History | Egerton Ryerson | His Career | His Legacy 

The opportunity came soon after his restoration to health and at the age of 22 years he was received as a minister of the Methodist Church and assigned to the Niagara circuit. 

For some years his life was one of constant, strenuous physical effort. Often he was compelled to compose his sermons while riding horseback from one part of the circuit to another.

He was transferred to the Yonge Street circuit, embracing the town of York (now Toronto) and nine adjacent townships. Later he was stationed as a missionary among the Indians on the Credit River.

He performed there a most valuable work in teaching the Indians proper methods of making the soil yield them a livelihood as well as the rudiments of education. 

It was estimated that during his long and active ministerial career, he preached at least ten thousand sermons. The early circuit riding was invaluable in after years, because he came in contact with so many people and learned their problems and their aspirations.

Egerton Ryerson first came into the public eye in connection with the clergy Reserves controversy which stirred Upper Canada at that time. He was only 23 years of age when he wrote his celebrated reply to Archdeacon Strachan.

The latter in a sermon had made the claim that the Anglican Church was by law the Established Church of Upper Canada and that the church was entitled to exclusive income from the Clergy Reserves. He singled out the Methodists and held them up to ridicule, representing them as American and disloyal.

The attack was vigorously answered in a pamphlet by Ryerson, published under the signature of�A Methodist Preacher', in which the claims of Bishop Strachan were definitely refuted. The contest waxed warm, attracting province-wide interest.

Perhaps as a sequel to this controversy, in 1829 the Christian Guardian was founded at York in the interests of the Methodist body and Egerton Ryerson, now 26 years old, was named editor of the publication. It started with a circulation of 500, which in three years was increased to some 3,000.

Besides defending the Methodist principles and institutions, the paper made a strong stand for civil liberty, temperance, education and missionary work. It advocated many useful political reforms and contributed its full share to discussion of the Clergy Reserves question. It soon was looked upon as one of the leading journals of Upper Canada. Mr. Ryerson continued in the editorial chair until 1840, except for intervals when he was out of the country.

In 1833, he was named as delegate to go to England to negotiate a union between the Canadian Methodist Conference and the Wesleyan Methodists of England, which he succeeded in doing.

Two years later he made a second visit to England, with a view to procuring a charter for the Upper Canada Academy as a seat of Methodist education and also to secure subscriptions for the project from English Wesleyans.

He succeeded and the Academy, which developed into the well-known Victoria College in Toronto, was established at Cobourg.

On this second visit in England, he remained for about one and one-half years. He contributed to the London Times a series of letters on Canadian affairs to counteract the influence of William Lyon Mackenzie, who through English associates was creating much feeling in favour of political reform in Canada. Believing these efforts directed towards establishing a Canadian republic, Mr. Ryerson combated them strenuously.

A few months after his return from England, the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 broke out. Although he had no sympathy with the revolutionaries, he was opposed nevertheless to the use of harsh measures against Mackenzie's followers and he procured the release of several of them from imprisonment.

After the Rebellion had been crushed, it appeared that the Family Compact clique would have things its own way and prospects for equality of civil and religious liberty was not bright.

The Constitutional Reform party lacked influence. Once again the Methodist leaders persuaded Egerton Ryerson to take control of the Christian Guardian, which he had resigned some time previously, and thenceforth he continued to wage battle editorially for freedom and democracy.

Realizing the effective nature of Upper Canada's system of general education, Egerton Ryerson advocated strongly that the proceeds of the Clergy Reserves be appropriated for educational purposes. He continued to fight for equal religious privileges for all people in Upper Canada.

During Lord Durham's memorable mission to Canada, he had frequent interviews with Mr. Ryerson, who furnished considerable data for the celebrated report of that nobleman.

In 1840, Mr. Ryerson again resigned from the Guardian and the next year, upon incorporation of Victoria College, he was unanimously chosen first president of that institution of learning.

The same year saw the degree of Doctor of Divinity conferred upon him and his acceptance of the pastorate of Adelaide Street Church, Toronto.

For the next two years he gave himself principally to pastoral work although still having some participation in political and religious debates.

In October 1844, Sir Charles Metcalfe, head of administrative affairs in the province, named Dr. Ryerson as Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada, an office in which he was to attain lasting distinction in the public life of his country.

Eminently fitted for the position, he gave himself for the next 32 years to the task of remodeling and building up our educational system. From the time of his appointment until he resigned in 1876, he continued to administer the school affairs of this province with zeal, energy and efficiency.

At the outset he made an extensive tour of the United States, England and continental Europe in order to familiarize himself with the most modern educational systems. His findings were embodied in an elaborate report published in 1846. Four years later, a new Schools Act was passed by the Legislature, based on the principal Ryerson recommendations.

One of Dr. Ryerson's most important aims was to provide free common schools throughout the province and he took the first step towards doing so in the Act of 1850, which contained permissive legislation for abolishing the old rate-bill system under which parents were taxed according to the number of their children attending school and substituting a plan of general taxation of property.

Gradually this new idea took hold and by 1871 the old rate-bill system had been abolished and a free common school system adopted.

The superintendent proceeded slowly in his plans, preferring to mould public opinion and not to force his measures upon the people. He made many tours of the province and on one occasion spent nearly three months visiting county school conventions where he explained the new Schools Act of 1850.

He was determined to keep the administration of educational affairs free from politics. His success was indicated by the fact that in due course most of the political leaders were content to give him almost a free hand in his work.

While the Common School system was his primary care, he also gave much attention to the establishment and improvement of Grammar, Normal and Model schools throughout Ontario.

He set up the system of county school inspectors. He introduced compulsory education and he advocated township school boards.

His activities at this time were well summed up by one of his biographers in these words:

"His environment after 1844 strengthened a natural tendency to be autocratic. He worked like a giant.
He created an Education Department, appointed his subordinates, was his own finance minister, established a Normal School and appointed its instructors, nominated members of a Council of Public Instruction who often did little more than formally register his decrees, organized a book and map depository and an educational museum, edited an educational journal in which he published his decrees, as well as preparing legislation on education for government endorsement. He administered one of the largest spending departments of government and ruled quite rigorously a score of subordinates, and yet for many years was not subject to any check save the nominal one of Governor General-in-Council.�


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