Rev. William Briggs, D.D.
An Eloquent Preacher and Successful Publisher
H. P. Moore
"GOOD morning. Dr. Briggs. I have been requested to write a sketch of your career as Book Steward and General Superintendent of this great business, which has grown to such magnificent proportions under your management during the past quarter century, and I have come to crave the favor of a few minutes of your time in securing some data required.”
“Xow, my dear fellow,” replied the genial Doctor, “you know I am always glad to see you, but you will please me best by not writing any sketch of my career for publication. The Methodist Church long ago laid hands upon me and has claimed everything I possess but my modesty, and I would like to preserve that. Just let the matter rest until my work is over, and then you have my full permission to write my obituary.”
The above is a fair index to the modest and unassuming character of this great man—great in the eyes of the general public, of the business world, and of the church which has profited so largely from his business sagacity and able management. Modesty has ever been a prominent characteristic. Self-interest has always been subservient. Wirepulling for personal advantage or preferment has ever been remotest from his thoughts. A trusted servant of the church of his choice, its interests have been given unstintingly the best that was in him, with never a thought of self-advancement. Always uppermost in his considerations has been the upbuilding, the expansion, the success of the Methodist Book and Publishing House, Toronto. Most strenuous have been his endeavors from the outset to establish and maintain an institution worthy of the church which in June, 1879, took him from the Metropolitan Church, where he had been the successful and much loved pastor for three years, and placed him at the head of its publishing interests. So well has his work been done that for seven successive quadrenniums the General Conference has elected Dr. Briggs to continue in office, and the last election in Montreal, in September, 1906, was no less hearty than was his first election twenty-seven years before. Every election has been practically unanimous.
As has been said, personal profit has not been an element in his active efforts, but the great success which has characterized the concern must be genuinely gratifying to him. From a business with 45 employes, and having an annual business turnover of less than $60,000, he has had the satisfaction of seeing it grow under his administration, until to-day it is the largest publishing house in Canada, has 350 employes on its pay rolls, and had a turnover last year of $640,000. In 1879 the Christian Guardian, the official paper of the church, had a circulation of 10,056, to-day it has 24.000. The combined circulation of the Sunday School publications was 56,303 ; to-day it is 332,738. When Dr. Briggs took office the business was conducted in the small establishment at 78-80 King street east, a door or t\\ o from the old and well-known firm of Brown Bros., now at Wellington street west. The expanding business demanded larger premises, and in 1877 the commodious Wesley Buildings, at 33-37 Richmond street west, with a large frontage on Tempérance street, were completed at a cost of about $150,000. Last year the premises were again found to be too circumscribed, for the expanding business, and a $50,000 addition has just been completed on the Temperanee street side of the property. Xot only lias he given personal supervision to business matters, but the new buildings and improvements have also been constructed under his direct ion.
Like his grandfather. Win. Briggs, and his father, Thomas Briggs, the subject of this article was a native of Banbridge, county Down, Ireland This a> t«» his birthplace, respecting which all his biographers have apparently been well informed. As to the date of his birth, however, no extant .sketch has, far as 1 can ascertain, ever given it. The Busy Man s Magazine, has, therefore, first honors in presenting this information. Interrogating Dr. Briggs on this point the other day, I said : “I pre-
sume, Doctor, you are aware that it is popularly surmised that because of your comparatively youthful appearance and your strenuous life, you are averse to revealing the exact date of
your birth?" “Not at all,” he promptly replied. “1 have no objection whatever to giving you the information. 1 was born at Banbridge. county Down. Ireland, on September oth. 1836."
All the observable effect of his early residence in the North of Ireland is that of giving a crisp, firm accent to his distinctly-uttered, pure English diction. Dr. Briggs has a remarkably resonant voice and clear utter? nee.
When he was six years of age he had the great misfortune to lose his mother, a worthy Scotch woman ; which loss it may be, had the effect of developing a self-reliance which has been a commendable characteristic of his career. His pious father, a Weslevan class leader, most assiduously, and, as it proved, successfully performed the two-fold parental duties toward his motherless boy which thus devolved upon him. At the age of ten he removed with his father to the great commercial seaport of Liverpool, a bare sojourn in which city, some one has said, would afford an education and a training* of its own. But his was not merely the education of the street and the market, and of social intercourse. He had the advantage of schools of the very best class in his boyhood and youth. After a preparatory classical schooling his education was principally commercial, as he was intended for business in which his father was engaged before him, the practical details of which he had the opportunity of verifying for himself. He attended first the Mount Street School, and afterward the Collegiate Institute, of which the celebrated Dean Howson was the head master. To this he added then, and has always continued, the companionship of the very best English authors. He always eschewed the superficial and trashy. To good books he gave his days and nights, “marking, learning and inwardly digesting” their helpful contents. This course has resulted in his becoming* one of the most thoroughly versed in the British classics among the educated men of the country. His habits of careful reading, watchful listening and frequent annotation of whatever has been worth remembering, has furnished him with a vast reserve of ready apothegms and apposite illustrations with which to clinch an argument, “p°mt a moral or adorn a tale.” A man thus informed and with his ready tongue, who has besides always made careful preparation for every engagement, could not be other than the commanding public speaker and the convincing, tender and popular preacher that he is.
The godly teaching and example of an upright and consistent father, and the impressive instruction received at the Sunday School in the notable P> runswick Wesleyan Chapel in
Liverpool, resulted in an undoubted conversion in his boyhood. He entered upon labors of usefulness in his teens in connection with the prayer services, the leaders’ and exhortéis’ meeting, and the local preachers' plans in succession, and through these he was prepared and led to exercise his gifts as a preacher in and around the citv. In fact, before he left Liverpool he had occupied every Wesleyan pulpit in the city and vicinity.
The Rev. Mr. Chettle, one of his last superintendents in the old land, took especial interest in advancing him into full connection with the ministry. It was through the intervention of Rev. Dr. Stinson, brotherin-law of Mr. Chettle, then President of the Canada Conference, that he came to this country. He became a member of the Conference here in ï859—nearly half a century ago.
Dr. Briggs soon stepped to the front rank in this new country. That such attributes and characteristics as those described should—with absolutely no “management” on his part —have secured for him desirable and important appointments, is not at all surprising. He occupied such fields as Dunham, Que. ; Adelaide Street, Toronto; Hamilton; London; Belleville, and the Metropolitan, Toronto, which was his last pastoral charge.
During his ministry at London he had an experience unique for a Canadian clergyman, which the writer heard him rehearse before a small group of clerical and lay friends when attending one of the Conferences last June. It was during his ministry in London in 1869. Commodore Vanderbilt, the well-known millionaire railroad man of New York, arrived in London one morning by special train, accompanied by a party of friends of high social position. The Commodore engaged a suite of rooms at the Tecumseh, gave the ubiquitous newspaper reporter the impression that he was in Canada on a matter of private business—which the newspaper man concluded must be some big railroad deal—and then inquired of the manager of the Tecumseh where he could find a Methodist minister. Being friendly to that denomination, he desired to have a chat with one of the ministers during his stay in the city. He was informed that Dr. Briggs was the leading Methodist minister of the city. Mr. Briggs was sent for, and upon arrival at the rooms of the Commodore was informed that he desired him to perform a marriage ceremony. The Commodore explained that Miss Crawford, who was a member of the party, and himself, desired to be joined in the bonds of holy wedlock, and stated that their presence in Canada for the solemnization of the important ceremony was out of deference to the bride’s wishes. The affair was a genuine love match. The date, it will be remembered, was just a year or two after the Civil War of the United States. Miss Crawford belonged to one of the foremost families of the South, and absolutely declined to have the wedding in the North! Commodore Vanderbilt was equally strong in his prejudices against the South, and refused to go there to have the ceremony performed. Finally, like all happy couples, “whose hearts beat as one,” they made a mutual and satisfactory compromise. It was agreed that the marriage should take place on neutral ground. Canada was therefore chosen, and London—which was situated on one of the railways affiliated with the Vanderbilt system— was made the objectée point. After the interview with Dr. Briggs the license was procured, the ceremony proceeded, and the nuptial knot was tied. Subsequently the Commodore handed the Doctor the customary envelope containing the marriage fee. This the Doctor failed to examine until he had returned to his study, when, he found it contained an amount overwhelmingly large to a Methodist parson. “It was a good, fat fee,” said the Doctor. “How much was it, Dr. Briggs?” interrogated one of the ¡ministerial members of the company. “Ah, ha, that’s a secret,” replied the jovial Doctor. “No one but myself knows until this day how much it was. But this I will say, it was a fee well worthy a Vanderbilt.”
Dr. Brggs himself was married in 1865, in Montreal, to Miss Clark, whose home was in Melbourne, Australia, and where the family still resides. Mrs. Briggs has been a true helpmate, an ideal wife and mother, her energetic work in the church, and especially in missionary enterprise, has been most useful and effective. Mr. A. W. Briggs, the well-known barrister, whose office is in the Wesley Buildings, is the only surviving child. He is a noted and useful Methodist layman, and was a delegate with his father to the last session of the General Conference in Montreal.
“He is a son of whom his father is not ashamed,” is the Doctor’s expressed estimate.
Dr. Briggs’ financial and business abilities soon became known, and his services were sought after for important duties of the church outside the regular pastoral work. He was honored with such positions as Financial Secretary of his district, Secretary of the Conference, etc., and the conferring of honors did not cease when in 1879 he was elected—for all these connexional positions are bestowed by popular vote of a delegated body—to the responsible position of Book Steward of the western section of the Methodist Church in Canada. In 1882 he was elected. Fraternal Delegate to the Methodist Episcopal Church South ; in 1885 he was President of Toronto Conference ; in 1891 delegate to the Ecumenical Conference at Washington, D.C., and in 1901 to the same body, which met in London, Eng. He has been a member of every General Conference. The honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred upon him by Victoria University twenty-one years ago.
It has been said that but one objection has ever been heard to his appointment to the position which he has so long occupied. This was that with Dr. Briggs’ conspicuous abilities as a preacher and pastor it was a mistake to take him from the pulpit and place him in a position which is more or less secular and commercial. But, aside from the fact that the presses he controls as Book Steward are issuing a continual stream of books and periodicals, the chief characteristic of which is that they are instinct with the vital principles of morality and religion ; Dr. Briggs is very truly in the “active work” of the ministry still. As a matter of fact, his appointment has but enlarged his opportunities for usefulness. He. belongs to no particular pulpit now, but to the church at large. Although the duties of his office necessarily render him one of the busiest of busy men during the week rarely a Sunday passes but he is in the pulpit at some point near or remote. His ministrations have reached from Halifax to Vancouver. He is in constant demand for church openings and anniversaries, educational and missionary meetings and other important occasions. How he stands this strain in addition to his exacting, everyday duties, is a marvel. He seems to have found the fountain of perennial youth, for Monday morning finds him in his office bright and early, fresh and vigorous for another week’s strenuous work. And he rejoices in this well-filled round of engagements.
Dr. Briggs has absolutely no use for the proverbial clerical “Blue Monday.” Upon returning to his office from a meeting of the Ministerial Association on a recent Monday morning, he was overheard to remark with an impatience which his genial spirit rarely gives expression to : “Well, I am amazed to hear some of these young preachers complain about being all used up this morning as a result of their ministerial duties of yesterday. Why, they even went so far, some of them, as to suggest that the meetings of the association be changed to some day later in the week, so as to give them an opportunity for undisturbed rest on Monday. Why,” continued the Doctor, “I preached twice yesterday at a church anniversary, traveled sixty miles this morning to get home, and am thankful to say I feel as fresh as a daisy, and quite fit and ready for the week’s business.” And he keeps his programme thus full year after year, and has at the present writing engagements extending for many months into this new year.
It is required of a Steward that he be found faithful. This is especially needful in the case of a Book Steward. Dr. Briggs very conspicuously fills this requirement. As the years have rolled onward he has grown in the approval of his church, in popular esteem, and in 'business influence. He is indefatigable in his efforts. Year in and year out he is found in his office, with rare exceptions, every day and all day. He occupies the hours of every succeeding day with a business industry that knows no surcease. Like other superintendents of great business concerns he has on his desk a series of electric buttons wnich place him in instantaneous communication with every department of this large establishment. It has been said that this is a very apt symbol of his function as Book Steward. He is the nerve centre of the whole system. He inspires, directs, controls and guards the entire concern. Watchful as with the hundred eyes of Argus, and “Diligent in business, fervent in spirit,” himself, he expects and requires fidelity and diligence in those whose services he employs. Moreover, he is kind and considerate with everyone of his army of employes.
Dr. Briggs is most emphatically a “Captain of Industry.” When the extent of die publishing house and its ramifications is realized, the force of this statement will be more fully appreciated. His business methods, his integrity of character, and his personal worth are best estimated by those who know him most intimately. An illustration of this was made manifest in the presentation by the employes of the establishment of a handsome silver service to commemorate the completion of the twentieth year of his' incumbency of office.
Speaking of the employes—Dr. Briggs has the rare faculty of surrounding himself, not only with faithful men and women in the rank and file of helpers, but with capable leaders or heads of departments. When he finds a man who measures up to the responsibilities of the position he was chosen to fill, he keeps him in that position, utilizing to best possible advantage his services. These services very naturally become enhanced every year by the added year’s experience, and are tangibly recognized as they deserve. A canvass of the heads of the various departments amply substantiates the statement that good men are permanently retained, and there will be nothing invidious in naming those who have served the house for extended periods :
Ed. Caswell, manager of the publication department, has been in the Book Room for over quarter of a century. James Dale, manager of the periodicals department, came to the concern as an errand boy, when he was so short and small that he had to stand on his tip toes to enable him to see over the old-fashioned counter at the old King street store. For more than thirty years he has been on the pay roll. Martin Merry, chief accountant, also went there as a lad, and began climbing up the ladder when Dr. Briggs placed responsibilities upon his shoulders. Francis Byrne, the head cashier, has held the combination of the treasury vault for twenty-nine years. Richard Whittaker, manager of the Church and Sunday School Books Department, has given twenty-six years of efficient service under Dr. Briggs. John Berkinshaw, Superintendent of the Entry Room, has been with the concern in various responsible positions for a round twenty-five years. S. F. Ewens has had charge of the Special Orders and Imported Books Department for nearly a score of years. W. J. Slater was made manager of the Retail Department shortly after the Richmond street premises were completed. Ernest W. Walker has been at the head of the Wholesale Department for a number of years. William McLellan, foreman of the Press Room, has been in the office for twenty-seven years, and John Mills and Robert Self have held frames in the Composing Room for forty and thirty-two years, respectively.
The man who will faithfully perform his duties will find in Dr. Briggs an appreciative employer, who will note and duly reward his efforts; but woe be to the man who shirks his work or neglects his duties. He had better try this on somebody else, for faithfulness and eye-service will be very promptly followed, if persisted in, by dismissal.
The General Conference at each quadrennial session elects a Book Committee, which has control and supervision of the Book and Publishing establishment of which Dr. Briggs is in effect the General Manager. The Book Committee is, in fact, the Board of Directors of the institution. When it is known, however, that this committee meets but once a year, and its executive only twice a year, it will be very evident that the administration is very largely given over to the man whose personality has been so successful and constructive an element in its operation. Nevertheless, Dr. Briggs religiously follows to the minutest detail all instructions and recommendations made by the Book Committee. He goes very safely upon the principle that “a committee at your back is an element of greatest advantage and power; but a committee on your back is something devoutly to be avoided.” His committees have been at his back from the outset. Greatest harmony has prevailed. Indeed, to be consistent with existing facts, it must be stated that Dr. Briggs by his wise and astute administration and keen business prescience, has generally led his committee, and has seldom needed to be led by them.
In assuming office he soon revolutionized the business methods of the institution. This was especially the case in the matter of the purchase of stock. It had been the custom to buy the raw materials for the printing office and the bindery, and the printed books for the sales department from middlemen. His commercial training convinced him at once that this was a poor policy. The credit of the concern was ample and there was no reason why purchases should not be made from the manufacturers. To this end large direct orders were placed with paper mills, ink manufacturers, the producers of bindery supplies, and the book publishers in New York, London and other centres. The
result of thi«; change of policv was promptly manifest. Special advantages accrued to the business, and prices to the public were made more attractive. The business grew by leaps and bounds, and the profits provided sufficient capital to meet the expansion. To-day expert buyers make regular visits to the great centres of the United States, Great Britain and the Continent to secure the large quantities of goods necessary for the manufacturing and retail departments.
Naturally it will be concluded that the great Methodist Church, which shows its appreciation of the valuable services of this able man by reelecting him to office at each succeeding quadrennium, suitably rewards him for his onerous labors. It would indeed, if Dr. Briggs would permit adequate remuneration ; but he will not. Notwithstanding that he attends all week to the duties of his office, and preaches almost every Sunday, his salary is less than that of the pastors of the leading churches in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. This modest and unselfish servant of the church, has over and over again refused increases of salary proffered, nay, pressed upon him by the Book Committee. To the personal knowledge of .the writer, on three distinct occasions within the past dozen years, Dr. Briggs has absolutely and decidedly put his foot down and said : “No, brethren ; you may pass as many resolutions as you please respecting increase of salary, but I will accept no more, not one cent more. I am a Methodist minister. I preach nearly every Sunday for my brethren, many of whom have much smaller salaries than I am receiving, and .1 want to be able to look these brethren in the face and have them feel that we are on terms of equality.” “But, Dr. Briggs,” said a member on one of these occasions, “we are well aware that you could have situations in the city, if you would accept, that would give you twice or thrice the salary you are receiving, and we desire to increase your salary to a point more commensurate with the position you are filling so satisfactorily.” But the Doctor was as obdurate as ever and the salary was not increased. On one occasion, some four or five years ago, when his health was somewhat impaired, he was prevailed upon by the Book Committee to take a leave of absence for three months, and accept an honorarium of $500 for expenses. He took the trip, enjoyed a month in the Old Land, but was back in his office again in six weeks, and the morning he resumed his duties he called upon the cashier and returned to him the balance of the $500 remaining after paying the bare cost of his steamship and railway transportation.
At the last meeting of the Book Committee it was very keenly felt that the exactions of the constantly expanding business were getting beyond the strength and ability of any one man to overtake and give necessary personal attention to details. With a view to affording the needed relief the committee gave authoity for the appointment of an assistant to the Book Steward. Dr. Briggs nominated Rev. J. J. Redditt, an honored ex-President of Toronto Conference —who has for many years been regarded as a man of superior executive ability—for the position. The committee endorsed the appointment and Mr. Redditt has been giving valued assistance since the 1 st of July last.
Dr. Briggs’ talents, outside his business duties, are not confined to church work. He is highly esteemed in the secular organizations of his fellow-business men. As a member of the Employing Printers’ Association his long experience, wise judgment and fair-minded deliverances, have been much appreciated. This was especially true when, a couple of years ago, he acted as chairman of the committee negotiating with the Typographical Union representatives. Conferences were frequent concerning the demand for a higher scale and an eight-hour day. The averting of a costly and disastrous strike was to a large degree due to his wise counsel and strenuous plea for a peaceful settlement. The Doctor’s presence has always been welcomed in the deliberations of the guild. He frequently has been an after dinner speaker at its banquets.
The Christian Advocate, of Belfast, in September, 1890, said: “It goes at this time of day almost without saying that Ireland has contributed to the Methodism of the world many of its best and most prominent workers, and that if Irish Methodism could have kept all her sons she would now be one of the strongest churches on earth. It is, however, better she could not have done so, as they have had opportunities for usefulness and for development in other lands, that they could not have hoped for in this comparatively small island of ours. Thus Ireland has had the honor and privilege of being the nursery for some of the best life of other countries. Among those who have gone forth from us few have risen to greater influence than Rev. William Briggs, D.D., who for the last twenty years has administered the largest printing and publishing house in the Dominion of Canada. The success of this establishment is a monument to the unwearying energy and business ability of the Book Steward—to give him the old-fashioned Methodist title. Dr. Briggs is a gift to Canada from that green isle which has contributed so many distinguished sons to Methodism the world over.”
The Methodist Church in Canada never has had cause for regret that Rev. William Briggs was elected Book Steward. Historians of the future will be better able to write a truer appreciation of his great work as a preacher and as a successful man of business.
FOOT Note—For facts respecting the childhood and earlier days of the subject of this sketch, the writer is indebted to the late Rev. John Carroll, D.D., who published an article respecting him in the Canadian Methodist Magazine about the time of his appointment ás Book Steward.