Before the Christian Guardian: American Methodist Periodicals in the Upper Canadian Backwoods, 1818-1829

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SOMMAIRE

Cet article fait valoir que la distribution des periodiques methodistes americains a travers le Haut-Canada a la fin de la guerre de 1812 a eu une profonde influence sur l'evolution de l'identite religieuse methodiste au nord de la frontiere. Outre qu'ils ont aide duram la periode de l'apres-guerre a favoriser une remontee spectaculaire du mouvement, ces periodiques ont servi a harmoniser les relations transnationales naguere tendues qu'entretenaient les Methodistes canadiens et americains a une epoque ou le sentiment anti-americain etait a la hausse. Les liens unissant les methodistes de l'Amerique du Nord en une seule communaute de lecteurs se som depuis lors nettement renforces, temoin les progres du methodisme constates des deux cotes de la frontiere canado-americaine ou encore la croissance affichee au Canada des ecoles du dimanche et autres activites missionnaires sur le modele americain. La diffusion soutenue de ces periodiques a grandement contribue a preparer le terrain pour le lancement en 1829 de l'hebdomadaire methodiste canadien, le Christian Guardian.

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Meeting in Ancaster, Upper Canada in the late summer of 1829, delegates attending the annual conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada issued $2,000 in stock and used the borrowed funds to purchase a press, open a printing shop, and begin publishing a weekly newspaper in the colony's capital at York (later Toronto) called the Christian Guardian. (2) It was a decisive step and one that would eventually help draw Upper Canadian Methodists into the political and religious mainstream of British North America. Although intended at first to appeal principally to an audience of denominational readers, the Christian Guardian soon adopted so outspoken a reformist editorial slant that it became one of Upper Canada's most popular periodicals. With more than 3,000 Methodist and non-Methodist subscribers by the early 1830s, one detractor observed caustically that it "went into every hole and corner of the Upper Province." (3) Under the able and energetic editorship of the youthful Methodist preacher Egerton Ryerson, the newspaper earned its reputation as an unyielding thorn in the side of Upper Canada's conservative governing elite as it opened a new space where policies could be debated, elections influenced, and political figures scrutinized. (4) Indeed, so central did the Guardian become in the reformist battle for religious neutrality on the part of the state, that its impact on the colony's political and cultural life can be overstated only with difficulty. (5) Yet for all of its undoubted influence, the Christian Guardian did not appear in a vacuum. Nor was it the first religious periodical to be widely read by Methodists in the colony. In fact, by the time the first issue of the Guardian finally appeared in November 1829, Upper Canadian Methodists had proven themselves to be loyal subscribers, readers, and contributors to American Methodist periodicals for more than a decade.

It is perhaps not surprising, in view of the enormous impact the Christian Guardian had on Methodist fortunes in Upper Canada, that Canadian religious and print culture historiography has tended to marginalize and even ignore those antecedents that helped prepare the ground for the Guardian. Indeed, historians of religion have generally had surprisingly little to say about the place print occupied in the lives of Upper Canada's earliest Methodists. Nancy Christie, for example, notes that those recruited as Methodist preachers typically came from uneducated, humble backgrounds, but says nothing about the requirement placed on them by the General Conference to improve themselves daily by study while serving as denominational colporteurs. (6) In much the same way, Neil Semple's landmark history of Canadian Methodism offers little insight into Methodist print culture as a force in its own right apart from noting in passing that the Christian Guardian became a locus of contention between Upper Canadian and British Wesleyan Methodists. …