A. Donald MacLeod. W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004. xxii + 401 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-2770-6; $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-2818-5.
Reviewed by Michael P. Maxwell (Department of History, McGill University)
Published on H-Canada (April, 2005)
A Calvinist in Academe
When I heard that a biography of W. Stanford Reid had been published, my first reaction was to ask why. I owe much to Reid as he directed my masters and doctoral theses between 1960 and 1966, and he assisted my studies in many ways. He was without doubt a distinguished academic. He wrote three books, edited a fourth, and the list of his publications fills some twenty pages, but if every such person was awarded a 400-page biography, the flow of books on to the shelves of university libraries would reach tsunami proportions. However, in the hands of A. Donald MacLeod, also a former student of Reid and one who shares his Presbyterian faith, a biography has proved fully justifiable, though it could have been shorter. Reid left a remarkable personal archive, and MacLeod has exploited this well, indeed, too well at times, but he has also supplemented it with much additional research on the institutions with which his subject was associated.
Reid, who was born in 1913, was raised in and identified with a deeply religious, Christian Canada. His father, whose own background sheds light on nineteenth-century social conditions in rural Quebec, was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a missionary from England. There was no particular religious emphasis in his formal education, but he underwent a form of religious experience when he was fourteen and, after graduating from McGill with a B.A. and M.A., went on to study theology at the Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Thus, while some others of his generation were imbibing Marxism in one form or another, he was modeling himself on John Calvin and John Knox. The bed rock of his faith was the Westminster Confession of 1643 and his passion was early modern Scottish history. His story, therefore, which is sympathetically if also critically told, is that of an intelligent man struggling to reconcile the world from which he came with the increasingly secular society in which he lived. What makes the story particularly fascinating is that, in a sense, he lived two lives, or as MacLeod remarks, his life was "always lived on two tracks," though the tracks sometimes intersected (p. 301). One life was spent teaching history in universities, at McGill from 1941 to 1965, and from this date to his retirement in 1979 at Guelph. In the other life, he was actively engaged in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church, first as a minister to congregations in Montreal, and subsequently, as his academic work made increasing claims on his time, as a frequent preacher and contributor to church journals as well as a combative participant in the internecine quarrels of the church. One of the chapters devoted to this part of his life, entitled "Embattled Mainline Evangelical," relates how he was denied the prominence in the leadership of the church that he sought.
Reid obtained his doctorate in history at the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote his 174-page dissertation on anti-papalism in fifteenth-century Scotland. F. Cyril James held an appointment at the same university, when he was chosen as Principal of McGill in 1939. After the appointment had been announced, Reid wrote a letter to the McGill Daily in which he praised James in fulsome terms. Two years later, James appointed Reid as a sessional lecturer in history, much to the chagrin of the then chair of the department, E. R. Adair, who was not consulted and did not want Reid as a colleague. MacLeod's account of Reid's career at McGill and his subsequent one at Guelph, provides valuable insights into this formative period in the development of Canadian universities, old and new. His thumb-nail sketches of the members of McGill's history department are perceptive, though it might be mentioned that Perez Zagorin wrote on the Stuart period of British history, not the Tudor era.
The departure of James as Principal, combined with the reformist measures of the Liberal government in Quebec during the early sixties, created an environment in which Reid felt increasingly ill at ease; thus, he began to seek appointment elsewhere. He had proven his administrative abilities in running the men's residences at McGill, and this undoubtedly recommended him to Guelph, when he applied to supervise the foundation of a history department there in 1965. He threw himself into the task and made Guelph the center of Scottish studies in North America, but within four years he was again at odds with his environment. Student unrest and opposition from his colleagues, many of whom he had appointed, led him to resign as chair in 1969. Yet relief from administrative duties seems to have brought little peace. His combative nature combined, no doubt, with his adherence to an ideology that was unfashionable in university departments, aroused hostility in younger staff, who, he confided to a friend four years before he retired, were "definitely out to get me if they can" (p. 214).
Such detail can enliven the story, but little discrimination is shown in deciding what material should and should not be included. As a result, the book is longer than it need be. Sometimes whole letters are quoted when only portions of them are pertinent to the point being made. We hardly need to know, to cite but one example from much extraneous material, that during a meeting in Montreal of the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth, Reid's intelligent and able wife "joined a group of faculty wives to provide alternative entertainment for those not attending the sessions" (pp. 164-165).
This is a problem throughout the book, but it becomes particularly acute in those sections dealing with the affairs of the Presbyterian Church. Even some life-long members of that church will surely have difficulty with some of the ecclesiastical jargon that peppers these parts of the text: "confessionalism," "Barthism," "sociological evolutionism," "universalism," "indifferentism," "ecumenical sacramentalism," "pietism," and "theological modernism" are but a few of the terms describing the positions of a bewildering number of contending parties. This may be more the fault of the church than MacLeod, and may explain, in part, the decline in church attendance, but when added to the superfluity of detail found elsewhere, the effect is to confuse rather than enlighten.
This is a pity because MacLeod has captured accurately many features of this brash, contentious, but also learned and caring man, whose extraordinary energy, even late in life, provides material for three chapters covering the period from his retirement from Guelph to his death in 1996. It is perhaps significant that the Reids, who made four working trips to Australia during this period, saw their visits there as among the happiest times in their life. Home was associated with conflict, struggle, and anxiety about the political and social context of the times. Twice Reid wrote articles during the seventies suggesting that Canada might be headed for totalitarian dictatorship, and these general fears also extended to the future of the church. During one of his trips to Australia, he declared that "many Christians ... have become very despondent. They feel that everything has gone wrong ... The visible church is no longer effective" (p. 286). He countered this dark picture with optimism and faith, but there can be little doubt that in articulating this sentiment, he spoke for many of his generation. Macleod, in writing a fitting memorial to Stanford Reid, has also given expression to an element in mid-twentieth-century Canada that might otherwise be forgotten.
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Michael P. Maxwell. Review of MacLeod, A. Donald, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy.
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