The Readers called Methodists: A Review of Pulpit, Press, and Politics

Todd Webb

Scott McLaren, Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019)

By the early 1860s, Methodism had become the largest Protestant denomination in the future provinces of Ontario and Quebec, in terms of membership. It was also a dominant cultural presence, with its tireless circuit-riding ministers, its increasingly stylish churches, its lively but socially respectable revivals, its Sunday schools, its university, its newspaper, and its books. One of the leading Canadian-born Methodist ministers, the ubiquitous Egerton Ryerson, had even put a Methodist stamp on Ontario’s public-school system. Such is the triumphant, nationalist narrative of Methodism’s rise in central Canada. That story looks different, however, when viewed from New York or London, England – that is, from the point of view of the American Methodist Episcopal Church or, as I have tried to show in my work, British Wesleyanism.[1] From that perspective, for much of the nineteenth century, Canadian Methodism was quite small and often very annoying, like a tick. That is just one of a number of revisionist points driven home in Scott McLaren’s fascinating study of the links between Canadian and American Methodist print cultures.

Beginning with a tip of his hat to Goldwin French’s classic study of Methodism in British North America, Parsons and Politics, McLaren goes further than French or any other historian in situating Upper Canada’s people called Methodists as members of a transcontinental fellowship of believers and readers.[2] As Pulpit, Press, and Politics demonstrates, this border-crossing identity was primarily the product of the brilliant marketing strategy of the Methodist Episcopal book concern, headquartered in New York. Books produced by the concern and sold to laity by Methodist preachers in the United States and in Upper Canada were not just commodities, but symbols of denominational identity: the truly faithful knew that to buy a book printed by the concern was to provide financial support to the larger Methodist Episcopal Church. This strategy created a strong cultural bond between Methodist readers in Upper Canada and their brethren in the early republic. While this connection may not have mattered so much, politically speaking, in the period before the War of 1812, it became problematic after 1815. As British Wesleyan missionaries moved into Upper Canada, with the support of the colonial government, they pointed to Canadian Methodism’s links to the United States as a sign of disloyalty. By the time Egerton Ryerson – a “young preacher who possessed a natural talent for throwing fuel on the fires of religious and political controversy in the province,” as McLaren wryly notes (74) – took on the Anglican Goliath, John Strachan, in the mid-1820s over the issue of church establishment, the marketing practices of the American Methodist Episcopal book concern had turned into a potentially disastrous liability for the Canadian Methodists.

Could a people who read American-produced books and supported an American church really be loyal subjects of the British Empire? To avoid answering that difficult question, McLaren shows, Egerton Ryerson and his brothers tried to move Canadian Methodist print culture into the mainstream of Upper Canada’s evolving British identity. This proved to be a difficult maneuver, however. The British Wesleyans, with whom the Canadian Methodists united in 1833, turned out to be sometimes maladroit purveyors of books and other printed material, while the Methodist leadership in the United States became increasingly resistant to the financial demands of the Upper Canadians, who wanted a share in the proceeds of the New York book concern before cutting their last official ties with Methodist Episcopal Church. This two-front war, which McLaren describes with clarity and narrative zeal, was the context for the emergence of something unique in the Atlantic world of Methodism. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, John Wesley walked out of the Canadian Methodists’ book concern in Toronto and Adam Smith took his place. In other words, after years of struggle, the Canadian Methodists decoupled print and denominational culture, embracing a fully consumerist approach to their marketplace that was unknown among the American Methodists and British Wesleyans. For the Canadian Methodists, it no longer mattered where books came from, whether New York or London, as long as the price was right, and their church could turn a profit.

There is a great deal to admire in the way that McLaren tells this complex story of cultural transformation and denominational infighting, much of which was motived by a combination of political expediency and knotty financial issues. He certainly demonstrates, as I have already noted, that the Canadian church was often seen as an aggravating bit player in the wider Methodist world. As McLaren points out, some of the leaders of American Methodism were driven to the very edge of distraction by the shifting demands of their Canadian brethren and by the ceaseless maneuvering of Egerton Ryerson, in particular. My own work suggests that the bashaws of British Wesleyanism felt much the same way during the middle years of the nineteenth century.[3] And yet, despite the undoubted headaches that these transcontinental and transatlantic bonds created for the metropolitan powers-that-be, those American and British leaders felt compelled, for a variety of reasons, to deal, or interfere, with the Canadians. It was that inability to leave well enough alone, especially as it related to the printing and distribution of books, that made certain, McLaren shows, that Canadian Methodist print culture would not be entirely British or American by the mid-1850s. Pulpit, Press, and Politics is full of such ironies, though that is possibly the most striking.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, John Wesley walked out of the Canadian Methodists’ book concern in Toronto and Adam Smith took his place.

Despite its many good points, there are, nevertheless, a few questions that McLaren’s approach raises that are worth flagging. He certainly makes a case for the centrality of print culture in the formation of a Methodist identity in Upper Canada, but at the cost, perhaps, of downplaying other aspects of the Methodist experience. What, for instance, was the place of Canadian Methodist print culture in the “tempering of revivalism” and the denomination’s gradual shift towards middle-class respectability in the Victorian period, identified by William Westfall and others?[4] That might have been a question worth pursuing, given the discussion of early Methodist revivalism in the colony in the opening chapters of Pulpit, Press, and Politics. That section of the book also presents an almost romantic account of the seeding and spread of American Methodism in Upper Canada. Is it unfair to suggest that this heroic image, created by the nineteenth-century chroniclers of Upper Canadian Methodism, particularly the prolific John Carroll, should be examined more critically? To quote William Westfall again, what Carroll and his contemporaries were creating was, at least in part, a mythical account, a “romantic fiction,” of a time when “there were giants on the earth.”[5] Carroll and his fellow denominational historians also created a very North American-focused narrative, of course, which McLaren largely adopts. The result is that, with few exceptions, McLaren’s British Wesleyan missionaries come across as hapless interlopers, with little feel for, or understanding of, American Methodism or its approach to print. This strikes me as being at least a little implausible, given the fact that the British Wesleyan and Methodist Episcopal churches maintained a constant interchange of delegates and of official and unofficial communications throughout the nineteenth century.

Even taking such criticism into account, however, McLaren has undoubtedly done yeoman service in repositioning the story of Canadian Methodism in a transcontinental context. By focusing on print culture, he has demonstrated one of the most important ways in which Methodism in Upper Canada maintained its North American heart, though avoiding the taint of Yankee disloyalty, while still adopting British Wesleyan church structures and developing its own British identity. Egerton Ryerson, his brothers, and their fellow Canadian Methodist preachers showed a degree of genius in achieving that fine balance. And, in the end, though I might disagree with some points of detail and interpretation in Pulpit, Press, and Politics, I am delighted, to quote another historian of Methodism, to “welcome this book and to call out ‘Pax!’”[6]

 

Todd Webb is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Laurentian University. He is currently working a study of what he is tentatively calling the ‘mid-nineteenth century crisis in Anglo-American Protestantism,’ concentrating, in particular, on the Wesleyan Methodist experience. You can find him on Twitter at @RToddWebb.


[1] Todd Webb, Transatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).

[2] Goldwin French, Parsons and Politics: The role of the Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada and the Maritimes from 1780 to 1855 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1962).

[3] For a condensed analysis of Egerton Ryerson’s place in transcontinental and transatlantic Methodism, see the following articles, originally delivered as a panel for the Canadian Society of Church History in 2017: Scott McLaren, “‘A Canadian, then an English subject’: American Impressions of Egerton Ryerson,” Historical Papers 2017: Canadian Society of Church History (2018): 113-21; Todd Webb, “‘His teachings are in want of faith’: British Wesleyan Responses to Egerton Ryerson,” Historical Papers 2017: Canadian Society of Church History (2018): 123-36.

[4] William Westfall, Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), 50-81.

[5] Westfall, Two Worlds, 80.

[6] E.P. Thompson, “Which Britons?” in E.P. Thompson, Making History: Writings on History and Culture (New York: The New Press, 1994), 329.

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