Spider and the Fly: Personality Politics at First Baptist in 1905

postcard showing interior of fbc hamilton:dunsmuir-side1 copy

Postcard showing the choir loft and organ of First Baptist Church, Vancouver (Hamilton and Dunsmuir), ca 1900.


It was the spring of 1905. First Baptist Church was still worshipping in the modest wooden building on Hamilton and Dunsmuir, but they had purchased the lot on Burrard and Nelson and were beginning to raise funds to build there.

The pastor, J. W. Litch, was new – he’d been in the job for just a few months following a year-long pulpit search made necessary by two years of disagreement over the previous pastor whom the congregation had ultimately urged (politely) to ‘hit the bricks’. This disagreement had caused more than 50 of the longest-standing members to march out of FBC in loyalty to the former minister; they’d formed a new church, called the West End Baptist Church.

And, to top it all off, there was a major fire in the Hamilton and Dunsmuir building that spring!

The officers and pastor of FBC surely had a full plate. One would have thought they’d have had neither energy nor inclination to engage in personality politics.

It Begins

From the minutes of FBC officers, March 14/05:

Pastor Litch… explained his position taken with the choir in regard to qualifications for [choir] membership, stating that he had requested the members to refrain from all questionable amusements, such as card playing, dancing, theatre, etc., which had resulted in a few of the members leaving. Also stating that he believed the rule of the church to the effect that the choir be made up of Christians, should be rigidly enforced.

Litch’s second point – that all choir members ought to be Christians – doesn’t seem unreasonable.

His first point, however, creates in my imagination a bizarre spectacle — of a choir loft filled with tenors wearing old-fashioned card-players’ visors and dealing hands of gin rummy while the sopranos ‘cut a rug’ with guys in the bass section!

Surely not.

Officers’ meetings for the next two months were consumed with negotiations with the West End Baptist Church and fire insurance companies.

However, by May, the pastor and officers had apparently recovered and were ready again to ‘do battle’ with the choir. But they had, by then, narrowed their target from the choir to an individual: organist/choirmaster, John Alexander.

A report of certain actions on the part of the choirmaster in criticizing the pastor and officers in choir practice and elsewhere was given (verbally) to the meeting and the following motion… was carried: The Secretary [to the Board of Officers] be instructed to request Mr. Alexander to meet the officers in this office on Monday evening next for the purpose of explaining certain matters.

I wonder if Mr. Alexander recited a line or two from the famous children’s cautionary verse as he went to this meeting:

“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“’Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show you when you are there.”
“Oh no, no,” said the Fly, “to ask me is in vain;
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
                                                                                       (Mary Howit, 1829)

Here is how the minutes record the meeting:

The chairman stated that he understood Mr. Alexander had at times, in choir meetings and elsewhere, questioned and criticized the pastor and officers and especially on Friday evening last, when… on several occasions [he] had spoken disrespectfully of the pastor and his judgement in the selection of hymns etc. and also that Mr. Alexander appeared to be generally dissatisfied and asked him if he wished to make any statement in regard to the matter.

Mr. Alexander denied ever having said anything except what would be justified in ordinary conversation. Claiming he had a right to express his opinion on any matter or individual and refused to make any statement without a definite charge laid and by some individual.

The officers ought to have called a halt to ‘the inquisition’ at this point and waited for a convenient opportunity to fire Alexander. Labour laws were much laxer in those days; it would not have been difficult.

But they seemingly couldn’t stop themselves. Everywhere they turned that year, there were crises over which they had little control: the West End church, a fire, debt on their current building, and the prospect of massive debt for a new one. But here, at last, was an issue they thought they could control!

Unfortunately, the subtlety of the spider was lost on them. They simply turned up the heat:

The chairman asked Mr. Alexander:

1. Have you spoken at the choir meeting in a way that would lead the [choir] members to think you did not respect the pastor… ? Mr. A. refused to answer.
2. Did you not one Sunday morning take issue with the pastor in regard to a certain hymn that was to be sung and prolong the discussion unduly past the hour for opening the service? Mr. A. could not recall it.

Mr. Litch came in at this point and asked several questions in regard to Mr. Alexander’s attitude on several occasions, but Mr. Alexander could not recall any occasion upon which he had acted or spoken in a manner that was not justified by the occasion…

Two months later, in late July, the officers wrote to choir members with the suggestion that “a vacation of three months should be given” during the summer. It is normal practice, today, for the choir to take a break during the summer months, but I gather from this that it wasn’t the norm in the early 1900s.

It seems that Mr. Alexander took his (no doubt, unpaid) ‘vacation’ along with other choir members. But he was no fool; he knew that the nursery rhyme always ends with the spider killing the fly. And so, in late September, Mr. Alexander chose to fall on his sword; he resigned.

Thus ended a sad case of how minor issues can be nursed into major ones; and of how personality conflict can take on a life of its own and become a form of vanity.

But wait! The tale is not quite over, yet. Mr. Alexander had one final card to play which he must have known would drive Pastor Litch and FBC officers nuts.

An advertisement was quietly placed (and paid for) in The Province by a gentleman with a Scots accent. It read:

screen shot 2019-01-16 at 4.44.26 pm

The ad was accurate in every detail and contained neither slur nor disrespectful comments: the sort of music favoured by First at that time (especially in the evening services), was evangelical choruses – particularly those by popular composer Ira Sankey. Likewise accurate was the proscription against card-playing and theatre-going, although First probably was not well-pleased to have this tidbit appear in a newspaper.

Predictably, the officers were furious. They contacted The Province to learn all they could about who placed the ad. An investigation of the matter was even launched (although it seems cooler heads ultimately prevailed and it was called off), and they wrote their own ad correcting Alexander’s.

In his ad, Alexander appears to have done what he consistently claimed of all of his alleged comments about the pastor and officers: nothing more than was justified by the occasion!

This piece was originally written by VAIW’s author in 2011.
It is reproduced in this form with just a few editorial changes.

This entry was posted in churches, First Baptist Church, Vancouver, newspapers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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