John Lewis Paton (1863-1946), the first president of Memorial University College in 1925, is well remembered today.
Not only Paton College at MUN bears the name of the man who resolutely eschewed all honours, but also a distinguished university professorship named after him honours faculty members who excel in all three areas of research, teaching and service to the public.
JLP, as he was affectionately known among his colleagues and friends, already had a distinguished record as a public school educator in England when he was asked to lead the newly founded Newfoundland institution of higher learning as its first president.
While his merits as an educator are well known, religion, as the well-spring and motivation of his educational and social engagement, is seldom remembered.
Born at Brightside, Sheffield, England, the son of a distinguished Congregational minister, theologian and educator, John Brown Paton (1830-1911), John Lewis found in his father one of the most formative influences for his own thinking and actions.
The elder Paton particularly confronted social questions that churches faced during the 19th century, applying to the human social challenges of urban England the German Inner Mission’s response to needs of individuals and families caught up in the industrial revolution.
He formed social organizations for children and youth, such as the Boys’ Life Brigade and the Girls’ Life Brigade, and founded facilities and opportunities for adult education and leisure through the Trade Council of Learning, the National Home Reading Union, the Co-operative Holiday Association and the English Land Colonization Society, to name only some of his many initiatives.
John Lewis Paton, whose father was personally acquainted with German protestant religious leaders, became exposed at an early age to the challenges facing education and society. While attending school at the famous Lutheran institution in Halle, Saxony, he saw first-hand how pedagogy, social work and religion could co-operate in addressing social questions. JLP would later write about his father’s appreciation of how German protestants organized their home missions:
“The idea of the Inner Mission provided a comprehensive framework which gave unity to all different branches of Christian social work … and all the other redemptive agencies carried on in connection with the Church.
“It supplied a platform broad enough for all Christians of whatever denomination to work in a united effort.”
John Lewis would choose public education as his career path.
His dissenting pedigree, going back to Scottish Covenanters and Poole Congregationalists, may have attracted Paton as headmaster to the independent University College School of London, which he later left to become high master of Manchester Grammar School. In all institutions he supported self-help and personal initiative as well as service to those who needed it most.
His student H.C. Barnard, later a professor of education at Reading, thought the Manchester Grammar School especially suited Paton because it was “a grammar school offering the highest possible educational advantages … with close university associations, and yet open freely to those boys who could benefit irrespective of financial, social, religious, or any other considerations.”
As a hands-on administrator, close to students and faculty members alike, Paton was especially appreciated by his former students and colleagues in England and Newfoundland.
“By some glorious alchemy,” writes Richard T. McGrath, “he changed a generation of gawky, struggling youngsters into solid students and fine scholars. Out we went to Oxford, Cambridge, McGill, Toronto, Queen’s, Washington and Dal. Out we went to Tech, MIT, Columbia, Harvard and Yale. Back we came as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses, parsons and priests; reasonably solid citizens who have taken a place with some small distinction in the life of Newfoundland.”
Paton was supported in his educational task by progressive Newfoundland clergy, notably the United Church minister Oliver Jackson, who together with like-minded individuals arranged summer schools and tutoring for promising students across the island, among them the future eminent fisheries scientist Wilfred Templeman as well as the commissioner and minister of public welfare, Herbert Pottle.
Yet amidst all the demands of university administration and teaching, Paton remained actively involved in church matters.
On their arrival in St. John’s, Paton and his sister Mary immediately transferred their church membership from Broughton Park Congregational Church in Manchester to Queen’s Road Congregational Church in St. John’s, a time-honoured institution that continues to exist as St. David’s Presbyterian Church on Elizabeth Avenue. He was quickly elected a deacon, a position he held until his departure in 1933.
Numerous entries in the minute book of the Board of Deacons document how seriously Paton engaged his church activities, which occasionally included sermons he preached when no minister was available.
Although Paton remained true to his Congregationalist heritage, his vision of Christianity embraced a wider spectrum.
He favoured union of the Congregational Church with Methodists and Presbyterians in the United Church, which — with the exception of the Fortune Bay Congregational Mission — did not become a reality here in Newfoundland. His student Helena (McGrath) Frecker credits Paton with introducing ecumenism into her practical vocabulary.
“Ecumenism we had never heard of,” McGrath — a Roman Catholic — remembered. “But Mr. Paton showed it to us at its best. Respecting our individual consciences and our traditional beliefs, he yet let us see the strong bond we had in a common Christianity and a common humanity. Francis of Assisi, who loved all living creatures, and Martin of Tours, who shared his cloak with a beggar, were his favourite saints and he was very like them both.”
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.