The Canadian Baptist who never avoided controversy
The word controversialist is not often used today. However, it’s a good word to describe the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from a public argument, but relishes the clash of opinions.
In the history of the Church in Canada, it’s hard to find a better example of a controversialist than T. T. Shields. Not only was "the battling Baptist" involved in several controversies in his lifetime, he remains a controversial figure today.
Born in England in 1873, Thomas Todhunter Shields immigrated to Canada with his family in 1888. His father was a pastor and he followed in his footsteps. Although Shields had little formal education, he was a gifted, vivid preacher, and became pastor of the prominent Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto in 1910.
At the time Shields established his pastorate, a theological approach called modernism was sweeping the Protestant churches in Canada. Modernists were known for their willingness to question traditional doctrines and even the Bible itself. They investigated the historical background of the original writing of the biblical documents, but did so using skeptical assumptions that undermined the authority of the text.
Shields, like many pastors of that time, was opposed to modernism, which he rightly saw as calling into question the whole basis of the Church’s beliefs. However, unlike many pastors, Shields’ taste for intellectual combat and fiery rhetoric led him to confront modernism head-on.
When he suspected professors at McMaster University, then a Baptist institution, of supporting modernism, Shields publicly called for their dismissal. He raised the issue of biblical authority several times at the Baptist Convention and on at least one occasion convinced them to condemn modernist views. But Shields was opposed by those who saw modernism as the way of the future, as well as those who wanted to avoid taking stands that might be divisive.
"As far as I am concerned, I will have no compromise with the enemy," Shields thundered in 1923 at the height of the controversy. "I have declared again and again that I have resigned from the diplomatic corps – I am a soldier in the field, and as God gives me strength, everywhere, as long as I live, in the name of the Lord, I will smite [modernism], and I will make it as hard as I possibly can for any liberal professor to hold his position."
Although Shields had some initial success in this pursuit, eventually his views and militancy alienated too many people in the Convention, and he was driven out in 1927. He took 30 churches with him and founded Toronto Baptist Seminary.
Historian Doug Adams has documented that Shields also carried on heated disputes with both Mitch Hepburn, the premier of Ontario, and prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Shields became the darling of the news media for his pithy comments.
Unfortunately some of these were personal insults. He once joked Hepburn was "5 per cent ability and 95 per cent conceit," and dismissed him as "an intellectually diminutive imitation of Hitler." His public comments about the influence of the Catholic Church were particularly harsh, involving words like "cancer" and "parasite."
Shields’ tendency to turn small disagreements into big controversies also split his own institutions. When he dismissed the dean of his seminary W. Gordon Brown – no modernist himself – in 1949, Brown and 50 students left to found Central Baptist Seminary. Shields’ own Union of Regular Baptist Churches removed him from the presidency, and he left again to form another, very small denomination.
Sadly, Shields ended up alienated not only from modernists and prominent politicians, but even from many conservative Baptists who shared his doctrinal convictions.
Yet the Church sometimes needs controversialists. The stand Shields took, and the institutions and ministries he founded, helped ensure Baptists in Canada were not won over by modernism. Less combative personalities might have quietly kept their heads down while modernism carried the day, but Shields spoke out for truth.
Apart from his controversies, Shields was also a passionate proclaimer of the gospel who saw many people come to Christ over the course of his ministry.
The challenge, then as now, is whether we can contend for what is right without tearing down our opponents or creating unnecessary enemies – in other words, whether we can avoid the extremes of harshness and indifference when truth is on the line. Can we obey the Bible’s command to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15)?
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.