May 16, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
Ryerson’s father was as unyielding as he was uncharitable: “Egerton, I hear that you have joined the Methodists; you must either leave them or leave my house.” The eighteen year-old chose to leave home.
One of nine children (including five sons who became Methodist ministers) Egerton was born near Vittoria, a village close to present-day Port Dover. His Dutch foreparents had been in the new world since the early 1600s. When New Amsterdam fell to the British in 1664 and was renamed New York, they anglicized the spelling of “Reyerzoon.” Upon the outbreak of the American Revolution their descendants declared their loyalty to the crown and, together with thousands of other United Empire Loyalists, migrated to what remained of British North America.
The farm boy found his way to a school in Vittoria where James Mitchell, his teacher, fostered in him a love of learning and a facility with the English language. He also exposed Ryerson to the surge of world-occurrence and all it boded for actors and spectators alike.
The educational vista soon complemented a religious vision, for the teenager had apprehended Jesus approaching him. Eager to refute the scornful who sneered at religion as an excuse for laziness, Ryerson prepared himself for the ministry by arising daily at 3:00 a.m. in order to study until 6:00, when he commenced the 14-hour day’s work required of all farm labour.
His father, undeflectably Anglican, viewed Methodists as near-American (the first Methodist Circuit in Upper Canada, established by the American Methodist Episcopal Church in 1791, was part of the District of Genesee, New York State) and near-anarchic, assuming republicanism and revolution to imply each other.
Undiscouraged by his father’s intransigence, Ryerson became the itinerant preacher on the Yonge Street Circuit. Its boundaries were Pickering, Weston and Lake Simcoe. He needed a month to visit the people in his charge, delivering scores of sermons in scattered settlements. Always concerned to enhance human well-being, he ministered in the First Nation community on the Credit River where Peter Jones, an aboriginal Methodist, had evangelized the Mississauga natives. Here he slept in a wigwam, learned the language and set about erecting a multi-purpose building to serve as church and school. He supplemented the natives’ gifts with monies garnered from friends and former members of his Yonge Street circuit — none of whom was affluent. He had the structure paid for in six weeks.
The challenge in this regard, however, was nothing compared to that posed by his most formidable foe. Bishop John Strachan, of Scottish Presbyterian background, had emigrated to Canada in 1799. Rejected as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, he had joined the Anglicans, soon becoming the episcopal power-broker and the implacable foe of all who threatened the grip of the wealthy, oligarchic “Family Compact.” The latter was a handful of rich families whose stranglehold on business, finance and education sought to petrify the social stratification it exploited. Newly admitted to the Compact, Strachan spoke for it and speared any who opposed it.
Twenty-five years older than Ryerson, Strachan denounced Methodists as poorly-educated, irresponsible and traitorous (conveniently forgetting that they were descendants of United Empire Loyalists.) Already denied the right to own land for churches and parsonages, as well as the right to baptize and solemnize marriages, Methodist people were outraged. It fell to the 23-year old “David” to confront “Goliath.” Ryerson penned a riposte brilliant and effective in equal measure. In four years the Methodists were granted what they had long been refused.
Notorious now, Ryerson was appointed editor of a brand new Christian Guardian, soon the most widely read newspaper in the province, superseding many times over the official Upper Canada Gazette. The Guardian followed up with a bookstore, and this in turn metamorphosed into Ryerson Press, at one point the largest printing and publishing enterprise in Canada. Operating until 1970, it did much to shape the Canadian identity through the novelists, poets, biographers and historians whose works it disseminated.
In 1836 the Methodists built Upper Canada College at Cobourg, Ontario, expanding it into Victoria College (1841) and Victoria University (1865, when faculties of law and medicine were added.) Named its 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.
Yet Ryerson’s monumental victory soon eclipsed the achievements that had already made him a household name. Dismayed to see one-half of school-aged children with no formal education and the remaining half averaging only a year’s, he knew himself 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.) Only forty-three, 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. 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.
His educational programme quickly spread to other provinces, thereby magnifying his contribution to public life in Canada. The Methodist people, who for several decades hadn’t always appreciated what he was coaxing into place for all Canadians, realized his accomplishment. In 1874 they honoured the seventy-four year old giant by electing him the first president of the General Conference of the newly-amalgamated Methodist Church of Canada.