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Methodist Episcopal circuit riders from New York State began to arrive in Canada West at Niagara, and the north shore of Lake Erie in 1786, and at the Kingston region on the northeast shore of Lake Ontario in the early 1790s. At the time the region was part of British North America and became part of Upper Canada after the Constitutional Act of 1791. Upper and Lower Canada were both part of the New York Episcopal Methodist Conference until 1810 when they were transferred to the newly formed Genesee Conference. Reverend Major George Neal began to preach in Niagara in October 1786, and was ordained in 1810 by Bishop Francis Asbury, at the Lyons, New York Methodist Conference. He was Canada's first saddlebag preacher.
George Neal was the son of a Scottish Highlander, whose family fled to Ireland during the Clan uprisings. After 1746 there was a great wave of Scottish settlers who came to the Carolinas and George was born in South Carolina in Feb. 1750. He grew up on the family farms, and during the War of Independence, he stayed loyal to the British side and distinguished himself at the Siege of Ninety-Six, and the evacuation of Charles Town and was promoted to Major. By 1783, when the war was over, he found his lands confiscated, and his papers in the hands of a fellow soldier who had evacuated to Nova Scotia. His health was poor but he taught school for a year, in Georgia, and was converted to Methodism by the Rev. Hope Hull. Recognizing his ability to preach, he was sent by the presiding elder of his ‘class',to minister on a circuit among the Scottish settlers, along the Pee Dee River, in South Carolina. Finding it increasingly dangerous to still be loyal to the King, he decided to emigrate, and he made his way to Charles Town Charleston, but found the last ship had sailed. He decided to go overland, and the trip took almost a year, but he crossed the border at Niagara into Canada West, (later the Province of Ontario) in Oct. 1786. He began to preach right away, but the Church of England was the only recognized church, and his fervor excited his listeners, and angered the garrison commander at Newark (Niagara), and he was ordered out of the country. The commander died before the sentence could be carried out, and Major Neal started the first Methodist ‘Class' in Canada the same year. He travelled the Niagara area, and established a 'class' along the Lake Ontario shore, and appointed Christian Warner as the elder, and built the first chapel building, shared with the Presbyterians, known as the 'Warner Chapel'. George Neal started the Stamford Church 'class' in 1790 and then into Norfolk by 1792. Mary Polly (Cope) Cronk, from Copetown, had become a widow in the Niagara District, and became a member of the first Methodist ‘Class’ started by George, and George and Mary were married in Lewiston N.Y. As they started their family, she returned to her parents home, while George continued to travel and bring the ‘word’ to the forests of Niagara, Norfolk and the Talbot Settlement.
His father-in-law, Frederick Cope heard of the great forests of Norfolk County from George and he and other members of the ‘class’ explored the north shore of Lake Erie, by boat, and came ashore at a landing in 1798. Brother Daniel Freeman was the senior Elder, and they held a service to thank God for their good fortune at finding this new land. George came to preach in Cope’s Landing often, and the adherents established a grove, inland for all to come to Camp meeting services. The Long Point ‘Class' was formed by 1801, with Bro. Daniel Freeman as the leader. Neal was finally ordained in 1810 by Bishop Francis Asbury, at the Lyons, New York, Methodist Conference. When the War of 1812 threatened along the border, Neal Left the Niagara District, and took up his land grant and added to it by purchasing 200 acres (0.81 km2) in the Port Rowan, Long Point area, at Cope’s Landing, (later called St. Williams) and he continued to travel and preach for more than 50 years as Canada's first Saddlebag Preacher. In later years, his son-in-law Adam Procunier took over his property, and he and Mary moved in with his daughter, Esther, and her husband Col. John Backhouse Hutchinson, at Port Rowan, near the Backhouse Mill, ( now part of the National Heritage Site of Backus Heritage Village). Almost completely blind at the age of 88, Neal had his granddaughter read scripture lessons to him, so he could memorize them, and continue to preach.
Reverend Major George Neal died on his birthday, February 28, 1840, with Mary following in 1843. They were buried in the Backus Pioneer Cemetery. In 1908 Rev. E Garnham, of the Methodist Church in Port Rowan, became interested in Canada's first Saddlebag Preacher, Rev. Major George Neal. Albert Hazen, Neal's grandson, showed him where the Neals' were buried, in the Backhouse Cemetery and Garnham brought forth the idea of erecting a memorial church in honour of Major Neal. Fund raising and subscription began, and ground was broken in 1911, for Neal Memorial Methodist Church, in Port Rowan, Ontario. George and Mary Neal were moved to a crypt in the church walls, and a memorial stained glass window was installed commemorating Rev. Major George, and Mary Neal. The official dedication took place in September 1912 by Neal's grandson, Rev. George Neal Hazen, and today, as a part of the United Church of Canada, it remains to honour Canada's First Saddlebag Preacher.