VERNON, CHARLES WILLIAM, Church of England clergyman, teacher, journalist, historian, and social reformer; b. 16 June 1871 in Camberwell (London), England, eldest child of Charles Vernon, a merchant’s clerk, and Mary Veness; m. 13 June 1899 Bessie Campbell McNeil in Windsor Forks, N.S., and they had two sons and two daughters, one of whom predeceased him; d. 30 Jan. 1934 in Toronto.
Charles Vernon’s father died when he was a boy. His mother then moved with her three sons to Sussex, where Charles attended Hastings Grammar School and worked in agriculture. In 1889 or 1890 his mother immigrated with her sons to Nova Scotia and bought a farm in Colchester County.
Vernon entered King’s College in Windsor in October 1892. He proved an outstanding student, receiving a ba with first-class honours in divinity in June 1896. He took an ma in 1899 and a bd in 1901, and the university would award him an honorary dcl in 1922. At King’s Vernon was influenced by author and professor of English Charles George Douglas Roberts*. During his first year he was elected to the Haliburton, the literary club of which Roberts was president, at the same meeting as his classmate Robert Winkworth Norwood. Vernon contributed poems and articles to the student King’s College Record, which achieved a remarkable level of excellence under Roberts’s inspiration, and he served as a member of the editorial staff and business manager.
Charles Vernon was ordained deacon and priest in the Church of England in 1896. He taught briefly at a church school in Charlottetown and then as classics master at King’s Collegiate School for two years before being appointed rector of North Sydney, N.S. Between 1897 and 1899 he was a three-time winner of the Bishop’s Prize at King’s, given for an essay in church history. He received the 1898 award for “The Church of England in Nova Scotia,” the first of the writings that would culminate in his history of the Church of England in Canada, The old church in the new dominion … (London, 1929). Shortly after moving to North Sydney, he and Norwood privately published Driftwood: “virginibus puerisque” (North Sydney, 1898), a collection of their poems reflecting the influence of Roberts and William Bliss Carman*. Vernon’s publications henceforth were focused upon history, literary criticism, religion, and social issues. He resigned his rectorship in September 1900 because of “throat trouble” but stayed in North Sydney, remaining active in the church and supporting himself and his family by journalism. Between 1901 and 1907 he edited three weekly newspapers, the Cape Breton Enterprise (North Sydney), the Sydney Mines Enterprise, and the Sydney Mines Star. He also wrote Cape Breton, Canada … (Toronto, 1903), a lengthy work that demonstrates his interest in economic and social change.
In 1906 Vernon and a group of associates formed the Church Work Publishing Company to purchase Church Work (Halifax, etc.), a moribund Church of England monthly. As editor, he turned it into a bimonthly ecclesiastical newspaper avowedly independent of the institutional church and all theological parties. His emphasis was upon news, not opinion or polemic, presented in the style of the secular press. Vernon continued to edit Church Work after moving to Halifax in 1907 to become secretary of the Church of England Institute, which was housed in a building that contained meeting rooms, a gymnasium, and a library, as well as diocesan offices. The position gave him the opportunity to act on his conviction that “much can be done in the direction of making the Church the leader and guide in the social life of the people.” The institute flourished under his direction through the introduction of new activities, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides groups, and a successful campaign to pay off its mortgage. Vernon assumed other responsibilities in the diocese. He served as general organizing secretary of the bicentenary celebrations of the Church of England in Canada and the Canadian church congress held to mark the opening of All Saints’ Cathedral in September 1910. Between 1907 and 1919 he also acted as examining chaplain to Bishop Clarendon Lamb Worrell, and in 1913 he was made an honorary canon of the cathedral.
That year Vernon was the first convener of the Diocesan Commission on Social Service, an experience that led to his moving to Toronto in early 1919 to take up the post of general secretary to the Council for Social Service of the Church of England in Canada. The council had been created by the General Synod four years earlier as the church’s formal response to social problems, in what would be known as the Social Gospel movement. Under Vernon’s direction the council investigated issues such as collective bargaining, family life, housing, prison conditions, and immorality in the cinema and publicized its findings through its Bulletin (Toronto) and articles in church and secular publications. He worked closely with Charlotte Elizabeth Hazeltyne Whitton*, executive secretary of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare, and from 1929 he served as national president of the interdenominational Social Service Council of Canada [see John George Shearer*], of which he had previously been the Nova Scotia president.
Much of the work of the Council for Social Service initially focused upon immigration. In 1920 it took over from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge responsibility for coordinating a network of chaplains and lay workers who helped immigrants upon their arrival at Canadian ports. Four years later the General Synod passed a resolution to promote immigration from the British Isles and instructed the council to further this goal. Vernon made trips to England in 1924 and 1925 to develop a program, in conjunction with the Church of England Council of Empire Settlement, to assist migrants of “British stock,” particularly young men and boys, through a scheme of “directed immigration.” After 1929, however, the council’s emphasis shifted dramatically. Most of Vernon’s report to the council the following year was taken up with unemployment, “its types, its causes, its extent, its possible remedies, unemployment insurance and the relief of the unemployed.”
Charles Vernon’s vision of social service as leading to a purified Christian society and his commitment to immigration from the “Motherlands” to ensure the supremacy of British “ideals and institutions” are anachronisms today, but this stance does not detract from his role in exposing poverty, suffering, and injustice and his advocacy of such progressive measures as social insurance covering “employment, sickness, accident, old age, and the care of the widow and orphan.” More generally, he established a framework for the expression of Christian witness through social service that was built upon by his successors as general secretary, William Wallace Judd and Leonard Fraser Hatfield.
Vernon’s talents as a spokesman were called upon a last time when, in 1932, he served as secretary to the publicity committee of the restoration fund created to replenish the endowments of the diocese and province of Rupert’s Land, which had been lost through embezzlement [see John Alexander Machray]. According to one tribute following his death from heart failure two years later, Vernon “possessed the happy faculty of making friends; he was the genial head of a hospitable household. In both his life and work he was a living commentary on those words which he thought of as the divine charter of the Council [for Social Service]: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my Brethren, ye have done it to me.’”
The author wishes to thank Mr Scott Vernon, the subject’s great-nephew, for his assistance.
In addition to the works mentioned in the text, Charles William Vernon is the author of Bicentenary sketches and early days of the church in Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1910), The story of Christ Church, Dartmouth: a hundred years, and more, in the life of a Nova Scotian parish (Halifax, 1917), and Our church in the Maritimes (Toronto, 1933).
Anglican Church of Can., Diocese of N.S. and P.E.I. Arch. (Halifax), MG 1, ser.1, no.6 (Archbishop Clarendon Lamb Worrell papers); MG 8, ser.2 (diocesan registrar), vol.6, no.2 (clergy index); General Synod Arch. (Toronto), GS75-106 (Council for Social Service). GRO, Reg. of births, Camberwell (Surrey), 16 June 1871. LAC, R1463-0-8. NSA, “Nova Scotia hist. vital statistics,” Hants County, 1899: www.novascotiagenealogy.com (consulted 27 June 2013). Univ. of King’s College Arch. (Halifax), UKC.C.1.1.1 (matricula of King’s College), 1803–1906; UKC.C.1.5.1 (King’s College register), 1875–1904. Canadian Churchman (Toronto), 6 March 1924; 28 Jan., 10 May 1928; 7 Feb., 22 Aug. 1929; 8 Oct., 5 Nov. 1931; 9 June, 1 Dec. 1932; 1 Feb. 1934. Daily Record (Sydney, N.S.), 6 Sept. 1900. Globe, 31 Jan. 1934. Halifax Chronicle, 31 Jan. 1934. Halifax Herald, 31 Jan. 1934. Hants Journal (Windsor, N.S.), 14 June 1899. Truro Daily News (Truro, N.S.), 19 Sept. 1894, 6 Jan. 1896, 8 April 1936. Richard Allen, The social passion: religion and social reform in Canada, 1914–28 (Toronto, 1971; repr. 1990). Anglican Church of Can., Diocese of N.S., Year book (Halifax, 1909–12; copies at the Diocese of N.S. and P.E.I. Arch., C-1-2); Diocese of Que., Gazette (Sherbrooke, Que.), March 1934. 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). Church of Eng. in Can., General Synod, “Report of the Council for Social Service to General Synod of the Church of England in Canada,” Journal of proc. (Toronto), sessions 8–9, 11–13, 1918, 1921, 1927, 1931, 1934 (copies at the Anglican Church of Can., General Synod Arch., GS75-106). Crockford’s clerical directory … (London), 1932. A. L. Hayes, Anglicans in Canada: controversies and identity in historical perspective (Urbana, Ill., 2004). W. W. Judd, “The vision and the dream: the Council for Social Service – fifty years,” Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Toronto), 7 (1965): 76–118. King’s College Record (Windsor), December 1892–November 1900. J. F. Morris, “The late Canon Vernon: an appreciation,” Montreal Churchman, 22 (1934), no.3: 4. Henry Roper, “A ‘high Anglican pagan’ and his pupil: Charles G. D. Roberts, Robert Norwood and the development of a Nova Scotian literary tradition, 1885–1932,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 75 (1995): 51–73.