John Cordner (July 3, 1816-June 22, 1894) was unquestionably the most influential figure in setting the tone for the emerging Unitarian movement in nineteenth-century Canada. Not only was he skilled at presenting his views effectively, but during his 35-year ministry in Montreal, then the leading city in Canada by a wide margin, he attracted a congregation largely composed of persons prominent in the business and professional life of the city and country. This meant that his indirect impact upon the wider community was as profound as his direct impact.
Cordner was born in Ireland. His actual place of birth is disputed, but he certainly spent his early years in Newry, where his father was in business as a clockmaker. The family were members of the Presbyterian denomination, at that time undergoing an acrimonious debate between those who held fast to the Calvinist tradition and those who espoused a liberal and progressive theology increasingly identified as Unitarian. The liberals, forced out in 1829, formed their own Non-subscribing movement (non-subscribing to the Westminster Confession, the standard of Presbyterian orthodoxy). It was for the ministry of this body, after several years in "a lucrative profession," that Cordner prepared himself through studies in Belfast. Henry Montgomery, leader of the new movement, whose thinking set a lifelong stamp upon Cordner's, supervised his studies.
At the time of Cordner's ordination in 1843 a group of Unitarians in Montreal had gathered, established a congregation and begun looking for a settled minister. Since many of them had come originally from Ireland, they asked Montgomery if he could find a suitable candidate. He strongly recommended Cordner and an invitation was extended. At the same time the Montreal congregation was formally welcomed into the Irish synod.
After the long transatlantic journey and a few days to get acquainted with Unitarians in New York and Boston, Cordner arrived in Montreal in early November and threw himself into the work of establishing the congregation on a firm footing. He edited a monthly publication, The Bible Christian (a title taken from the journal of the Ulster Unitarians) and gained official recognition for the church. Within eighteen months the congregation had erected and moved into its own building. Cordner then visited Toronto to help establish a congregation there. The following winter he delivered a series of public lectures which aroused a furore among the Protestants in the religiously conservative city. Catholics, mindful of all that Unitarians had done on behalf of their civil rights on both sides of the Atlantic, maintained a discreet silence.
Cordner became active in public affairs, using his oratorical gifts to good effect. He was one of the leaders in local efforts to aid those suffering in his native Ireland as a consequence of the famine of 1847. He supported the uprisings in Europe the following year as an expression of God's judgment on oppressors. "The people", he said, "shall rise up as a great lion." In 1849 he went to Europe as a delegate to the Paris Peace Convention. He worked for the establishment of a more humane system for treatment of the insane (at that time often put into the jail), for a system of public education, and for a wide range of other social improvements. He campaigned on behalf of women's rights and against capital punishment. By reason of his deep abhorrence of the institution of slavery, he took a leading role during the American Civil War in resisting the support for the South promoted by Montreal merchants motivated by their own economic interests. His opposition to efforts to involve the British Empire in the conflict was expressed in a pamphlet widely reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic, which a London newspaper described as "the right word, spoken in the right spirit, in the right time and place."
Cordner's outspoken comments on Canadian political life included a castigation of the behaviour of Sir John A. Macdonald as prime minister. He saw concern for public morality as an essential role of the church: "Besides its actions on its own members, it should act on the general mass of society, like leaven in the lump. Whether small or large, if animated by the true spirit, it might have a powerful effect."
At the stage Canada had then reached in its evolution it was, he urged, particularly important to move in the right direction. The fall of ancient civilizations such as that of Babylon, which he attributed to corruption and materialism, illustrated the need to stress the biblical aphorism that righteousness exalteth a nation. "In the divine order of events, God has consigned to us of this generation the present direction of the destinies of this young and growing country."
In a number of books and pamphlets based upon his sermons and lectures Cordner expounded views which shocked most Christians, though far from extreme by Unitarian standards. He aggressively promoted a Bible-centred Unitarian Christianity, which he regarded as the most authentic expression of the basic Reformation principle that "the right of the individual to judge for himself must needs go before any statement of the theology which might be the result of the individual judgment." He was strongly influenced by the views of John Locke, whom he was almost directly quoting when he wrote: "Nothing which is clearly against reason and the ascertained facts of science shall be required to be held as true in theology." Reason, which leads us to recognize a revelation of God in the natural world, in inspired human lives, in the inner voice of conscience, also recognizes, "standing in marked prominence above all other manifestations ... the revelation of God which appeared in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth." Christ was for him both a messenger from God and a pattern for human life. His death was an example of fidelity to principle at all costs rather than an atoning sacrifice for sin. We take responsibility for our own individual sins, which will in due course be punished, but on a scale proportionate to the offence, not everlastingly. In the meantime our characters may be developed by following good examples and by the influences brought to bear in a morally based system of education.
He described this theology as "rational supernaturalism," though he made it clear that the latter term did not imply "outside the natural order," but simply "outside the known natural order": "Man knows not the universe as a whole, but only as much of it as falls within human observation." But he himself was unable to keep pace with the expansion of human observation. "It was not to be expected", commented a scientist from the Montreal congregation at the time of his death, "that a man of Dr Cordner's age, and trained as he had been, could keep himself abreast of the swift-growing science of the times, with all its implications. As well might we expect one of Nelson's three-deckers to be capable of transformation into a modern iron-clad."
Cordner was a very private person. Little is known of his personal life. In 1852 he married Caroline, sister of the historian Francis Parkman, a frequent visitor in their home. They had three daughters. From early in his career he suffered from progressively debititating ill-health, and his ministry eventually tapered off into an early retirement. After his retirement Cordner spent the last twelve years of his life in Boston.