Wednesday, June 20, 2012

George McDougall and Methodist Conceptions of Death

Image No: NA-659-44
Title: Reverend George McDougall.
Date: [ca. 1875-1876]
Photo: Field, Montreal, Quebec
The death of the Reverend George McDougall, in January of 1876, has all the elements of an iconic moment in Western Canadian history.  Out on a buffalo hunt with his son John, George lost his way and was found in the snow laying on his back as if readied to meet his maker.  Sarah Carter wrote of the event in her 1981 thesis:
In January of 1876, George and John McDougall and two other men were buffalo hunting north of present-day Calgary. On one clear evening George rode ahead to prepare supper for the others but did not make it to camp. The search lasted for several days during which there was a fierce blizzard. His frozen body was eventually found but there were no clues as to the cause of death. The mystery was that there was no explanation for how an experienced frontiersman could become lost on a clear night. (Carter, Man's Mission of Subjugation, p.20)
John McDougall, George's son who also took up a missionary calling, wrote of the event in the final version of his autobiography. 
When I lifted the shawl and saw the position in which he was frozen I felt whatever may have happened to father toward the last he was conscious and feeling that death was upon him he had picked a spot as level as he could and laid himself out, limbs striaght and hands folded...His face was perfectly natural and there seemed to be an expression upon it of a conscious satisfaction. (John McDougall, Opening the Great West, (Glenbow Institute, Calgary, 1970), 36)

Canadian Methodist missionary writings of the nineteenth century often take a surprisingly positive stance on death.  Oftentimes, the prayers and confessions of dying aboriginal peoples are taken as moments of joy which show the soon-to-be-departed are in transition to a peaceful eternity in heaven. The general report of the Canadian Methodists in 1876-77 stated of their northern missions, "cheering accounts of happy death-bed scenes have been received from the Missions in the north." "Cheering" and "death-bed" seem peculiarly paired
53rd Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church of Canada, from June 1876, to June 1877,CIHM 00934-1875-76.

John McDougall
John McDougall seemed to feel the same way of the deaths of those who had converted to Christianity. He wrote of the deaths of two Stoney Nakoda during the year 1874-75: "these were triumphant in the faith, and leaning upon Jesus, they passed from the wretched tent to the Heavenly mansion." In 1891, he wrote of the Stoney Nakoda at Morley, "there have been some very triumphant deaths. The testimonies of some when nearing the 'border land' have been full of assurance and victory."
 ("Fifty-first annual report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church of Canada from June 1874 to June 1875." Toronto: Methodist Conference Printing Office 1875. CIHM no 00934-1874-75. and 57th report, 1890-91)

Ironically, George McDougall took death as the topic of a letter he wrote James Ferrier on 6 January 1876, very shortly before he died himself on the plains somewhere near today's Calgary, Alberta.

There is something that strikes on all hearts in the spectacle of a great man's funeral. The hearse, the solemn march of the procession are both very impressive, and yet the subject of all this show may have been heedless of the great salvation, and if so, is now suffering the doom of a lost spirit.[...] Reflections like these often cross the mind of the Indian missionary, as he looks for the last time upon all that is mortal of one of his Sabbath School scholars. In the past twenty five years I have assisted at the burial of hundreds of these little red children; the squirrel now gambols in the boughs of the trees that everhang their graves, and the partridge whistles in the long grass that floats over the solitary place, but the incidents connected with their short pilgrimage cannot be forgotten.

(James Ferrier Canadian Methodist collection, Public Archives of Alberta, PR 1975.0572)
The passage acknowledges the tragic mortality rate of indigenous children attending missionary schools, but seems to rest assured in their eternal salvation.

Monument to George McDougall.
 He is interned in the Wesley Cemetery
Alison Jackson Photograph Collection, AJ 1458

McDougall wrote the piece for a model Sunday School curriculum that Ferrier was organizing, and included the death stories of two aboriginal children.  There is a curious  serendipity to McDougall's morbid topic.  It must have come as a shock to Ferrier to learn, shortly after, if not before he received McDougall's letter, that the famous missionary had departed the mortal realm.

No comments:

Post a Comment