was situated some 17 miles from Fort Simpson on an inland channel which was protected from the weather and also, which was probably most important in the mind of Duncan, away from the trading ships. The name of this village was to be Metlakatla, the name by which it had previously been known.

On May 27, 1862 Duncan and his party left for their new homestead. Only 50 people went with him initially, probably because of his very rigid rules, but they were soon joined by some 300 more who evidently reconsidered and decided to take the chance. The following are the rules that Duncan set up for his new community:

  1. To give up their "Ahlied," or Indian deviltry
  2. To cease calling in conjurers when sick
  3. To cease gambling
  4. To cease giving away their property for display
  5. To cease painting their faces
  6. To cease drinking intoxicating drink
  7. To rest on the Sabbath
  8. To attend religious instruction
  9. To send their children to school
  10. To be clean
  11. To be industrious
  12. To be peaceful
  13. To be liberal and honest in trade
  14. To build neat houses
  15. To pay the village tax

Metlakatla was to become a thriving centre with "Father Duncan" as the lay preacher. (It is strange that Duncan was referred to by the title "Father" because he seems to have resisted vigorously any hint of hierarchical structure and sacerdotalism. He is referred to by this name even to the present day by Natives of Metlakatla.) The Rev. Mr. Tugwell unfortunately returned to England after a relatively short stay, having contracted some sort of illness. Very few of the ordained men sent out by the CMS seem to have lasted for very long—which was probably quite a happy situation as far as William Duncan was concerned. Duncan fulfilled almost every possible capacity in his new colony. He was the treasurer of the settlement; clerk of the works, head schoolmaster, counsellor, preacher, magistrate and many other functions fell within his jurisdiction. There certainly seems to be no doubt that he worked ceaselessly and diligently for the people of Metlakatla.

In 1863 Bishop Hills made a journey to Metlakatla in order to baptize and celebrate the Eucharist. He made another visit three years later in 1866 and apart from these visits the village had no real episcopal ties. In the absence of an ordained man, Duncan himself baptized the cannibal chief Quthray who had been a particularly violent opponent of Duncan's work. This man was curiously baptized Philip Atkinson. He was in fact one of the men who had eaten the slave woman when Duncan first came to Fort Simpson. Duncan reports how this man repented and wept over his sins. The fact that these people had at one time been cannibalistic proved to be quite a problem in the teaching of the faith in its fullness. Duncan, for instance, was hesitant to admit these people to the Holy Communion because he felt that they would make a fetish of it. Being taught that they were receiving the 'body and blood' of Jesus would in his mind lead to nothing but a mixture of the Christian faith and the heathen notions of former years. This problem was of course brought out much more in the open when Bishop Ridley appears on the scene. Many people have tried to intimate that there was a churchmanship problem involved in this controversy but it certainly would seem that the real problem was one of teaching the faith of the Christian Church as it is expressed by the Church of England as opposed to the omission of certain basic principles of Christianity. Bishop Ridley and the other ordained men that were sent out by the CMS were hardly what one would call "High Church" even in those days shortly after the Oxford Movement had begun. CMS had always had a rather low church orientation.

In 1870 Duncan went to England to do work on his organization of the colony. He busied himself with learning rope making, brush making, twine spinning and many other arts that would be useful in his work at Metlakatla. He even learned how to play some 21 musical instruments.

All this time Duncan was alone with his people. As has already been pointed out, all of the men sent out from England soon gave in to the difficult living conditions or to poor health and returned home. Some of these were Tugwell, Doolan, Gribbell, and Tomlinson.

The controversy alluded to earlier, which involved Dean Cridge in Victoria, had quite a bad affect on Duncan. He was a friend of the Dean’s and he was certainly no more endeared to the Church authorities when Cridge was, as Duncan believed, forced to leave the Church and join the Reformed Episcopal Church. This made it even more difficult to arrange for future episcopal visits to Metlakatla by any Bishop. Bishop Bompas made the long journey from Rupert’s Land (near Hudson’s Bay) over the Rockies to the Coast in order to minister to the episcopal needs of Metlakatla. While he was there he confirmed many and ordained William Collison who was appointed priest-in-charge of the mission. Of course as soon as the Bishop left there was no question of where the authority lay—it was still in the hands of Mr. Duncan, even though the CMS (Duncan's supposed authority) had confirmed the Bishops action.

Bishop Hills was in England in 1879 and he made arrangements for his diocese to be divided. It was divided into three parts forming two new dioceses. New Westminster and Caledonia. The Rev. William Ridley (who had been a missionary in India) was elected and appointed first Bishop of Caledonia. After the long trip from England he arrived in Victoria to be met by Duncan and Admiral Prevost. They then journeyed onward together.

In the writings of Bishop Ridley we can see the magnitude of the complete authority that Duncan held in his colony. As far as Duncan was concerned the Bishop was merely an intruder. Unfortunately the Bishop could not do very much about it since he did not yet understand the Indian tongue. On Sundays he was merely another body in the congregation. Duncan reports how the Bishop robed even though he did not seem to have any authority. Naturally, Duncan saw the Bishop as a threat. It would seem to us now that Bishop Ridley was trying in the most diplomatic way to fulfil the role that he was supposed to have as the new Bishop of Caledonia. He must have been an exceedingly patient man. He writes that the town, as far as material progress is concerned, was making real headway but that the Church aspect was sadly neglected. There was no attempt to give the people the scriptures in their native tongue or to translate the Prayer Book into Tsimshean. Also there were no bible classes and all the addresses to the Indians were by Duncan or Collison. The stress on worldly possessions was increasing more and more all the time.

Reports managed to get out of Metlakatla indicating that there was a terrible “episcopal autocracy” attempting to overthrow the wonderful Christian work that Duncan was doing. Unfortunately it got into the hands of certain people who believed Duncan. The Bishop was very sharply criticized by the Methodists and the Presbyterians and even by many members of the Church of England. The Bishop often went far into the upper reaches of the Skeena Valley in order to avoid the terrible controversy that was growing. He simply had to stay away from Duncan.

Soon an ultimatum was issued by the Church Missionary Society ordering Duncan to; a) come to England for a conference, b) to begin a programme of teaching as Bishop Ridley had suggested, or c) hand over the mission to the Bishop. Duncan, however, did not answer the CMS. Instead he called the Indians together and announced that the CMS had released him. He asked the people where their loyalty was and it is not difficult to see why they unquestionably followed him. This particular incident is a little difficult to sort out after having read the accounts of it as it is described by John Arctander. Arctander was a supporter of Duncan who wrote the book The Apostle of Alaska. He claimed that the Bishop did not handle the situation very nicely and that he had tried to force Duncan to resign. Approximately 100 of the one thousand Indians remained faithful to the Bishop and they were very poorly treated. The Bishop immediately returned to England leaving his courageous wife behind. After the Bishop's return the two factions lived together for some five years without acknowledging each other. The Bishop and his followers were not allowed any place to conduct worship and they were completely snubbed on the streets. On one occasion, when Duncan was away in Victoria, the Bishop reports that Duncan's followers were very civil and kind to him, however as soon as Duncan returned it was the same old story.

Eventually Duncan and his people came into conflict with the government over land claims. There was a legal hassle and news of this got to the outside world. It was not too long before people began to realize that the unhappiness between the Church and Duncan was not so much a conflict between "episcopal autocracy" and Christian liberty, but simply one between any authority and liberty.

Duncan made a trip to New York to appeal for sympathy and it was at this time that he came into contact with John Arctander. He even went so far as to visit the President to enlist his aid. In the name of his 500 Indians he renounced the Queen and promised never to fly the Union Jack again. He and his people were granted some land in American Territory (Annette Island) some 70 miles north of Metlakatla. Before leaving their old homestead they destroyed their houses and other public buildings.

The building of the huge church at New Metlakatla is one of the things about this story that seems incredible. The wooden building was extremely large (almost twice the size of the present Cathedral in Prince Rupert in what is now the Diocese of Caledonia) and could accommodate 700 worshippers. It was built entirely by the Indians with the guidance of Duncan. He himself marvelled at the fact that only a short time previously these same people had committed "fiendish acts". The first services were held in the new church (which was nick-named the Westminster Abbey of Metlakatla) on Christmas Day of 1874.

Soon after they left the Canadian Metlakatla, the remaining Indians asked the Bishop to explain to them the Biblical references to the Lord's Supper and it was not very long before they were able to understand what it was all about. Duncan had apparently given them the benefit of understanding English Victorian culture and all the privileges of society, including such things as the appreciation and even the performance of some of Handel's oratorios, but did not think they were capable of understanding the Lord's teaching concerning the Eucharist.

The task of going to a completely "heathen" people and attempting to take Christ to them seems an extremely difficult thing—especially if one is alone. William Duncan certainly deserves a great deal of respect and credit for his unceasing perseverance. To mould a people, who at the start were so savage that they ate each other, must have required infinite patience. These Indians were even accustomed to eating dogs raw on certain occasions as a degree of honour. It is certainly understandable that Duncan should have been fearsome that the Holy Communion might be misunderstood.

Another problem that Duncan had to face was the whole question of the "potlatch". This custom involved a person giving away certain material goods as a display. It is somewhat akin to the idea of saving face in oriental cultures. Those invited to the potlatch are then required to return the invitation (much as we expect a person to return a dinner engagement) but to outdo the previous giveaway. One can see the problems that would result. This can be seen to have both a moral and an economic aspect. Stress on personal pride and status was of course somewhat out of place in the Christian concept of life. The problem then is how is one to alter ideas and customs that have been with a people for aeons? In Tsimshean culture if a man even stumbled in public he was bound to have a potlatch in order to save face. There would obviously be many, many occasions when one would have to give away his material possessions. The social problems around the questions of poverty and property ownership, when potlatches are the norm, would be utterly fantastic. Often slaves were held to be simply personal property or chattels. They too would be traded back and forth. This situation would obviously be completely contrary to the Christian ethic and of European society’s norms.

On the other hand there would be some positive factors in the converting of these Indians to the Christian faith. They did have an extremely great awareness of the supernatural. Their lives were bound up by things of the spirit. There was not the sharp demarcation between the material and the spiritual that we find in Western culture and especially in white North American culture. Also there was the advantage of working with, a people who had a very developed sense of, and love for, hospitality.


The Nass River flows westward to the Pacific and meets the ocean just north of Fort Simpson (now Port Simpson) where William Duncan had begun his activity. Approximately 70 miles up the Nass is the village of Aiyansh. It is to this place that James McCullagh, a priest of the Church Missionary Society, first came. It was in 1883 that he arrived completely unprepared for such a wild country. The two tribes that were nearby were the Gitlakdamiks and the Gitwinksilqus. They lived in villages a few miles upstream from the place where McCullagh began building his cabin and which later on became the site of Aiyansh. It is interesting to note that many of these Indian names begin with the syllable "Sit" or "Kit". This is an Indian word, which means "People of—". We find it in names such as Kitwankool, Kinkolith, and Kitimaat. While James McCullagh was building his cabin he had an accident with an axe, which caused him a great deal of discomfort and disability. He refers to this incident as his axe-i-dent. He seems to have been able to fend for himself quite admirably and reports that he was fairly comfortable in his cabin. Fresh salmon was the main item in his diet and he reports that even that delicacy can become quite tiresome. He apparently enjoyed fresh beef only once between 1883 and 1887.

In the beginning McCullagh did not believe that the Indians up the river would ever be turned to Christianity. He felt, that they were in a state of "fossilized degradation". His first efforts at preaching and teaching were very much unappreciated by the Indians and of course especially by the medicine men. The Indians did not like the way he looked them straight in the eye when he was speaking to them. Another of his attributes that they were not fond of was that he took no abuse from them—even from the chiefs.

McCullagh, as Duncan had been, was at first obliged to be everything to these people. His first surgical operation was the repair of a finger, which had been in the barrel of a rifle when it was discharged. A certain Indian by the name of Shagaitksiwan had refused to come and hear McCullagh give his lessons and the missionary sent some men to bring him. Eventually they had to carry the man to McCullagh. However, even then he refused by placing his fingers in his ears. It was this same man who later injured himself. He had his finger in the barrel to prevent snow from getting in and a twig accidentally discharged the gun. McCullagh, half jokingly said that this certainly would prevent the man from placing his fingers in his ears when the teacher was speaking. The Indians were somewhat upset by this. They thought that McCullagh had some sort of power. At any rate it seems to have made them respect the missionary a little more.

Conversion was a very long drawn out process. The Indians were very much set on their ideas of black magic. They had a cult of spiritism similar to voodoo where a certain man of the tribe, a Necromancer, could be asked to work a spell on an enemy, which it was believed, would eventually bring about his death.

McCullagh spent long tedious hours learning the language of these people by having them tell him when he was making mistakes. The language is called Nisga'a. They did not of course have any conception of grammatical structure but they were able to inform him when they detected wrong pronunciation or order. He eventually compiled a small grammar of the language called the "Hagaga" and reduced the language to written form using some Roman letters and some Greek. He translated the Prayer Book and some hymns into Nishga. The Indians began to get quite interested in his work when he started working with a printing press. They seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He began to print a monthly newspaper in both languages. He also produced some of the Gospels in their language as well as periodic spelling sheets.

After his work began to have good effect and he had a body of faithful and informed Native people around him, he organized some small groups of preachers who went to the Indians in Gitlakdamiks to preach to them in their own tongue. This of course met with quite a bit of opposition at first. The heathen Indians did not know what to make of their converted tribesmen. Soon The Christian Indians began working on a road through the forest from Aiyansh to Gitlakdamiks. This road was perfectly straight and was to be used by the preachers when going to the village to preach the Gospel. The road was eventually named Gospel Road.

Fishery Bay, a centre for oolachan fishing on the Nass River, was another situation where there was an opportunity to preach the Gospel. Oolachans are a small fish from which the Indians get a thick oil or grease. It is eaten, used for cooking, put on the hair, and used for a thousand and one things. It is held to be quite valuable by the Indians. They still use it but not many of them bury it in the ground as they used to do to wait until it became ripe.

McCullagh, unlike Duncan, stressed the use of the vernacular in education. He encouraged the Indians to use their own language and to think in their own language. He taught them about other lands and tried to help them to realize that the world was much larger than they had supposed it to be. Pictures and articles were cut from magazines that he received and posted where all could see. His work as a doctor came mostly from what he had managed to read about in medical books sent out by the Society. During one particular measles epidemic he had considerable trouble with the medicine man who wanted to use the rattle over some of the patients. McCullagh simply put his foot down and refused to allow it. He told the people that if the patients died they would blame him and if they lived they would give credit to the medicine man.

Before building the church McCullagh arranged for the machinery for a sawmill to be sent. He figured that the source of building material was too far away and that they could save considerable amounts of money by making their own lumber. The machinery was brought up the river without a mishap and assembled. Unfortunately it would not work on waterpower and they had to wait until a steam generator could be brought in. Eventually this was done and the mill turned out lumber quite quickly. The church was built with the efforts of all the Indians. It was also built along with the rest of the village, at the cost of the Indians. When the church was opened there was a robed choir and everything was in order. McCullagh was actually dumbfounded at the beauty of the situation so that he could not even announce the hymn. He says he felt like prostrating himself on the floor in thanksgiving. The offering at that service was so heavy that he could not lift it to the holy table. It weighed 80 pounds and was in excess of one thousand three hundred dollars.

They had an interesting way of dealing with the offering. Since paydays were only once or twice a year for the Indians, (when they sold their salmon catch and their furs), it was not easy to deal in currency so they used 2 1/2 cent and 5 cent tickets which were purchased when the money was available and the banking was done by the warden. The Indians liked the sermons of McCullagh and were particularly attentive in church. They were very fond of any comparisons and illustrations, which were drawn from Indian Life.

McCullagh organized the people of Aiyansh as Duncan had done in Metlakatla, but he did one thing that was certainly a vast improvement. He put responsibility on other people rather than being directly in charge of everything himself. The Village Council, which was responsible for the running of affairs, was a very useful institution, which has continued to this day. In fact, the idea spread to the other villages of the Nass and they are all organized on these lines. There were people in charge of taxes, road maintenance, there was a sanitary committee which was responsible for making sure that the floors in the village houses were kept scrubbed, a Fire Master, and even a very amusing position which was called Fence Viewing—this person made sure that the fences were kept in good repair. Liquor was not allowed in the village because of the trouble, which always seemed to arise over its consumption.

The Church Army, an organization within the Anglican Church, which was modelled on the Salvation Army, was to have a place of great importance in the villages. It proved to be a real power for good and an outlet for the Indians. They would preach the gospel in the villages and in general they encouraged the cause of the faith. They had bands that were used in the open air preaching. These bands are still in existence and are surprisingly good. They are supported by an organization of women called the "Band Aid". McCullagh also organized a guild of Elders. This was for older men. They prayed with the sick and did visiting. They also made sure (or at least encouraged) that people were saying their prayers at home. The White Cross organization was a women's group that was similar to the Women’s Auxiliary. They cleaned the church and conducted money-raising campaigns for the benefit of church work. Many of these lay groups that did pastoral work could very profitably be copied in the church today—in an age when we are trying so hard to involve the layman in the service of the church. The work of James McCullagh is certainly an example of the courage and devotion that is ever needed in the Christian Church.