John Morton (1834-1912) was one of the first residents – arguably the first resident, although others have laid claim to the distinction – of modern-day Vancouver. He came to British Columbia in 1862 hoping to strike it rich in the Cariboo Gold Rush. He arrived too late to get in on that but, together with his two English partners, William Hailstone and Sam Brighouse, established a land preemption in an area that included most of today’s West End (his preemption shack was located near where the Guinness Tower is today).
Morton came from a family of Baptists in Yorkshire, and was himself a Baptist. For his first several years in B.C., however, he was pretty quiet about his denominational attachment. When he arrived in B.C., there were no Baptist churches in the Lower Mainland. Olivet Baptist in New Westminster was established in 1878; First Baptist Vancouver in 1887. By the time of Morton’s marriage to his second wife, Ruth Mount in 1884 (his first wife, Jane, died a few years earlier following the birth of their second child), he identified himself as a Baptist on the marriage register, although the marriage was performed by a Methodist minister*. Dr. Don Anderson, in his history of Olivet, notes that Rev. Robert Lennie (Olivet’s founding pastor and First Baptist’s ‘midwife’) befriended Morton in 1886, and soon after, Morton began aligning himself publicly with Baptist work and helping to fund it.
At about the same time, the CPR decided to extend its line to downtown Vancouver. Morton joined a syndicate to sell much of his West End property to the railway. That sale was critical: it made Morton a wealthy man; and through his generosity, it helped support B.C. Baptists and their churches, including First Baptist. Shortly after making the land sale, Morton put aside about 10 lots in Vancouver for a Baptist College. However, the tax burden on the land made it too much for B.C. Baptists to bear and, ultimately, it was sold.
In 1899, after several years of farming near Mission and time spent in England, the Mortons moved back to Vancouver**. In 1902, they joined First Baptist Church.*** At the time the Mortons became members, FBC was worshipping at the building on the SE corner of Dunsmuir and Hamilton, and it was bursting at the seams. A building campaign was underway, and Morton was the first major donor. He gave the first $1000 for construction of the building at the NW corner of Burrard and Nelson. In April 1910 – just two years prior to his death – Morton laid the cornerstone of FBC’s new (and present) building.
Morton’s will stipulated that $100,000 be distributed, following Ruth’s death, to B.C. Baptist churches for Baptist work and education. The will was contested (unsuccessfully) by relatives following Ruth’s death in 1939. When the dust settled in 1942, and legal bills were paid, B.C. Convention churches were left with less than $44,000.****
When Charles Bentall (another member of FBC) led a major fund-raising campaign for Carey Hall, which later became Carey Theological College, he was able to remark accurately that using Convention funds for the College was in keeping with John Morton’s bequest.
*Vancouver Methodist pioneer, Ebenezer Robson.
**For the day, the Mortons’ residence was quite distant from the church. Their Vancouver homes were at 1151 Denman Street (1902-11), near the NW corner of Denman and Pendrell, and later (shortly before his death) just around the corner at 1147 Pendrell (Note: There is some confusion on the part of CVA pertaining to John Morton’s respective homes. The image linked above to ‘1147 Pendrell’ accurately shows Morton’s home, briefly, at that address, although at the time this post was published, it was incorrectly described on CVA’s site as being the Morton’s home on Denman Street). One-block-long Morton Avenue (not Morton Street, as it has often inaccurately been called) was named in honour of the Vancouver pioneer in 1909; it is located on the stretch where Ocean Towers is today, about a block from the locations of his former homes.
***Curiously, Morton’s younger sister, Maria, became a member of First Baptist Church in 1891 – several years before John did.
****The B.C. Baptist situation had also changed substantially since Morton’s death. The B.C. Baptist denomination, in the 1920s, lost about one-third of its churches to a schism. Two Baptist denominations resulted: the B.C. Baptist Convention, which was regionally affiliated with the Baptist Union of Western Canada; and the Regular Baptists (known later as Fellowship Baptists). Broadly speaking, the Convention Baptists were considered somewhat more theologically liberal; the Regular Baptists more conservative. When denominational ‘sides’ were taken by congregations during the schism, FBC identified with the Convention Baptists and Ruth Morton Memorial Baptist Church (named in honour of John Morton’s second wife) was with the Regulars. Ruth Morton Memorial has recently merged with another congregation (19th Avenue Christian Fellowship, formerly known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle) and changed their name to Mountainview Christian Fellowship; the combined congregation meets for worship in the former Ruth Morton Memorial building.
Donald O. Anderson. Committed to Continuing… A History of Olivet Baptist Church. New Westminster, 2003.
Donald O. Anderson. Not by Might Nor By Power… [A history of Carey Hall/College] Vancouver, 2006.
Robert K. Burkinshaw, Pilgrims in Lotus Land (McGill-Queen’s: 1995); in particular, his chapter called “The Separatist Solution: Fundamentalist Baptists, 1917-28.”
Bruce A. Woods’ manuscript, provisionally-titled Vancouver Love Story: The Legacy of John and Ruth Morton.
The text of this post was written originally for First Baptist Church’s 125th Anniversary (2011), as part of my series of brief biographies of former FBC members, titled ‘Who Was Who in the Pews.’ It is reproduced here with some additional information.