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Egerton Ryerson
Chapter XI - Later Literary Work


TOWARDS the close of his long and honoured life. Dr. Ryerson was for a long time one of a very few surviving actors in the stirring and important events of the early years of the nineteenth century. His intimate knowledge of the past was frequently of great use in the conduct of affairs ecclesiastical and civil, and it was frequently sought and highly prized. Those who had the benefit of his experience and counsel could not but think themselves happy, and they could not but think that the time would soon come when his genial presence could no more be found amongst them, and the rich treasure-house of his memory would be forever darkened and sealed up by death. Hence it came that he was again and again importuned to commit to writing the story of his life, and to leave some record of the observation? and experiences of his long and eventful career. It was felt that such a record would not only be interesting as a story of the beginnings of our Canadian life, but it would be helpful as a guide to a true policy for the present and the future -a policy well grounded on the foundations of the past. And it was but natural that such a man would love to tell the story of his life, and that all who knew him would love to hear the story told.

It was not till about six years before his death that Dr. Ryerson found time to enter seriously upon the work in question. The makers of history are not often at the same time the writers of history, and Dr. Ryerson was engaged in making the history of his country till he had passed three-years beyond the three score years and ten. This was in 1876, when ho retired from the office of chief superintendent of education. Between that date and his death in 1882 he prepared his three works of chief literary and historical interest. They are "The Story of My Life," "Canadian Methodism, Its Epochs and Characteristics," and "The Loyalists of America and Their Times."

The writings of Dr. Ryerson are all marked by the complete subordination of the style to the matter. Indeed there is no pretence at style. Sometimes, it is true, a certain stateliness and formality of expression appears, such as was often found in the old-time writers and speakers, and was thought becoming in treating serious things, just as the powdered wig or swallow-tailed coat was thought becoming on occasions of ceremony. As a general thing, however, the style is familiar and idiomatic, and such as marks a ready speaker rather than a writer.

"The Story of My Life," an octavo of more than six hundred pages, is in part only an autobiography.

It may have; been the original intention of Dr. Ryerson to tell the story of his life as an ordinary autobiography, and some part of the work is actually written in that way. On the seventieth anniversary of his birthday he wrote a short sketch of his life. This sketch ends with an account of his first sermon, preached on Whit Sunday, 1825. The story is continued to 1832 chiefly by extracts from a diary kept from 1829 to 1832. Beyond that time the title, "The Story of My Life," if taken too literally, would not be correct, for Dr. Ryerson's work becomes less and less and the book becomes more and more the story of Dr. Ryerson's life, prepared with admirable skill and loving care by Dr. J. George Hodgins, the faithful friend and fellow-labourer of Dr. Ryerson for many years. The grand old man never found time to tell more than the beginning of the story and some later fragments, and the work as completed was prepared by Dr. Hodgins as a monument to his revered friend. It is at the same time a noble monument to the friend who made it for his friend, and for long years to come it will associate in the story of the makiug of Canada the names of Ryerson and Hodgins.

The second of the three works to be mentioned here is that entitled "Canadian Methodism, its Epochs and Characteristics." It is a collection of articles or essays, as they are called, prepared at the request of the Methodist conferences of London, Toronto and Montreal, and first published in the Canadian Methodist Magazine. The essays were collected into a volume of 140 pages by the Rev. Dr. Withrow, the editor of the magazine.

When we remember the militant character of the Methodist church for many years after Dr. Ryerson bad entered the ministry, and especially when we remember the heroic part taken by him in the religious conflicts forced upon his people, we cease to wonder at the warmth that sometimes is displayed in the narrative. We rather wonder that there is so little warmth and we admire the evident and heartfelt charity that forgave the offences of the past and would even forget all that the fidelity of a historian would permit him to forget. Can we wonder, for example, that in the essay on the Loyal Origin of Methodism, some warmth of feeling should be kindled when the men who fought, bled, and suffered exile for the flag of England, flung back the charge of disloyalty brought against them by sectarian prejudice and animosity? In like manner we may look for some indignation when the writer sees the eccentricities and vagaries of excited and uncultivated people held up as the standard of doctrine and practice of a whole church, in spite of the clear statements of their acknowledged teachers. The marvel rather was, and that marvel still remains in this new century, that men of intelligence and conscience in ordinary affairs should lose all conscience and intelligence under the blinding influence of religious antipathy. Even to-day the caricatures and slanders of the early part of the last century are repeated, and if I )r. Ryerson were living still, he might find a respectable authority amongst his old antagonists, gravely charging him with the absurd doctrine that genuine conversions and convulsions go regularly and properly together. Such being the case, some men might say that it is fain to contend against religious prejudice for it can not he eradicated, but others would reply as would Dr. Ryerson, that we must not cease to contend against noxious weeds and venomous creatures, though we may scarcely hope to see them utterly eradicated and destroyed.

In the same volume of essays the whole story of the clergy reserves controversy is told from Dr. Ryerson's point of view. There are also five essays on the divisions amongst the Methodists in Canada. These essays are written by the Rev. John Ryerson, a brother of Dr. Ryerson and a highly respected authority on the history and usages of Canadian Methodists. There are also several essays on the relations of the Canadian Methodists to the British conference. Happily all the misunderstandings and divisions recorded in these essays have given way to union at home and the most cordial relations with the mother churches in England and the United States, and the essays may ere long be of interest to none but historians and antiquarians and book collectors.

The most considerable of Dr. Ryerson's literary works and the only one remaining for consideration in this volume is his "Loyalists of America and their Times." It is in two octavo volumes and contains over a thousand pages. For some twenty years the author had this work in mind, and as he could find time from his official duties he prepared for its publication. Rut long before he had any thought of authorship, and indeed from his earliest youth, he was himself in course of preparation for the task. Remote as the subject may seem to this generation, it was the great subject of family history and table talk ki the home of young Egerton Ryerson. His father, Col. Joseph Ryerson, when only fifteen years of age, joined the royal army on the breaking out of the American Revolution in 1775. About eighteen months later he received an ensign's commission as a reward for distinguished service. And soon after that his skill and energy and daring secured the further promotion to a lieutenancy in the Prince of Wales Regiment. Throughout the war he fought under the royal standard and at the close of the war in 1783, when Great Britain acknowledged the independence of the United States, Joseph Ryerson and his brother Samuel left the young republic to seek new homes under the old flag in that true North that had remained loyal to the empire. The brothers went first to New Brunswick, and afterwards removed to Ontario, or Upper Canada, as it was then called, where they settled on lands awarded to them by the government in consideration of their services and sacrifices in the cause of a united empire. Then came the experiences of pioneer settlers in the Canadian wilderness, the journeyings and toils and privations, the enterprise and success, the simple life, the neighbourly helpfulness and generous hospitality of the good old times. These all were familiar to Egerton Ryerson, as they came to him fresh from the fountains of household talk, or as they were matters of personal experience.

The manner in which Dr. Ryerson tells the story of the United Empire Loyalists and their times, is strongly suggestive of the manner hi which he became familiar with the facts. His work is not history, such as we think of it from the examples of our great historians. The scenes and events are seen at short distance, and the reader is left to supply proportion and perspective to the narrative. But if the enchantment that distance lends is wanting, we find ourselves carried away by a new enchantment back into the closest contact with the persons and events described. We seem to listen to the story as it falls in the twilight from the lips of the sturdy old United Empire Loyalists and their brave wives and children. We catch the tones of strife, and pain, and pathos, and humour, and we lend ourselves to this new enchantment with no less pleasure than we do to that of the grand panorama of Gibbon and the brilliant pictures of Macaulay.

There is, however, a distinct historic value in this work of Dr. Ryerson's in that it has helped to qualify and correct an opinion that has obtained too widely even amongst Canadians and Englishmen—the opinion that the English people were all wrong in the unhappy struggle of the American revolution, and the colonists all right. In his attempt to change what was to many of his readers a fixed opinion, Dr. Ryerson thought it necessary to produce copious documentary evidence to prove that the prevailing impressions were seriously at fault. The following is his apology for this method— a method that is to some readers tedious enough:— "The United Empire Loyalists were the losing party; their history has been written bv their adversaries and strangely misrepresented. In the v indication of their character 1 have not offered assertion against assertion; but in correction of unjust and Untrue assertions I have offered the records and documents of the actors themselves, and in their own words. To do this has rendered my history to a large extent documentary, inst ead of being a mere popular narrative. The many fictions of American writers will be found corrected and exposed in the following volumes, by authorities and facts which cannot be successfully denied. In thus trailing myself so largely of the proclamations, messages, addresses, letters and records of the times when they occurred, 1 have only followed the example of some of the best historians and biographers."

It is pleasing to note that the latest and best of the American historians themselves have come round to views substantially the same as those of Dr. Ryerson on some of the important issues in the history of the American revolution. And especially do they, in just and generous spirit, maintain that the men who staked all and lost all for the integrity of the empire were in numbers far more considerable than had long been supposed, and that they were in standing and character of the very best in the colonies. Dr. Ryerson does not undertake any defence of the conduct of the English government. On the contrary he condemns it in strong terms. He maintains, however, that the bad policy of compulsion was not that of the English people but of the king and of a court party whose overthrow was desired by the mass of the English people and whose success would have been as great a disaster to England as it would have been to the colonies. The true thought of England found expression in the words of Chatham and Burke and not in the message of the king and his ministers. Neither does Dr. Ryerson blame the colonists for resisting the attempt to subvert their liberties. He rather commends them for it, even to the length of taking up anus as a last resort. But he does blame them for their secession from the empire when further patience and forbearance would inevitably have secured all their rightful demands—and their demands were in the main rightful. Moreover this would have been secured with the good will and assistance of their kin beyond the sea from whom the colonists derived their English love of liberty, and without the help of their French allies, who were actuated by the hate of England rather than by the love of America.

The part of Dr. Ryerson's book which treats of the American revolution seems to be wholly in favour of those who maintain that war is always a blunder and a crime. Rut we are left in some uncertainty in this case as to which party is entitled to the bad preeminence as blunderers and criminals.

We still ask ourselves sometimes what might have been if the counsels of Edmund Burke in England and Joseph Galloway in America had prevailed, and the whole British people had presented a united front against all falsehood and oppression. But the God of battles, the God of all the earth, ruled otherwise. His thoughts were not our thoughts, neither were our ways His ways. We submit to his ruling, and yet we trust that He was in those troublous times leading His people by ways they knew not to the larger and more steadfast achievement of both law and liberty for all the nations.

That portion of Dr. Ryerson's work which treats of the United Empire Loyalists in their pioneer Canadian life has always been interesting, but in our times there is a new awakening of interest in the subject. We are now far enough away from the times of the first settlers to find a certain quaintness in all that was theirs, and we are also in danger of losing many of the traditions of those times if we do not speedily secure in some way the collections and recollections of those who stood in closest connections with the past. Dr. Ryerson's book is of special value to Canadians from this point of view. It is written by a maker and the son of a maker of Canada. And if it has something of the irregularity of all such early things, it is full of the spirit of liberty and law and truth, and buoyant with the breezy strength that makes "this Canada of ours" so dear to all Canadians.


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