Articles

THE Gloomy Renegade WHO Shaped Our Schools

As a Methodist circuit rider Egerton Ryerson preached goodwill while fighting the Family Compact and the Anglican Church. He became head man of Ontario’s schools by being a smart politician. Then he scuttled the whole education system and gave us the one we still use in most of Canada

JAMES BANNERMAN October 29 1955
Articles

THE Gloomy Renegade WHO Shaped Our Schools

As a Methodist circuit rider Egerton Ryerson preached goodwill while fighting the Family Compact and the Anglican Church. He became head man of Ontario’s schools by being a smart politician. Then he scuttled the whole education system and gave us the one we still use in most of Canada

JAMES BANNERMAN October 29 1955

THE Gloomy Renegade WHO Shaped Our Schools

Articles

As a Methodist circuit rider Egerton Ryerson preached goodwill while fighting the Family Compact and the Anglican Church. He became head man of Ontario’s schools by being a smart politician. Then he scuttled the whole education system and gave us the one we still use in most of Canada

JAMES BANNERMAN

IF SOME military-minded historian could order the makers of Canada out of their graves and fall them in on a parade ground, the men he’d pick for the front rank would undoubtedly be towering figures like Champlain. In the second rank would be slightly less towering figures, like Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Behind these famous and colorful giants would come the lesser makers, whose work was useful but unspectacular. This is the story of one such rear ranker an industrious, obstinate, confusingly contradictory Methodist minister named Egerton Ryerson.

Ryerson influenced the course of Canadian history in several different and notable ways. He struck a valiant blow for religious freedom by defeating almost singlehanded a powerful group of Anglican arch-Tories, who wanted the Anglican faith established as the state religion of Canada.

Yet he’d been brought up to be an Anglican and an arch-Tory himself. As the outstanding leader of Methodism he did a great deal to marshal the forces that eventually made Sunday in Toronto a day world-renowned for gloom, and gave us our presentday restrictive liquor laws. Yet he thoroughly enjoyed wine and beer, and habitually broke the pledge of total abstinence he signed for the sake of appearances.

He was the founder of a religious weekly, which he edited with such liveliness it soon had the biggest circulation of any Canadian paper of any kind. Yet his own writing was so far from lively that the historian Bourinot called his Loyalists of America, in two thick volumes, “probably the dullest book ever compiled by a Canadian.” He was also the founder of what is now the Ryerson Press, still flourishing after a hundred and twenty-six years as the oldest and largest all-Canadian publishing house. Most boys of sixteen nowadays have more formal education than he ever had in his life. Yet he was the first principal of Victoria College, now a part of the University of Toronto. The biggest technical institute in Canada is named for him. And his main achievement was to organize the school system of Ontario, more than a century ago but on lines which even today would be considered progressive.

The importance of this was not merely provincial, since the Ontario system served as a pattern for the school systems of most of the rest of Englishspeaking Canada. Its founding is commemorated by a nine-foot bronze statue of Ryerson in the grounds of Toronto’s Ryerson Institute the left hand holding a book, the right apparently t hrowing breadcrumbs to the pigeons. The face has a look of uncompromising straightforwardness, and would be stern if it weren’t for a touch of gentle humor that suggests he was always ready to smile at his own shortcomings. The admirers who subscribed for t he statue paid seven thousand dollars to get a bronze Ryerson strikingly different from the flesh-andblood one.

He not only couldn’t smile at his own shortcomings, but was quite incapable of smiling at himself for any reason at all. In the winter of 1856, for example, he was in Rome, on what he called an educational tour, and spent a lot of time looking at paintings and sculpture in the Vatican. One afternoon as he bent over to study a picture he was seized with lumbago and couldn’t straighten up. Going down on all fours and uttering sharp yelps of pain, he made for the nearest attendant. The attendant thought he was trying to imitate a dog and ordered him to stop. When Ryerson managed to explain what was wrong, the man called three other attendants. Between them they turned Ryerson upside down, grabbed him by the wrists and ankles, carried him out, and loaded him into a cab to be taken to his hotel—lying flat on his back on the floor with his arms and legs in the air. He was naturally not amused at the time, but never to the end of his days could he understand why the people who saw him had laughed.

Even in an age when most respectable men wore black frock coats and stovepipe hats and tended to behave as though they’d just been at a funeral, Ryerson was outstandingly solemn. Although he seldom allowed himself to unbend, he could exert the fat pink charm of a fatherly confidence man when it seemed indicated. Once on a trip to England he had dinner with Lord Grey, the colonial secretary, Continued on page 46

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and some of Grey’s friends. The only other Canadian at table was John A. Macdonald, but for a change that bottle-nosed fascinator didn’t captivate the company. Ryerson so outshone Canada’s future prime minister that Lord Grey, writing about the dinner afterward, described him as "a very superior man” and didn’t mention Macdonald at all.

Ryerson took great pleasure in his acquaintance with members of the English nobility. They were seldom so tactless as to remind him that nonconformists, meaning any Protestants who didn’t belong to the Church of England, were pretty undistinguished from the point of view of high society. In theory Ryerson didn’t mind the low social standing that went with being a Methodist, but in practice he minded it considerably. Once, when he was telling a noble friend about a preacher named Peter Jones who had invented a syllabic alphabet in which the Bible could be printed in Mohawk, His Lordship said it was a splendid thing to have done and expressed surprise that he’d never heard of the gifted Jones. Ryerson suggested with a touch of bitterness that this was probably because Jones was "only a Methodist,” and was hurt when the nobleman agreed with him.

There was little grace and less charm in those early times in Upper Canada. What is now wealthy Ontario was then a poor place in more senses than one. The few hundred thousand inhabitants were chiefly country folk who had to work backbreakingly hard to make a living. Toronto was a dirty little town which could only be considered a city on the technical grounds that from 1834 onward it called itself one. Such roads as there were became quagmires of mud in rainy weather and choked travelers with clouds of dust when it was dry. The inns, almost without exception, were veritable pigsties in which people often had to sleep three and four to a bed unless they chose the relative privacy of sleeping alone on the filthy floor. Besides Toronto the principal towns were Cobourg, seventy miles to the east on the main road to Montreal and Lower Canada, and Kingston. Cobourg and Kingston were prettier than Toronto but they were also even smaller and had fewer diversions. (Toronto, with a population of less than ten thousand, had one theatre but a hundred pubs.) Industry hardly existed, and the already overworked pioneers had to make most of the things they needed, from clothes to furniture. Not many Upper Canadians, new or old, were well enough educated to lead an intellectual life.

Ryerson, who was to do so much to bring light to this mental wilderness, was born in the spring of 1803 on a farm near what is now the village of Vittoria, not far inland from Lake Erie in Norfolk County. His father was a New Jersey man who had fought on the British side in the American Revolution and had come to Canada in 1799. When Ryerson was born his father was a half-pay pensioner farming a six-hundred-acre land grant. He had been made a colonel of militia, lived in a house with sixteen windows and a pillared front porch, and turned purple at the slightest provocation.

Ryerson’s mother was a devout Anglican—unlike the Colonel, who simply considered it his duty as a

gentleman to belong to the Church of England, just as it was his duty to honor the King and keep the lower classes in their place. The Colonel hated and feared the possibility that democratic ideas might spread north from the United States, and was particularly suspicious of Methodism, which in those days in Canada was largely under American influence. Methodists were as a rule persons of the lower class (the age of wealthy ones like the Eatons and the Masseys was yet to come). They held the subversive idea that all men were created equal. Consequently when Ryerson came to _ his father one day in 1821 and said he was going to join them, the Colonel felt pretty much as a modern father would feel on being told his son was about to become a card-carrying Communist. In language as purple as his face he said the boy would have to choose between Methodism and continuing to live in his parents’ house.

The morning after his father’s stern edict Ryerson left home and went to be a student teacher at the district grammar school. Two years later he came back at the request of his father, who needed help on the farm and thriftily forgave him rather than pay a hired man. When Ryerson was twenty-one he left home again, this time for good, to study law in Hamilton. Within six months he worked himself into an attack of brain fever and vowed that if he recovered he would enter the Methodist ministry.

Preaching by Candlelight

He preached his first sermon on Easter Sunday in 1825, at Beamsville on the Niagara peninsula. The congregation weren’t much impressed by it, but they found his appearance rather striking—as well they might, to judge from this description by one of them: "He was then perhaps twenty years of age, fat and boyish-looking . . . Rather over than under the medium size — well proportioned — fair complexioned—with large speaking blue eyes—large nose . . . and then such a head! Large, full, well balanced, without any noticeable prominences; but embossed all over like a shield.”

After Easter he settled down to the grind of circuit riding in southern Ontario. Churches were few in Upper ; Canada in the 1820s, and circuit riders were traveling preachers who followed a laid-down route and held services wherever people gathered to hear them. Many years later an old woman told a friend she remembered young Ryerson preaching "in an out-of-the-way neighborhood in the township of Louth near the Twenty Mile Creek, in a little dirty schoolhouse illuminated by one single tallow candle near the preacher’s person, upheld by being pinned to the wall with a pen-knife.” Ryerson loathed the squalor of these meeting places, and the equally squalid farmhouses where he had to stay overnight. Yet soon after he became a preacher, when the Church of England offered him a good living because it was thought he’d make a useful convert, he refused and kept on riding circuit.

By the spring of 1826 it had become most unlikely that Ryerson would ever get such an offer again. Methodists and Anglicans got along harmoniously in England, but in Canada it was very different. That spring John Strachan, the Archdeacon of York 'it hadn’t yet been renamed Toronto), preached a sermon in which he called Canadian Methodist ministers ignorant, selfimportant and disloyal, and said they were mostly Americans anyway. Ryerson wrote a twelve-thousand-word counterattack, which he called a review of Strachan’s sermon, signed it

"A Methodist Preacher,” and sent it to William Lyon Mackenzie’s weekly paper, the Colonial Advocate. Mackenzie’s main editorial aim was to get rid of the Family Compact—a clique of Tories who had a barnacle-like grip on the government of Upper Canada and were determined to cling to power as long as possible. Since the Church of England was a strong supporter of established authority the Tories wanted the Anglican faith declared by law the state religion of Canada. Rverson’s attack on Strachan was thus an indirect attack on the Family Compact, and

Mackenzie printed the whole twelve thousand words.

The effect was sensational. Religious controversy, preferably heated and full of Christian insults, was among the few pleasures of those early times in Canada, and this was the hottest controversy the country had ever known. Anglicans were furiously indignant. Methodists were delighted, and showed it in outbursts of emotion like the reaction of the Reverend Anson Green and a friend when they got their copy of the Advocate. "We went into the field in the rear of the parsonage,”

Green wrote, "sat down by the fence and read the review. As we read we wept, and speculated about the unknown author.”

Ryerson’s father also speculated about the author of the review, and soon began to suspect from certain rumors he heard that it was his son. He sent for him to come home, took him out to the orchard, and asked him point-blank if he’d written it. When Ryerson admitted he had, the old Colonel threw up his hands and cried in a hollow voice, "My God, we are all ruined !”