DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

McVICAR, KATE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

BOMPAS, WILLIAM CARPENTER, Church of England clergyman, bishop, and missionary; b. 20 Jan. 1834 in London, England, son of Charles Carpenter Bompas, a sergeant at law, and Mary Steele Tomkins; m. 7 May 1874 Charlotte Selina Cox*; they had no children; d. 9 June 1906 in Carcross, Yukon.

William Carpenter Bompas was born at Regent’s Park, London, to a Baptist family. His father died when William was only ten, leaving eight children. Probably of necessity, William was educated privately. He was reputed to have been a quiet child who preferred sketching and gardening to more active pursuits. At the age of 16 he was baptized and two years later he joined his brother George Cox Bompas in a London solicitors’ firm: A legal career was not to be, however. In 1858 Bompas suffered some sort of breakdown and spiritual crisis; he left legal work and in 1859 was confirmed in the Church of England. Later that year, on 18 December, he was ordained deacon. Appointed to the curacy of Sutton-in-the-Marsh, Lincolnshire, he served there until 1862. Brief appointments followed to other curacies, in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.

Sometime during this period Bompas developed an interest in mission work in the Far East and made enquiries of the Church Missionary Society. For whatever reason, the response was unenthusiastic, a reaction his biographer Hiram Alfred Cody* ascribed to the fact that he was considered “rather too old to grapple with the difficulties of the Eastern languages.” Then in May 1865 Bompas heard a sermon preached in London by David Anderson*, formerly bishop of Rupert’s Land, in which Anderson called for a volunteer to replace the ailing missionary Robert McDonald in the Yukon district of the CMS’s North West America mission. In a whirlwind of events Bompas applied, was accepted by the CMS, and on 25 June was ordained priest by Anderson’s successor, Bishop Robert Machray.

Five days later Bompas set off for his new post on what was to become the first of his legendary journeys. Determined to waste no time, he did not make the normal arrangements to travel north with the Hudson’s Bay Company boat brigade, but trusted to local opportunity and lucky timing. At the Red River settlement in early August he obtained a ride with several boats to a point part way down Lake Winnipeg, where he was picked up by a passing HBC boat. A fellow missionary recorded his arrival at The Pas in some amazement: “He is a most zealous fellow, for he has come on without his luggage, and without the necessary clothing to defend him from the cold.” Ignoring advice about the advancing season, Bompas hired a canoe and Métis guides until freeze-up, and then proceeded on snowshoe into the Mackenzie district. Rather to the astonishment of William West Kirkby, the CMS missionary at Fort Simpson (N.W.T.), Bompas strode cheerfully into the post, completely unannounced, on Christmas Day, 1865.

Meanwhile Robert McDonald had recovered and a replacement was no longer required for the Yukon. Instead Bompas was instructed to serve as a travelling preacher; he was to visit the major HBC posts in the Athabasca and Mackenzie districts and take the opportunity of learning some of the northern languages. After three years he finally had the chance to go to Fort Youcon (Fort Yukon), Alas., from which point he also undertook a number of mission visits to the Inuit of the Mackenzie delta. Then in the early summer of 1873 he learned that the CMS had decided to divide the enormous diocese of Rupert’s Land and create the diocese of Athabasca in the northwest; he had been nominated first bishop of the new jurisdiction.

Bompas was not pleased at the prospect. As a dedicated evangelical he was uncomfortable with “crosses and postures” and anything but the simplest form of church ceremony, seeing bishoprics as a “Romanish” institution. Thus he travelled to England apparently resolved to turn down the post. His fellow clergy convinced him that diocesan organization was necessary to put the North West America mission on a sounder footing, given the growing strength of the Roman Catholic mission in the west [see Vital-Justin Grandin], and on 3 May 1874 Bompas was consecrated bishop of Athabasca at St Mary’s Church in London. He married his cousin Charlotte Selina Cox four days later and returned almost immediately to Fort Simpson.

The new diocese covered a vast area. Although Bompas enjoyed the support of an increasing number of clergy and their wives, finances were a continuing problem and the missionaries lived and travelled under less than comfortable circumstances. There were also tensions over the nature of the work. In the early years Bompas’s evangelicalism led him to emphasize personal conversions and preaching the gospel to the “heathen” rather than establishing schools, hospitals, and other social services or attempting to induce broad cultural change among the native people. Then in 1877 the CMS asked Bompas to mediate in a dispute between Bishop George Hills* and missionary William Duncan* at Metlakatla, B.C. After a visit to Duncan’s model community Bompas became convinced that preaching alone was not enough and that the work of God must also be spread by the example of its “fruits.” He devised a plan for the establishment of model farms at Fort Dunvegan (Dunvegan) and Fort Vermilion in the Peace River district. With funds from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and from Canadian Anglicans, mission workers George Garrioch and E. J. Lawrence undertook the new endeavour. The Irene Training School at Fort Vermilion, the first Anglican industrial school in the north, enrolled one pupil in July 1880; five more arrived later in the year.

Meanwhile Bompas continued to travel throughout the north, but he was finding the demands tremendous on both his health and that of his wife, who had been forced periodically to leave for medical treatment and rest. The provincial synod of Rupert’s Land agreed in 1883 to a proposal to divide the diocese, and in 1884 Bompas became bishop of the northern part, the new diocese of Mackenzie River. The latter was in turn divided in 1891, when Bompas became bishop of Selkirk (now Yukon). His headquarters would be at Forty Mile on the Yukon River.

Even as bishop, Bompas continued to serve as an active missionary, preaching, baptizing, teaching young and old to read, and travelling extensively. He became an advocate of what he perceived as the best interests of the native people in the presence of increasing outside involvement in the north through such activities as the American whaling off Herschel Island and the Klondike gold-rush. As a regular correspondent of John Christian Schultz* and other politicians, he promoted an awareness of the north in the face of considerable Canadian apathy. He also devoted many hours to studying northern languages, and was the author of numerous translations of hymns, prayers, and scripture into Slavey, Beaver, and Tukudh (Eastern Kutchin or Loucheux), although he did not use the syllabic writing system, originally devised by James Evans*, which he strongly opposed on the grounds that it could not adequately reproduce subtleties of meaning. His reports to the CMS and two of his books became known widely in Anglican church circles, and he himself became something of a saintly hero for several generations in both England and Canada. Dedicated to his work almost to the point of obsession, he reported his recreations to the 1903 Who’s who (London) as “Syriac studies or school keeping.” He left the north only once after his consecration, on the occasion of a meeting in Winnipeg of the provincial house of bishops in 1904. A large mission rally was held in his honour.

Many non-Anglicans found Bompas a difficult and eccentric man. A puzzled Father Émile-Jean-Baptiste-Marie Grouard called him a “mystery.” “If he is quite sincere,” recorded the Oblate priest, “he is almost a saint. If not, he is truly a devil.” Northern native people did not respond enthusiastically to Bompas either. The Anglican mission never succeeded in attracting many converts, except among the Loucheux where Robert McDonald worked. While the reasons for this rejection are varied and complex, Bompas’s lack of respect for indigenous culture and his rigid expectations of potential converts were doubtless among the problems. The CMS’s policy of enlisting native people as quickly as possible to help in evangelization was unacceptable to him. He maintained that “the want of intelligence & civilization” among them was “such that the improvement must come from without.” As a result, no native clergy were recruited or ordained during his tenure as bishop. Bompas himself recognized that his mission had “but indifferent success.” He laid the blame on the Indians, whom he saw as “careless and weak in character,” and on the Roman Catholic missions in his diocese. “The District is a hot bed of Popery,” he lamented. “There is no government authority to hold them in check.”

In later years Bompas became increasingly absorbed in his biblical translation work, scarcely caring for personal appearances or social conventions. He alienated many white residents of Dawson, the capital of the Yukon from 1898, and did little to encourage contact between his diocese and the Church of England in Canada, which he found lacking in commitment to evangelical principles. He remained firmly convinced of the rightness of his position on religious issues, explaining to the CMS in 1897 that “between the High and the Broad, I must needs myself be deemed exceedingly narrow.”

On 31 Oct. 1905 Bompas resigned as bishop of Selkirk, but he continued to reside in Carcross, where his headquarters had been since 1901. When he died and was buried there in 1906, newspaper reports described him as “a fine scholar” and “a linguist of great talent” who “was one of the great heroes of the Christian Church” and who should be “ranked with St. Paul, St. Peter and St. Augustine.” Although he is virtually unknown to a younger generation, in the Victorian era Bishop Bompas was presented to Anglicans as the missionary whose life of privation, selfless devotion, and superhuman physical endurance in the “comfortless frozen north” was a model for all Christians.

Kerry Abel

William Carpenter Bompas’s translations of religious works into native languages are listed in Canadiana, 1867–1900 and the National union catalog. His publications also include Diocese of Mackenzie River (London, 1888), Northern lights on the Bible: drawn from a bishop’s experiences during twenty-five years in the great northwest (London, [1893]), and The symmetry of Scripture (New York, 1896; copy in ACC, General Synod Arch., Toronto).

Arch. Deschâtelets, Oblats de Marie-Immaculée (Ottawa), HPF 4191.C75R, no.127 (Grouard à Sœur Marie-Colombe, 4 déc. 1865). NA, MG 17, B2, C, C.1/I; C.1/L; C.1/O; C.2/O; G, C.1/I; C.1/L; C.1/O; C.2/O (mfm.). PAM, MG 12, E; HBCA, E.78/1–2. Provincial Arch. of Alberta (Edmonton), ACC, Diocese of Athabasca records, A.210; A.220; A.245; A.270–72; A.281; Diocese of Mackenzie River records, esp. MR.170–71; MR.181; MR.260, item 23. QUA, L. A. Pierce papers, B.005, F003. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 12 June 1906: 15–16. Montreal Daily Star, 11 June 1906: 14. News (Toronto), 11 June 1906: 1.

K. M. Abel, “Bishop Bompas and the Canadian church,” The Anglican Church and the world of western Canada, 1820–1970, ed. Barry Ferguson (Regina, 1991), 113–25; “The drum and the cross: an ethnohistorical study of mission work among the Dene, 1858–1902” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont., 1985); “‘Matters are growing worse’: government and the Mackenzie missions, 1870–1921,” For purposes of dominion: essays in honour of Morris Zaslow, ed. K. S. Coates and W. R. Morrison (North York [Toronto], 1989), 73–85. Arctic News ([Toronto]), spring 1959; reissued as Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Offprint (Toronto), no.16 (September 1959). T. C. B. Boon, The Anglican Church from the Bay to the Rockies: a history of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land and its dioceses from 1820 to 1950 (Toronto, 1962). Charles Camsell, Son of the north (Toronto, 1954). J.-É. Champagne, Les missions catholiques dans l’Ouest canadien (1818–1875) (Ottawa, 1949). Church Missionary Record (London), new ser., 10 (1866): 291–92. Church Missionary Soc., Missions of the Church Missionary Society: the north west Canada missions (2nd ed., London, 1910); Register of missionaries (clerical, lay, & female), and native clergy, from 1804 to 1904 ([London?, 1905?]). K. [S.] Coates, “Send only those who rise a peg: Anglican clergy in the Yukon, 1858–1932,” Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Toronto), 28 (1986): 3–18. K. S. Coates and W. R. Morrison, “More than a matter of blood: the federal government, the churches and the mixed blood populations of the Yukon and the Mackenzie River valley, 1890–1950,” 1885 and after: native society in transition, ed. F. L. Barron and J. B. Waldram (Regina, 1986), 253–77. H. A. Cody, An apostle of the north: memoirs of the Right Reverend William Carpenter Bompas . . . (Toronto and London, 1908). C. S. [Cox] Bompas, A heroine of the north; memoirs of Charlotte Selina Bompas (1830–1917), wife of the first bishop of Selkirk (Yukon), with extracts from her journals and letters, comp. S. A. Archer (London, [1929]). DNB. A. C. Garrioch, A hatchet mark in duplicate (Toronto, 1929). J. W. Grant, Moon of wintertime: missionaries and the Indians of Canada in encounter since 1534 (Toronto, 1984). Emily Headland, Brief sketches of C.M.S. workers . . . (London, 1897). M. E. J[ohnson], Dayspring in the far west: sketches of mission work in north-west America (London, 1875). E. C. McCrum, A register of service: the centennial history of the Anglican diocese of Athabasca (Peace River, Alta, 1976). A.-G. Morice, History of the Catholic Church in western Canada from Lake Superior to the Pacific (1659–1895) (2v., Toronto, 1910). A. H. Sovereign, “In journeyings often: glimpses of the life of Bishop Bompas (Toronto, n.d.). Eugene Stock, The history of the Church Missionary Society, its environment, its men and its work (4v., London, 1899–1916), 2. Jean Usher, “Apostles and aborigines: the social theory of the Church Missionary Society,” SH, no.7 (April 1971): 28–52; William Duncan of Metlakatla: a Victorian missionary in British Columbia (Ottawa, 1974).

At least two biographies of Bompas were written for children: N. B. M. Grahame, Bishop Bompas of the frozen north . . . (London, 1925), and H. A. Cody, On trail and rapid by dog-sled and canoe . . . (Toronto, 1911). He also appears as the character Mr Charles Snow in Alfred Campbell Garrioch*’s novel The far and furry north: a story of life and love and travel in the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Winnipeg, 1925).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Kerry Abel, “BOMPAS, WILLIAM CARPENTER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bompas_william_carpenter_13E.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/bompas_william_carpenter_13E.html
Author of Article:   Kerry Abel
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   June 18, 2024