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George Brown
Chapter V - The Clergy Reserves


THE clergy reserves were for many years a fruitful source of discontent and agitation in Canada. They had their origin in a provision of the Constitutional Act of 1791, that there should be reserved for the maintenance and support of a “Protestant clergy” in Upper and Lower Canada “a quantity of land equal in value to a seventh part of grants that had been made in the past or might be made in the future.” It was provided also that rectories might be erected and endowed according to the establishment of the Church of England. The legislatures were to be allowed to vary or repeal these enactments, but such legislation was not to receive the royal assent before it had been laid before both Houses of the imperial parliament.

Did the words “Protestant clergy” apply to any other body than the Church of England ? A vast amount of legal learning was expended on this question ; but there can be little doubt that the intention to establish and endow the Church of England was thoroughly in accord with the ideas of colonial government prevailing from the conquest to the end of the eighteenth century. In the instructions to Murray and other early governors there are constant injunctions for the support of a Protestant clergy and Protestant schools, “to the end that the Church of England may be established both in principles and practice.” Governor Simcoe, we are told, attached much importance to “every establishment of Church and State that upholds a distinction of ranks and lessens the undue weight of the democratic influence.” “The episcopal system was interwoven and connected with the monarchical foundations of our government.”2 In pursuance of this idea, which was also that of the ruling class in Canada, the country was to be made as much unlike the United States as possible by the intrenchment of class and ecclesiastical privileges, and this was the policy pursued up to the time that responsible government was obtained. Those outside the dominant caste, in religion as in politics, were branded as rebels, annexationists, Yankees, republicans. And as this dominant caste, until the arrival of Lord Elgin, had the ear of the authorities at home, it is altogether likely that the Act of 1791 was framed in accordance with their views.

The law was unjust, improvident, and altogether unsuited to the circumstances of the colony. Lord Durham estimated that the members and adherents of the Church of England, allowing its largest claim, were not more than one-third, probably not more than one-fourth, of the population of Upper Canada. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics, each claimed a larger membership. He declared that the sanction given to the exclusive claims of the Church of England by Sir John Colborne’s establishment of fifty-seven rectories, was, in the opinion of many persons, the chief predisposing cause of the rebellion, and it was an abiding and unabated cause of discontent.1

Not only was the spirit of thf* colony opposed to the establishment and domination of any Church, but settlement was retarded and the hardships of the settler increased by the locking up of enormous tracts of land. In addition to the clergy reserves, grants were made to officials, to militia men, to the children of United Empire Loyalists and others, in the hope that these persons would settle on the land. Many of these fell into the hands of speculators and jobbers, who bought farms of two hundred acres for prices ranging from a gallon of rum to £5. “The greater part of these grants,” said Mr. Hawke, a government official whose evidence is given in the appendix to Durham’s Report, “remain in an unimproved state. These blocks of wild land place the actual settler in an almost hopeless condition ; he can hardly expect during his lifetime to see his neighbourhood contain a population sufficiently dense to support mills, schools, post-offices, places of worship, markets or shops, without which civilization retrogrades. Roads, under such circumstances, can neither be opened by the settlers nor kept in proper repair. In 1834 I met a settler from the township of Warwick, on the Caradoc Plains, returning from the grist mill at Westminster, with t he flour and bran of thirteen bushels of wheat. He had a yoke of oxen and a horse attached to his wagon, and had been absent nine days and did not expect to reach home until the following evening. Light as his load was, he assured me that he had to unload, wholly or in part, several times, and after driving his wagon through the swamps, to pick out a road through the woods where the swamps or gullies were fordable, and to carry the bags on his back and replace them in the wagon.”

It is unnecessary here to discuss differences of opinion as to the interpretation of the law, attempts to divide the endowment among various denominations, or other efforts at compromise. The radical wing of the Reform party demanded that the special provision for the support of the Church of England should be abolished, and a system of free popular education established. With this part of their platform Brown was heartily in accord; on this point he agreed with the Clear Grits that the Baldwin-Lafontaine government was moving too slowly, and when Baldwin was succeeded by Hincks in 1851, the restraining influence of his respect for Baldwin being removed, his discontent was converted into open and determined opposition.

Largely by the influence of Brown and the Globe, public opinion In 1851 was aroused to a high degree, and meetings were held to advocate the secularization of the clergy reserves. The friends of the old order were singularly unfortunate in their mode of expressing their opinions. Opposition to responsible government was signalized by the burning of the parliament buildings, and the mobbing of Lord Elgin in Montreal. Opposition to religious equal:' ty was Signalized by the mobbing of an orderly assembly in Toronto. One meeting of the opponents of the clergy reserves was broken up by these means, and a second meeting was attacked by a mob with such violence as to necessitate the calling out of a company of British soldiers. This meeting was held in St. Lawrence Hall, over the city market bearing that name. Mr. Brown was chosen to move a resolution denouncing State endowments of religion, and did so in a speech of earnestness and argumentative power. He compared the results of Church establishments with those of voluntary effort n England, in Scotland, in France, and in Canada, and denounced “State-churchism” as the author of pride, intolerance and spiritual coldness. “ When,’’ he said, “I read the history of the human race, and trace the dark record of wars and carnage, of tyranny, robbery and injustice in every shape; which have been the fruits of State-churchism in every age ; when I observe the degenerating effect which it has ever had on the purity and simplicity of the Gospel of Christ, turning men’s minds from its great truths, as a religion of the heart, to the mere outward tinsel, to the forms and ceremonies on which priestcraft flourishes; when I see that at all times .it has been made the instrument of the rich and powerful in oppressing the poor and weak, I cannot but reject it utterly as in direct hostility to the whole spirit of the Gospel, to that glorious system which teaches men to set not their hearts on this world, and to walk humbly before God.’’ He held that it was utterly impossible for the State to teach religious truth. “ There is no standard for truth. We cannot even agree on the meaning of words.” Setting aside the injustice of forcing men to pay money for the support of what they deemed religious error, it was “ most dangerous to admit that the magistrate is to decide for God—for that is the plain meaning of the establishment principle. Once admit that principle, and no curb can be set upon its operation. Who shall restrict what God has appointed ? And thus the extent to which the conscience of men may be constrained, or persecution for truth’s sake may be carried, depends entirely on the ignorance or enlightenment of the civil magistrate. There is no safety out of the principle that religion s a matter entirely between man and his God, and that the whole duty of the magistrate is to secure every one in the peaceful observance of it. Anything else leads to oppression and injustice, but this can never lead to either.”

A notable part of the speech was a defence of free, non-sectarian education. “I can conceive,” he said, “nothing more unprincipled than a scheme to array the youth of the province in sectarian bands —to teach them, from the cradle up, to know each other as Methodist boys, and Presbyterian boys, and Episcopal boys. Surely, surely, we have enough of this most wretched sectarianism in our churches without carrying it further.”

To protect themselves from interruption, the advocates of secularization had taken advantage of a law which allowed them to declare their meeting as private, and exclude disturbers. Their opponents held another meeting in the adjoining market-place where by resolution they expressed indignation at the repeated attempts of “a Godless association” to stir up religious strife, and declared that the purposes of the association, if earned out, would bring about not only the severance of British connection, but socialism, republicanism, and infidel ty. The horrified listeners were told how Rousseau and Voltaire had corrupted France, how religion was overthrown and the naked Goddess of Reason set up as an object of worship. They were told that the clergy reserves were a gift to the nation from “our good King George the Third.” Abolish them and the British flag would refuse to float over anarchy and confusion. Finally, they were assured that they could thrash the St. Lawrence Hall audience in a stand-up light, but were nevertheless advised to go quietly home. This advice was apparently accepted in the spirit of the admonition: “Don’t nail his ears to the pump,” for the crowd immediately marched to St. Lawrence Hall, cheering, groaning, and shouting. They were met by the mayor, two aldermen, and the chief constable, and told that they could not be admitted. Stones and bricks were thrown through the windows of the hall. The Riot Act was read by an alderman, and the British regiment then quartered in the town, the 71st, was sent for. There was considerable delay in bringing the troops, and in the meantime there was great disorder; persons leaving the hall were assaulted, and the mayor was struck in the face with a stone and severely cut. A company of the 71st arrived at midnight, after which the violence of the mob abated.

The steps leading up to the settlement of the question may be briefly referred to. In 1850 the Canadian parliament had asked for power to dispose of the reserves, with the understanding that emoluments derived by existing incumbents should be guaranteed during their lives. The address having been forwarded to England, Lord John Russell informed the governor-general that a bill would be introduced in compliance with the wish of the Canadian parliament. But in 1852 the Russell government resigned, and was succeeded by that of the Earl of Derby. Derby (Lord Stanley) had been colonial secretary in the Peel government, which had shown a strong bias' against Canadian self-government. Sir John Pakington declared that the advisers of Her Majesty were not inclined to aid in the diversion to other purposes of the only public fund for the support of divine worship and religious instruction in Canada, though they would entertain proposals for new dispositions of the fund. Hincks, who was then' in England, protested vigorously against the disregard of the wishes of the Canadian people. When the legislature assembled in 1852, it carried, at his instance, an address to the Crown strongly upholding the Canadian demand. Brown contended that the language was too strong and the action too weak. He made a counter proposal, which found little support, that the Canadian parliament itself enact a measure providing for the sale of the clergy lands to actual settlers, and the appropriation of the funds for the maintenance of common schools.

With the fall of the Derby administration in England, ended the opposition from that source to the Canadian demands. But Hincks, who had firmly vindicated the right of the Canadian parliament to legislate on the matter, now hesitated to use the power placed in his hands, and declared that legislation should be deferred until a new parliament had been chosen. The result was that the work of framing the measure of settlement fell into the hands of John A. Macdonald, the rising star of the Conservative party. The fund, after provision had been made for the vested rights of incumbents, was turned over to the municipalities.


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