PRINGLE, WILLIAM ALLEN, teacher, farmer, apiarist, free thinker, and pamphleteer; b. 1 April 1841 in Richmond Township, Upper Canada, second son of Lockwood Pringle and Sarah McNeill (McNeal); m. first 1869 Grace Agnes Pratt (d. 1872); m. secondly 2 July 1873 Emma Grace McLeod, and they had one daughter, Grace; d. 22 July 1896 in Selby, Ont.
William Allen Pringle, known throughout his life as Allen, came from a prominent family whose loyalist forebears had served in the King’s Rangers before settling in the Cataraqui (Kingston) area of Upper Canada. Allen’s father, like many of his ancestors, combined farming with religious work, serving as a licensed Methodist preacher in the Selby area in the 1860s. The Pringles were deeply interested in education and Allen attended common school until the age of 15 when he qualified as a teacher, a profession he practised for five years. According to family tradition, in the mid 1860s he travelled to Hamilton where he began the study of medicine, though he never completed his training. It was in Hamilton that he met and married his first wife, and perhaps came into contact with the ideas and beliefs that led him far from his father’s Methodism and into the ranks of free thought, a movement which occupied his attention during much of his adult life.
In 1868, while still living in Hamilton, Pringle purchased some land on the eastern edge of Selby, but by 1871 he had taken over his father’s farm in Richmond Township on the western side of the village. He farmed that property for the next 25 years. Pringle’s agricultural pursuits were varied, but he was especially known as a beekeeper. As early as 1871 he was active in the Richmond Farmers’ Club, of which he was secretary, and he later helped found the Bee-Keepers’ Association of Ontario. In 1893 he acted as superintendent of the Ontario Apiarian Department at the Columbian exposition in Chicago.
In 1885, when David Allanson Jones* began publishing the Canadian Bee Journal in Beeton, Ont., Pringle became a frequent correspondent. There, and in other agricultural journals, he demonstrated his wide knowledge of practical bee-keeping, commenting on such matters as hives, swarming, frames, markets, queens, workers, and drones. Occasionally he used these articles to propagate his belief in the evolutionary hypothesis of Charles Darwin, “the greatest naturalist, living or dead – that the world has ever produced.” Both in his writings and as president of the Bee-Keepers’ Association of Ontario during two successive terms (1890 and 1891), Pringle campaigned vigorously and successfully for the passage of legislation to control the spread of foul-brood disease, which threatened Ontario apiaries. He was a polemicist by temperament and his writings often evoked sharp responses. When he advanced the common 19th-century opinion that “man has his sphere; woman has hers,” one Maud Morris retorted that this was the view of a “third class phrenologist.” For Pringle, apiculture and controversy went hand in hand; as he wrote, “Bee-keepers are almost all enthusiasts – proverbially so - and enthusiasm on almost any subject leads to ultraism of thought and speculation as a duck gravitates towards a pond.”
Pringle’s involvement in farm organizations and farmers’ politics intensified in the 1890s when the Patrons of Industry [see Caleb Alvord Mallory*] led many farmers into active politics. In the controversy over the proper role of farmers in politics, Pringle’s sympathies lay with those who had grown sceptical about the willingness of either Liberals or Conservatives to represent faithfully the interests of agriculture. Farmers, he argued, should vote for farmers and, though he was not a card-carrying member of the Patrons, he defended them against critics who contended that farmers had no need for direct representation. “Whatever mistakes the Patrons may have made,” Pringle wrote in the Napanee Express on 1 March 1895, “and whatever mistakes some of their writers and exponents are making . . . their platform is, on the whole, a very good one; and their objects in seeking relief from oppression and corrupt government are also good.” His was the rhetoric of late-19th-century agrarian and urban radicalism for he defined the enemy as “the monopolies, the combines, the boodlers, the protectionists.” During the federal election campaign in 1896 those views led him to urge the electors of Lennox to reject Sir Charles Tupper* and the Conservatives in favour of the Patron-Liberal candidate, Edmund Switzer. “You know that I am not a politician or a wire puller,” he insisted. “You know I have never sought office – that I have no axe to grind – that I have no special personal interests to mislead you – that my interest as a producer, a worker, a citizen, are your interests.” Since he died before the votes were cast he did not witness the collapse of the Patrons’ political effort, nor did he have an opportunity to celebrate the victory of Wilfrid Laurier*’s Liberals.
Support for the Patrons’ political movement was a logical enough conclusion to Pringle’s career, for his entire life had been characterized by support for unconventional and even radical ideas. But his nonconformity related much more to religious than to political questions. He was something of a village philosopher who for nearly two decades, beginning in the 1870s, played a leading role in disseminating the ideas of the free-thought movement. He played the role with zest, pugnacity, and a very considerable intellectual acumen. Pringle, wrote radical Toronto journalist Thomas Phillips Thompson* in 1875, was “a farmer by vocation who has rather the appearance of a professional or a businessman. He is a tall, straight, handsome man . . . of fine presence and intellectual aspect. His manner is frank and open.”
The origins and activities of the free-thought movement in Canada are difficult to trace in detail. What is clear is that English Canadians, like their British and American contemporaries, were influenced and disturbed by the new scientific ideas of Charles Darwin and the re-evaluation of biblical authority resulting from the higher criticism. “Regarding the vexed question of the origin of man upon this earth,” Allen Pringle wrote in the Napanee Express in 1877, “there is the scientific solution of the matter, and the theological account, two theories as wide apart as possible.” That statement defined the controversy, and many of those who inclined to “the scientific solution” moved towards various forms of religious heterodoxy – spiritualism, theosophy, liberal Christianity, and secular humanism among them. Free thought or secularism was one important response to what is usually called the “Victorian crisis of faith.”
One of the earliest organized secular groups was the Toronto Free Thought Association, founded in 1873, which formed the nucleus of the Canadian Secular Union established four years later to bring together secularists from various parts of the country. Among the association’s first members were labour reformers, such as Alfred F. Jury* and T. P. Thompson in Toronto, and Robert Chamblet Adams, the leader of the Pioneer Free Thought Club in Montreal. In 1888 the magazine Secular Thought appeared in Toronto under the editorship of the recently arrived Charles Watts, who had previously been associated with the notorious English agnostic Charles Bradlaugh. When Watts returned to England in 1891 he was succeeded by James Spencer Ellis, a Toronto printer and publisher, who remained in the editor’s chair until the publication disappeared just before World War I. Like many other organizations in late-19th-century English Canada – mechanics’ institutes, temperance societies, single tax and Bellamyite clubs – the secular societies were both educational and agitational. Regular meetings provided both intellectual and social fare for plebeians in search of self-improvement and, perhaps, self-advertisement. Rarely were members of these groups recognizable representatives of the educated social élites of the time. Indeed the radicalism, religious and political, of many of these organizations was directed against those very élites, whether in the churches and the universities or in such movements as the Imperial Federation League.
The free-thought movement, as its name implies, was composed of people who believed that science had disproven the claims of religion and that reason alone could both explain life and devise the means to improve society. The most immediate practical consequence of that belief was the demand that church and state be kept utterly separate and that civil life be guided by secular principles. And those principles could be summed up in a humanism that viewed all religions as equal – even equally false – in their supernatural claims. The ethical codes that most religions shared were to be retained but justified on a scientific rather than a supernatural basis. Salvation was something to be attained in this life, not after death, something to be achieved by works, not faith. “The pithy creed of rationalism,” composed by R. C. Adams, neatly summed up the secularist faith:
Jehovah ranks with Jupiter;
The Bible’s Hebrew literature;
Confucius, Jesus, both were men;
A future lies beyond our ken.
A miracle do not expect;
Seek nature’s cause for each effect.
From man have come all gods and creeds;
Your only saviour is your deeds.
Allen Pringle was in many ways typical of the autodidacts who formed the core of the secularist movement. Nor was the fact that his centre of activity was a small town all that unusual. Free thought groups were scattered through southern Ontario and Quebec and found supporters in towns as well as cities. The secularist doctrines, like those of other groups, were spread by newspapers, public debates, camp meetings, and other Chautauqua-like events which provided education and entertainment. The public debate that first gave Pringle prominence illustrates both the secularist doctrine and the manner in which it was propagated.
In the autumn of 1874 Pringle and some associates invited the noted American free-thought lecturer Benjamin Franklin Underwood to deliver a series of talks in the Napanee town hall. Underwood agreed, but when the titles of his presentations were announced – “Evolution versus Creation,” among others – intense pressure was brought to bear on the town council to withdraw its permission for the use of the hall. The pressure was successful and Pringle was told he would have to find another meeting-place. This was done and Underwood spoke to a large and apparently enthusiastic audience.
But Pringle was not prepared to leave matters there for he believed, not surprisingly, that in breaking the contract for the use of the town hall the Napanee council had also infringed upon his and other citizens’ civil liberties. Consequently he brought a suit against the council charging breach of contract. The case proved both costly and disappointing. When the Ontario Court of Queen’s Bench finally issued its judgement in 1878, the worst fears of the secularists were confirmed. The judgement claimed that no breach of contract had occurred since Pringle’s group had intended to use the hall for unlawful purposes, namely, to attack Christianity, which was part of the laws of Canada. Since Underwood was able to make his speech elsewhere, the judge contended, free speech had not been denied. That decision only convinced Pringle of the need to intensify the fight for a secular polity.
Indeed he had not waited for the court’s decision before continuing his campaign. In July 1875 Underwood returned to Napanee, this time to engage in debate on four successive nights with the Reverend John Marples, a Presbyterian clergyman from Bracebridge, Ont. Once again the hall was packed with partisans of each cause as Darwinism and design, reason and revelation, the humanity and divinity of Jesus were disputed. Though the clerical case won the greatest applause, the rationalists were certainly not humbled.
From Napanee the joust moved on to Toronto, where, in October, Underwood and Marples had a rematch. Again the audiences were large and vocal, this time presided over by an array of liberal-leaning clergymen including the Reverend Daniel James Macdonnell, who was soon to be embroiled in heresy charges concerning his views on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Underwood’s successful visit was followed by other events. The most highly publicized was the 1880 tour of Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll, undoubtedly the oratorical and dramatic star of the American free-thought movement in the 19th century. His appearance in Toronto, where he lectured to packed halls on his standard subjects – “The Gods,” “Mistakes of Moses,” and “Why I am an Agnostic” – was met by organized opposition. According to Pringle, “pious Evangelists” lined the streets leading to the Grand Opera House where Ingersoll was to appear, distributing a “propagandist gospel-manifesto” entitled “A warning against the fallacies of Ingersoll.” Roman Catholic archbishop John Joseph Lynch* forbad members of his church to attend free-thought meetings, and even enlisted the aid of the Toronto police force in an effort to track down anyone who disobeyed. As Goldwin Smith* remarked in his Bystander, “In these times the position of the clergy is a most trying one.” From Toronto, Colonel Ingersoll moved on to Montreal, Ottawa, Belleville, and Napanee, where he was undoubtedly warmly welcomed by the town’s leading beekeeper, Allen Pringle.
Pringle was infuriated, and probably also delighted, by the clerical attack on Ingersoll. He now set about composing a lengthy rejoinder, published under the title Ingersoll in Canada, in which he revealed his skill as a polemicist and his wide-ranging familiarity with rationalist writing, theological argument, and popular science. His message was simple and direct: Darwinian science had undermined traditional theological teachings and that left Christianity bereft of any convincing claim to truth. “Take away from it this obsolete theology,” he insisted, “and there is nothing left of Christianity worth speaking of; for the morality Christianity contains does not of right belong to it. It is Pagan. . . . There is not a single moral precept in the Bible, but was taught before that book was written.” Here Pringle believed he had not only squelched traditional biblical Christians but had also outflanked those modernists who had begun to argue that ethics, not theology, was the essence of Christianity.
When the Methodist Christian Guardian denounced Pringle’s defence of Ingersoll, and then refused to print a rebuttal, Pringle fired another blast entitled “Design” in nature. This time he took aim at the Paleyite argument that God’s existence could be inferred from the evidence of purpose in nature. Not so, asserted the Selby Darwinian: “From the lowest organism – the Monera, which are mere protoplasmic specks of mucus or slime – up to man, the ascent is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, thus excluding at once and forever the idea of special creation or design.” Scientific naturalism, in Pringle’s opinion, had swept away supernaturalism in all of its forms.
Those pamphlets demonstrated Pringle’s zeal for the secularist cause and his love of intellectual combat, combat which he preferred to conduct in print for he was not an effective platform performer. Moreover, these works established him as one of the leaders of the free-thought movement in Canada. In 1882 he displayed an astonishing knowledge of British political and religious controversy in The “Mail’s” theology, a defence of Bradlaugh against an attack in a Toronto newspaper. Nine years later he argued forcefully for the exclusion of religious teaching from the public schools in Bibles and religions out versus in the public schools. Finally in 1894, in True religion versus creeds and dogmas, he set out his claim that the world was evolving towards the acceptance of a humanistic creed that superseded all religious dogma. As he wrote there, after returning from the Chicago world fair in 1893 where he had doubtless observed both the Parliament of Religions and its competitor, the Congress of Evolution, people would soon practise “the religion of deeds instead of subscribing to creeds.” In 1896 Pringle’s contribution to the free-thought cause was recognized by his election to the presidency of the Canadian Secular Union. He held the office only briefly for he died of pneumonia in July.
After a lifetime of controversy it was perhaps appropriate that even Pringle’s death was marked by dissension. According to the Napanee Beaver, the funeral oration, delivered by J. S. Ellis of Secular Thought, was followed by a rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” sung by the Anglican church choir. That moved the Reverend Arthur Jarvis, rector of St Margaret’s Church, publicly and forcefully to deny that his church choir had sung at the obsequies of “a professed agnostic.” Whether he had reverted to the slime or ascended to some rationalist paradise Allen Pringle would surely have been pleased that his death, like his life, had caused a scandal in Canadian Christendom.
William Allen Pringle is the author of Ingersoll in Canada: a reply to Wendling, Archbishop Lynch, “Bystander,” and others (Toronto, 1880; 2nd ed., 1880); “Design” in nature: replies to the “Christian Guardian” and “Christian Advocate” (Toronto, 1881); The “Mail’s” theology: being a reply to the Saturday sermons of the Toronto “Mail,” including a vindication of Chas. Bradlaugh, M.P., against the “Mail’s” aspersions (Napanee, Ont., 1882); and Bibles and religions out versus in the public schools (Toronto, 1891). A debate in which he was involved was published under the title True religion versus creeds and dogmas; a discussion between two clergymen, a layman and Allen Pringle (Toronto, 1894), and “The inauguration of Free Thought lectures in Canada in 1874” appeared posthumously in Secular Thought (Toronto), 34 (1908): 33–36.
NA, MG 29, D61. Canadian Bee Journal (Beeton, Ont., etc.), 3 Feb. 1886; 8 Feb. 1888; 1, 15 June 1892. Pringle v. Town of Napanee, Upper Canada Queen’s Bench Reports (Toronto), 43 (1878): 285–306. Christian Guardian, 14 April 1880, 16 March 1881. Evening Telegram (Toronto), 16 April 1880. Napanee Beaver, 22 March 1895; 31 July, 14 Aug. 1896. Napanee Express, 9 Nov. 1877; 1 March 1895; 22 May, 19 June 1896. National (Toronto), 19 Nov. 1874; 15, 22, 25, 29 July, 7 Oct. 1875. Toronto Daily Mail, 18 March 1881. Week, 18, 25 Dec. 1884. R. C. Adams, Pioneer pith; the gist of lectures on rationalism (New York, 1889). Cook, Regenerators. S. P. Putnam, 400 years of freethought (New York, 1894).
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Cite This Article
Ramsay Cook, “PRINGLE, WILLIAM ALLEN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pringle_william_allen_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:
|Author of Article:||Ramsay Cook|
|Title of Article:||PRINGLE, WILLIAM ALLEN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||May 29, 2023|