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Adolphus Egerton Ryerson


(in  TOUCHSTONE, Sept. 2002)

Adolphus Egerton Ryerson



Egerton Ryerson was born March 24, 1803, in Vittoria (near Port Dover, Ontario), one of nine children of Joseph Ryerson and Mehetabel Stickney. His parents were descendants of Dutch Protestants who had wearied of the suffocation born of Europe’s class confinement and craved the opportunities the New World afforded. His oldest New World ancestor, Martin Reyerzoon, had landed in New Amsterdam before the British conquest rendered the settlement New York (1664.) In the wake of the British victory the family name was Anglicized to “Ryerson.” Joseph Ryerson, Egerton’s father, forsook Dutch Calvinism and embraced the Church of England.

In 1815, at the close of the War of 1812, Ryerson’s three older brothers, George, William and John, underwent that precisely demarcated shift “from darkness to light” by which Methodism had come to be identified. Soon the twelve year-old Egerton was listening with similar intensity to Methodist preachers. One such, a former blacksmith, unashamed to be known now as “The Old Hammer”, became the means whereby the youngster’s heart was heated white-hot and forged forever.

Ryerson continued farming and studying until he was eighteen, when he thought he should identify publicly with the movement through which he had been spiritually awakened. His father, upon hearing that Egerton had joined the Methodists, responded swiftly and surely: “Leave them or leave home.” Ryerson left home, supporting himself as a student-teacher in the local grammar school.

Rescinding the expulsion, Ryerson’s father pleaded with his son to return. Egerton’s prompt return indicated that he was now as unembittered and unresentful and as he had earlier been courageous — character traits would mark him throughout the struggle and strife soon to surround him for the rest of his life. Labouring on his father’s farm for one year, he left home for good, this time with Joseph’s blessing.

In August 1824 he began studying Latin and Greek with assistance from a near-by schoolmaster. Then in the midst of protracted, serious illness he found himself “addressed” once again in a manner no less turbulent than his spiritual awakening. This time he acknowledged not a summons to discipleship but a vocation to the ministry. One month later he was astride a horse, itinerating throughout the Niagara Peninsula as a Methodist Probationer. Although his formal education was restricted to a few months of instruction in the Classics, he immersed himself in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke was the principal English philosopher of the Enlightenment), Paley’s Moral and Political Philosophy and Blackstone’s Commentaries. (Ironically, the man who was to design and inaugurate public education in Ontario and whose work would be copied throughout the Canadian nation was almost entirely self-taught, and would continue to school himself for the rest of his life.)

Ryerson preached his first sermon in Beamsville, Ontario. (This village has become dear to many United Church clergy and their families on account of its Albright Gardens and Manor, the final earthly residence for ministers who retire without the means to house themselves.) Before long he was minister of the Yonge Street Circuit. The circuit gathered up the people in the triangle whose outermost points were Pickering, Weston and the south shore of Lake Simcoe. It took him a month to visit all the preaching points within it. On a typical Sunday the twenty-two year old Ryerson found himself riding thirty miles, preaching three times, and addressing two classes.

Then there occurred the momentous event that brought him unprecedented opportunity, altered forever his public image and fixed his name in Canadian history. In 1825 Bishop Mountain of Quebec died. Toronto’s Bishop John Strachan preached on the occasion of Mountain’s death, turning the sermon into both a panegyric lauding the rise and riches of the Church of England in Canada and a poniard aimed at the heart of all who declined the denomination, but with especial denunciation reserved for Methodists.

For years Strachan had been the power broker of the Family Compact, the “Compact” consisting of a handful of rich families who exercised a monopoly on business, finance and education. It aimed at petrifying the social stratification that allowed the privileged to exploit the New World’s version of Britain’s class structure, the worst in Europe. Earlier Strachan had candidated for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Rejected by the Presbyterians, he had turned to the Anglican Church and then had turned on all who didn’t belong to it. Rising to episcopal pre-eminence, he sought to punish any who didn’t’ support the Compact’s constellation of power, piety, prestige and privilege.

Strachan denigrated the Methodist people, faulting them for a putative American origin and accusing them of American leanings. The Methodist clergy, however, he more than denigrated: he ridiculed them, his scurrility stooping to sneer at them as irremediably ignorant in view of their having inflated themselves into preachers when their intellectual mediocrity should have chained them to plough and shop. Following up his sermon with concrete designs to suppress Methodists, Strachan asked the government for exclusive Anglican access to the Clergy Reserves (the Clergy Reserves being land and the income it generated reserved for the sole use of the church), in addition to a large grant, thereby assuring a Britain made nervous by the nation to the south that Upper Canadian Anglicanism was loyal to the crown. In addition, of course, the inequity of withholding from Methodists the right to solemnize marriages as well as to hold title to church buildings, parsonages and cemeteries; this was to be perpetuated.

Methodists were outraged at Strachan’s vilification of their clergy and his accusation of political treachery and his enforced injustice. They looked around for someone to champion them. Ryerson, only twenty-five years old, penned Methodism’s reply. The pseudonymously written “Review of a Sermon, Preached by the Honourable and Reverend John Strachan” appeared in William Lyon Mackenzie’s paper, The Colonial Advocate. Ryerson voiced Methodism’s disgust at the Anglican Church’s political prostitution. Stressing again that he had no complaint with Anglican doctrine or liturgy, Ryerson noted that Strachan appeared unaroused on matters pertaining to the gospel yet implacably vehement and venomous when finances were at stake. Replying to Strachan’s assertion that a Christian nation without an established Church was inherently self-contradictory, Ryerson reminded readers that the gospel had thrived in the hands of the apostles even though the latter had been without state support. As for the “ignorance” of the Methodist clergy, Ryerson listed the books mandated for Methodist candidates for ordination, and recalled John Wesley’s insistence that all Methodist preachers study five hours per day. Concerning the imputation of American origin, Ryerson noted that the Wesleyan Methodists had never known an American root, while by 1825 there were scarcely any in the Methodist Episcopal Church (a denomination that had originated in the United States) who were American-born. He reminded his accusers that his parents had been United Empire Loyalists who had left the Republic out of loyalty to the British Crown. He argued conclusively that Strachan’s sly slander concerning “U.E.L.s” (they were not to be trusted since they might have absorbed unknowingly the worst of republicanism with its rejection of tradition and its elevation of the masses and its affinity for a government that Strachan’s echelon regarded as little more than mob rule); this innuendo was groundless. Methodists weren’t American sympathizers infested with republicanism.

Furthermore, why should the state favour the Church of England when only thirty-one of 235 clergy in Upper Canada were Anglican? George Ryerson, brother to Ryerson, weighed in with his written comment that non-preferential treatment shouldn’t be accorded the “temple of spiritual tyranny.” Father Joseph, now aware of his sons’ role in the dispute, cried, “We are all ruined.” Egerton himself relished none of this, finding that controversy, however necessary, issued in “leanness of soul.” Notwithstanding his fear of spiritual enervation, Ryerson’s gospel-engendered polemics bore incontestable fruit: within four years legislation appeared that permitted Nonconformist denominations to own land and their ministers to marry and baptize. The dissolving of the Clergy Reserves took another twenty-five years, when the land was sold off with revenues returning to the government, most of which were redistributed for education.

Ryerson’s concern to counter the Family Compact’s ascendancy, however, never acidulated his spirit or eclipsed all other aspects and implicates of the gospel. After the Methodist Conference of 1826 in Hamilton, he began living among the aboriginal people on the Credit River. Introduced to Peter Jones at a camp meeting of Mississaugas and Mohawks, Ryerson found a spirit-mate in the young native Methodist preacher who had evangelized his people and whose father (Augustus), like Ryerson’s, had been a United Empire Loyalist and whose mother (Tuhbenahbenahneequay), was an Ojibwa. Able now to elicit the help of the aboriginals who trusted him, and recognized precocious besides (within months he could preach to the people in their language), Ryerson’s linguistic ability saw him commissioned to produce a grammar and lexicon of the Mississauga dialect. Immediately he set himself to raising money to build a school and chapel for the natives. Knowing that the Credit River people could furnish few funds for the project, Ryerson returned to his former circuit and old friends, unashamed, like Wesley before him, to beg from door-to-door for an undertaking whose worth neither he nor they ever doubted. The structure was completed in six weeks. Drawing on his agricultural expertise he convinced the natives that fenced land and cultivated fields produced vastly more than either bartering hand-made goods or hunting and gathering in the wild. Their chief, understanding the restless nature of the Methodist itinerancy, dubbed him “A Bird-on-the-Wing.”

The Anglican hierarchy recognized the young minister’s talent and offered to finance a fine formal education if he consented to honour his vocation within the Church of England. Characteristically neither envying nor toadying, he graciously declined the offer, convinced that only crass opportunism would see him leave the people among whom he had come to know God for the sake of self-advancement. He insisted he believed the “Articles of Religion” of the Methodists; he agreed with their constitution; and he never doubted that they were “church” as depicted in Scripture. Never hostile to the Church of England, he would nevertheless remain immovably opposed to its efforts to get itself “established” (thereby making it an aspect of the state), its attempts at preserving its endowments, and its prerogatives that demeaned those less privileged. (When he came to marry, for instance, he and Hannah Aikman had to travel twenty miles to find a Presbyterian clergyman to preside, Presbyterians from the Church of Scotland being allowed some of the privileges denied all Methodists.)

By now the Methodists knew that they had to have their own journal if they were to forestall fragmentation. The Methodist Conference of 1829 minuted the founding of a weekly paper, the Christian Guardian. (All papers in Upper Canada at this time were weeklies.) Ryerson was elected its first editor. Initially distributing 500 copies, in three years it swelled to 3,000. In no time it was the most widely read paper and the most influential of any in the province. The Guardian gathered up Methodist theological concerns, religious issues in everyday life, discussions of the sort of government the people currently had or ought to have, educational reform (always a priority with Ryerson), as well as practical advice in household economics. (While the Methodists opposed the production and consumption of distilled spirits, one issue at least of the Guardian informed readers of the subtleties of beer-brewing.) The paper eclipsed the official Upper Canada Gazette.

Methodism’s successful venture into journalism expanded into book publishing. The Guardian‘s first editor opened a bookstore, selling chiefly books imported from Britain and the U.S.A. The seed was small yet the yield, as in the parable, unforeseeably huge as the Methodist Book Concern metamorphosed into the largest printing and publishing enterprise in Canada. Its sales of imported books underwrote the publishing and distribution of indigenous writers, among whom were Charles G.D. Roberts and Catherine Parr Traill. Renamed The Ryerson Press in 1919 in honour of its founder, it continued to support the work of Canadian writers, including that of two famous poets, Earle Birney and Louis Dudek. Surviving until 1970, it did much to shape the Canadian identity in the twentieth century through the novelists, poets, biographers and historians whose works it made available across the land.

Ryerson’s contribution to the Canadian people through literature developed into a related contribution through a major academic institution, Victoria College. Bishop Strachan had long campaigned for a charter for “King’s College” (later to become the University of Toronto), replete with Anglican privileges. All its professors, for instance, would have to endorse the Thirty-Nine Articles (Anglicanism’s normative doctrinal statement), while veto power over the institution’s council would rest with the Bishop of Lower Canada (Quebec.) The Methodists countered with their own college, situating it in Cobourg, Ontario, at that time the hub of Methodist strength in the province. (Non-Anglican “dissenters” of Calvinist persuasion supported Ryerson in his efforts to end Anglican hegemony in higher education.) In 1836 the Methodists erected Upper Canada Academy, expanding it into Victoria College (1841) and Victoria University (1865, when faculties of law and medicine were added.) Named Victoria’s first principal, Ryerson announced a curriculum as broad as it was deep. In addition to Classics (a mainstay at any university at this time), he added a science department offering courses in chemistry, mineralogy and geography, as well as new departments of philosophy, rhetoric and modern languages (French and German.) Always eschewing one-sidedness anywhere in life, he insisted that each student pursue a balanced programme of the arts and the sciences.

Indisputably, however, Ryerson became a household name, with churches and streets named after him in scores of cities and towns, on account of his colossal achievement concerning public education. Dismayed to see one-half of school-aged children with no formal education and the remaining half averaging only a year’s, and horrified at the poor training and brutal disposition of what passed for “teacher” in too many villages, Ryerson’s people had mirrored the prophet’s word, “precept upon precept…here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28: 13) as they had pried open the grip of the Family Compact. Ryerson himself was handed unparalleled opportunity the day he was appointed Chief Superintendent of Common Schools for Canada West in 1844. (A “common” school was the social opposite of the elitist private schools.) He was only forty-one. Two years later he was promoted to Chief Superintendent of Education, an office he occupied for the next thirty years, leaving it only to retire. Ryerson persuaded the provincial government to assume responsibility for education. Soon common schools, aided by government grants, appeared wherever twenty students could be gathered. The arrangement was a quantitative leap over the log cabin schoolhouses whose instructors were frequently minimally literate themselves.

Thinking ill of a British school system that perpetuated the worst class divisiveness in Europe, Ryerson visited Continental common schools in Holland, Italy and France, “bookending” his trip with visits to Germany where he could observe the education system that Philip Melanchthon had implemented 300 years earlier.

Melanchthon (1487-1560) had been the first systematic theologian of the Magisterial Reformation. While Luther had penned theological tracts to respond to exigencies in church and society, Melanchthon had “bottled” Luther’s rich “geysering”, scripting his Loci Communes (“Commonplaces”) into a theological textbook that had seen eighteen Latin editions in a few years, as well as numerous German printings.

Yet Melanchthon had wanted to be relieved of his teaching responsibilities in theology in order to concentrate on the humanities. Superbly trained as a humanist (he was recognized the best Greek scholar in Europe following the death of Desiderius Erasmus), he was enormously gifted as linguist and philologist, yet equally at home in philosophy. He had always maintained there to be no substitute for schooling in the humanities and the sciences. (Physics, said Melanchthon, illustrated the harmony of the creation.)

As early as 1524 (he was then only twenty-seven years old) Melanchthon had begun developing public schools throughout Germany; he had reorganized the universities; he had fashioned the pedagogical methods in which hundreds of teachers were trained; and he had written school textbooks, subsequently used by countless pupils.

Germany’s system of public education seared itself upon Ryerson as holding greater promise for Canada than that of any other European nation. Upon his return to Canada he wooed the provincial government into marrying education and tax revenues, thereby providing free education for all. Of course the rich objected, arguing that they shouldn’t have to support the schooling of their social inferiors. Ryerson triumphed. His free education was soon compulsory as well. In it all he elevated teaching from a miserable job to a calling akin to that of the ordained ministry.

George Brown, editor of Toronto’s Globe newspaper, ranted that Ryerson had imported “Prussian” education into Ontario. Ryerson, cultured where Brown was crude, quietly immersed himself in French literature, having taught himself the language so well that he and the pope had conversed in it during his visit to Italy. (Ryerson was prescient in his awareness that all public figures in Canada would have to be conversant in French. In addition he was aware that everywhere in Europe — and therefore why not in Canada — French was the language of culture. No educated person boasted of being unilingual, and no one who aspired to the world of letters was inept in French. Earlier, while principal of Victoria College, he had taught himself Hebrew.)

Ryerson always knew that the life of the mind was a good in itself. The life of the mind was its own justification. Furthermore, it was his conviction that people are commanded to love God with their minds. While it wasn’t sin to be ignorant, it was sin to be more ignorant than they had to be. And it was sheer wickedness for a society to relegate the relatively disadvantaged to lifelong ignorance.

While Ryerson knew that the life of the mind was an end in itself, he also knew that the life of the mind was useful; it had utilitarian significance. People with greater education in fact could do more of greater social usefulness than those who had been unable to gain adequate education. Ryerson knew, then, that the public good was always served by better quality public education.

He knew something else; namely, education didn’t merely equip people to know more, it expanded the universe in which they lived. Education equipped them to live in a different world, a richer world, a world of greater complexity and greater wonder. Deprived of adequate schooling, people would be confined to a much smaller world outside and a commensurately smaller world inside.

Ryerson knew too that public education was essential to social democracy. Political democracy was relatively easy to achieve: each citizen was given the right to vote. Social democracy, however, occurred when all citizens had equal access to opportunities within a society. Ryerson knew that apart from a vibrant public education, social gains couldn’t be retained. The cruel class stratification, with its “invisible ceilings” that precluded socio-economic mobility and frustrated people in private and public “prisons”, would reappear as surely as Strachan and his supporters wanted it to reappear. Like any nineteenth-century thinker apprised of the French Revolution, Ryerson knew that if public education didn’t thrive and with it the release of resentment engendered by the limitations of the place on the social spectrum where one had been born, then different clusters in the society, now frozen into immobility, would turn inward for support and then turn outward in hostility. His educational vision entailed vastly more than schooling: it entailed a vision for a nation, its people and its future.

Ryerson struggled to give birth to, refine, and expand public education with his second last breath. His last breath, of course, was reserved for what was incomparably dear to him and his educational mentor, Philip Melanchthon. “Next to the gospel“, the multi-talented German reformer had exclaimed, “there is nothing more glorious than humanistic learning, that wonderful gift of God.”

Victor Shepherd, Th.D

Professor of Historical Theology and Chair of Wesley Studies

Tyndale Seminary, Toronto