Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson

by D. A. Carson


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A memorable firsthand account of not only the sacrifices and triumphs of full-time ministry but of a brutal, little-known era in North American church history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433501999
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 03/28/2008
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

D. A. Carson (PhD, Cambridge University) is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he has taught since 1978. He is a cofounder of the Gospel Coalition and has written or edited nearly 120 books. He and his wife, Joy, have two children and live in the north suburbs of Chicago.

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Every life and every ministry have a historical context. When that context is very similar to that of the reader, very little needs to be said about it. Tom's context was quite different from that of most people who will read this book. Since he cannot readily be understood apart from that context, this short chapter supplies what is needed.


The first Europeans to settle the country we now call Canada were French. Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535 — many decades before the Pilgrim Fathers landed several hundred miles farther south. Many of the French settlers were trappers and fur traders — coureurs de bois, they were called, literally "runners of the woods." They established linked communities and trading posts at strategic points along the St. Lawrence River, down through the Great Lakes, across to the Mississippi River, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. They thus encircled what became the Thirteen Colonies, whose residents tended to be more agrarian.

The differences between the French and English settlers were more than economic and geographic. The French were solidly Catholic and brought French traditions of churchmanship, education, and government with them. The American settlers were mostly from England, a mix of Congregationalists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, and eventually Baptists and Methodists. Inevitably the perennial European conflicts between France and England spilled over into the new world. Even within French Canada — then called New France — tensions in Europe generated violence. In France the Edict of Nantes had guaranteed remarkable religious freedom for the fast-growing Protestants, the Huguenots. In 1685, however, King Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes. Tens of thousands of Huguenots were killed or sent to the galleys or simply fled. Historians continue to debate how many of them were put to death in New France.

Meanwhile, rising numbers of English-speaking settlers were making their homes to the east of Québec in Acadia. It was not until the British took over New France that substantial numbers of such settlers made homes for themselves further inland, in what was later called Ontario. The turning point came in 1759. General Wolfe from England led a flotilla of warships up the St. Lawrence to Québec City, the seat of government for Québec, pondering how to land his troops and lead them up the sharp escarpment without being slaughtered by the massed French troops on the heights. In the dead of night, he managed to get them up a tiny trail that was left unguarded, and in the morning there was a classic battle on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the city itself. The English won. Both General Wolfe and the defending French General Montcalm were killed. The English took over governance of New France, and this arrangement was finalized and enshrined in the Treaty of Paris, signed at Versailles on 10 February 1763, between France and England. Canada and the American States were ruled from London. By 1791 a distinction was made between Lower Canada and Upper Canada. Lower Canada — so-called because it was situated on the downstream parts of the St. Lawrence, the area we now call the Province of Québec — was French-speaking and Roman Catholic, and its influence stretched through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Upper Canada — so-called because it lay upstream on the St. Lawrence system, in what is now Ontario — was traditionally English and Protestant.

In 1776, when the American War of Independence broke out, not all Americans were convinced that rebellion against the British crown was the right thing to do. Thousands of Americans trekked north and resettled in Upper and Lower Canada. In Canada they were known as UELs — United Empire Loyalists. Historians have sometimes compared the sermons of American patriots in this period with the sermons of UELs: how was the Bible handled in the two populations? Yet not only was there a deep rift between UELs and other Americans, there was also a fundamental division among the UELs themselves. Those who arrived in Upper Canada were absorbed by a population that spoke English and was largely Protestant; those who arrived in Lower Canada faced a thoroughly alien world. Some small percentage of them founded new communities that spoke, taught, and worshiped in English, forming little villages with names like Sawyerville — English Protestant enclaves that were largely left to themselves. But most UELs who settled in Lower Canada eventually intermarried with the French population and were absorbed into its culture and religion. That is why it is still possible to visit towns that are virtually 100 percent French-speaking and find significant numbers of families in the phone book with names like Williams, Smith, and Rogers who cannot understand a word of English.

Subsequent events in American history were sometimes mightily influenced by these developments in the neighbor to the north. Two are worth mentioning. Ongoing tensions between England and America were equally tensions between Canada and the United States, surfacing most dramatically in the War of 1812–14. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain was at war with France, struggling to defeat Napoleon, and used its navy to impede American trade with France, which, understandably, America viewed as illegal restriction of free international commerce. The Royal Navy also pressed many Americans into its service. Equally frustrating to the Americans was the British strengthening of the French-Canadian and Indian forts around the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to New Orleans, arming them with a ready supply of the most up-to-date weapons. The Americans were now trying to move west and viewed these military developments with alarm. On 18 June 1812 the Americans declared war on Britain and invaded Canada.

The struggle does not need to be reviewed here: it is the outcome that is important to our story. Americans viewed the conflict as a second war of independence, while the British were less interested in this conflict than in the war with France. Once Napoleon was defeated, that war had achieved its primary aim. Britain cut its losses and signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814 to end the war with America. Before news of this signing could reach the U.S. southern coast, United States forces won a resounding victory at New Orleans (its losses on land had been considerable up to that point, including the sacking of Washington and failure to take any part of Canada), while British forces captured Fort Bowyer in Alabama. Canadian and American history books read the results in very different ways. Seeing this (as I've said) as a second war of independence, Americans not only saw the outcome as a resounding victory (the Battle of New Orleans is the stuff of legend) but also found themselves more united as a nation than they had been before the war.

Proud and grateful that they had lost none of their territory, Canadians also saw the outcome as a resounding victory, for under the capable leadership of General Sir Isaac Brock they had successfully repulsed invading American forces, and they too found themselves more united than before the war. Many in the francophone population did not particularly like the British government, but they certainly preferred it to the American, for they feared they would be swamped by America's English language and culture, not to say its Protestantism, if they fell under rule from Washington. Residents of Upper and Lower Canada began to think of themselves as having a good deal more in common with each other than with their neighbors to the south. That newly born sense of unity ultimately resulted in the founding of Canada.

The second major event that must be understood is the birth of Canada. It was not until 1867 that the Dominion of Canada was born under the terms of the British North America Act (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). Until that time Canada (called British North America until 1867) was essentially ruled by governors sent out from Britain's Parliament at Westminster. Now Canada secured full legislative freedom, barring the right to change the Constitution independently, a right not repatriated (as it was called) to Canada's House of Commons until 1982. The reason for this delay was not that Westminster was begrudging about giving up its power; rather, Canadians could not agree on a formula for changing their own Constitution. Until 1982 changes were made (akin to constitutional "Amendments" in the U.S.) through Westminster. The inability to agree sprang in large part from Canada's substantial minority of French-speaking citizens, understandably nervous about potential constitutional amendments that would take away their unique rights. These we must understand if we are to grasp the shape of evangelical ministry in Québec in the mid-twentieth century.


Just as the fledgling United States kept adding states until it reached its current total of fifty, so fledgling Canada kept adding provinces until it reached its current total of ten, plus three territories. The last province to be added was Newfoundland (1949). From its beginning, however, Canada had to agree to establish a constitution that would ensure that the provinces enjoyed certain legal rights that would allow Québec to preserve its peculiar linguistic, cultural, and religious character. Although there is a minority of French Canadians in Ontario, along with tiny pockets in Alberta and about a fifty-fifty split in New Brunswick, only Québec enjoys an overwhelming majority of francophones. Although Québec is only one of ten provinces, nevertheless throughout much of the twentieth century about one-third of Canadian citizens claimed French as their first language. (The percentage has in recent years dropped slightly to about 30 percent.) The result was a constitution that made both English and French, at least on paper, official languages of the entire country. Moreover, it granted the provinces enormous legislative rights in virtually every domain except criminal law, national economic policy, and foreign affairs. In other words, although the other nine provinces developed laws that were roughly in line with British heritage, in Québec criminal matters were constrained by laws derived from the British heritage, but civil, religious, educational, and other cultural sectors were constrained by laws adapted from the heritage in France, frequently from the Napoleonic Code. Perhaps the greatest exception was in the area of religion, where Québec followed neither Britain nor France. Québec never went through anything analogous to the French Revolution with its strenuous anti-clericalism. Québec laws granted enormous authority to the Catholic Church, especially in the domain of education.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the influence of the Catholic Church among the six million or so francophones in Québec is difficult for those who never lived through that time to imagine. An astonishingly high percentage of the population attended weekly Mass, and the will of the Church was mediated through thousands of priests. It is essential to understand at least a little of what this looked like.

First, the birthrate was very high, and the abortion rate was very low. In many parts of Québec, the average number of children per family was eight. The family that lived behind our home had eleven children. Down the road from where we lived was a family with twenty-one children, no multiple births, one mother. This is not hearsay; we knew the family. It was not uncommon to hear priests urging la revanche des berceaux ("the revenge of the cradle"): the English may have taken over the country by military might, but the disparity in birthrates would sooner or later renew French and Catholic strength.

Second, the form of Catholicism in Québec at the time was frankly medieval. This was Catholicism still untouched by Vatican II (1962–1965) and largely uninfluenced by European secularization or the Reformation. I remember the indulgences that were sold, the sight of devout pilgrims climbing the stairs of l'Oratoire St-Joseph on their knees while reciting the Rosary at each step, and popular forms of adoration of Mary that I have seen duplicated nowhere in the world except Poland. I recall the vast crowds that turned out to see Cardinal Léger ride slowly in an open car down the main street of our city, and as he passed, everyone — well, everyone except the Carsons — fell to their knees or even flat on their faces before him by the side of the road, a human wave that followed the progress of the car.

Third, the Catholic clergy openly encouraged a certain kind of isolationism from the rest of the country. Some of this was understandable. If too many learned English, perhaps the French language, history, and culture would be obliterated. Nevertheless, the system that produced priests, nuns, and lawyers tended not to produce engineers and senior managers, for they would have to interact with peers who spoke English. The result was inevitable: English Canadians, never slow to push their own interests, tended, even within Québec, to be the managers, the bosses, the planners, at least on the economic fronts, while French Canadians were the laborers. Resentments were festering that would explode into violence in the 1960s. These resentments were also fueled by basic inequities. Nominally both English and French were national languages, but whereas an anglophone could be tried in an English-speaking court in Québec, a francophone could not be tried in a French-speaking court in most of the rest of the country. Road signs in Québec were bilingual; elsewhere in the country, they were only in English. A box of cereal that sold across the country was printed only in English.

The fourth factor was perhaps the most important for Tom's ministry in the early years. The Catholic Church had so much authority, through the Québec legislature, in the domain of education that two school boards were set up — one Catholic and the other Protestant. The so-called Protestant School Board was not really religiously Protestant at all. It more or less paralleled the provincial school boards of the other provinces: essentially it was moving in the direction of increasing secularization. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and anyone else could attend. The catch was that this Protestant School Board was permitted to have schools in the English language only. By contrast, the Catholic School Board was distinctively Catholic. Often the teachers were nuns and teaching brothers; it was not uncommon for a priest to be in charge. In other words, the public system for six million francophones in Québec was essentially like a conservative Catholic parochial school today. These schools, of course, were mostly French. Here, too, there was a catch. If a French-speaking family with children in the (French) Catholic school system converted and, say, became members of a Baptist church, sometimes they were no longer allowed to send their children to the Catholic system.

Where this happened — it was common enough, though it depended greatly on local administrators — the parents soon discovered that if they wanted to send their children to a school under the Protestant School Board, whether because they were forced to or out of theological conviction, the schools of the Protestant Board were in English. There were no French-language schools under the Protestant School Board. Not only did the children often lose a year learning the English language, but over time their friends became English, and their reading skills and educational strengths were in English, and so when they grew up many of them drifted toward English churches. That meant that the French evangelical churches tended to be perennially first-generation churches, since many of the children defected to the English side.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were about seventy French-speaking evangelical Baptist churches dotted up and down the St. Lawrence Valley, most of them belonging to the Grande Ligne Mission. Most of these were small, and some faced the challenges of being perennially first-generation. Theological liberalism wiped out almost all of these churches in the early decades of the twentieth century. By the mid-1930s, only a handful remained, along with a few francophone Plymouth Brethren assemblies, serving a population of six million.

This was the context in which three men — Wilfred Wellington and Tom Carson, both from English-speaking Canada, and a man from Switzerland, William Frey — in the late 1930s committed themselves to full-time church-planting in French Canada. Frey, of course, was fluent in French; the other two had to begin by learning the language. But before we take up that story, it is important to understand how massively Québec has changed in the last seven decades.


Excerpted from "Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor"
by .
Copyright © 2008 D. A. Carson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 O Canada! A Sketch of Québec,
2 Tom Carson: Beginnings of Life and Ministry,
3 French Work in Montréal,
4 Crisis,
5 The Early Drummondville Years,
6 Discouragement, Despair, and a Vow,
7 Civil Servant and Minister of the Gospel,
8 Pressing On: Transformation and Growth,
9 Marg's Alzheimer Years,
10 Ending Well: Final Ministry and Promotion to Glory,
Appendix: The Letter of 5 May 1948,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This account gives us valuable insight into the life of a man who accepted the challenges of ministry with both integrity and grace, and into the life of a Protestant pastor in French Quebec. A powerful reminder that there are no little places if we are faithful to the God who called us."
—Erwin W. Lutzer, Pastor Emeritus, The Moody Church, Chicago

"How can the application of a Bible-saturated mind (Don's) to a Bible-saturated life (Tom's) produce an even more helpful story to encourage pastors? Let the 'mind' be carried on a river of love because the 'life' is his father's. Then add a kind of narrative creativity. That's how."
—John Piper, Founder and Teacher,; Chancellor, Bethlehem College & Seminary; author, Desiring God

"A rare and precious gift from one of evangelicalism's greatest scholars. How generous of Dr. Carson to bequeath his father's quiet legacy to us all."
—C. J. Mahaney, Senior Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville

"Carson strikes at the heart of what's wrong when we forget that, as servants, we were meant to live ordinarily under the gospel of grace. Read this book. You will be deeply encouraged in your life and ministry."
—Michel Lemaire, Pastor of Eglise Baptiste de la Foi, Drummondville, 1984-2005

"This personal testimony is a healthy reminder of heavenly priorities in the pastorate and Christian ministry."
—Pierre Constant, Associate Pastor, Eglise Baptiste Montclair de Hull, 1982-1997

"Read this book and be strengthened. You hold in your hands history, humor, and an amazing amount of wisdom for the Christian life (especially for pastors!)."
—Mark Dever, Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC

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