"A Square Deal for the Least and the Last": The Career of W.G. Smith in the Methodist Ministry, Experimental Psychology, and Sociology

Article excerpt


Although it is a convention for authors to seek anonymity by using initialized pen names, W.G. Smith is an exceptionally anonymous name. "I have no photograph, not having visited a photographer in ten years" he wrote in April 1921. "I shall have to "sit" if you desire one, but I thrive best in obscurity" It is this modesty that is responsible for W.G. Smith's (1873-1943) obscurity. He should be remembered today as a Newfoundlander who contributed to the intellectual life of Canada before Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. Salem Bland (1859-1950) in his book The New Christianity; or, The Religion of the New Age--a key text for the social gospel movement--acknowledged an intellectual debt to two people, an editor and "my friend, Professor W.G. Smith of the University of Toronto, who gave me valuable criticisms and suggestions" (Bland, 1973: 6). Smith was also a friend of another important intellectual figure in Toronto, the philosopher George John Blewett (1873-1912). Among all the nineteenth--and twentieth-century idealist philosophers in Canada, Blewett may be the most significant for a rational Christian understanding of the relationship between humans and nature (Armour and Trott, 1981: 321). Blewett is the author of The Study of Nature and the Vision of God (1907) as well as The Christian View of the World (1912).

Born in the town of Cupids in March of 1873, W.G. (William George) Smith is surely the first Newfoundland-born experimental psychologist. He taught psychology at the University of Toronto for about 15 years, but the surviving record provides more insight into his work as a Methodist minister and his contributions to the study of immigration, although he wrote in an era sometimes referred to as the "prehistory" of sociology in English Canada (Brym, 1989: 15). (1) The diversity of Smith's career may seem puzzling today. One might wonder if it is intellectually consistent to be a Christian minister and a laboratory psychologist interested in sensory perceptions, a social reformer, and a sociologist, but multi-faceted careers were typical of the social sciences in Canada in the early twentieth century. Smith published two books, A Study in Canadian Immigration (1920c) and Building the Nation: A Study of Some Problems Concerning the Churches' Relation to the Immigrants (1922). He was also the author of at least one study in experimental psychology; three articles about immigration in the Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene; and three articles in the journal Social Welfare, one of which is about immigration. The Canadian clergy who conducted surveys related to immigration in the first three decades of the twentieth century can be divided into three categories: clergy who defended an exclusionist immigration policy; those who ranked ethnic minorities in terms of the ease with which they could be assimilated in Anglo-Canadian society; and those who were more accepting of non-white newcomers and justified limited cultural diversity (Christie and Gauvreau, 1996: 188). Both of Smith's books illustrate the third category. This is particularly evident in Building the Nation.

After introducing information about Smith's formative years in Cupids and St. John's, this article explores his career in Toronto as a psychology instructor and Methodist minister. Filling the gaps in the public record of these institutions requires that we turn to accounts of the life of the boy from the outports who became the grand old man of Canadian poetry, E.]. Pratt. Smith and Pratt had much in common: both were Newfoundlanders; both were ordained Methodist ministers, privately skeptical about some of the most fundamental church doctrines; both were students and instructors at the University of Toronto; and they were fascinated, at least in their younger years, by the new science of experimental psychology. They were nine years apart in age. Pratt was from Western Bay, an outport about 50 kilometres from Cupids. …