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WELLS, JAMES EDWARD, teacher, author, and journalist; b. 3 May 1836 in Harvey (Albert County), N.B., third of eight children of James Edward Wells, a mariner, and Amanda —, both natives of Nova Scotia; m. first 6 Aug. 1862 Rebecca M. Chase of Wolfville, N.S., and they had two sons and two daughters; m. secondly December 1880 Frances Barbara Moule; d. 18 Sept. 1898 in Toronto.

During James Edward Wells’s early years Baptist reforming zeal was a significant force in the Maritimes, and this no doubt contributed to his later development as a reformer. His education was interrupted by periods of work, which suggests that his family was not well off. Wells began to teach in public schools in New Brunswick about 1851 or 1852, and after two years resigned to attend the Normal School in Saint John. In the fall of 1855 he enrolled at the Baptist Horton Academy in Wolfville, N. S., where he overtook the first group to attend Horton and graduated with them in June 1856.

Wells’s education was interrupted further by a year of teaching in Kent County, N.B. During this time he studied on his own and in the fall of 1857 he was able to join his former Horton classmates in their second year at the Baptist Acadia College in Wolfville. Wells was obviously liked and respected by his peers, for he was elected valedictorian when he graduated ba in 1860. He then returned to teaching in New Brunswick and in 1863 he earned his ma from Acadia. That same year the Baptist Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, Ont., required a classics teacher, and Wells was successfully recommended by his professors.

After the death of the institute’s principal, Robert Alexander Fyfe*, in 1878, Wells became principal of the literary department. His association with the institute ended two years later, when his resignation was accepted with reluctance. While there, he had an influence upon reformism beyond the Baptist youth at the school, since he began to write free-lance articles on reform issues for periodicals such as the Bibliotheca Sacra: a Theological Quarterly (Andover, Mass., and Oberlin, Ohio), the Baptist Quarterly (Philadelphia), and the Canadian Baptist.

Following his second marriage in December 1880, Wells embarked upon a career as an author and editor, promoting both Baptist and early Social Gospel ideals. He worked for the Toronto Globe for two years, and then spent one at Rapid City, Man., and one at Moose Jaw (Sask.). In 1884 he accepted a position in Toronto as editor of the Canada School Journal, and while fulfilling this responsibility he contributed to the Canadian Baptist. He was also for almost seven years the editorial writer for the Week, a periodical founded by Goldwin Smith*. Wells resigned from his other duties in 1889 to succeed Ebenezer William Dadson as editor of the Canadian Baptist, which he guided until his death in 1898.

Wells has not received much recognition for his contribution to the development of the Social Gospel, but he was an important figure in the early reform movements. Both as writer and as editor, he was an outspoken champion of women’s rights, trade unions, and issues and programs which dealt with prison reform, voluntarism, native rights, the poor, children, immigrants, and political reform. Wells did not hesitate to attack prominent Baptists such as John Davison Rockefeller or philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, denouncing their exploitation of the working class.

Although Wells may not have originated the ideas of the Social Gospel, he did much to promote and sustain it at a crucial period in its development. In 1897 McMaster University recognized his contribution to Canadian society by conferring upon him an honorary lld. His death the following year removed an active spokesman of Canadian reformism who advanced the cause through his influence on those who carried out the reforms he espoused.

Ann Devries

Editorials written by James Edward Wells appeared in the Canadian Baptist (Toronto), 1889–98; an address, “The work and products of McMaster University,” was published in McMaster Univ. Monthly (Toronto), 4 (1894–95): 198–206.

Canadian Baptist Arch., McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ont.), Woodstock College records. NA, RG 31, C1, 1851, Harvey Parish, N. B. M. S. Clark, “James Edward Wells,” McMaster Univ. Monthly, 4: 193–97. Canadian Baptist, 14 July 1892, 4 March 1897, 6 Oct. 1898. Baptists in Canada: search for identity amidst diversity, ed. J. K. Zeman (Burlington, Ont., 1980). Celebrating the Canadian Baptist heritage: three hundred years of God’s providence, ed. P. R. Dekar and M. J. S. Ford (Hamilton, Ont., [1985]).

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Cite This Article

Ann Devries, “WELLS, JAMES EDWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wells_james_edward_12E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wells_james_edward_12E.html
Author of Article:   Ann Devries
Title of Article:   WELLS, JAMES EDWARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   September 28, 2023