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My accidental encounter with Reverend John Saltkill Carroll

I feel a little guilty using John Carroll’s colourful middle name, because I know he didn’t like it. But it makes him easy to identify and there’s a good story behind it, so I’m confident that he’d understand. More about that later.

In November 2016, I became part owner of an oil painting of Rev. Carroll. Three friends and I acquired it at an online auction of the contents of the closed and soon-to-be-demolished Woodgreen United Church in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto.

What first drew our attention to the auction were the war memorials listed for sale. They deserved better treatment. We combed through the rest of the 315 lots up for bid, and noticed the painting, described as “Picture A, 39 x 54”. The digital images included one of the name plaque which read “Rev. J. Carroll”.

Portrait from the Woodgreen United Church auction.

That name meant nothing to me. Time was short to determine whether the portrait, or the man it depicted, were historically or artistically significant. There were 48 hours left to the close of bidding.

A Google search for the combination of words “rev j carroll toronto” showed me an assortment of documents that connected Methodism, Toronto, and Leslieville. Taken together, they convinced me that the subject of the painting at Woodgreen United Church (originally Woodgreen Methodist Tabernacle) was Reverend John Saltkill Carroll.

There was a Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for him! (It begins by stating that he never used his middle name.) But the DCB is a great place to start.

John’s father, Joseph Carroll, had served for the British in the American Revolutionary War. After his corps was disbanded in the West Indies, he settled in New Brunswick. “Settled” may not be the right word. His time in the army and at sea had made him restless and intemperate. Joseph married Molly Ridout, twenty years his junior. John and his twin brother were the last of twelve children. They were born in 1809 on an island in Passamaquoddy Bay, called Saltkill’s. John was named for the island’s Quaker owner, John Saltkill, and his twin for the island’s other resident Isaac Clarke.

Joseph and Molly were on their way to Upper Canada at the time of the twins’ birth, apparently with the promise of a 1,000-acre land grant. (This remains to be proven and impresses me as very optimistic.) The family settled on the Grand River near Brantford. They moved to Niagara while Joseph, a skilled harness maker, served during the War of 1812, and the family was forced to seek shelter several times. The regimental harness-maker’s shop was relocated to Hamilton, then Queenston, then finally to York in 1814. The rest of John Saltkill Carroll’s childhood was spent in York and surrounding townships.

Photo from the Topley Studio collection at Library and Archives Canada. Identified only as Rev. John Carroll. Dated 1877, when our Rev. Carroll was 68.

John’s education was limited, although apparently his family recognized his readiness to learn. He figured out reading by five, likely with the help of his Quaker mother and older brothers. From age six to about eleven, he attended schools when they were available. Teaching was not government funded or regulated, and schools typically didn’t last long.

John attended Methodist Sunday School as soon as it became available in York, about 1818. He joined the church in 1823 at the age of 15 and became a probationary preacher in 1827. He was ordained in 1833. From 1831, he was assigned to charges based in Perth, Matilda, Brockville, Bytown, Johnstown, London, Hamilton, Montreal, Belleville, Ottawa, Monaghan, Guelph, Puslinch, Grantham, St. Catharines, and Leslieville.

Reverend Carroll was tireless preacher and leader in the Ontario Methodist community for some 40 years—a tumultuous time in the church’s organization. But his most important contribution was in recording its history.

The mostly self-educated Carroll was a prolific writer. A great storyteller and collector of stories, he tended to write in “anecdotes”—chapter length pieces that may have been published as articles in Methodist newspapers before compilation as a book. The five-volume Case and His Cotemporaries is probably his most significant work.

Today, when Methodism is largely absent from Ontario, it is easy to forget how important, even dominant, it was in the settlement period. A familiar denomination to Loyalists, Methodist preachers worked hard to reach out to isolated communities. The history of Methodism reflects Ontario’s history. John Carroll spoke to and recorded the stories of those “saddlebag preachers” in several books.

Portrait of John Saltkill Carroll from his book, “My Boy Life”

But my favourite book, by far, is the wonderful My Boy Life: Presented in a Succession of True Stories. Covering his family’s early life in New Brunswick, the arduous journey to Upper Canada, life during the War of 1812, the detail is richest after the Carrolls’ arrival in York. Every Toronto historian should read it!

Lucky for us, My Boy Life, and virtually all John Carroll’s books are available through archive.org, making them easily and quite reliably searchable. A list follows this article.

In 1882, in the opening chapter of My Boy Life, John Saltkill Carroll writes about his name: “My [twin] brother did not live long enough to assert his middle name; and I threw Saltkill away, and kept to John alone, when I came to choose for myself.”

Reverend Carroll died on December 13, 1884, at his home near Woodgreen Methodist Church. He was survived by his widow Beulah Adams, daughter Mary Elizabeth, wife of William Hugh McClive, barrister, of St. Catharines, and son John Adams Carroll, MD, of Toronto.


The portrait of this remarkable historian is now with the City of Toronto Museums Services, while they decide whether to accept the painting as a donation.


BOOKS BY JOHN SALTKILL CARROLL

Case and His Cotemporaries, Or, The Canadian Itinerants’ Memorial: constituting a biographical history of Methodism in Canada, from its introduction into the province, till the death of the Rev. Wm. Case in 1855. Toronto: Wesleyan Printing Establishment, 1867–1877. Five volumes.
Vol 1: [https://archive.org/details/cihm_05316]
Vol 2: [https://archive.org/details/casehiscontempor02carr]
Vol 3: [https://archive.org/details/casehiscotempora03carruoft]
Vol 4: [https://archive.org/details/cihm_05319]
Vol 5: [https://archive.org/details/03134132.emory.edu]

“Father Corson,” Or, The Old Style Canadian Itinerant: Embracing the Life and Gospel Labours of the Rev. Robert Corson, Fifty-six years a minister in connection with the central Methodism of Upper Canada. Toronto: Methodist Book Room, 1879. [https://archive.org/details/fathercorsonorol00carr]

My Boy Life: Presented in a Succession of True Stories. Toronto: William Briggs, 1882. [https://archive.org/details/cihm_00485]

A needed exposition, or, The claims and allegations of the Canada episcopals calmly considered. Toronto: Methodist Book Room, 1877 [https://archive.org/details/cihm_24163]

The “Exposition” expounded, defended, and supplemented. Toronto: Methodist Book and Publishing House, 1881 [https://archive.org/details/expositionexpoun00carruoft]

The school of the prophets; or, Father McRorey’s class, and Squire Firstman’s kitchen fire : a fiction founded on facts. Toronto: Burrage and Magurn, 1876. [https://archive.org/details/cihm_00489]

The Stripling Preacher, or a sketch of the life and character, with the theological remains of the Rev. Alexander S. Byrne. Toronto: Anson Green, 1852 [https://archive.org/details/cihm_48062]

Thoughts and conclusions of a man of years concerning churches and church connection. Toronto: William Briggs, 1879. [https://archive.org/details/cihm_00491]

The Besiegers’ Prayer or a Christian Nation’s Appeal to the God of battles. Toronto: Christian Guardian Office, 1855. [sermon at the time of the Crimean War] [https://archive.org/details/besiegersprayero00carr]

Past and present; or, A description of persons and events connected with Canadian Methodism for the last forty years. Toronto: Alfred Dredge, 1860. [https://archive.org/details/adescription00carruoft]

Reasons for Wesleyan belief and practice, relative to water baptism: expressed in plain words and arranged in a summary manner. Peterborough: R. White, 1862. [https://archive.org/details/cihm_55460]

A Humble Overture for Methodist Unification in the Dominion of Canada. Toronto: Burrage and Magurn, 1876. [Bound with The school of the prophets. https://archive.org/details/cihm_00489]

4 comments to My accidental encounter with Reverend John Saltkill Carroll

  • Susan Inwood

    Thank you , Jane, for this wonderful,story of Rev. Carroll.
    Another person whose story has come to light because of you.

  • Lynda Beedham

    Another excellent article, thank you Jane. The saddlebag preacher “Father Corson” is my 3GGF.

    I shall read Carroll’s “My Boy Life” now with great interest as other lines in my family had parallel life experiences in New Brunswick after 1783 before coming to Yonge street by 1799.

    Sincere thanks!

    Lynda

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      Lynda, wow, that’s exciting. I’m even more pleased about my accidental encounter! I hope you family didn’t go through quite as many tribulations as the Carroll family–but you will enjoy “My Boy Life”.

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