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RYERSON, WILLIAM, Methodist minister; b. at Maugerville, N.B., 31 March 1797, third son of Colonel Joseph Ryerson and Sophia Mehetabel Stickney; m. Mary Griffen, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 15 Sept. 1872 at Salt Springs near Brantford, Ont.

William Ryerson’s formal education was confined to the log schoolhouse near the family farm in Norfolk County, Upper Canada. He served as a volunteer on special service with his father during the War of 1812, and was converted to Methodism by David Youmans in the religious awakening which followed the war. His conversion incurred the strong displeasure of his father and he left home, moving to Oxford County where he started bush farming. He was received on trial as a preacher at the Methodist Episcopal conference of 1823 and was ordained deacon on the Queenston circuit in 1825.

William rapidly assumed responsibility in his church, serving as a presiding elder, chairman, and superintendent in various districts throughout the province. The outline of powers given to quarterly meetings in all matters of general importance which he prepared with his brother Egerton* in 1828 was adopted by the church conference and remained in use with little change for decades. In the same year he was chosen a delegate to the conference of the American church at Pittsburgh, where he argued successfully for the separation of the Canadian church from its American parent. He collected funds for Egerton’s trip to England in 1833 to arrange the union between the Canadian church and the British Wesleyan Methodist Church; when this union disintegrated he made, with Egerton, a trip to England in 1840 in a final attempt to salvage it, and presented to the British conference, to no avail, the address and resolutions of the Canada conference. While in London, William and Egerton also met with Lord John Russell to remonstrate unsuccessfully against his clergy reserves bill.

Collapse of the union with the British church opened the way for the Canada conference to choose its own head, and William was elected the first Canadian president of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada in 1840. He was chosen president a second time at the annual conference of 1847 which approved reunion with the British church, subsequently yielding the office to Robert Alder, the first appointee by the British conference under the terms of the reunion. He was thus both the first and the last of the presidents elected by the Canadian church during its period of autonomy between 1840 and 1847.

Despite frequent ill-health, including periodic bouts with “bleeding of the lungs,” William worked prodigiously throughout his life. During the early years of his ministry he was particularly interested in the Indian peoples, assisting with the planning and operation of special Indian schools and often joining with the Reverend Peter Jones* in missions to the Indians at which he preached and Jones acted as interpreter. He was instrumental in arranging for the Bible to be translated into Chippewa and for the preparation of spelling and hymn books in several Indian tongues. In 1829 he was named to the committee which oversaw the establishment of the Christian Guardian. In the same year, he and his brother John were put on a committee to study the advisability of establishing a Methodist seminary of higher learning. The following year the two brothers were named to a committee given the task of establishing the Upper Canada Academy (later Victoria College).

William’s relations with Egerton were not as close as those of John. Nonetheless, he was an influential mentor to Egerton in his eariler years His political views, as a constitutional liberal leaning somewhat towards radicalism, more nearly coincided with those of his fellow Methodist ministers than did those of either John or Egerton. Though William helped defend Toronto at John Montgomery’s tavern against William Lyon Mackenzie* and the rebels in December 1837, he asked that the punishment of Samuel Lount* and Peter Mathews* be mitigated, and he deplored the role of Sir Francis Bond Head, noting that “the most guilty author of these miseries is to escape without punishment, yes, with honour and praise . . . !” Weary of political and religious factionalism, he briefly contemplated emigration to the United States after the suppression of the rebellion.

William was, however, always interested in politics, and in 1861 he ran as an independent candidate for the West Riding of Brant in response to appeals by members of his church who were anxious that his views should be expressed in the legislature on the question of university reform. He won, defeating Herbert Biggar, despite the vigorous opposition of George Brown and the Globe. He was, however, badly beaten in the next election, in 1863, by Edmund Burke Wood*, probably because of the support he gave to Richard William Scott*’s separate school bill, for which he was again bitterly denounced by Brown. He had retired to his farm at Salt Springs, superannuated, in 1858, and he continued to live there until his death.

William was the orator of the Ryerson brothers and indeed was one of Canadian Methodism’s most renowned preachers. His forthright manner and strength of feeling, coupled with his wit and good humour, enabled him to establish a powerful sympathetic bond with his listeners. In many ways the prototype saddle-bag preacher of pioneer Upper Canadian Methodism, he excelled in the setting of the camp meeting, and was gifted in organizing these gatherings.

Thomas H. B. Symons

Methodist Missionary Society (London), Correspondence, continent of America. UCA, A. E. Ryerson papers. John Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries; [ ], Past and present, or a description of persons and events connected with Canadian Methodism for the last forty years (Toronto, 1860). Christian Guardian (Toronto), 1829–72. [Ryerson], Story of my life (Hodgins). Cornish, Cyclopædia of Methodism, I. Dom. ann. reg., 1878, 364–65. G. S. French, Parsons & politics: the rôle of the Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada and the-Maritimes from 1780 to 1855 (Toronto, 1962). G. F. Playter, The history of Methodism in Canada: with an account of the rise and progress of the work of God among the Canadian Indian tribes, and occasional notices of the civil affairs of the province (Toronto, 1862). A. E. Ryerson, Canadian Methodism; its epochs and characteristics (Toronto, 1882). A. W. Ryerson, The Ryerson genealogy; a genealogy and history of the Knickerbocker families of Ryerson, Ryerse, Ryerss; also Adriance and Martense families; all descendants of Martin and Adriaen Ryerz (Reyerszen), of Amsterdam, Holland, ed. A. L. Holman (Chicago, 1916). Sissons, Ryerson. Clara Thomas, Ryerson of Upper Canada (Toronto, 1969).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Thomas H. B. Symons, “RYERSON, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ryerson_william_10E.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/ryerson_william_10E.html
Author of Article:   Thomas H. B. Symons
Title of Article:   RYERSON, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   February 22, 2024