Victor A. Shepherd
The following was published first as an article, “Egerton Ryerson: From Methodist Itinerant to Chief Superintendent of Education.” Touchstone: Heritage and Theology in a New Age 20,3,([September 2002): 38-46, then as a chapter, “Egerton Ryerson and Public Education in Canada,” in Shepherd, Mercy: Immense and Free: Essays on Wesley and Wesleyan Theology. rev. ed. 2016 , 171-81.
No community can thrive without a journal,” insisted Mahatma Gandhi as he led his followers in shedding their British overlords and the “glass ceilings” that Britain ’s class system had reinforced among India ’s people. Ryerson knew that the Methodist people of early Nineteenth Century Upper Canada needed their own journal if they were to forefend discouragement, fragmentation and ultimate capitulation to the financial, social and religious tyranny of the “Family Compact.” Agreeing with their young leader (he was 26 years old) the Methodist Conference of 1829 established the Christian Guardian, a weekly paper Ryerson was elected to edit. It first distributed 500 copies. In three years it was producing 3,000. Soon it was the most widely read and influential paper of any in the province. The Guardian articulated Methodist theological concerns, religious issues of everyday life, discussions of the nature of the public good and the sort of government needed to advance it, educational reform (always a priority with Ryerson), and 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’s circulation eclipsed the official Upper Canada Gazette. The foreparent of The United Church’s Observer was campaigning militantly. Ryerson had known it had to be effective if shocking social inequities that were nothing less than cruel iniquities were to be overturned.
Ryerson was born March 24, 1803 in Vittoria (near Port Dover,) Ontario . His parents, Dutch Protestants who had wearied of the suffocation born of Europe’s social confinement, had migrated to the New World for the sake of the opportunities it afforded. His oldest New World ancestor, Martin Reyerzoon, had landed in New Amsterdam before the British conquest renamed the settlement New York in 1664. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the “United Empire Loyalist” family, Anglican now, migrated once more.
Egerton farmed and studied until he was eighteen, when he identified publicly with the Methodists, the movement through which he had been spiritually awakened. “Leave them or leave home,” his outraged father fumed. Ryerson left home, supporting himself as a student teacher in the local grammar school.
Moving from school teaching to the ministry, the Methodist Probationer managed to absorb both the best of classical literature, theology and contemporary philosophy. Now qualified for ordination, Ryerson was appointed to the Yonge Street Circuit, a triangle that gathered up far-flung people from Pickering to Weston to the south shore of Lake Simcoe . It took him a month to visit all the preaching points within it. Sunday alone found him riding thirty miles, preaching three times and addressing two classes.
Then it happened: the event that brought him unprecedented opportunity, altering forever his public image and fixing his name in Canadian history.
In 1825 Toronto ’s Bishop John Strachan preached at the funeral of a fellow-prelate. The sermon adulated the Church of England while vilifying the Methodists. For years Strachan had been the power broker of the Family Compact, a handful of rich families who monopolized business, finance, and education. It aimed at perpetuating the social stratification that allowed the privileged to exploit the New World’s version of Britain ’s class structure, the worst in Europe . Strachan sought to punish any who didn’t support the Compact’s constellation of power, piety, prestige and privilege.
Strachan accused the Methodist people of being crypto-republicans whose zeal for democracy amounted to mob-elevation. He sneered at their preachers (only Anglicans could be called “clergy”) as intellectual mediocrities unfit to announce the gospel. He supported the legislation that forbade Methodists to solemnize marriages or hold title to church buildings, parsonages and cemeteries.
Ryerson, now 25 years old, championed his people and penned their reply. The pseudonymous riposte voiced Methodism’s disgust at the Anglican Church’s political prostitution. It listed the academic rigours required for Methodist ordination. It recalled John Wesley’s insistence that all Methodist preachers study five hours per day. It pointed out that the Wesleyan Methodist Church (one of the two major Methodist bodies in Upper Canada ) had never known an American root, while the Methodist Episcopal Church (admittedly of American origin) had virtually no American-born preachers.
However Ryerson has become a household name in Canada , with churches, streets and schools named after him, on account of his colossal achievement concerning public education. Heartbroken 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 the “teacher” in too many villages, Ryerson crusaded to establish high-quality public education that required no means tests, whether religious or monetary. Thinking ill of a British school system that preserved the worst class division in Europe, he visited public schools in Holland , Italy and France , twice examining the education system that the Protestant Reformer Philip Melanchthon had implemented 300 years earlier in Germany . As early as 1524, when only 27 years old, Melanchthon had pioneered the pedagogical methods in which teachers were trained.
Recognized now, Ryerson’s sphere of influence ballooned when he was appointed at age 41 as Chief Superintend of Common Schools for Canada West (1844,) and two years later promoted to Chief Superintendent of Education, an office he occupied until his retirement.
As expected, the socially privileged objected. George Brown, editor of Toronto ’s Globe newspaper, ranted that Ryerson had imported “Prussian” education into Ontario . Most people knew, rather, that Ryerson had elevated teaching from a miserable job to a calling akin to that of the ordained ministry.
Ryerson knew that the life of the mind was a good in itself. Still, he never denied education’s utilitarian significance. The public good would always be served by better quality public education. Not to be overlooked was his conviction that public education was essential to social democracy. While political democracy – each citizen is allowed to vote – was easy to achieve, social democracy occurred only as all citizens had equal access to opportunity. Apart from social democracy, class stratification would deny people all socio-economic mobility and freeze them in frustrating private and public “prisons.” Different clusters in the society would then turn inward for support and subsequently outward in hostility.
Ryerson’s educational vision, then, entailed vastly more than schooling: it entailed a vision for a nation, its people and its future.