Egerton Ryerson
Chapter XII - Later Church Work and Closing Days


AFTER his appointment to the office of chief V. superintendent of education, Dr. Ryerson still maintained both his connection with and his active influence and leadership in the Methodist conference. In that influence he was closely associated with his two elder brothers, the Revs. John and William Ryerson. The former down to his death in 1878, was respected by the whole conference for his eminent gifts as a legislator and administrator of Methodist polity. All three were active and able promoters of the reunion of the British with the Canadian Wesleyans which took place In 1817, and in the union of the Lower Canada District which took place in 1854. These various unions as well as the growth of the church introduced new elements and new leadership into the church in which three parties might now be distinctly traced. The British members of the conference with such men as Dr. Wood, Dr. Rice and Dr. Evans as prominent representatives constituted an able class of preachers, strongly conservative of all the views and usages of English Methodism. A thoroughly Canadian and progressive section of the conference was led and represented by such men as the Hurlburts, James Elliott, Jeffers and Spenser; while a more conservative Canadian section was represented by the Ryersons, Green, Jones, and Rose, with such younger men as Sanderson and Nelles. It would not be right to call these sections of the conference parties in the modem sense of the term, for there was no organization or pledged following; and in all the sections there were many men of such strong individuality that they followed no man. Rut history had given to each of these sections its peculiar tendency and character so definitely that the attitude of each on any great question might be safely predicted. The Ryersons, with the more conservative Canadians, were in general a mediating influence between the British and the more radical Canadians, and in that way did not a little to bring about and cement the unity of the body.

But in 1854 an incident occurred which for a time made Dr. Ryerson appear as the most extreme of radicals in Methodist polity, and even threatened to sever his connection with the conference. An intimate friend, a man whose Methodist lineage reached back to John Wesley's day, a man of spotless Christian character and life, and one active and useful in many fields of Christian work was "dropped" from church membership for non-attendance at class. The circumstance was at once so painful, and, though according to the letter of the law as well as the practice of the time, so anomalous from the broader point of view, that Dr. Ryerson took up the question with great earnestness, published a pamphlet on the subject, and when his views were not sustained by the majority of the conference, emphasized his protest by tendering his resignation as a minister of the church. In his pamphlet he claimed that membership m the Christian church was a sacred right as inviolable as the rights of citizenship and only forfeited by positive wrong doing. He held that now that Methodism had assumed the status and responsibilities of a church, a condition of membership which was established for a society in the church was no longer the proper test of true church membership, which should be based only upon the requirements of the New Testament. Beyond this he also pressed the right of all baptised children to more definite recognition and admission to the full privileges of church membership.

Dr. Ryerson's presentation of the case made at the time a deep impression upon the younger members of the conference. It certainly contained large elements of truth which were obviously neglected by the Methodism of that day. These truths were emphasized by the constant exercise of a somewhat arbitrary power to drop members from the church roll by simply omit ting their names in the copying of the list to a new page at the end of the quarter. Wesley's regulations required that this should be done only after the eases had been examined in the leaders' meeting and admonition had been duly given. Rut even this safeguard was now very largely omitted. In the majority of eases where the member had grown careless and no longer valued his position and privilege as a member of the church, it might be that no substantial injustice was done. It was but the lopping off of dead branches which would in time fall off themselves if they had not already done so. Rut in seasons of ecclesiastical convulsion both in Canada and in England this had without doubt been used as an easy way of getting rid of troublesome persons. On the other hand, up to this time both in Canada and ;n the old country Methodism laid the emphasis in all her work upon the revival as the important means of filling the ranks of her membership, and upon the class meeting as the manifestation of a living Christian experience. To admit as co-ordinate or even superior to these two fundamentals, the use of catechumen classes and a permanent roll of membership conditioned upon the maintenance of a consistent Christian life, appeared to the old country Methodists and to the more conservative Canadians, and even to many who ranked as progressives, but were intensely earnest in their religious spirit, a most serious forsaking of the old ways. Strong pamphlets were written u reply to Dr. Ryerson's tract, and one important truth was brought into prominence, viz., that Christian fellowship was in the Apostolic church a co-ordinate means of grace with the Word or teaching of the apostles, the stated seasons of prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It was recognized as a scriptural ordinance and not simply as a human and prudential institution. On the other hand, from that date onward the legislation of Canadian Methodism moved steadily n the direction of more ample provision and more careful effort to gather the children into the church, and also in the direction of more careful guarding of the sacred right of church membership until finally the class meeting has been placed on a par with the other scriptural means of grace as a condition of membership in the church.

In 1866-7, while making an educational tour of Great Britain and Europe, Dr. Ryerson was once more brought into close touch with English Methodism, and especially with the late honoured William Morley Punshon, then at the height of his fame as a pulpit orator. The acquaintance ripened into fast friendship and resulted in Mr. Punshon's devoting his services for the benefit of Canadian Methodism for the five years following the summer of 1868, perhaps the most effective period of his pulpit, and platform work. The impulse given to Canadian Methodism by this term of service can never be fully estimated. He began by attracting crowds of all classes of the population to the old, and hitherto often despised Methodist chapels. Easily outranking in oratorical powers the men of all other churches, he gave to Methodism an acknowledged status, corresponding to her superior numbers and rapidly increasing wealth and social position. With such a man in their pulpits even men of the world were no longer ashamed to be called Methodists. lie made the Methodists respect themselves, and inspired them in all parts of the country with the ambition to erect places of worship commensurate with the work which they were called in the providence of God to perform. lie met a crisis in the affairs iff Victoria College by helping to establish that institution on the firm foundation of purely voluntary support. He attracted the attention of all branches of Methodism to the larger body, and by his relations to England smoothed the way to those needed adjustments which removed all obstacles to union and finally resulted in the consolidation of Canadian Methodism, first in part in 1874 and in full in 1883.

Into all this work of his chosen friend, Dr. Ryerson entered with the fire and enthusiasm of youth, mingled with the sagacity and vise experience of age. It became a favourit e saying of his that one of his most important works for his church and country was the bringing of Mr. Punshon to Canada. With this new inspiration of church life throughout Canadian Methodism, the fifty years' services of Dr. Ryerson for his native land began to be estimated at their true value; while his wisdom and experience as a legislator placed him in the forefront of the negotiations for the first union. To him no more congenial task could be assigned than the heading of these breaches, which had all occurred in his own lifetime and as the result of struggles in which he himself had borne a prominent part; and when in 1874 the first stage of success was reached, he was by the united voice of all parties to the union, placed in the chair of the first general conference of united Canadian Wesleyan Methodism.

In the constitution of the united church, over which Dr. Ryerson was thus called to preside, two great principles were incorporated which had not previously obtained in the larger bodies composing the union. These were lay representation in the supreme assembly of the church, and a representative general conference for legislation, and the administration of the common connexional work of missions, education and religious literature. It was into this body alone that lay representation was introduced, the executive pastoral functions continuing in the annual conferences whose rights were very carefully guarded. In the hands of these annual courts, and their subordinate courts, district and circuit or station, the administration of the general work of the church was vested. Four departments, missions, education, book and publishing interests, and the support of worn-out ministers and widows were placed under separate bodies corporate, and administered by boards constituted by the general conference in accordance with their several corporate charters. The president of the general conference presided in these boards, but exercised no general pastoral function in the church at large.

This form of organization continued for nine years, or until the completion of the second union in 1883, and was presided over by Dr. Ryerson from 187-1 to 1878. From the beginning it was clearly seen that the solidarity and connexional spirit of the whole church were seriously imperilled by such a constitution. Even uniformity in the administration of the law and discipline of the church could scarcely be secured where the annual presidency changed yearly, and where, as in the east and west, historic traditions and usages had been somewhat different. The compactness, and, within the law of the discipline, the complete autonomy of the annual conferences, gave them, on the other hand, great efficiency in the building up of all local interests, and under strong leadership could easily make them a unit in their vote and influence in the general conference. The one influence to counterbalance these strong tendencies was the strength of the men at the head of the general conference administration, and their ability to reach the whole church at least every year.

The following extract from a letter to Dr. Ryerson from the late Dr. Punshon will illustrate this point: "I am looking with some solicitude to the result of the appeal to the quarterly meetings on the union question. I hope it will be carried, though your modifications of the scheme do not quite meet my approval, as one who would like to see a statesman's view taken of things. I do not see the bond of cohesion twenty years hence when those who are now personally known to and therefore interested in each other, have passed off the stage. Then the general conference will meet as perfect strangers, having hardly a common interest but that of a common name, and as there are no general superintendents who know all the conferences there will not be, as in the States, any link to bind them together."

The history of the first and even of the second quadreimium was on these accounts very much of the nature of an experiment, and did afford to Dr. Ryerson such an opportunity as would have made his large experience and great administrative ability most widely useful to the church, lint as opportunity offered he gave most freely of his ability to the services of the church, and was found once more not only presiding over the great church boards and attending their great anniversary meetings, but also occupying the prominent pulpits of the church to lend assistance both in connexional and local work. His work in this way and still more that of his successor, the eloquent Dr. Douglas, did much to prepare the way for conferring larger powers on the chief executive officer at the second union.

One of the most interesting and important duties imposed upon Dr. Ryerson by the general conference was a visit to England as representative of the Methodist Church of Canada to the British Wesleyan Methodist Conference. This mission he accomplished >n the summer of 1876. Forty-three years earlier he had occupied a similar position for the first time, and thrice since he had been deputed to the same honourable duty. On this last visit his dignified and venerable appearance, his courteous manners, his eloquent and impressive address, and above all, the rich fulness of matter furnished by the experience of fifty years ;n the Christian ministry all combined to make his appearance before the conference an unusually marked event.

Apart from his duties as representative, his time in England was largely occupied in the collection of material for the completion of his last great work, the history of the United Empire Loyalists, to which we have already referred. Visiting the London annual conference assembled in Guelph there was laid upon him another literary labour, in response to which he prepared a most valuable volume entitled the " Epochs of Canadian Methodism," also already referred to in these pages.

There was now wanting but one year before the next assembly of the general conference, and already its important interests were engaging his earnest attention. His experience had deepened the conviction of the necessity of some form of general superintendency by which the community of interest and unity of action of the whole church might he more fully maintained. At the same Lime in the several conferences there were forming strong democratic tendencies and most pronounced opposition to any policy of greater centralization. The final conflict on this point did not take place until after Dr. Ryerson's death. Rut even as early as 1878 the opposing forces were cohering into defined parties and policies under able and active leadership. The general conference held in Montreal in 1878 was thus one of significant importance, starting as it did some of the movements which almost suddenly culminated in action, and in the union of the several annual and two general conferences of 1882 and 1883. Before these years with theii strenuous conflict and victory for union and greater solidarity arrived, Dr. Ryerson had passed to his rest. It is therefore a matter of greater interest to trace his active part in the legislation of the preceding conference of 1878 which proved to be his last general conference.

As retiring president he opened the conference with an address in which, after sketching the history and growth of Methodism during his fifty years of ministerial life, he thus refers to the changes which he regards as necessary for its effective constitution :"I doubt not you will deem it necessary to revise and improve the system of the transer of the preachers from one part of the conferential work to another when judged necessary, as the experiment of a transfer committee introduced four years ago has proved cumbrous, expensive and inefficient. Equally, if not more important will it be for you to supply some principle or authority of connexional unity, as at present our connection consists of a mere congeries of co-ordinate annual conferences, and your president is the mere chairman of the general conference and is not even a member of any annual conference except that from which he happens to have been elected. The oneness and unity of the body of the church obviously requires not merely a figurehead, but a real head, like that of the natural body, as illustrated by the example of the Methodist church both in England and in the United States."

The two points thus referred to were intimately related. The men who are called from one part of the work to another are generally the men of mark. Tlicy become known in all parts of the church. By their personal knowledge of the different sections and great centres of the work, they acquire a broader interest and a wider outlook than if they spent their whole life in a single conference and were always identified with its interests. Nothing is more conducive to the unity of interest and to broad sympathy in all parts of the church than this free circulation of the strongest men throughout the work. If they breathe the free air of the west, if they feel the full life of the great cities with their manifold moral need, if they come into contact with the great problems of different races and faiths, if from the seaports of the east they learn to look out upon the whole world, they cannot but carry with them throughout the church the influence of this varied life, and so bring its various sections into sympathy with each other. A general superintendency brings the power of one man to bear upon this problem of unification; a free transfer brings the power of scores of such to bear in the same direction! At best, the general superintendent can be but a passing visitor. The transferred pastor, on the other hand, remains long enough both to take in and to transmit the spirit of his successive environments.

But, accustomed as Dr. Ryerson had been all his life to strong leadership and central government, the superintendency appeared to him at present the most important need of the church. Two facts since demonstrated by history were not then so fully manifest. Individual leadership was weakening. The great leaders of the past, men who had entered the ministry in the twenties and the thirties were on the eve of passing. Ryerson himself, Green, Carroll, Douse, Evans, Rose, James Elliott, George Young, J. H. Robinson, Borland, were members of a general conference for the last time, Lachlin Taylor was present only as a visitor, and Hurlburt, elected a member, died before the session. The younger men, even if equal in ability, could not wield the same influence in the larger sphere and over men who were more nearly their equals in intellectual power. On the other hand, constitutional forces were increasing in influence and becoming far more powerful and important than individual men. The transfer system and the status and attitude of the annual conference were thus more important questions than the general superintendency, and as the result has proved much more difficult to solve.

Early in the conference Dr. Ryerson gave notice of motion on the subject of a virtual superintendency as follows:"That the president of the general conference shall devote his time, as far as possible, in visiting every part of the work ; that he shall be considered a member of each of the several annual conferences, and when present at their sessions shall preside over their proceedings; and that the president of each annual conference shall preside over its proceedings in the absence of the president of the general conference."

A discussion of this resolution resulted only in provision for such assistance to the president of the general conference as would enable him to give more time to travel throughout the church, but gave him no status in the annual conference. The subject of transfers was taken up by younger legislators but no very substantial progress was made towards its solution. Both of these important questions thus stood over for the second union.

The close of the general conference was virtually the close of Dr. Ryerson's active ministerial life. In 1879 alter fifty-four years' active work, the longest period on record in Canadian Methodism, lie took Ins place on the list of superannuates, being now in the seventy-sixth year of his age. His remaining days were spent in the quiet of his home near the scene of his life work, and in visits to the home of his boyhood and to his aged brother. As strength permitted he continued his literary work almost to the last, often assisted by younger friends who counted it a privilege to be associated with a great and good man in the closing labours of his life. Into the beautiful scenes of affectionate tenderness and Christian hope of these last days it would not become this work to enter. They belong rather to the field of personal and religious biography. But we cannot forbear to copy the words in which his lifelong friend and co-labourer, Dr. Hodgins, depicts the final scene:

'To such a man death had no terrors, the heart had no fear. It was cheering and comforting to listen to him (as I often did alone) and to hear him speak of his near departure as of one preparing for a journey, ceasing from duty in order to be ready to be conveyed away and then resuming it when the journey was over. Thus he spoke of the time of his departure as at hand, and he was ready for the messenger when he should call for him. He spoke of it trustfully, hopefully, cheerfully, neither anxious nor fearful, and yet, on the other hand, neither elated nor full of joy. Rut he knew in whom he had trusted, and was persuaded, and was not afraid of evil tidings either of the dark valley or of the river of death. lie knew whom he believed, and was persuaded that He was able to keep that which he had committed unto Him against that day.

"Thus the end drew near, and with it, as the outward man began to fail, the feeling of unwavering trust and confidence was deepened and strengthened. At length hearing failed, and the senses one by one partially ceased to perform their functions. Then to him were fully realized the inspired words of Solomon: 'Desire failed, and the silver cord was loosed, the golden bowl was broken, the pitcher broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern.' Gradually the weary wheels of life stood still, and at seven o'clock on Sunday morning February 19th, 1882, in the presence of his loved ones and dear friends, gently and peacefully the spirit of Egerton Ryerson took its flight."

After such a life the pageant of a funeral and the pomp of monumental grandeur are empty trifles. But to honour him in his death, as he had served them in his life the whole country seemed assembled in its representatives. Government house, legislative halls, the bench of judges, university and academic authorities, ecclesiastical dignitaries of all names, thousands from the schools which he had founded, and above all, the common people for whose cause he never failed to stand, followed to the grave the remains of the great Canadian who had lived so faithfully and well for his country.

"Hush, the dead march wails in the people's ears;
The dark crowd moves, and there are sobs and tears
The black earth yawns, the mortal disappears;
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
He is gone who seemed so great,
Gone; but nothing can bereave him
Of the force he made his own
Being here, and we believe him
Something far advanced in state,
And that he wears a truer crown
Than any wreath that man can weave him."


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