Ralph Connor And His Million-dollar Sermons
This Winnipeg parson who loved to preach in kilts made a swift fortune with his inspirational novels and never lost his simple faith, even when his wealth vanished as swiftly as it came
LATE ONE NIGHT in the year 1896 the pastor of a small run-down mission church on the outskirts of Winnipeg walked home through muddy streets after a prayer meeting, sat at his desk and forced himself to write a story.
Rev. Charles William Gordon was thirty-six and had written only sermons until then. But the tale he now laboriously set down into the early hours of the morning was the only hope offered by Presbyterian Church officials in Toronto to raise money for the western missions of which he was secretary. “Write me something to illustrate the need,” Gordon had been told by Rev. James A. Macdonald, editor of the church weekly Westminster A Paper For The Home, after church authorities had turned down his request for increased mission grants. The editor had shrugged off Gordon’s objection, “But when will I find the time?” And now the overworked parson was robbing himself of sleep to “illustrate the need.”
The story, Christmas Eve in a Lumber Camp, was a sort of fictionalized sermon about how a Presbyterian missionary moved to prayer a camp of hard-drinking lumbermen in British Columbia. But since fict ion-writing of any kind was not considered a respectable occupation for a minister, Gordon needed a pseudonym. The mission board letterhead on the desk before him read Brit.Can.Nor.West Mission. Gordon absently circled the second and third syllables and arrived at Cannor, to which he prefixed Ralph.
The editor believed that Gordon had made a slip of the pen and on that story and on the seven subsequent episodes Gordon wrote for him he used the name Ralph Connor.
The result made Canadian publishing history. By the turn of the century Gordon’s eight stories, collected into a volume titled Black Rock, and the two novels which followed, The Sky Pilot and The Man from Glengarry, were having phenomenal sales in bookstores from Calcutta fo New York—they were to total five million copies, and with his subsequent twenty-seven novels were to make him Canada’s all-time best-selling novelist. Curiosity over his real identity reached fever pitch before it was revealed after publication of his second book. “Ralph Connor is some man’s nom de plume. The world will insist on knowing whose,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat had enthusiastically demanded.
Praise came from as widely different publications as the Manchester Guardian and Harper’s Bazaar. He “touches the chords which vibrate luxuriously in the popular heart,” wrote the Boston Transcript. The Chicago Tribune found him “so intense that one grinds his teeth lest his sinews snap ere the strain is released.” The San Francisco Chronicle commended his “passionate appeals to all that is best in human nature.”
In the United States police were called out to control crowds attending lectures he gave. President Woodrow Wilson admired his books and Henry Ford, as Connor’s luncheon host, sent a servant to his library to get a pile of them for the author to autograph. When he spoke in a Detroit church the congregation interrupted him boisterously at the beginning of a prayer by singing For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.
Connor’s first two novels, concerning the influence of a Presbyterian missionary on the frontier Canadian west, were read throughout Europe and set up in braille. The third, about the immigrant Scottish lumbermen and farmers of Connor’s native county near the Ottawa River, was said to have gone into the hands of one in every sixty English-speaking Canadians and was classed as supplementary reading in United States high schools. Glengarry School Days, drawn from his boyhood, had a great vogue among Canadian youths. His reading public, many of whom had previously shunned novels on religious grounds, fondly nick-named him “the sky pilot.” In forty-one years of writing, he gave them thirty books, most of them fullblooded westerns with an evangelical and temperance appeal.
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
Connor—as he now became to everyone except his family, congregation and church associates—accepted the windfall of fame and fortune calmly. His salary was a thousand dollars a year when he wrote his first story for the church magazine, and now he was well on the way toward accumulating a fortune of a million dollars. He was tall and slight, with penetrating eyes —one turned inward—and at that time he wore a dark mustache and closetrimmed beard. An enthusiastic English reader of his books, who came to Winnipeg to hear him preach, described his “white divinity hands,” his hesitant manner at the start of his sermon which finally warmed into “what sounded like the utterance of one of the old Hebrew prophets.”
Connor continued to think of himself as a minister first and a writer second. Indeed, he had no inflated opinion of his literary ability. “1 may not be able to write,” he once commented, “but by George I can preach.”
At the turn of the century Connor, nearing forty, still a bachelor, and with three hugely popular books to his credit, was only at the beginning of a career that was to be marked by success and failure, achievement and dissention, acclaim and neglect. He had still to marry and raise a distinguished family, to be elected head of the Presbyterian Church in Canada; to launch furious campaigns against liquor and prostitution and in favor of conscription and the League of Nations; to build an imposing mansion and to satisfy the love for fast horses which he had inherited from his father.
Connor’s father, Rev. Daniel Gordon, a dissenter from the Established Church of Scotland, preached for the new Free Church at Glengarry, Ont., to a Gaelic-speaking congregation. The Rev. Daniel, an outspoken, fearsome preacher, had a taste for the bagpipes and often of an evening paced the manse parlor, filling it with the weird lament of Lochaber No More, unconcerned that few could stand the awful proximity of throbbing drones and shrieking chanter.
Hard Labor for a Lightweight
In that manse the future Ralph Connor was born in 1860, one of seven children. His mother was the daughter of another Scottish dissenter from the “Auld Kirk” who had become a Congregational minister at Sherbrooke, Que. A graduate of Mount Holyoke Ladies’ Seminary in Massachusetts, she had turned down the prineipalship after graduation to marry the backwoods minister. Later she became the gentle, romantic heroine of many of her son’s novels.
When Connor—his family called him Charlie throughout his life—was ten years old, the family moved to the English-Scottish farming settlement of Zorra in western Ontario where he hired out as a laborer. Afterward, he worked his way slowly through the University of Toronto and Knox College—the Presbyterian theological school—by tutoring and teaching in rural schools.
At university he determinedly made quarterback on the rugby team although he weighed only one hundred and thirty-five pounds.
He majored in classics and English and kept up a breakneck pace of study, glee club singing, student politics, debating and YMCA work. By diligent saving he spent a year studying in Edinburgh and touring Europe by bicycle after he graduated.
His first parish was Banff and it appealed to him strongly. Considered by the missions a tough, boozing town, it offered opportunities for evangelism. He organized construction of the first church in Canmore, Alta., where a cairn marks the event. He played his guitar for singsongs for the Canmore miners who presented him with a banjo. He toured his parish on a bronco colt and is said to have ridden one of the first safety bicycles in the west. He later drew material for his westerns from the region’s vast spaces and mountains.
His parishioners were largely railroaders, miners and cowboys. A friend said in describing him: “Several times I heard him preach to a hundred shantymen with a sprinkling of betterborn fellows sadly down in fortune. His appeal was that of his books. The sermons were always from the Gospels and the atmosphere was unforgettable. He carried his guitar and sang The Sweet Bye and Bye or Shall We Gather at the River and hymns likely to recall home and childhood. The men sang out strong and full-throated. Lord Aberdeen, then governor-general, once took a service for him and Connor later became his chaplain.
After four years at Banff Connor took a small church in Winnipeg called the West End Mission later it became St. Stephen’s Church. Before he moved to Winnipeg he journeyed to Edinburgh for a sabbatical year of study, but spent most of his time making pleas at first unauthorized for money and missionaries for western Canada. He returned with pledges of some sixty thousand dollars.
He had been in Winnipeg two years, and had become secretary of the British Canadian North West Mission, when the need for more funds sent him to Toronto — where he received, not money but a fateful assignment to write a fiction story “illustrating the need.”
Five years after Connor arrived in Winnipeg, it was whispered that the ladies with whom he bicycled on Saturdays were about to lose him to another member of his congregation. That year, he married Helen, daughter of Dr. John Mark King, principal of Manitoba College. A graduate of the college, she was sixteen years her husband’s junior.
A small, animated woman with candid blue eyes, she lives today in a duplex a few blocks from the big home Connor built for his family in 1913 on a quiet tree-shaded street called Westgate. So punctual as a girl that students timed their classes by her daily walks across the college campus, she later unobtrusively kept her husband from missing too many appointments t hrough tardiness or preoccupation. He is said, however, to have once missed by twenty-four hours a meeting he was to address. Punctuality was not his strong point. At times he kept his congregation waiting for his appearance. Then, warming to his sermon, he would forget time and keep them fastened to j their pews until they wondered if their j Sunday roasts had yet burnt to a crisp.
Of the children, three have remained j in Winnipeg, Gretta and Alison, both married, and Ruth, a professional | pianist. Lois, a child welfare worker, lives in Toronto. Mary, the eldest | daughter, died some years ago. Mar| jorie, until recently Canadian vicej consul in New York, is married to an ! Australian diplomat. King, the only ! son, a Rhodes scholar, became a | minister, taught Christian ethics at the j United Theological College in Montreal, later ran unsuccessfully on a CCF ; ticket in Victoria, was an editor of The ¡ Nation and the CBC’s correspondent to j the United Nations. He is now social affairs officer in the UN division of j human rights.
With success and marriage, Connor’s horizon widened. Early in the century he went on lecture tours speaking on religious and social welfare topics—in Canada, the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia. And he was always working on yet another book. At first he wrote in longhand, in pencil, on school scribblers, sometimes retreating to the seclusion of his young son’s bedroom, or laboring in his study until dawn almost broke; later he dictated to a secretary.
He Was a Reluctant Writer
Like many another writer, he disliked the physical discipline imposed by writing. He procrastinated and was often irked by the insistence of George Doran, his American publisher, that he hurry his pace for the annual Christmas trade. Many novels were written under the pressure of a deadline. More than once, Doran seated him in a New York or Chicago hotel room to finish the last few pages while the presses waited. Once the publisher sent his wife to Kenora with instructions not to return without a manuscript. The author’s wife, calmly going about lier household duties, took in the unexpected guest for several days. “I think his publishers had an awful time,” she reflected recently.
The appeal of Connor’s books remained high. Many a tear was shed and many a vow for self-improvement made as people read of the triumphs of his characters over evil and hardship. His novels demanded that men follow God and keep fit. They made moral victories out of physical combat, championed good and either redeemed evil men or brought them to within view of hell’s fire. Above all, they suited the times for the call was out to “go west” when the west was considered the last frontier. Among settlers pouring over the newly-completed Canadian Pacific Railway were Britishers and eastern Canadians who had been inspired by his novels. Edward McCourt, professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan, calls him “the west’s most effective booster, his books better advertising material than anything ever dreamed up by harassed railroad and government publicity men.”
In San Francisco, however, a woman burned Black Rock along with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary - on the sidewalk in front other home as “a mixture of depravity and religion.” She may have taken exception to the frequent oaths of his characters although they were written as “blank” and produced such dialogue as “Don’t let the blankblank rattle you like a lot of blankblank chickens.” Once, carried away with the joy of a story, he let a cowboy call a missionary “a dod-gasted-fool hunter.”
Connor’s heroes were ministers, doctors and members of the Northwest Mounted Police. Whisky peddlers, operators of gambling hells and redlight houses were bis villains. They stole the prospector’s secret, rolled the miner of his wages and pushed him drunk out the back door of the saloon. As an alternative to temptation Connor offered God.
The Sky Pilot, which received widest acclaim, was filmed by Ernest Shipman, a U. S. producer, and had Colleen Moore as heroine. Winnipeg turned out to see it opened grandly at the Walker Theatre by the lieutenantgovernor, Sir James Aikins. To Gordon’s dismay, his hero was portrayed as an unreal, over-pious fanatic, riding bronco with an umbrella aloft to keep off the sun.
Connor, who loved the outdoors and handled a gun and canoe with expert skill, once remarked, “I should have been an Indian.” He was, in fact, honorary chief of three Indian tribes. When he was at work at his Kenora, Ont., summer home and words failed to come, he chopped wood, played the piano or paddled on the lake. A New York publicist, after visiting him at Kenora, wrote: “I was guided through a trail in the woods to where be stood, alone, bare-headed in sweater and old clothes, whittling a cane from the root of a tree.”
Anything For a Laugh
Connor was fond of “doing canes,” as his family called it, and even on his honeymoon near Port Arthur left his bride to look for roots in the woods. Malcolm Macdonald, now United Kingdom Commissioner - General in South-East Asia, whom he met at Oxford, carried one away after a visit to Kenora, and others found their way to distant parts of the world.
In the evenings, Connor often played for his children, largely by ear, on the piano, guitar or flute. He had a repertoire of spirituals, French-Canadian and comic songs—among them Alouette and ’Twas One Dark Night On Lac St. Pierre—to sing around their bonfires. Malcolm Macdonald recalled in a letter his ability to “unbend more completely than any man of his age I have known . . . his tomfoolery at the lake was absolutely delightful; he made any party ... by his deliberately bad singing of part songs to the accompaniment of the banjo. I remember the occasion when he disappeared for a whole day, pretending he was writing a novel. It was only when we were playing word games in the evening that his success in beating us by many hundreds of marks betrayed that he had labored for hours to write every relevant word he could think of.” Ramsay MacDonald, when prime minister of Britain, also visited the family at Kenora with his son and three of his daughters. Connor and his wife later returned the visit at No. 10 Downing Street.
All guests at Kenora suffered at least once from the host’s practical jokes. “It was a time-honored custom at a new guest’s first meal,” a friend related, “for the initiated to hold up the edges of the oilcloth table cloth and form a trough into which Dr. Gordon would quietly pour his drinking water. The water then ran around the trough and fell on the lap of the unsuspecting guest. No visitor, however celebrated, could maintain any unnecessary dignity after such an initiation.”
Connor swam with his children, played tennis and pitched, they com-
plained, too fast a softball. In his sixties he aquaplaned, and the year he died, was still chopping wood. In the winter, he curled in the Winnipeg bonspiels and was an ardent hockey fan. Once, when he was Presbyterian moderator, he attracted the attention of a colleague by snowballing his study window. Before the war he raced his registered trotter, King Montbars, on the Red River in winter.
In his sixties Connor took singing lessons. In church, he sometimes stopped his congregation’s singing to demonstrate how to enunciate with more vigor and better voice, either by leading them or by stepping back to sing tenor in a quartet completed by choir members.
Connor took an especial interest in the welfare of a settlement of eastern Europeans in the north end of the city among whom Margaret Scott, a pioneer nurse and social worker in Winnipeg, was working. Their story he told in The Foreigner published in 1909. They were, he felt, receiving too little sympathy. All were welcomed to his church. A social worker, after attending a week of nightly meetings at the church, reported that “I met some of the most rabid socialists of the revolutionary type that I ever encountered anywhere. They were infidels with regard to almost every accepted social, economic and religious doctrine, and they said so in the most brutal fashion imaginable.” Another listener remarked: “ . . . how deftly he handled them, taking their questions and putting them better than they could themselves, even the reddest of the red. I think that spirit of fairness was one of the big things in his life.”
Meanwhile the minister was pouring money into a building program for his church. Seven times during the first twenty years of his ministry it was enlarged at a total cost of more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. A church-house was built for a “brotherhood” he bad formed among the men of the congregation, for social service and youth groups. He himself bought the thirty-thousand-dollar .site. There were rooms to sleep about thirty young men, free physical training and a paid secretary-gymnasium instructor.
By 1914 he was in the thick of a fight for temperance laws in Manitoba. His opponents did not spare him. The Winnipeg Telegram labeled him “Partisan Preacher” and shouted “Banish the Bar Leader.” He had, the Telegram found, an “ill-balanced mind” incapable of reacting normally against “outrages practiced in the interest of the Liberal party.” At a political rally during a Portage la Prairie by-election he was accused of being a shareholder in a hotel. A cheque endorsed by him in payment of dividends had been seen. This was a grievous charge, for hotels were then synonymous with bars. Connor stood before a rally at Portage and amid cries of “shut up” and “too holy, eh?,” angrily pointed out that the cheque came from a temperance hotel which had failed through the machinaI tions of the Conservative “liquor ¡ party.”
War was shortly declared and pro| hibition adopted as a war measure, j Captain C. W. Gordon (to revert to his j own name), his beard shorn, full of ! ! patriotism and fifty-five years old,
! went overseas in kilts with the 43rd j Canadian Expeditionary Force. On i arrival he became a major and senior | ; chaplain of the Canadian forces in j England.
He went to the western front as | I senior chaplain of the Canadian 9th ] I Brigade and witnessed almost the total ! loss of his regiment, many of them | members of his congregation. Before he | left the front in 1916, he said final rites for his colonel who was killed on j the Somme.
The disaster to his regiment greatly upset him. The death of his colonel, who had been his lawyer in Winnipeg, brought a shock of another kind. When Connor left for overseas in 1915, he had, he felt, left his affairs in good order. He had a hundred thousand dollar life insurance policy and had signed a will based on an estate of one million dollars. Most of his money had been invested in real estate on the edge of Winnipeg by his lawyer. The land was being subdivided into building lots and there was talk of Winnipeg becoming the Chicago of Canada. The values had collapsed in 1913 but Connor was assured by his lawyer, who had formed eight land companies, that his investments were secure. With the lawyer’s death came the staggering news from Winnipeg that Connor’s money had been misused. Doran, his publisher, who talked to Connor soon afterward, wrote in his memoirs that “it seemed almost impossible to convince Dr. Gordon that he was the victim of criminal mismanagement or worse. When it partially dawned on him, his charity was almost too Christlike and forbearing ...” Connor seldom referred to the loss and forbade discussion of it in his home.
He went on to other duties that called for all his buoyancy. In 1917, the British Government sent him to the United States to urge the United States to join the Allied cause. He gave impassioned public addresses and went at President Wilson’s request to the White House where he bluntly told Wilson “the British despise you.” Wilson took this equably and confided in him that “something will happen shortly.”
When Connor arrived in Winnipeg in 1917 he was met at the CPU station by a band of pipers. Crowds thronged St. Stephen’s Church to hear him. Thousands were turned away for lack of standing room. Canadian and United States newspapers carried a picture of him, still firmly stamped in people’s memories—kilted, leaning whimsically on a cane. In his chaplain’s kilts he preached under the open sky to American tourists at Banff. He had endeared himself to many Canadians, and especially to servicemen, when, in spite of his advocacy of temperance, he had fought an attempt by temperance organizations to cut the troops’ rum ration.
After the war he returned to St. Stephen’s pulpit. In 1920 he was appointed to the full-time paid job of chairman of the Manitoba Council of Industry, an arbitration board set up after the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and left an assistant to carry on much of his church work. Under his chairmanship the hoard settled more than a hundred labor disputes.
He was chosen moderator of the Presbyterian general assembly in 1921 when the church was battling over union with the Methodist and Congregational churches. With Dr. James Endicott of the Methodist church—his son of the same name is known today in Canada for his support of Communism — Connor toured Canada speaking on behalf of union. It came in 1925 with the formation of the United Church of Canada.
In spite of the loss of most of his wealth, Connor continued his openhandedness. During the depression he gave handouts to a steady stream of unemployed at his door. One of his daughters recalls how the family waited apprehensively at the dinner table while he answered the ring of the doorbell. Unfailingly, he returned with a lighter pocket. “Poor chap,” he would say. “He just wanted his fare to Fort William.”
His literary output continued unabated. After the war his westerns were replaced by novels about Cape Breton, the Niagara Peninsula and Quebec. His “begobs” and “blanks” gave way to an occasional “damn” and “what the hell.” But his writing lost much of its rudeness and vigor and to his bewilderment and sorrow, was less popular. J'he postwar generation was disenchanted and its disenchantment had no room for an optimistic belief in moral regeneration.
There was nothing in his appearance to indicate he felt any disenchantment himself. Animated, alert, walking with long strides, wearing a close-clipped white mustache, he was still the life of gatherings at his home. As long as he could afford it, he kept up payments on his heavy life insurance policy and met the taxes on his big residence and real estate holdings. He was finally forced to let the policy go and the taxes slide.
lie Survives in Classrooms
In 1937, the year of his death, a Boston University theology professor tried to interest Cecil B. De Mille in producing movies of some of the early Connor novels, but nothing came of it. Ralph Connor was all but forgotten outside Canada.
Today Connor’s books are still fairly popular with Canadian children although royalties come in regularly for only the two Glengarry books and one of the less famous westerns. Still classed by schools as supplementary reading, well-thumbed sets will be found in their old bindings in Winnipeg school libraries and excerpts from them in Manitoba school readers.
Finally, in this last year of his life, the University of Manitoba added an honorary doctorate of laws to the honorary degrees he already held from Queen’s and Glasgow universities. By then, his honors also included a CMG and an FRSC.
While at Kenora in Sept., 1937, he fell ill and was taken to the Misericordia Hospital for an abdominal operation from which he never rallied. H-e died on October 31, his reminiscences—Postscript to Adventure—just completed. His estate amounted to less than nine thousand dollars and his home was taken over by the city for taxes. Now owned by the University Women’s Club of Winnipeg, this red brick spacious building is formally called Ralph Connor House although the name is not in common usage. Hundreds of letters came to his family after his death.
The Free Press devoted almost five columns to the city’s “most famous citizen.” His funeral, unornamented by flowers, was followed by burial in Old Kildonan Cemetery beyond the city limits. There a simple granite headstone identifies him as Gordon and Connor, “Minister of the Gospel— Author—Canadian.”