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Michael Willis lectured in theology at the college during the 1845-1846 session, served as professor of theology (1847-1870) and was the first principal of Knox College (1857-1870)





In 1994-95 Knox College celebrated its sesquicentennial with the publication of Church, College, and Clergy: a History of Theological Education at Knox College Toronto 1844-1994 by Brian Fraser.

This is the story of modest beginnings, years of financial struggle, changing locations, internationally known professors, and theological controversies. These stories identify the resiliency and strength of the College for facing the challenge of the years ahead.

Knox College was chartered to grant degrees by the Government of Ontario in 1858. Its prominent location at 1 Spadina Crescent from 1875 - 1915 continues to be remembered through an historical plaque. The present building located at the heart of the University of Toronto (next to Convocation Hall) was dedicated in 1915. Its perpendicular Gothic style modelled on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, England is considered one of the finest examples of this architecture in Canada.

Although all of the Knox faculty and most of the student body joined the United Church of Canada in 1925, the Knox building was awarded to The Presbyterian Church in Canada. The College has continued to provide a focus for maintaining the distinctiveness of Presbyterian heritage within an ecumenical theological environment.

From 1969 Knox has been a member institution of the Toronto School of Theology (TST), a federation of seven colleges within the University of Toronto. Under an agreement with the University, the degrees Master of Divinity, Master of Theology, and Doctor of Theology are awarded conjointly with the University. The Doctor of Ministry degree is offered through TST. Knox also registers students for the Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy programs in theology with the actual degrees being awarded by St. Michael's University. Knox independently retains the right to award the degree, Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa). Knox College is a fully accredited member of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.


The history of Knox College now includes the Ewart Missionary Training Home founded in 1897. This educational institution later called Ewart College, was named after Catherine (Seaton) Ewart president of the Women's Foreign Missionary Society (W. D.) from 1881 until her death in 1897. Ewart College was located within easy walking distance of Knox, allowing for close co-operation between the Colleges, in the preparation of women and men for alternative forms of ministry. Nurses, teachers, missionaries, social workers and others who were employed by the church received some of their education at Ewart.

Historically the College provided training for women, toward full-time service in the Church. From its early emphasis on training for overseas mission work and service here in Canada the role of the College gradually moved toward an emphasis on Christian Education, receiving in 1969 the mandate from the Church to be the College of Christian Education for The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Ewart's commitment to leadership development in education fostered a program in continuing and lay education that was central to its mandate.

Becoming co-educational in 1973, Ewart College prepared men and women for the Order of Diaconal Ministries (the Order itself having succeeded the Deaconess Order). Practice and skill development as well as academic excellence were strengths of Ewart over the years and its graduates continue to serve in a wide variety of ways in Canada and overseas. By action of the 117th General Assembly (1991), Ewart and Knox Colleges were amalgamated. This means that Knox has designed its basic degree curriculum to provide concentration in Christian Education, Societal and Pastoral Ministries. Knox College continues to be challenged to offer programs that honour Ewart's rich legacy. To this end, the McKay Educational Resource Centre was opened in 1994.



Knox College's first Principal, Rev. Dr. Michael Willis, was recently publicly commended for his work in establishing the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada in 1851.

Michael Willis was born in Scotland in 1799, graduated from the University of Glasgow at the age of eighteen, and was ordained as a minister in 1821. He served for 27 years as a congregational minister in the west end of Glasgow, where he was involved in not only pastoral care but the social concerns of his parishioners, many of whom were poor or unemployed. In Scotland he was a member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society, and became involved in anti-slavery activities when he came to Canada to serve as a professor at Knox. He took an active part in establishing the Buxton Mission, a community for ex-slaves who had escaped to freedom in Canada, and conducted the first communion service in that community. Michael Willis was the first and only president of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada.

He was principal of Knox from 1857 to his resignation in 1870. Dr. Willis' portrait hangs in the College Boardroom.


By: Stuart Macdonald

Interest in foreign missions was strong in the latter part of the 19th century. Canadian Presbyterians were no exception to this enthusiasm and passion for evangelism and work in foreign settings.

Jonathan Goforth was one Knox College graduate whose service is particularly noteworthy. Jonathan Goforth (1859-1936) was from Thamesford in rural Ontario. His life was transformed when he heard George Leslie MacKay preach at Knox Presbyterian Church, Woodstock, and offer a general challenge for more individuals to serve in Formosa (Taiwan). Goforth’s conviction that this was his calling led him to the studies necessary to be an overseas missionary. The transformation from rural Ontario to Toronto and Knox was not always easy. Jonathan Goforth’s passionate faith and his commitment to work in inner-city ministry in the St. John’s ward in Toronto, visiting 960 families in Toronto one summer, came to be greatly respected by faculty and his fellow students. By his final year of studies, missionary enthusiasm was even stronger. At that time, the decision of the “Cambridge-seven” (prominent students from the University of Cambridge in England) to serve as missionaries to China electrified the English-speaking world. Knox College students decided to help send Jonathan Goforth to China and with the assistance of alumni, many of whom had received a copy of American missionary Hudson Taylor’s book appealing for action in China which Goforth had been wisely distributing, funds were raised. The student Missionary Society raised $600 in 1887 and the alumni $800 to help in this endeavour. It was the enthusiasm of Goforth, and the support of the students and alumni of Knox, which won over the more cautious approach of the Foreign Missions Committee, and led to Goforth and Dr. J. Fraser Smith to be appointed the first Canadian Presbyterian Missionaries to mainland China by the General Assembly in 1887.

The career of Jonathan Goforth and his wife Rosalind, was long and distinguished. They survived personal difficulties, the Boxer rebellion of 1900, and the disruptions on the mission field as a result of church union, in their long and significant ministry.

A contemporary of Goforth, James Scarth Gale, also left for the foreign mission field. Gale was a resident at Knox College (1 Spadina Crescent) studying at University College. Goforth’s appeal for missionaries to go to “Corea” (Korea) was published in the Knox College Monthly. The appeal resonated with James Gale. He abandoned other plans and went to Korea as a missionary supported by the University College Y.M.C.A. His work over many years in Korea is remembered with gratitude.

Knox graduate – Jonathan Goforth – and Knox resident – James Gale – two famous missionaries of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Indebted to A. Donald MacLeod for his excellent biographical sketch “Goforth of China” in Called to Witness: Profiles of Canadian Presbyterians (Vol. 2), edited by W. Stanford Reid; Young Sik Yoo “James Scarth Gale: Canada’s First Missionary to Korea”

In the February issue of “Connexions”, information on Michael Willis, came from the biography written by D.R. Nicholson Called to Witness (Volume 2)


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