“No community can thrive without a journal,” insisted Mahatma Gandhi
as he led his followers in shedding their British overlords and the “glass
’s class system had reinforced among
’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
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
(near Port Dover,)
. His parents, Dutch Protestants who
had wearied of the suffocation born of Europe’s social confinement, had
migrated to the
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
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
to Weston to the south
. 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
Then it happened: the event that brought him unprecedented opportunity,
altering forever his public image and fixing his name in Canadian history.
’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
’s class structure, the worst in
. Strachan sought to punish any who
didn’t support the Compact’s constellation of power, piety, prestige and
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
(one of the two major Methodist bodies in
) 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
, 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
, twice examining the education system that the Protestant Reformer Philip
Melanchthon had implemented 300 years earlier in
. As early as 1524, when only 27
years old, Melanchthon had pioneered the pedagogical methods in which teachers
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
’s Globe newspaper, ranted that Ryerson had imported “Prussian”
. 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.