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Egerton Ryerson
Chapter III - The Beginning of the Struggle for Equal Rights


DR. STRACHAN, in one of his published papers, refers to the year 1820 as a memorable one in the history of Upper Canada. The reason for this was the erection of the clergy of the Church of England into a body corporate, and their control of the clergy reserves. This, with his own personal accession to power and the hold which he was gradually securing on the educational work of the country, evidently made him sanguine of success in the prosecution of his far-reaching policy of making the Church of England the established and endowed, and so the dominant church of the young province, controlling the religious life and education of the whole people. The era is indeed memorable in the history of Upper Canada,, but for just the opposite reason. It is the period from which dates the awakening of the people to a full sense of their political and religious danger, and the beginning of that struggle which finally resulted in the overthrow of the Strachan policy and the complete civil and religious emancipation of the province. For this result two things were necessary: the people must be aroused, and competent leaders must be found. The first of these needed elements was furnished by the ruling party, even the wise and far-seeing Strachan himself contributing an essential part of the stimulus which goaded the people into strenuous self-defence. From this period we may date the beginning of distinct party life and spirit in the politics of the province, and this life was created, not by academic theory, nor by the assembly of a convention, or the formation of a platform, or the election of political leaders. It was the spontaneous revolt of manly independence both in church and state against unjust and arrogant assumptions and cruel wrongs.

As we are not attempting the political history of the province we cannot enter into the detailed statement of these wrongs, or of the political evils which culminated at this period. It will be sufficient to mention a few events which combined to awaken the mind of the whole province to a true sense of the situation) It took not a little to do this. The Upper Canadians were a loyal people. The older— and on the whole, more influential -families were United Empire Loyalists. No stronger appeal could be made than to their loyalty. The war of 1812 had continued and strengthened this feeling. Since the war, here and there a bolder spirit had called in question wrong-doing in high places, or had claimed recognition for the just rights of the people. The school bill of 1810 was one concession to such rights. But the voice of this party was constantly hushed by the cry of disloyalty set up against all who dared to call in question the policy or acts of the ruling power; and without leadership and cohesion the voice of the people was as "one crying in the wilderness." Besides all this the people were too busy with the hard necessities of life to give the needed time and energy to these things. The first event which contributed to the awakening of the people was the prosecution and imprisonment of Gourlay, and his banishment from the country after his harsh treatment in prison had reduced him to shattered senility. The story has been told with thrilling effect by Dent, and the feelings stirred by its recital to-day are but a reflection of those aroused in the country at the time.

The election contests of Barnabas Bidwell followed, and, extending over two years or more, served to perpetuate the feelings aroused and to give them a more decidedly political direction. The Appleton case following awakened interest in the educational aspects of the question. Finally the sermon preached by Dr. Strachan on the occasion of the death of Bishop Mountain aroused the religious feeling of the entire body of the people who were not attached to the Church of England. This sermon, the immediate occasion of calling Mr. Ryerson into the field, w ill require fuller attention presently.

In the meantime we must deal with the more immediate effects of the general political awakening caused by these events. These effects were clearly manifest in the general election of 1821 and in the first session of the newly-elected legislative assembly. Probably .for the first time in the history of the colony an election contest was carried on in which not so much the individual candidates as the principles-which they represented w ere prominently before the minds of the people. Nothing but the influence of a new political life could have produced this. This consciousness of a distinct issue before the electors was not the result of any of the political agencies of our time. A party or provincial press scarcely existed—Mackenzie's Colonial Advocate was only a few weeks old. No great conventions had been held. There were no clearly recognized leaders of public opinion, and there was no party organization. This movement seemed to be the spontaneous uprising of political manhood against assumptions and injustice which could no longer be endured. The result was the return to the assembly of a majority of members opposed to the ruling party and their policy, and the election of one of their number, John Wilson, as speaker, by a majority of two. This narrow majority by no means represented their influence in the House. Feebler men whose convictions were with them were not yet prepared to cut loose from the old party still in power.

But this return of a majority to the assembly did not introduce an era of political reform. It was only the beginning of an era of political conflict culminating in the new constitution of 1840. The ruling party represented by the governor and the executive council owed no responsibility to the assembly, and through the legislative council and the governor they held a negative control over all legislation. The direct advantage gained by the triumph of reform at the polls was the power to prevent any legislation which would further sacrifice the interests of the people. The assembly alone could make no positive progress towards even legislative improvement. Rut outside of this they gained another important advantage; they could express the sentiment and wants of the people to the people themselves. The popular branch of parliament became at least an organ for the clear and definite expression of political ideas and ideals. In it the people found set forth in speech what they had felt, but scarcely understood, and perhaps, as isolated individuals, would not have dared to utter. It even went further. It soon became the organ for the expression of the same ideas at the foot of the throne and before the parliament of England. It was especially in this latter way that it was able to forward largely and effectively the cause of constitutional reform in the colony.

Another and scarcely less important result of this new political life was the creation of leadership. Four men of conspicuous ability at, once came to the front in the assembly, John Wilson, the new speaker of the House, John Rolph, member for Middlesex, and Peter Perry and M. S. Bidwell, members for Lennox and Addington. Three others, the Baldwins and W. L. Mackenzie, were as yet co-workers outside of the House. Mackenzie worked especially through his paper The Colonial Advocate, and the creation of a press through which the people could be kept in touch With the new political life was another most important event of the period.

The new movement from the political side had thus in the course of a very few years risen to commanding influence among the people, had acquired for 'itself a standing ground and organ of influential work m parliament itself, had called to its front able and energetic leaders, and had created a press through winch it could disseminate necessary information among the people.

But important and far-reaching in its results as was this political side of the movement it by no means exhausted its force. From the political point of view, many of the religious questions raised were quite excluded, and others occupied a subordinate place. But the religious interests of a people are too important and lie too near to their hearts to be relegated to any secondary place; and the party in power were at this juncture fated to awaken against themselves the full force of the religious as well as the political sentiments of the people. This was brought about by three or four acts of I)r. Strachan following close on the political events just sketched.

The first of these was the sermon preached at York on July 3rd, 1825. on the death of the late Lord Bishop of Quebec. In this sermon, preached before a sympathetic audience of his own people, he expounded somewhat freely, not only his own ecclesiastical views and policy, but also his sentiments towards the other religious bodies of the country. The main points were the following:

(1) The maintenance of the Divine authority and exclusive validity of the Episcopal Church polity; (2) the necessity of a state church and the moral obligation of the government to provide for its establishment and support; (3) the claim of the Church of England to be the established church of this colony and to the exclusive enjoyment of the clergy reserves; (4) disparaging references to other religious bodies, in which he represents them as disloyal, as imbued with republican and levelling opinions, as ignorant, incapable, and idle, and pictures the country which was largely supplied with the means of grace through their services as in a state of utter moral and religious destitution.

The persecution of Gourlay and the expulsion of Bidwell from the House of Assembly were scarcely more effective in arousing the political feelings of the country than was this unfortunate utterance in arousing the indignation of the religious community. This indignation immediately found a voice and a capable leader in the person of Egerton Ryerson. a young Methodist preacher then in the first year of his ministry He had been received on trial at the conference of 1825 and was stationed with the Rev. James Richardson on the Yonge Street and York circuit. His entrance upon the present controversy is thus described in "The Story of My Life": "The Methodists in York at that time numbered about fifty persons, young and old. The two preachers arranged to meet once in four weeks on their return from their country tours, when a social meeting of the leading members of the society was held for consultation, conversation, and piayer. One of the members of this company obtained and brought to the meeting a copy of the Archdeacon's sermon, and read the parts of it which related to the attacks on the Methodists, and the proposed method of exterminating them. The reading of these extracts produced a thrilling sensation of indignation and alarm, and all agreed that something must be written and done to defend the character and rights of Methodists and others assailed, against such attacks and such, a polity. The voice of the meeting pointed to me to undertake the work. I was then designated as 'The Boy Preacher,' from my youthful appearance and as the youngest minister in the church (he was then just twenty-three years of age). I objected on account of my youth and incompetence, but my objections were overruled, when I proposed as a compromise, that during our next country tour the Superintendent of the circuit (the Rev. James Richardson) and myself should each write on the subject, and from what we should both write, something might be compiled to meet the case. This was agreed to, and at our next social monthly meeting in the town, inquiry was made as to what had been written in defence of the Methodists and others against the attacks and policy of the Archdeacon of York. It was found that the Superintendent of the circuit had written nothing; and on being questioned, I said I had endeavoured to obey the instructions of my senior brethren. It was then insisted that I must read what I had written. I at length yielded and read my answer to the attacks made on us. The reading of my paper was attended with alternate laughter and tears on the part of the social party, all of whom insisted that it should be printed. I objected that I had never written anything for the press, and was not competent to do so, and advanced to throw my manuscript into the fire, when one of the elder members caught me by the arms and another wrenched the manuscript out of' my hands, saying he would take it to the printer. Finding my efforts vain to recover it, I said if it were restored I would not destroy but re-write t and return "t to the brethren to do what they pleased w if h it. I did so. Two of the senior brethren took the manuscript to the printer, and its publication produced a sensation scarcely less violent and general than a Fenian invasion. It is said that before every house in Toronto (then the town of York) might be seen groups reading and discussing the paper on the evening of its publication in June; and the excitement spread throughout the country. It was the first defiant defence of the Methodists, and of the equal and civil rights of all religious persuasions, the first protest and argument on legal and British constitutional grounds, against the erection of a dominant church establishment supported by the state in Upper Canada. It was the Loyalists of America and their descendants who first lifted up the voice of remonstrance against ecclesiastical despotism in the province, and unfurled the Hag of equal religious rights and liberty for all religious persuasions. The sermon of the Archdeacon of York wTas the third formal attack made by the Church of England clergy upon the character of their unoffending Methodist brethren and those of other religious persuasions, but no defense of the assailed parties had as yet been written. At that time the Methodists had no law to secure a foot of land on which to build parsonages or chapels and in which to bury their dead; their ministers were not allowed to solemnize matrimony. and some of them had been the objects of cruel and illegal persecution on the part of magistrates and others in authority. And now they were the butt of unprovoked and unfounded aspersions from two heads of Episcopal clergy, while pursuing the 'noiseless tenor of their way' through trackless forests and bridgeless rivers and streams, to preach among the scattered inhabitants the unsearchable riches of Christ."

These words from Dr. Ryerson's own pen indicate most clearly the circumstances under which and the motives by which he was led into this controversy. It was 110 itching for political notoriety, but rather manly indignation against wrong which forced the young Methodist preacher into the strife. Rut the extract gives us no conception of the ability and thoroughness with which he performed his task. Replies from the Church of England side quickly appeared, and again and again he returned to the conflict. In a short time a volume of the letters of two hundred and fifty pages was written which forms to-day a most valuable historical document. In these letters he shows himself a master of the scriptural and even of the patristic argument 011 the fundamental question of church polity, taking a position which is now conceded by the very best Anglican divines. He discusses the question of a church establishment with wonderful practical insight as well as wide historical learning. With keen satire he contrasts the self-denying life and labours, and the consecrated purity and zeal of the Methodist preachers with the lives, work and emoluments of their detractors. While not claiming for them scholastic learning, he shows that they were at least men of good sound fundamental education, practically fitted and able for their work; and finally he vindicates their loyalty as citizens in words of burning eloquence.

Before the review of his sermon appeared n print Dr. Strachan had left the province on a visit to England where he spent some eighteen months improving the opportunity for the furtherance of his ecclesiastical and educational policy. The character of his efforts to this end appeared in three public documents which bear date in 1827. The first of these was a bill introduced into the Imperial parliament in February. 1827. Of it, Dr. Strachan himself writes: "I should now be on my way to Canada, but I got a bill introduced, in February, into parliament, to enable the crown to sell a portion of the clergy reserves, as they are at present totally unproductive, and a cause of clamour as being a barrier to improvement. I was anxious to avoid the great question that has been agitated in the colony about the meaning of the words 'Protestant Clergy,' and confined myself simply to the power of sale. But Mr. Stanley came forward with a motion to investigate the whole matter, and of consequence, the second reading of my bdl is put off to the first of May. In the meantime the old ministry has fallen to pieces, and whether the new ministry will attend to my business or not remains to be seen." The second was the charter of King's College, dated March 15th, J 827. Of this he speaks in the same letter: "I am happy to tell you that I had the good fortune to accomplish the most material part of my mission before the crash amongst the ministry took place. My university charter was issued on March 22nd, and I have had a few copies printed."

This charter, which was to be the subject of acrimonious dispute for more than twenty years to come, and the end of which we have not yet reached, deserves attention as one of the most important parts of Dr. Strachan's educational policy. We have already seen his relation, first to the district or secondary schools, and later to the common or primary. Over each he had secured some measure of control, but as yet by no means complete in the case of the latter. His charter was now about to leave no room for question as to the ecclesiastical control of the university, as will appear from the following provisions of the charter:

1. The bishop of the diocese was made the visitor of the university. This placed the supreme power of investigating and vetoing all questions as to its management and work in ecclesiastical hands.

2. The president must be a clergyman in holy orders of the united Church of England and Ireland, and the Rev. John Strachan, D.D., was appointed the first president.

3. The college was to be governed by a council consisting of the chancellor, the president, and seven professors who should be members of the united Church of England and Ireland and subscribe to the thirty-nine articles. In the lack of seven such professors the council was to be filled by graduates who should be members of the Church of England and subscribe as above.

4. Degrees in divinity were conditioned on the same declarations, subscriptions and oaths as were required at that date in the University of Oxford. They were thus confined to the clergy of the established church.

The third document was a letter to Mr. Horton, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, setting forth the needs and claims of the church in Upper Canada to an establishment of two or three hundred clergymen deriving the greater portion of their income from funds deposited in England, This letter was seemingly connected with the bil l already referred to, and contained statements very similar to those made in tht; sermon of 1825, and was accompanied by an ecclesiastical chart or table setting forth Dr. Strachan's estimate of the different religious bodies in Upper Canada. In this chart the names of thirty-one Anglican clergymen were given and the whole number was put at thirty-nine. The Presbyterians were placed as eight, the Methodists were said to be very uncertain, "perhaps twenty or thirty," and all others "very few" and "very ignorant."

These documents once more awakened the political and religious sentiment of the province. Petitions extensively signed by the inhabitants of the province were forwarded to England, and representations by resolution of the House of Assembly were laid before the British House of Commons, and the whole subject of the civil government of both Upper and Lower Canada, which also had its important grievances, was referred to a select committee of the House, which, after taking voluminous evidence on all the questions raised, reported to the House in July 1828. Before this committee Mr. George Ryerson appeared on behalf of the Upper Canadian petitioners touching the university charter and the clergy reserves and the ecclesiastical chart. The petitioners presented a counter chart, compiled by the Rev. Dr. Lee of the Presbyterian Church. These facts are evidence of the earnestness of the people in the assertion of their civil and religious liberties at this juncture.

In the meantime, Dr. Strachan, having returned to Canada on March 7th. 1828. delivered a speech before the legislative council "to repel the charges against his conduct in relation to a certain letter and ecclesiastical chart, said to have been addressed by him to the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, and in his agency in procuring the charter for the University of King's College for many months past circulated in the public journals." This speech, which once more called forth the pen of Mr. Ryerson, is largely occupied With the defence of personal rectitude and consistency. Apart from this, its most important elements were the history of the bill in the English parliament in the summer of 1827, and of I)r. Strachan's relations to it; his appeal to the self-interest of the Church of Scotland; his defence of the Church of England's claim to be the established church of Canada and to exclusive right as such to the clergy reserves; and his defence of his. university charter as "the most liberal that has ever been granted." As a minor point it may be noted that it contains an indirect appeal to the "Wesleyan Methodists," by which at this time he means the British missionaries as distinguished from "those Methodists who get their teachers and preachers from the United States." These last he holds to be "the enemies of the established church," because they are " at this moment labouring to separate religion from the State, with which it. ought ever to be firmly united, since one of its great objects is to give stability to good government; nor can it be separated with impunity in any Christian country."

It was scarcely to be expected that the Methodists would sit down quietly under such a challenge. The address was published by request of the legislative council in March or April, and by the beginning of May Mr. Ryerson had commenced his reply, which was completed by June 14th, in a series of eight letters addressed to Dr. Strachan. In these letters he cheerfully admits Dr. Strachan's sincerity, but makes a very strong case against his consistency, and exposes the artful character of his appeals t o self-interest. Once more he vindicates the rights and the loyalty of the Christian body to which he belongs, and points out the fictitious character of the Doctor's sneering references to their ecclesiastical movement toward independence of the American Church as due to his advice. But by far the weightiest part of his reply is his masterly attack upon Dr. Strachan's fundamental principles and policy. He discusses the great questions raised as follows:

1. Is an established church a benefit to the state?

2. Is such the necessary or best means for promoting the interests of religion?

3. Is the Church of England already the established church of Canada'.

4. Ought it to be so established with peculiar privileges and endowments?

To each of these questions the reply is a most emphatic negative, enforced by such considerations as these: The great work of the church is not political, but purely moral and spiritual. When it enters the political sphere its presence there is productive of evil and a menace to the liberty of the citizen and the unity of the state. History proves that the establishment and endowment of a church has a tendency to destroy its spiritual vitality and power, the Church of England herself, according to the testimony of her own divines, being an example. The answer to the question, Is the Church of England by law established in Upper Canada, is a clear and comprehensive piece of legal argument founded on the Constitutional Act of 1791, which is interpreted by its own internal use of the terms employed, and by the fact that to secure certain special privileges to the Church of England, specific enactments are made, such specifications excluding a general comprehensive interpretation by a recognized principle of law. The claim that the Church of England is by law established in all the British colonies under acts of parliament from Elizabeth onward, by the language of the Coronation Oath and by acts of royal prerogative is clearly disposed of by the example of numerous British colonies since that time, in which such claim was neither recognized nor enforced, and by the fact that when it was so established it was done by express Royal Charter, and further by the recognition of the Roman Catholic Church in Lower Canada. Finally he concludes the fourth question in the negative by showing that every ground upon which such establishment might be based is lacking in the case of Upper Canada. It is not the church of the majority, nor does its moral and religious influence justify any such claim; and to so establish and force it upon the people would be to its own fatal disadvantage.

Turning from the church to the university charter, he points out its sectarian character, its lack of adaptation to the wants of our country, its injustice to all religious bodies except the Anglican, the misrepresentations by which it had been secured, and he concludes by contrasting Dr. Strachan's educational system forced upon the people against their will and under the complete domination of the Anglican Church with the Scottish system founded by act of their own parliament, fitted to their national circumstances, commanding the general assent and confidence of the people, and subject to no undue interference or control from their clergy. By this second effort Mr. Ryerson became the recognized leader of the religious side of this great movement for religious liberty and equal civil rights. The other side, involving the fundamental question of a government completely responsible to the people, was, as we have seen, led by other men of acknowledged political ability; but while they were contending for closely related and no less important rights, there is nothing to show that he stepped aside from his important religious responsibilities to interfere in these political questions. It is not even evident that he sympathized with the political side of the reform movement, but rather probable that he held to the old conservative political faith of not intermeddling with those who are given to change.

Especially was the Methodist Church (numbering at this time about ten thousand members and fifty thousand adherents, with fifty-six ministers), fully awakened to the dangers which now threatened its liberties and progress, and under a leadership seemingly raised up for the time by Divine Providence, it moved forward to meet the needs of the situation with an energy and self-sacrificing enterprise which must command our highest admiration.


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