Church and Vic – The Strand
When Canadian Methodists sought to establish a “Seminary of Learning” in 1830, they probably did not think their legacy would be a Toronto institution with coeducational residences and a secular education. Victoria University may no longer be a symbol of Methodist strength in Upper Canada, but its relationship with the Church over the past 186 years has been vibrant, To say the least.
In the British Empire at the start of the 19th century, religion was seen as a necessary companion to school learning. The question for Upper Canadian high schools was not if there would be a Christian teaching, but often which Christian teaching.
Canada’s intertwining with Christianity began with the voyages of Jacques Cartier and the establishment of New France in 1534. Cartier claimed an area of land along the Gulf of St. Lawrence on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church of France, whom he sought to protect from the “wicked Lutherans, [and] apostates” – despite the land belonging to the Haudenosaunee Nation. Although Cartier was successful for a time, the colony finally collapsed in 1763, with the cession of New France to Great Britain.
The Church of England hoped to dominate the new territory. In 1791, the Crown reserved one-seventh of all public lands in Canada for Protestant clergy, but discovered a weakness in political popularity. Established French Catholics challenged English Protestants, as both groups dominated the country.
In the 1790s, a new player entered the game: United Empire Loyalists fleeing the United States came by the thousands to spread their gospel ways to the Canadian population. These Methodists hoped to prove themselves as a formidable group in the years before Confederation, gaining some popularity as the underdog.
A young Christian leader who was kicked out of his home at 18 for converting to Methodism had unwavering views on access to education; Egerton Ryerson criticizes clergy reserves, tuition fees, and Upper Canada’s decentralized education system. When the Methodist Conference was held in 1829 to discuss congregational plans, education was a top priority. The proposal for a Methodist seminary was drafted and tabled, but rejected by the Legislative Assembly and Council in an act of religious prejudice. Lieutenant Governor Colborne ruthlessly declared that “the system of education which has produced the best and ablest men in the United Kingdom will not be abandoned here to adapt to the limited views of the rulers of the societies, who do not may have neither experience nor judgment to appreciate the value or benefits of a liberal education.
Five years later, after an appeal to the British Crown and a trip to London, England by Ryerson, a charter was finally granted – the first charter given to a nonconformist body for an educational institution.
In 1836 Ryerson wrote to the officers of the Crown that “an institution whose chief object, as is plainly expressed, is the education of youth, of poor young men of religious character and promising talents, and young native Indians connected with Methodist congregations, should be placed substantially under the pastoral head of the Church. Ryerson’s obsession with the importance of Christianity in education led him to later play a role in Canada’s disastrous residential school system.
The Royal Charter of the Academy of Upper Canada boasted that “no religious test or qualification shall be required of, or appointed for, any person on admission as a student or scholar into the said Academy”. The newly created council provided for more equal admission of students – so long as they expressed a willingness to embrace Christian values.
It was a bold contrast to the sectarian model of Canadian education, which saw the founding of Bishop’s Anglican University in 1843, Presbyterian Queen’s College in 1841, Roman Catholic Regiopolis College in 1837 and Baptist Acadia College in 1839. Although Upper Canada Academy certainly joined the list as Canada’s Standard Methodist institution, its openness to applicants was unusual.
Although the academy’s willingness to accept native students and students of any Christian denomination was extremely progressive for its time, it was done, unsurprisingly, under the veil of indoctrination. The school was established by the Methodist Church with the aim of combining secular and religious studies, which they believed to be inseparable.
Similarly, female students were widely accepted in the school, with the 74 female student body of 1840 nearly equaling the 96 male. Although this policy was at the forefront of women’s education in Canada, it still existed within the framework of educational inequality and school segregation, food and housing – the latter two having existed in Vic until 1988 and 1995, respectively.
Vic’s transformation of Upper Canada Academy into Victoria College in 1841 saw little change in the religious model of the school until the addition of the Faculty of Theology in 1871. But this period also saw the revocation of the admission of female students, who had previously been welcomed from 1836 to 1841. Many clergymen believed that women should assume a traditional “housewife” role after attending high school, that post-secondary institutions should be for men only. Once Victoria became a degree-granting institution, it followed in the footsteps of other colleges of the day and excluded women from admission. This thirty-year stain was not reversed until the year theology was introduced as a faculty.
In 1903, Margaret Addison’s first year as Dean of Annesley Hall, the “…majority [of the students] were Methodists or Presbyterians, a sprinkle of Anglicans, Baptists and “others” stirred the mix; all professed some sort of religious belief, and for many it was the cornerstone of their lives. A proper religious lifestyle was essential for Addison and the administrators of Victoria College when establishing the first women’s residence hall in Canada; the sectarian views of the Church were reflected in Victoria’s principles and actions. Margaret Proctor Burwash, founding member of the Annesley Hall Building Committee, said: “The higher education of women brings a curse instead of a blessing unless it gives them a higher ideal of nobility and sanctity of their vocation as housewives. Burwash and Addison struggled against the progressive views of students on the one hand and the beliefs of authoritarian Methodist men on the other. During her tenure as dean (until 1931), Addison’s efforts to grant independence and responsibility to girls often met with opposition. Albert Carman, General Superintendent of the Methodist Church, heard from Chancellor Nathanael Burwash about the Dean’s ‘night watch keys’ for girls, students returning to their rooms after ‘after midnight’ entertainment, their ‘attendance to theaters and dances” and replied, “It is not Methodism: I fear it is aloof: it is not the way of sound discipline or sound and sure scholarship …” Margaret Addison’s desire to bend the rules and give more autonomy to the Victoria Women’s Student Union contributed to Mr and Mrs Burwash’s resignations from the school in 1913, as they faced the pressure from Methodist Church leaders like Carman.
It was not until Methodists joined with a group of Presbyterians and Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada in 1925 that Vic saw drastic changes for his Methodist men. Disputes over the union of the Church and Presbyterian Knox College eventually led to the establishment of Emmanuel College in 1928, which formalized Victoria’s existing religious education into a separate institution. However, it would be naïve to say that this removed the Christian undertones from Victoria’s student life entirely.
Since its inception as a college, Vic has seen Christian values and theological lectures mixed with students’ liberal arts studies, with many Victoria graduates entering the ministry themselves. Each of the early directors and presidents had been affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church in some capacity, and most of them had been ordained ministers. Even in the late 19th and 20th centuries, this student-minister-administrator pipeline held true for Samuel Nelles, Nathanael Burwash, Richard P. Bowles, Edward W. Wallace, and Northrop Frye. As recently as 1992 to 1998, Sang Chul Lee served as Chancellor of Victoria College. An advocate for oppressed groups in the Church, Lee served as the thirty-second Moderator of The United Church of Canada. Grace before meals, the celebration of exclusively Christian holidays, and the sentiment of faculty and students maintained institutional Christian ties through much of the 20th century.
Today, the influence of the United Church of Victoria is at its lowest. Emmanuel College now teaches a wide variety of theologies, ranging from Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Indigenous belief systems; fewer administrators than ever have ties to the United Church. In 2008, the United Church Archives were finally separated from the Victoria University Archives, which had been housed together since their origins. However, 13 of the 37 people appointed to the Board of Regents remain members of The United Church of Canada, and an annual grant of $200,000 from the Church has been given to Vic through 2019.
Although we may no longer share the same values or perspectives as Albert Carman or Egerton Ryerson, Victoria’s story of adversity and religious significance offers a more holistic view of the Vic we know today. As Vic and Emmanuel alumnus, United Church minister, Principal and Chancellor Northrop Frye said, “Victoria has a legacy and that legacy is not buried treasure or a handed down secret, but an experience renewed by all who come into contact with him. ”