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RICHARDSON, JAMES, naval officer, office holder, Methodist minister, and bishop; b. 29 Jan. 1791 at Kingston, province of Quebec, son of James Richardson, a naval officer, and Sarah Ashmore, both from England; d. 9 March 1875 in Toronto, Ont.

James Richardson, who became a leading Methodist and a staunch Canadian, was born, appropriately, in the year of John Wesley’s death and of Upper Canada’s formation. He was educated in the Kingston schools, and in 1809 entered the Provincial Marine, receiving a lieutenant’s commission in 1812. He served with distinction during the War of 1812–14, losing his left arm in 1814 at the battle of Oswego. In 1813 he had married Rebecca, daughter of John Dennis, a York (Toronto) loyalist; two children survived him.

A veteran and an Anglican, Richardson was appointed after the war as a magistrate and collector of customs at Presqu’ile. He might well have remained there, an honoured citizen and a useful functionary, but along with many others he was swept up in the post-war resurgence of Upper Canadian Methodism. He was converted at a quarterly meeting held in Haldimand Township in 1818: “God shone into my heart and I saw light in his light, ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free.’” He concluded at once: “This people shall be my people, and their God my God,” a conviction from which he never wavered throughout his life, and one which led him quickly into a new and difficult career.

The Methodist leaders, always alert to recruit men of character and education for lay and ministerial office, pressed Richardson to become a local preacher in the conference year of 1822–23 and in 1825 he was taken on trial for the itinerant ministry. Without hesitation he gave up his appointments and his comfortable life to minister in company with Egerton Ryerson* to his first circuit, that of Yonge Street and York (Toronto), stretching from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe. But he was not destined to continue long in this humble role. Well before his ordination in 1830 he had emerged as an important figure in a religious community that had reached a critical stage in its development.

In the late 1820s and early 1830s Canadian Methodists, who began as a part of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, were obliged to reshape their relationship with their British and American brethren, and to play an active part in the political controversies besetting Upper Canada. Although Richardson believed, and evidently continued to believe, that the episcopal polity of American Methodism was the nearest to Wesley’s design, he agitated vigorously for the establishment of an autonomous Canadian conference in 1824. He also seems to have supported the move to independence in 1828 when the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada was formed. Conversely, he was reluctant, along with many of his colleagues, to accept the union with the British conference in 1833 because it would break the continuity between American and Canadian Methodism, and, more significantly, because he anticipated that the Tory proclivities of the Wesleyans would undermine the Canadian conference’s political credibility.

Richardson’s attitude toward the position of his church in society was probably not untypical among native Canadian Methodists. A fervent patriot – ready to enlist against the Fenians in 1866 – who did not wish to weaken the British connection, he was nevertheless convinced that Canadians should settle their own problems in their own ways. An evangelical Christian, his primary concern was not the pursuit of ecclesiastical or political goals but the salvation of souls, an end which he believed could best be achieved through the complete separation of church and state and the full acceptance of the voluntarist position. As editor of the Christian Guardian he upheld this view; he would later also welcome the secularization of the clergy reserves and oppose the commutation clause in the act of 1854 by which the Wesleyan Methodist Church, along with others, was paid a lump sum in return for surrendering its claims on the reserves fund.

Richardson became the editor of the Methodists’ Christian Guardian for 1832–33, but declined re-election as editor in 1834. He continued to hold other important offices in the conference between 1833 and his resignation from the conference in 1836, and he was a member of the committee which drafted plans for and initiated the building of the Upper Canada Academy (later Victoria University). In the interval, however, the conference had restricted the privileges of the local preachers, a group for whom Richardson felt much concern and sympathy. Moreover, at the behest of their Wesleyan associates, it had begun, in sharp contrast to its previous course, to curry favour with the local government and to equivocate on the vexed question of public grants to religious bodies. This change of front, coupled with the realization that the parent Wesleyan conference had accepted such assistance, exposed the Canadian conference to much abuse from the Reform press and politicians. Richardson and others who were convinced that their church should adhere to the voluntarist position and at least maintain political neutrality were humiliated by this course of action. His determination to put integrity above denominational unity produced increasingly strained relations between him and such senior colleagues as John and Egerton Ryerson and Ephraim Evans*. Hence by 1836 he no longer felt at home in the conference and decided to leave quietly. He was already so alienated by 1835 that he refused to contribute to the funds of the Upper Canada Academy.

In the year following his resignation Richardson apparently considered a career in American Methodism and to that end he held a temporary pastorate in Auburn, N.Y. Upon his return to Upper Canada he became a minister in the newly constituted Methodist Episcopal Church (the earlier church of this name having become the Wesleyan Methodist Church), the haven of those who for various reasons refused to accept the 1833 union. From 1840 to 1852, however, he was chiefly employed as agent of the Upper Canada Bible Society. It was not until 1858 that he was ordained a bishop to assist his aged friend, Bishop Philander Smith*. Despite growing infirmity he retained this office until his death; one of his last acts was to ordain Albert Carman* as his assistant and eventual successor.

Bishop Richardson presided over an important branch of Canadian Methodism at a significant point in its evolution, and thus helped to determine the shape of such influence as Methodism had on the broader growth of his country. In 1867 the Methodist Episcopal Church was the second largest Methodist body, but it was essentially confined to Ontario. It was if anything more evangelical than the larger Wesleyan denomination, strongly anti-liturgical, and possibly less sophisticated generally. It continued to oppose state support for religious enterprises and in particular separate schools. Despite its episcopal polity, the line between Methodist Episcopal laymen and clergy was drawn as imprecisely as in the earlier days of Methodism. Above all, the Episcopal Methodists considered themselves the Canadian Methodists as indeed they were in background and outlook in so far as Ontario was concerned.

Richardson’s principal contribution was to maintain the distinctive features of Methodist Episcopal organization and teaching, and at the same time to encourage those in his church whose interest was the constructive dissemination of their views rather than destructive opposition to the dominant Wesleyan Conference. Thus, by 1875, the two churches were growing together, as was symbolized by the holding of a memorial service for the bishop in the Wesleyans’ Metropolitan Church in Toronto. Bishop Carman, whose orientation was akin to his predecessor’s, would bring about formal union in 1884 and in so doing would infuse the new Methodist Church with many of the values cherished by his brethren.

In his church and in the community, James Richardson was held in high esteem as a humble, kindly, and saintly individual whose life was “manly and devoid of display.” He impressed on his countrymen that distinctive mixture of religious, moral, and patriotic values cherished by so many native Canadian Methodists. Neither a great scholar nor a great preacher, he had nonetheless the gift of “plain yet forcible and majestic speech.” He detested “sham everywhere” and “could not for a moment bear it in religion.” To Carman, “If James Richardson was a man of God, he was also a man for the world,” an “advocate and defender of the rights of man.” “Liberty of conscience and liberty of worship were cardinal doctrines of his religious and political faith,” as was concern for the moral character of society. Hence he promoted the work of the Bible Society, and vigorously supported the Temperance Reformation Society. As president of the York Pioneer Society he helped to arouse interest in the historical development of that Upper Canada whose life was almost coterminous with his own.

G. S. French

[There is no collection, unfortunately, of James Richardson papers. For his letters and statements one must look to the Christian Guardian (York) in the year of his editorship, 1832–33, and to the Canada Christian Advocate (Hamilton, Ont.) in the period of his episcopate, 1858–75. Thomas Webster, Life of Rev. James Richardson, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada (Toronto, 1876), is naturally highly partisan, as is its introduction by Richardson’s successor, Albert Carman. As a corrective, one should consult John Carroll’s lengthy review in the Canadian Methodist Magazine (Toronto), IV (1876), 513–23.  g.s.f.]

James Richardson, Incidents in the early history of the settlements in the vicinity of Lake Ontario (n.p., n.d.). Canada Christian Advocate (Hamilton, Ont.), 17 March 1875. Globe (Toronto), 13 March 1875. The minutes of the annual conferences of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, from 1824 to 1857 (2v., Toronto, 1846–63), I. Dent, Canadian portrait gallery, III, 60–65. Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries. Anson Green, The life and times of the Rev. Anson Green, D. D. . . . (Toronto, 1877). Sissons, Ryerson.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

G. S. French, “RICHARDSON, JAMES (1791-1875),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 20, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/richardson_james_1791_1875_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/richardson_james_1791_1875_10E.html
Author of Article: G. S. French
Title of Article: RICHARDSON, JAMES (1791-1875)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: October 20, 2014