Before the SGF
The history of Reformed Baptist churches in Ontario does not begin with the SGF. The earliest known churches in the province date from the late 18th century, and were almost certainly Calvinistic. The growth of Baptist churches in Canada in the 19th century was steady. In 1848, the Regular Baptist Union of Canada was formed. They held to closed communion and it can be reasonably assumed that most of these churches were Calvinistic.
In 1888, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec was started. By 1900 there were 520 member churches, but it was not long before it was severely affected by Liberalism. There were some voices who protested loudly against this tendency, the most vocal of which was T. T. Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church. In 1926, as a result of these protests, Shields was censured by the Convention and expelled. Many evangelicals then withdrew from the Convention, and Shields was the leader in forming the Union of Regular Baptist Churches of Ontario and Quebec in 1927. While some within this group were Calvinistic (Shields himself was raised in this tradition and sought to articulate the doctrines of grace), the chief distinctive was a stand against Liberalism.
By 1930, there were 89 congregations in the Union. But many churches, while withdrawing from the Convention, did not join the Union because of the militancy of T. T. Shields and his strong anti-Catholic stance. In 1948, there were divisions within the Union and these eventually led to the formation in 1953 of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada (hereafter called the Fellowship). While all these churches were evangelical, and the statement of faith was mildly Calvinistic, in reality, pastors taking a consistent Calvinistic position were generally opposed by the leaders of the Fellowship. They were labelled, “Hyper-Calvinists.”
Some of those who did not join the Fellowship joined the Association of Regular Baptist Churches. This group reflected the influence of T.T. Shields, even though formed in 1957. It was never more than about a dozen churches, with Jarvis Street being by far the largest. The main distinctives of this group were gospel proclamation with an anti-Catholic and anti-ecumenical stance. Some of the pastors were Reformed in their theology.
Beginning of the SGF
In the late 1970s and early 1980s a number of churches pastored by sovereign grace men enjoyed fellowship together. Conferences were organized for pastors as well as for families, and these would be attended by people from a large number of churches, some of whom were independent while others were involved in different denominations. Some, of course, were not Baptist churches, and we rejoiced to have fellowship with those of other persuasions. However, William (Bill) Payne, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, felt a need for a more formal fellowship of Reformed Baptist churches, and so it was in 1983 that the Sovereign Grace Fellowship of Baptist churches came into being. There were 6 founding churches included in the SGF, which was established as a loose-knit organization that permitted membership of churches with ties to existing denominations as long as they were not affiliated with the World Council of Churches. The number of churches grew to 10 over the next few years. Bill Payne was the human instrument behind the movement and the guiding force while he was alive.
In 1998, the SGF pastors felt the need to be more formally organized, but not just for the sake of organization. There was a strong feeling that it would enable churches to co-operate better in such things as missions and church planting. To allow the group to be registered so as to issue tax receipts, a constitution was required. That occupied the men for about two years, the process being completed early in 2001.
The first meeting of delegates from the churches was on February 10, 2001. By then the constitution had been accepted by seven churches, and these formally joined together as the Sovereign Grace Fellowship of Canada. Within a few weeks, three more churches accepted the constitution and the ten became the founding member churches. On April 21st, an executive board was elected together with a treasurer and a coordinator:
The charter member churches were:
Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, Geary, NB. Pastor Perry Edwards
Westboro Baptist Church, Ottawa. Pastor William Oosterman
Faith Baptist Church, Scarborough. Pastor Brian Robinson
Grace Fellowship Church, Toronto. Pastor Paul Martin
Churchill Baptist Church, Palgrave. Pastor Marino Vereecke
Trinity Baptist Church, Burlington. Pastor Carl Muller
Pilgrim Baptist Fellowship, Ancaster. Pastor Don Theobald
Blair Community Church, Cambridge. Pastor David Robinson
Bethesda Baptist Church, Delhi. Pastor Stephen Kring
Sovereign Grace Community Church, Sarnia. Pastor Kirk Wellum
The first board meeting was held on June 23, 2001 in which plans were laid for the first General Assembly and a plan was mapped out giving some direction for the fellowship. Three phases were planned:
- To get around to all the churches to encourage them and share the vision.
- To contact churches that may be interested in associating with the SGF.
- To look at areas for church plants.
Fellowship was to be a key part of the SGF. Churches needed to feel part of the group and take an active interest in the needs of the other churches. There was a felt need to develop a sense of togetherness – connectedness.
Church planting was also to be a crucial aspect of the SGF. The desire was to see growth by the planting of new churches. For that, at least four things would be needed:
- Designation of areas that needed a church.
- Finding people in these areas to help start and support a new work.
- A leader, a pastor, to spearhead the work.
- Financial support.
It was viewed that some growth within the SGF may take place through the addition of already- existing churches, but it was more likely that we would see new churches coming into existence through the church-planting initiatives of the churches within the SGF.
Other areas in which policies needed to be developed were Missions and Theological education.
Coming under the umbrella of the SGF were three other agencies:
- FRPS (Fellowship for Reformed Pastoral Studies) and its annual pastors’ conference.
- The Carey Conference which was already a key point of contact between our people and churches.
- The Sovereign Grace Journal edited by Brian Robinson.
An annual youth retreat was held in the spring and regular retreats for young adults were offered as well. In the spring of 2007, the SGF hosted its first ladies retreat, which has now become a popular annual event. In the fall of 2008, Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto took over the planning, organization and presentation of the Toronto Pastor’s Fellowship (TPF) and annual conference, replacing the former FRPS. Starting in the spring of 2009, the SGF began to publish a new quarterly magazine entitled Barnabas., replacing the Sovereign Grace Journal. As well, Trinity Baptist Church took on the oversight of the Canadian Carey Family Conference starting with the 2009 event.
Late in 2009, there were at least 4 church plants being overseen by SGF churches. Our prayer was, that under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, these would become church planters themselves in the not-too-distant future!
In 2011/2012, the TPF became the Grace Pastors Fellowship (GPF). It continues to run as a monthly encouragement to pastors for about eight months of the year, and in early June, conducts the annual Pastors Conference and Retreat.
In 2019, the SGF, in conjunction with Toronto Baptist Seminary, initiated an annual student award at the seminary named the W.E. Payne Award. This award not only demonstrates our support for the seminary – many of our SGF pastors have graduated from there – but it also commemorates the late Bill Payne’s zealous efforts to begin our association many years ago.
Throughout our formal existence of over twenty years, churches have left our association for various reasons, but others have joined us. As we begin the year 2022, the SGF consists of fifteen member churches. Our executive board consists of five members and our Coordinator continues to play a key role, serving a renewable three-year term. The first Coordinator, Roger Fellows, served from 2001 to 2006. Then Mark Hudson of Trinity Baptist Church served from 2006 to 2019. In November 2019, at our annual Assembly, Benno Kurvits, was voted in as our Coordinator.
It is our hope that we can continue to uphold each other as member churches through this Fellowship, working together to guard and proclaim the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We also want our Fellowship to grow through new church plants or the addition of already-established local churches in Canada.