RYAN, HENRY, Methodist minister; b. 22 April 1775 in Massachusetts; m. 30 Nov. 1794 Huldah Laird (Lord), and they had at least three children; d. 2 Sept. 1833 in Gainsborough, near Grimsby, Upper Canada.
Henry Ryan presumably had an Irish background and he may have been originally a Roman Catholic. Evidently he had some education, and the fact that in later life he maintained a farm may indicate that he came from rural Massachusetts. The circumstances of his conversion and his decision to become a Methodist are not known. By the 1790s he was a local preacher and in 1800 he was received on trial by the New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. From 1800 to 1805 he served on circuits in Vermont and New York; he was received in full connection and ordained elder in 1804, and in 1805 was appointed with William Case* to the Bay of Quinte circuit in the Upper Canada District, which was then part of the New York Conference.
Ryan was the kind of man who in the small Upper Canadian community was bound to become legendary. According to a contemporary, “he was well nigh six feet in height, of large, symmetrical proportions, with prodigious muscular developments, and without doubt one of the strongest men of his age. . . . His voice excelled, for power and compass, all that I ever heard from human organs.” His energy, determination, and pugnacity were commensurate with his physical characteristics and doubtless account for the popular belief that he had been a boxer in his youth. He was a powerful preacher and would become a vigorous, albeit overbearing, administrator. Elijah Hedding, later a Methodist Episcopal bishop, described him in the first phase of his career as “a man of great love for the cause of Christ, and of great zeal in his work as a minister. He was a brave Irishman – a man who laboured as if the judgment thunders were to follow on each sermon.” His customary exhortation was “Drive on, brother! drive on! Drive the devil out of the country! Drive him into the lake and drown him!” For many years Ryan drove himself and his brethren fervently to bring converts into the Methodist fold and to extend the range of Methodist influence.
During his first five years in Upper Canada, Ryan served for two years on the Bay of Quinte circuit; in 1807 he was stationed on the Long Point circuit, and in 1808 and .1809 he was on the adjacent Niagara circuit, where he acquired a farm which became his home. In company with William Case and Nathan Bangs*, who would play important roles in the evolution of Canadian Methodism, he held the first camp meeting in Upper Canada in September 1805. This largely attended gathering on the shore of Hay Bay was characterized by intense religious excitement. At the Sunday morning love-feast “the power of the Spirit was manifested throughout the whole encampment and almost every tent was a scene of prayer.” Bangs recalled that the “parting scene” was “indescribable. The preachers . . . hung upon each other’s necks, weeping and yet rejoicing. . . . As the hosts marched off in different directions the songs of victory rolled along the highways. Great was the good that followed.” By such means, of which Ryan was an enthusiastic proponent, Methodism became firmly entrenched in the loyalist and post-loyalist settlements which extended from Cornwall to Detroit.
In 1810 the Genesee Conference, encompassing the districts in western New York and Upper Canada, was established. Ryan was appointed presiding elder of the Upper Canada District, which at that point reported a membership of 2,603; he was to remain a presiding elder, in different districts, until 1824. In that capacity he had to attend four quarterly meetings annually in each circuit in his district. To do so, he must have travelled about 4,000 miles each year. Since the quarterly meetings were “great religious festivals” as well as occasions for regulating the work, the presiding elder was expected in each case to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to foster the spirit of revival. At this time, says the Reverend John Saltkill Carroll*, Ryan was “the right man in the right place. He had zeal, enterprise, courage, system, industry, and that rough and ready kind of talent which was then more effective than any other. Moreover, he had authority by which to control others.” He knew “how to melt the people into tenderness, while he addressed them, with floods of tears. He was communicative and lively in private conversation.” He also had a strong feeling for the ludicrous aspects of daily life which endeared him to many. His religious commitment and his devotion to duty evidently earned for him the respect of the bishops as well as the people; hence his many years as a presiding elder.
The War of 1812 led to a serious disruption of the Methodist enterprise in the Canadas. Just prior to its outbreak Ryan was reappointed presiding elder of the Upper Canada District and Bangs became presiding elder of the Lower Canada District. However, Bangs and other American preachers did not venture across the border; others in the Canadas evidently gave up their circuits. Apparently, Ryan had become a British subject or was regarded as such; in any event, he demonstrated his commitment to the Methodist cause in the Canadas by accepting full responsibility for it throughout the years of war. His activities and the condition of the societies in Upper Canada during the conflict are not well documented. He seems to have convened annual meetings of the ministers and travelled throughout the district in his role as a presiding elder. He added to his modest income, and presumably demonstrated his political sympathies, by transporting stores by wagon or sleigh from Montreal to the western part of the colony. He and his colleagues were reunited with their American brethren at the 1815 session of the Genesee Conference. At that time Case became presiding elder of the Upper Canada District; Ryan was appointed to the Lower Canada District, which extended eastward from the vicinity of Prescott to Quebec, and was elected a delegate to the General Conference which was to meet in 1816.
The re-establishment of the jurisdiction of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada in 1815 and the subsequent growth of the societies, especially in Upper Canada, obscured significant changes in Canadian conditions which would have profound consequences for the future of Methodism and Ryan’s own career. Before the war, although most members of the governing élite were hostile to the United States, Upper Canada was in many respects a sector of the expanding American frontier. The colony emerged from the conflict, however, with a new sense of identity, of which a major component was a virulent suspicion of American ways and values. The flood of American settlers into Upper Canada did not resume; conversely, from 1815 onward the colony absorbed increasing numbers of immigrants from the United Kingdom. The diverse traditions and loyalties of these immigrants helped to create a climate of opinion which was pro-British and which did not differentiate between native Upper Canadians or those such as Ryan who had become committed to the colony, and those who were really identified politically and culturally with the United States.
As a religious body governed by and part of an American institution, and as one whose theology and practice were tainted by enthusiasm and promoted by allegedly uneducated and self-appointed agitators masquerading as ministers of the Gospel, the Methodist societies in the Canadas were bound to become suspect in a community whose leaders cultivated anti-American and conservative opinion. As it happened, however, the attack on Canadian Methodism would be initiated not by the local élite but by the British Wesleyan Conference. In 1814 the Wesleyan Missionary Committee, responding to complaints by Lower Canadian Methodists about the political attitudes of their American ministers, began a mission in the Canadas with the appointment of the Reverend John Bass Strong to Quebec. Strong apparently took over the Montreal society too, and in the following year the Genesee Conference’s appointee there was prevented from preaching in the chapel by the local leaders and Strong. In 1815 as well William Bennett*, superintendent of the missions in eastern British America, conducted an investigation of the religious condition of the Canadas.
Ryan visited Montreal as presiding elder in September 1815, having learned already that Bennett had toured the Ottawa circuit. Following a sharp confrontation with Richard Williams*, the newly arrived Wesleyan missionary, he was admitted to the Montreal chapel and recommended that the question of jurisdiction and responsibility be referred to the British and American conferences. His proposal fell on deaf ears: “The chapel,” he later wrote in a letter to the British conference, “sounded with outcrys from one and another I am a true Britton.” He continued: “If national lines are agoing to be the bounds of our feloship, the Upper Province will be wrested from us likewise.” But, he contended: “Who has ever proved any of us to be rebels? . . . Can it be proved that any of us has not been conscientious in praying for Kings and all that are in authority? . . . Therefore Manhood Religion Justice Mercy Truth and Every Thing that is sacred cals aloud for you to step forward in the real characters of men that fear God and call your Preachers immediately out of Canada.”
Beset with this strong advice and the equally firm counsel of Bennett and William Black of Nova Scotia that the Canadas should be supplied with Wesleyan missionaries, the committee urged Bishop Francis Asbury of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States to give up the stations in Lower Canada, where “the general habits and prejudices [of the people] are in favour of English preachers.” Black and Bennett were requested to attend the American General Conference in 1816 as representatives of the British conference. The General Conference, having heard the Wesleyan delegates and the views of Case and Ryan, concluded that it could not give up any of the societies in the Canadas “to the superintendence of the British Connexion.” Predictably, this decision was not accepted by the missionary committee; missionaries were now sent not only to Lower Canada but also to Kingston, Cornwall, Stamford (Niagara Falls), and York (Toronto), thereby engendering bitter rivalry between the American and British preachers and their respective adherents in which Ryan, reappointed as presiding elder in Upper Canada in 1816, played a leading part.
The British missionaries alleged, doubtless correctly, that many parts of Upper Canada were destitute of religious services and that there was in fact room for all. They contended as well that the Methodist Episcopal itinerants were religiously and politically unsuitable, and indeed a danger to the well-being of Upper Canada. The latter were “so ignorant, & enthusiastic as to render their discourses ridiculous in the ears of respectable and well informed People. Much of their religion consists in a great noise at the house of God, & then all is over till their next meeting.” Moreover, the preachers were disloyal as well as enthusiastic. Even William Case, a mild-mannered and apolitical minister, was said to be “a Bitter and Bold Enemy to this Government.”
Several of the circuits in the Canadas, undoubtedly with Ryan’s encouragement, prepared forceful protests to the committee. “Why,” asked the leaders of the Yonge Street and Ancaster circuits, “should we cast off our preachers that God has owned in the Salvation of our Souls and be to a vast expence in fetching over Preachers from England barely because they were Brittish born?” Some of the signatories to the petitions noted pointedly that they were militia officers or justices of the peace. When Ryan forwarded these documents to London, he emphasized that the British missionaries could not go anywhere in Upper Canada without interfering with the Canadian brethren. Later, at the request of the Niagara and Ancaster Quarterly Meeting conferences, he published a manifesto entitled To the Methodists in Upper Canada:-District. “It must be something very singular,” he wrote, “that has caused those men [the Wesleyan missionaries] to swarm out of England . . . and express by their practice, a desire to croud themselves upon the people in the Canadas, where a large majority of the Methodists are in pointed opposition to their procedure.” He asserted, “Some of them have been childish enough to threaten our Preachers with the displeasure of government. . . . I suppose they did not know that we have as good right here as they. Government has proved us, and that in a very trying time.” The Wesleyans, he believed, were not really accountable to the British Conference and were principally interested in preaching to the prosperous in settled areas. “If the missionaries deny what is here laid to their charge, proof will decide against them. Should any of them undertake to answer this by way of burlesque, I shall treat their arguments as they treat the people in the back settlements – pass them at a distance.”
The missionary committee did instruct its representatives in 1819 to avoid conflict and competition with their American brethren, but its words were not heeded. A year later, however, on the initiative of the General Conference in the United States, the British conference agreed to divide the work in the Canadas; the General Conference was to have responsibility for Upper Canada, and the British Conference for Lower Canada. The Wesleyan missionaries were warned pointedly that “our objects are purely Spiritual and our American brethren and ourselves are one body of Christians, sprung from a common stock, holding the same doctrines, enforcing the same discipline and striving in common to spread the light of true religion through the world.” This admirable injunction was met by robust protests from Wesleyan sympathizers in Upper Canada and, contrary to the understanding, Kingston was retained as a Wesleyan outpost in that colony.
Despite and perhaps because of the unsettling presence of the British missionaries, the Methodist cause gained strength in the post-war years. New itinerants were recruited and the 1817 meeting of the Genesee Conference in Elizabethtown (Brockville) sparked a widespread revival in Upper Canada. In 1816 there had been some 2,500 members in the two Canadas; by 1820 there were more than 5,000, an increase certainly attributable in part to the labours of Ryan and Case, the two presiding elders in that period. Numerical increase, the clash with the Wesleyans, the evident affinity between some prominent laymen in the eastern circuits and the British missionaries, and the strong commitment of men such as Ryan to Upper Canada contributed to the emergence of a significant proposal – that Upper Canada should become a separate conference. Behind this suggestion lay possibly the notion of an independent Canadian Methodism, which at the very least would help to overcome the widespread belief that the Methodists were a subversive group.
Ryan and Case were among the Genesee Conference delegates at the session of the General Conference held in Baltimore in May 1820. The General Conference concluded in response to petitions from Upper Canada that it would not be expedient for the present to establish a separate Canadian conference. The conference’s bishops were authorized, however, to take this step before 1824, provided it was acceptable to the Genesee Conference. The discipline was altered as well, to state that “all Christian ministers” are “subject to the supreme authority of the country where they may reside and [are] to use all laudable means to enjoin obedience to the powers that be.” In so doing, the conference undoubtedly hoped to weaken the Wesleyans’ allegations about the political allegiance of its ministers and societies.
This meeting also witnessed an intense debate over an issue that would have a marked bearing on Ryan’s role in Upper Canadian Methodism. The polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church entrusted legislative authority to the regional and general conferences, membership in which was entirely clerical; administrative authority was assigned to the episcopate, whose members were elected and set apart by the General Conference. The most visible and important aspect of the bishops’ role was their right to preside at the meetings of the regional annual conferences and in that setting to appoint presiding elders and to station the ministers on their circuits, decisions against which there was no appeal. Although the church was in this respect a clerical oligarchy, the laity were not without influence. The preaching of the itinerants was supplemented by the work of local preachers, exhorters, and class leaders; the first were often granted ordination, a change in status which did not involve the right to vote in a conference. In addition, presiding elders, travelling local preachers, exhorters, class leaders, and stewards participated regularly in quarterly meetings, which in practice had a measure of consultative authority.
Almost from the outset, however, the Methodist Episcopal Church experienced tension between the bishops and the travelling ministers and between the conferences and the lay members. By 1820, this tension had taken the form of a demand for the election of presiding elders by the regional conferences, which would broaden soon into an agitation for the election of lay members of the regional and general conferences. At the 1820 General Conference there was a vigorous debate between the ailing senior bishop, William McKendree, and the ministers on the subject of the elective eldership. McKendree lost the initial battle but subsequently persuaded a majority of the annual conferences not to approve this change. The General Conference of 1820 also approved the holding of district conferences of local preachers as a means of placating lay and local interests, and thus inadvertently provided a forum for wide-ranging discussion of the democratization of the Methodist Episcopal polity.
What part, if any, Ryan took in the debate at the 1820 General Conference is not known. He was appointed subsequently as presiding elder of the Lower Canada District, and in 1821, 1822, and 1823 of the Bay of Quinte District, which embraced the circuits from Port Hope to the Lower Canada border. In 1822 the Genesee Conference received a resolution, two of whose signatories were close associates of Ryan, urging the prompt establishment of a Canada conference. At its 1823 session the Genesee Conference, knowing that the issue of the elective presiding eldership would be debated at the General Conference in 1824, decided not to elect Case and Ryan, who were interested parties, as delegates to that body.
Although Bishop Enoch George, the presiding officer at the Genesee Conference of 1823, had demonstrated his confidence in Ryan by reappointing him as presiding elder of the Bay of Quinte District, Ryan, either out of pique or conviction, apparently decided to become the champion of Canadian Methodist independence. At the conclusion of the conference session in 1823 he called an informal meeting of his brethren at which he argued that the demand for an elective eldership would split the church and that the Canadian people would not approve it. Subsequently, he organized a so-called convention at Hallowell (Picton), in the heart of his district, at which a petition to the General Conference urging the establishment of an independent Canadian conference was approved. Ryan, Case, and David Breakenridge, an ultraconservative local preacher from the Prescott area, were appointed as unofficial delegates to the General Conference.
The General Conference met in Baltimore in May 1824. It did not entertain Ryan’s petition, because he had not been chosen properly and was accompanied by a layman. In the end, the conference rejected lay representation and thereby precipitated the establishment of the Methodist Protestant Church in the United States. To allay unrest in Upper Canada the General Conference decided to establish a conference there, albeit one which would remain under its authority. It also asked the British conference to adhere to the terms of the 1820 agreement.
Evidently enraged at the conference’s failure to establish a totally independent Canadian conference, Ryan called a second convention of local preachers at Elizabethtown in June 1824; for some reason, he himself was not present at the gathering. In the printed and signed proclamation which was issued by the members, the General Conference was condemned for not taking seriously the earlier petition for independence. The signatories asked: “Does reason or religion require us to submit to them [the General Conference] and thereby expose ourselves to ruin. Doth not the word of God require us to yield to the wishes of the Government we are under as far as we can, without weakening grace or wounding conscience? It certainly does.” Thus they had decided to establish an independent body to be called the Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Canadian Church and had renounced the jurisdiction of the American and British conferences. The new church was to be governed by the discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church as defined in 1820, with certain exceptions. The convention urged the itinerants in Upper Canada to meet, elect a president, and assume control of the new church, and indicated that if they did not accept the new scheme the local preachers would take charge of the societies for the present.
This manifesto surely reflected Ryan’s commitment to independence for Upper Canadian Methodism, his opposition to lay representation, and his willingness to promote the cause of the local preachers. The unrest among the latter may have stemmed from lay dissatisfaction with the Methodist polity; probably it was indicative that the Methodist Episcopal Church had created a source of tension in its ranks in allowing some local preachers to become ordained without granting them the full rights of the travelling ministry. In addition, Ryan and his supporters may have been honestly concerned to overcome the hostility of the local government toward the Methodists as an allegedly foreign body, and have believed that the church was moving too slowly in this matter. In any event, his campaign elicited a favourable response, especially in the circuits of his district, and persuaded the bishops that they must attempt to counter it through an official visitation in Upper Canada.
Bishop Hedding, Bishop George, and Nathan Bangs travelled throughout much of the colony in the summer of 1824 explaining the actions of the General Conference. Apparently they persuaded the ministers and the societies that they had little ground for complaint. When Ryan belatedly met George and Case, he expressed regret for his actions. At the ensuing meeting of the Canada Conference, in Hallowell, the bishops sought to restore peace to the church. Predictably, Ryan was not reappointed presiding elder; he thus ended his 14-year career in that capacity. He was assigned instead to a new missionary circuit, extending from the vicinity of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) to the upper reaches of the Grand River – an arrangement which would enable him to live on his own farm.
The deterioration of the relationship between Ryan and the Canada Conference is delineated exhaustively in the conference’s records, but the nature of the forces at work is not wholly clear. The 1825 session of the conference was the scene of a bitter personal dispute between Ryan and the presiding elder, Thomas Madden, which was compounded by the charge that Ryan had neglected his own field and visited others. He was censured mildly, and in response he requested, and was granted, superannuated status. In the ensuing year Ryan travelled widely, ostensibly to promote the cause of independence for the Canada Conference. He was widely credited as the author of an anonymous pamphlet in which the conference was accused of dealing improperly with the Madden affair and of promoting the selfish interests of the preachers. The conference of 1826, in which Ryan had at least some covert support, took no action in his case and he was continued as a superannuated minister.
At this stage, support for the establishment of an independent conference in Upper Canada was growing, and there was reason to believe that the parent church would not stand in the way. Ryan, however, knowing that a formal decision could not be taken until the General Conference of 1828, insisted that as loyal British subjects the Canadian Methodists could not remain under a foreign ecclesiastical body. The preachers, he asserted, were ambitious and proud, the church was worldly and no longer committed to revivals, and the bishops were hypocrites with no real interest in protecting the rights of the people. These and other charges were embodied in an anonymous pamphlet entitled A lover of truth, which Ryan was generally believed to have written and circulated.
At the 1827 conference Ryan was charged with being the author of A lover of truth by William Case. Ryan admitted having publicly read the pamphlet in various places, but alleged that his object was to warn the people against it. The conference, charitably, acquitted him; he then renounced its authority. Apparently, the bishop and others attempted to dissuade him from leaving the church. In the end he seems to have departed violently, proclaiming his intention to implement the decision taken at the Elizabethtown convention in 1824.
The conference of 1827 was not put off its course by its protracted deliberations on Ryan’s case. A petition requesting the establishment of an independent Canadian conference was prepared, and the delegates to the next session of the General Conference were instructed to seek approval of the Canadian proposal. Despite the opposition of Bangs and others, the General Conference which met in May 1828 authorized the Canada Conference to constitute itself as a separate body in fraternal association with the Methodist Episcopal Church. Changes were made in the discipline which strengthened the position of the laity in the conference, a move presumably designed to conciliate the democratic element in the societies.
Ryan had been present in the wings at the Canada Conference session, but was not placated by what occurred. Shortly after the meeting he summoned two conventions at Copetown and Hallowell, ostensibly to hear his grievances against the conference. He insisted that he would abide by the decisions of these irregularly constituted assemblies. In preparation for the gatherings he published another pamphlet in which he asserted that “some of the preachers are fond of the bottle,” a comment which led the conference to criticize “effusions of spleen.” At a preparatory meeting in Kingston, he stated: “I have declared that I would never head a party, but I have never said I would not preach for a party. I now perceive there will be a division and I will go with my friends.”
The conventions were held in Copetown and Hallowell in December 1828 and January 1829. John* and Egerton* Ryerson attended the former, which continued for eight days. In the end those present decided unanimously that the conference of 1827 had dealt fairly with Ryan’s charges. The second, at which Egerton Ryerson again represented the conference, lasted for nine days. Initially, Ryerson said, the majority of the members “turned their backs” to him, but gradually they were won around by his arguments. Once again, the group “decided in the strongest language, and unanimously, against Mr. Ryan’s statements and proceedings.” Undeterred by these set-backs, Ryan continued to agitate in many circuits through 1829, and in at least one case forcibly gained entry into a Methodist Episcopal chapel for a meeting at which resolutions in his favour were passed. Subsequently he held another convention composed principally of laymen and local preachers at which the Canadian Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded. Despite his earlier protestations against changes in the Methodist Episcopal polity, provision was made in the new body for lay representation in the annual conferences and an elective presidency.
Initially, the secession met with modest success, in part because Ryan had no hesitation in taking over the pulpits of his former brethren. After Ryan’s death in 1833 the Reverend James Jackson* assumed the leadership of the church, which by 1835 had 21 ministers, 2,481 members, and 13 circuits. In 1841, however, the Canadian Wesleyan Methodist Church united with a British body, the Methodist New Connexion Conference, and the legacy of Ryan became the responsibility of this relatively small denomination. It was the New Connexion Conference which in 1855 initiated the erection of a monument to “the late venerable Elder Ryan, the founder of the system of lay representation in Canada.”
Clearly, in the first phase of his career, Ryan’s aggressive, authoritarian personality and methods made him an effective minister and administrator; without him, Upper Canadian Methodism might have grown more slowly. Moreover, unlike many of his brethren who moved easily between Upper Canada and the United States and who ultimately chose to remain with the parent church, Ryan became fully identified with the Canadian connection. In the 1820s, as in the previous decade, he was moved by concern for the growth of the Methodist Episcopal community in Upper Canada and was seemingly convinced that its continuing prospects depended upon the securing of independent status. This assessment was shared by the majority of the preachers and probably by many in the societies.
Ryan’s conflict with his brethren and his decision to establish a new Methodist body in which laymen would have a stronger voice than in the Methodist Episcopal Church was not wholly over the issue of independence or the respective rights of clergy and laity. Rather, it may be that Ryan was responding to the impact of important changes in Upper Canadian Methodism and society. In the 1820s new leaders were emerging in the conference, particularly the Ryerson brothers, James Richardson*, and Anson Green*. Ryan may well have sensed that he was about to be pushed aside, in much the same way that William Case would be by the Ryersons in 1832. His complaints about the “great corruptions” in the church, the decline of the spirit of revival, the immodest attire of his presiding elder’s family, and the studious habits of young ministers indicated an awareness that Upper Canada was becoming a more settled and more cultured community. In this society men such as Ryan, with limited education and a simplistic religious outlook, would not be as influential as they had been in the past. The resulting frustration and alienation, exacerbated no doubt by thwarted ambition, help to account for Ryan’s actions.
Ryan did not live to a ripe old age, but in the last decade of his life he appeared old and bitter. His brethren may have portrayed him in a highly partisan light, but it is difficult to believe that he was other than devious and wilfully destructive. Their conviction, as Carroll put it, that he spoke “perverse things” to “draw away disciples” after him is understandable. Nevertheless, although he was reprehended, his achievements were rightly remembered by the Methodists of Upper Canada. His zeal, his courage, and his administrative skill contributed significantly to the growth of Methodism in the pioneer phase of the colony and thereby helped to create one of the principal elements in the religious culture of that society.
Ryan’s tombstone gives 4 Aug. 1833 as his date of death. However, the newspaper obituaries agree that he died in September: the Hallowell Free Press (Hallowell [Picton, Ont.]) of 16 Sept. 1833 says that he died on 2 September, and the Niagara Gleaner (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.]) of 14 Sept. 1833, while not giving a precise date, says that it is “stopping the presses” to announce Ryan’s death.
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