By Jane Harris-Zsovan -
The Department of Canadian Heritage’s website heralds Canada’s 145th birthday party as the celebration of our ‘land of promise.’ And the theme of the Canada Day Noon Show on Parliament Hill will drive home the fact that Canada was a land of promise long before it became a Dominion, July 1, 1867.
“Celebrating the Legacy of Heritage of 1812” is a theme that should inspire all Canadians, especially Christians.
When the US declared War on Great Britain in 1812, American troops pushed their way into Upper and Lower Canada, with a plan to annex all of British North America into their fledgling republic. “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to Colonel William Duane just months prior to the war.
Instead, the invasion inspired colonists to remain independent from the United States. Christians were at the forefront of British North America’s fight against the invasion from the south.
First Nations Faith
A teenager named John Brant and a seasoned Mohawk War Chief, John Norton, led the Mohawk warriors to victory during the Battle of Queenston Heights. Brant was the son of loyalist Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant who fought with the British during the American Revolution before settling in Upper Canada, where he spent his last years translating the Bible into Mohawk.
Prior to the War of 1812, Norton, also know by his Mohawk name Teyoninhokarawen, translated the Gospel of John into Mohawk for the British Bible Society. A window in the Mohawk Chapel at Brantford Ontario, still records the preface of Norton’s translation: “Let us strictly adhere to what the Lord has transmitted to us in the Holy Scriptures, that thereby the unbelievers may know that love we bear the commandments of God.”
The Ryerson Legacy
The Loyalist Ryerson Family also fought to keep British North America out of the American republic in 1812. Colonel Joseph Ryerson and his brother Colonel Samuel Ryerson settled down in New Brunswick after the revolutionary war. Joseph married New Brunswick born Mehetabel Stickney. But large land grants awaited them in Upper Canada. By 1799, both brothers resettled their growing families in the new colony.
Eventually five of Colonel Joseph’s sons became ministers.
But during the War of 1812, the three oldest of Colonel Joseph’s six sons signed up to fight the Americans. The younger boys, including 10 year-old Egerton, were deeply influenced by their brother’s sacrifice.
Most people remember Egerton as the Methodist founder of Ontario’s public school system, but Egerton Ryerson was also a fervent loyalist who ensured Canadian Methodism did not incorporate the revolutionary message of American Manifest Destiny that US based circuit riders from the American Methodist Episcopal Church attempted to preach in Canada.
No one can talk about Egerton Ryerson’s contribution to Canada without mentioning his political adversary Anglican Bishop of Toronto John Strachan.
The Rector of York
Born in 1778, in Aberdeen, Scotland, to a working class family, Strachan arrived in Upper Canada in 1799 to discover that his promised job was a sham. He supported himself as a tutor school teacher before entering the Anglican ministry.
Newly appointed rector at York, Strachan found himself face to face with American soldiers looting and burning his parishioner’s homes. In order to protect the lives and property of the citizens of York, Strachan negotiated a surrender of the town and demanded an end to the looting.
The War of 1812 convinced Strachan that his mission was to make Upper Canada loyal, British and Christian. Strachan believed Methodists, like Ryerson, were disloyal, uneducated, and in favour of American republicanism.
Egerton had heard similar arguments from his own father. When young Egerton joined the Methodists, the Colonel told him to renounce his decision or leave home. Egerton left home.
So, it’s not all that surprising that, when Bishop Strachan publically denounced Methodists as poorly educated traitors, 23 year old Egerton Ryerson wrote a scathing letter to William Lyon Mackenzie’s Colonial Advocate defending the patriotism of his denomination. And Ryerson’s reputation as a leader among Upper Canadian Methodists was launched.
But Strachan was far from the staunch defender of privilege he is sometimes portrayed as. He was a man of prayer who cared deeply for the spiritual health of his parishioners, even caring for the dying when a cholera epidemic struck York (later renamed Toronto). In his early 80′s, Strachan still travelled more than 1000 miles each year, confirming over 1600 people in 44 churches in 30 days. He also lobbied for a five-and-a-half-day work week to improve the spiritual and physical life of the working class in the colony.
An older, wiser Ryerson later called Strachan “as thoroughly Canadian as any native of the country” and “remarkable for…self-sacrifice, devotion, downright honesty, resolute firmness, and unflagging industry.”
Ryerson’s later description of Strachan fits many Upper Canadian believers, who in 1812, saw that the promise of Canada was worth defending. It was a generation that saw beyond what was then a muddy backwater of the British Empire toward the nation we give thanks for on Canada Day.
Jane Harris-Zsovan writes about how history shapes contemporary Canada. Her most recent book, Eugenics and the Firewall (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing), investigates populism and religion in Alberta. Jane’s articles appear in both Christian and secular media. She lives in Lethbridge, Alberta. firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photos: Public Domain / Government of Canada Archives)