THE CANADIAN HIGH TORY ANGLICAN TRADITION:
BISHOP JOHN STRACHAN,
STEPHEN LEACOCK, GEORGE GRANT
By Ron Dart
There has been a regrettable tendency within the authorized reading of Canadian history (to quote Donald Creighton) to demean, caricature and distort the unique and distinctive Canadian High Tory way and idealize and uncritically genuflect to the liberal interpretation of the origins, development and contemporary ethos of Canadian life. Such an approach to understanding the Canadian tradition censures out the significant contributions of High Toryism to Canadian religion and public life.
There are those who, when studying the Anglican heritage, focus on Anglican spirituality, theology, exegesis, ecclesiology, liturgy, literature, pastoral responsibilities, clerical-lay-parish life, sacraments, significant documents-landmark texts, councils-creeds, ecumenical and interfaith commitments. This approach to understanding the Anglican Tradition is a necessary but insufficient way of entering the fullness of the Anglican fold. There is a comprehensiveness to the time tried Anglican path that engages the larger cultural, political and public spheres, hence the magisterial/kingdom aspect of Anglicanism—if this element of Anglicanism is ignored or marginalized, a serious domesticating and thinning out of the Anglican heritage occurs.
There is also the danger when telling the Anglican tale to overdo the English roots and virtually miss the obvious fact that different states and jurisdictions have their own unique histories. The drama of Canadian High Tory Anglicanism has often been omitted from many books on Canadian Anglicanism, and this essay will attempt to fill in some of the obvious gaps and blind spots.
I will, in this article, begin with Bishop John Strachan (1778-1867), move onto Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), then conclude with George Grant (1918-1988). There have been many misreads of Strachan from the liberal authorized historians in Canada who curtly dismiss Strachan and the Family Compact as irrelevant and regressive—such an approach misses Strachan’s deeper insights about the drift in American thought and the impact of American thought and life on Canadian public life. Strachan was a High Tory nationalist who understood, all too clearly, the dangers to Canadian public life and society if the American republican way came to dominate. Bishop John Strachan often visited Susan Sibbald and the Sibbald family at Eildon Hall at Jackson’s Point at the southern shore of Lake Simcoe in Ontario—Susan Sibbald wrote about such visits in her vivacious and insightful Memoirs. Susan Sibbald played a significant role in the building of St. George’s Anglican parish in the Eildon Hall area in 1838.
Stephen Leacock grew up in the Sutton and Sibbald Point environs, and his mother knew the Sibbald family quite well (as did Leacock). Both Susan Sibbald and Leacock’s mother formed a bridge between the era of Bishop John Strachan and the next phase of Anglican High Toryism in Canada. Leacock attended Upper Canada College (an Anglican school in Toronto), became head boy for a time and did his PhD on “The Doctrine of Laissez Faire” at the University of Chicago. Leacock taught in the Political Economy Department at McGill University from 1901-1936, he was one of the foremost humourists and political theorists in Canada, his Anglicanism cannot be missed in his writings and he is buried at St. George’s Anglican parish—the Archbishop of Canada (Derwyn Owen) took Leacock’s funeral in 1944. Leacock Hall at McGill University was named after Stephen Leacock for his contributions to Canadian educational, literary, political, economic and religious life.
George Grant, like Stephen Leacock, did his early schooling at Upper Canada College (where his father was the Principal). Grant continued his studies at Queen’s (where his grandfather was once President). Grant emerged in the latter half of the 20th century as one of the most prominent public intellectuals in Canada—he also founded the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) which has become one of the largest undergraduate and graduate departments of Religious Studies in North America. Grant (and his wife Sheila) was active in his local parish in Dundas (near Hamilton) and Grant wrote often about larger issues of modern secularism and the need to recover the sacred. Grant was, without much doubt, the most important Anglican in Canada in his lifetime, and when he did his PhD at Oxford, he was quite active with the Socratic Club of which C.S. Lewis (another Anglican) was the leading light.
The trilogy of Bishop John Strachan, Stephen Leacock and George Grant stand within, in many ways, a distinctive and unique Canadian High Tory Anglican way, and for the rest of this essay, I will highlight how this is the case.
Bishop John Strachan
John Strachan was born in 1778 in Scotland to a working class family. The fact that his earliest religious upbringing was Scottish Presbyterian meant he began his faith journey within the fold of Calvinism. Such a position did not hold him as he aged and matured, but Calvinist theology and Presbyterian ecclesiology was the first form of Christianity Strachan encountered as a young man. Strachan had a definite interest in being educated and being an educator and this was evident when still in Scotland. Strachan in his later teens became a tutor to younger students, and in 1799 at the age of 21 moved to Upper Canada.
Strachan’s move to Kingston in Upper Canada put him in immediate touch with the emerging British Loyalist leadership in the area that came to be known as the Family Compact. Again, Strachan was a tutor to many of the children of the Loyalists and his commitment to education brought him to the forefront in Kingston and Cornwall. The fact that many of the Loyalists that were part of the Family Compact were also Anglican meant that Strachan began in a shift in his thinking at both theological and ecclesial levels. It was this significant transition that was, in time, to position him as one of the most significant Anglican churchmen, educators and public leaders in the fledging years of pre-Confederation life in Canada.
Strachan was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1803 when 25 years of age and his commitment to both his parish and the broader educational and public life in Kingston-Cornwall and beyond began to wax in significance. The increasing impact of republicanism across the fragile border (and its ripple effect in Upper-Lower Canada) was something that Strachan and the Family Compact were concerned about. The deeper concerns, though, were theological, philosophical and the outworking of both in the areas of politics and public life. Strachan, like many Family Compact Anglicans, saw in the fractious disputes to the south a form of liberty and individualism that would lead, just as the protestant reformation had done, to fragmentation, conflict and violence. The class clashes and tragic loss of life of the French and American revolutions could not be missed and Strachan lived closer than most to the reality of such war like ways of solving differences. Strachan was committed to a more ordered and stable way of challenging the path the French and Americans had taken in bringing change.
The Battle of 1812 was a crossroads period in Strachan’s life. The invasion from the south confirmed the worst fears of the Loyalists, Family Compact and Strachan. The ideas of republicanism that had emerged within Puritan Calvinism were now taking an aggressive and military form in Upper Canada. Many in Upper Canada saw in the War of 1812 the coming to be of the French and American revolutions in what was to become Canada. The point to note here and that is often missed is that Strachan was defending a classical tory tradition (or a form of tory nationalism) in opposing a revolutionary way of bringing a just political order into being. Again, it was the principles of liberal republicanism and the military means of actualizing such principles that Strachan and the Family Compact opposed. We can see in such an approach to change the historic Canadian moderate way of peace, order and good government.
Strachan realized, only too keenly, that education was essential to raising up a new generation of leaders who would be committed to life in the church and politics. The highly integrated and holistic position of Strachan in the areas of education, politics and church life was opposed by those who were more inclined to keep the church out of politics, the sacred far from the profane and secular. Strachan thought that such a move would distort, tame and domesticate the fuller vision of what the faith journey was meant to be.
The outbreak of cholera in 1832 and 1834 that killed almost one-twelfth of the population in Upper Canada again drew forth Strachan’s leadership abilities—it was Strachan at his compassionate and kindly best. Strachan worked tirelessly to aid the victims of the epidemic and his founding of the Society for the Relief of the Orphan, Widow and Fatherless provided aid and support for many in dire need.
The rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement in England in 1832, led by Pusey, Keble and Newman drew and held Strachan. There was an Anglo-Canadian form of catholic Anglicanism that Strachan played a significant role in heralding and leading. The Anglican middle way between Roman Catholicism and various types of Methodist and protestant schismatic types was the position that Strachan attempted to chart and plot forward for Canadian Anglicans. This meant, to some degree, offended Low Church Anglicans that had some affinity with their reformed, evangelical and charismatic brothers and sisters. There was, in a sense, something quite Laudian about Strachan—he was, in many ways, the Canadian William Laud in an era and ethos in which the classical Anglican catholic and tory way was waning. The overwhelming ideology of liberalism had taken hold in North America and an older way of understanding and living the faith was being systematically clear cut. Strachan saw, only too clearly, what was occurring and more significantly, what would occur, as such an agenda unfolded.
The disagreement between two religious and political ideologies came to a stark clash in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion—it was, in many ways, the arch tory Strachan going head to head with the arch liberal, William Lyon Mackenzie. Again, Strachan knew only too well what was at stake. Would Upper-Lower Canada (and other parts of the young nation) become an appendage to the ideals that dominated the south or could the north embody a more stable and peaceful way of bringing into being the common good? There can be no doubt the fiery Mackenzie was the flag bearer of American republican values (and the implications of them) just as Strachan stood for a more complex and complicated way in which Tory and Liberal, stability and change dwelt together in a mature tension. The Upper Canada Rebellion was put down and a form of responsible government emerged that was neither fully committed to Strachan nor Mackenzie.
John Strachan became the first bishop of Toronto in 1839 and his work as a churchman, educator and public figure continued. Strachan founded Trinity College in 1852 (after seeing what was to become University of Toronto founded on more secular and pluralist principles). The life and ecclesial vision of Bishop John Strachan had much to do with St. James parish and cathedral and for those interested in a thoughtful understanding of Strachan’s often turbulent journey, The Parish and Cathedral Church of St. James, Toronto 1797-1997 (1998) is amply worth the read.
Bishop John Strachan spent many a fond hour at Eildon Hall in what is now located in Sibbald Point Provincial Park. Sibbald Point Provincial Park was named after Susan Sibbald and the Sibbald family. The final chapter (“Envoi: 1856-1866”) in Susan Sibbald’s must read Memoirs of Susan Sibbald has many a tender and touching comment on Bishop John Strachan. Stephen Leacock grew up in the Sibbald Point area, his mother knew Susan Sibbald well and many a pleasant day was spent at Eildon Hall. Leacock is buried (interestingly enough) across from Mazo de la Roche (one of Canada’s finest novelists—best known as the author of the Jalna series) in St. George’s parish graveyard that was financed by Susan Sibbald. There is, therefore, a direct High Tory Anglican connection from Bishop John Strachan, to Susan Sibbald to Stephen Leacock.
I mentioned above that Archbishop Derwyn Owen (Primate of Canada from 1934-1947) took Stephen Leacock’s funeral in 1944. My grandmother lived with the Owen family in the Archbishop’s manse in Toronto in the 1940s until Derwyn Owen’s death in 1947. We, as a family, also spent some summers in the Sibbald-Jackson Point areas—such splendid places. Mordechai Richler once said, “Man cannot live by Leacock alone”. The comment obviously reflects the significance of Leacock as a Canadian, political-literary humourist, educator, public figure and Anglican. Leacock was, in many ways, a softer and more moderate version of Strachan. Leacock (his grandfather on his mother’s side was an Anglican priest) grew up in the High Tory ethos of Toronto-Sibbald Point, and he was acutely aware of both its appeal and limitations. Much of his life was an attempt to chart a thoughtful and engaged Tory Anglican way.
There has been an unfortunate tendency when reading and writing about Stephen Leacock to separate and fragment Leacock into various bits and pieces—there is Leacock the political economist who taught at McGill University from 1903-1936—there is Leacock the Canadian historian and political theorist—there is Leacock the humorist and literary critic—there is the Leacock who inspired the young T.S. Eliot (yet another Anglican). And, much to the surprise of many who reduce Leacock to a political economist and philosopher or literary humorist and critic, there is Leacock the Anglican (he is much more, as some suggest, than merely a religious critic and skeptic). The deeper Anglican ethos runs like a subterranean stream through most of Leacock’s writings and this has been missed by his many interpreters.
Leacock definitely established himself as an academic political economist with the publication of Elements of Political Science (1906), but it was the publication of Literary Lapses (1910) and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) that brought Leacock to the broader public stage. The humour and politics met and intermingled in these two books that won the hearts and minds of many in North America and England. Leacock had become a potent mix of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, but there was also the probing Anglicanism of Leacock well at work in both Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and its must read companion novel Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1912). Leacock was, without much doubt, a Tory Anglican, but his brand of conservatism, like Strachan’s, had a tender conscience towards the suffering and those on the margins, and he thought the state, church and society had to work together to relieve and end such injustices. It was this High Tory Anglicanism that deepened and broadened, softened and moderated Strachan’s, at times, more reactionary Tory Anglicanism.
Leacock had a long line and lineage in the Anglican fold (he even encountered through his parents' few years in South Africa the controversial Bishop Colenso). The fact Leacock spent most of his formative years at Upper Canada College (with its strong Anglican presence) meant he had internalized the Anglican tradition (and its complex nature) in a way few laymen had done in as thoughtful or measured a manner.
The vision, public profile and ongoing presence of Leacock in Canadian educational, political, literary and religious life did much to shape and define the Canadian identity. When the depression occurred in the 1930s, it was Leacock, once again, who stood on front stage, prophetic like, calling on the Canadian people and state to work together for the eradication of such a crisis and disproportion of wealth, poverty and power. Leacock’s graphic writings on this period of North American history have been ably and wisely collected and published by Alan Bowker in On The Front Line of Life: Stephen Leacock: Memoirs and Reflections, 1935-1944 (2004). Again, we can see in Leacock the High Tory Anglican conservative a passion for the people, a concern for the common good and the role of church, state and society in bringing to an end the tragic reality of the depression.
World War II brought to an end the depression of the 1930s, and Leacock was forced to retire from McGill University in 1936. The ever creative and engaged Leacock continued to ponder in his last few years the social reality that would emerge after World War II. The Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-1944 was William Temple, and Temple’s political position before, throughout and after World War II had a profound impact on Anglican thought and life, Leacock and the Primate of Canada at the time (Derwyn Owen). In fact, one of Leacock’s final books, published after his death, While There is Time: The Case Against Social Catastrophe (1945) draws explicitly from the writings of Archbishop William Temple—“The Gathering Crises” in While There is Time, word for word in places, highlights the principles Temple had articulated, from an Anglican perspective that should inform public life—the Beatitudes played the core ethical role in such an ecclesial commitment. In short, Leacock, Archbishop Temple and Archbishop Owen were all on the same page. It is quite understandable, therefore, why, when Leacock died, Owen presided over the funeral.
It is obvious why Leacock is buried at St. George’s parish graveyard at the southern end of Lake Simcoe—his summer home was at the northern end of Lake Simcoe in Orillia. I have been, for many years, the political science advisor to the Leacock home/museum, in Orillia. I have, many times, driven the route from St. George’s at Sibbald Point to Orillia and back. Leacock, as I mentioned above, knew well the High Tory Anglicanism of Bishop John Strachan and Susan Sibbald, but Leacock was less willing than the previous generation to castigate all things liberal and republican—there was nuance and subtleness in Leacock’s Tory Anglicanism often missing in leaders of the Tory Anglicanism of the 19th century.
When George Grant’s father, William Lawson Grant, died in 1935, it was Stephen Leacock who assisted Maude Grant (George Grant’s mother) in getting the position of Warden of Asburne Hall at Victoria College, McGill University from 1937-1940. Leacock had been a student of William Lawson Grant when he taught at Upper Canada College from 1898-1904 (William Grant was Headmaster at Upper Canada College from 1917-1935). George Grant’s mother and sister (Margaret) studied with Stephen Leacock when they were at McGill also. There is an obvious line and lineage between Leacock and the Grant family and the deeper affinity has much to do with their Tory Anglicanism.
George Grant, when young, studied at Upper Canada College where his father was Headmaster. Upper Canada College had, in its origins, a strong influence from Bishop Strachan—the Anglican presence and ethos could not be denied. Grant did his undergraduate degree at Queen’s University (which his grandfather, as Principal, had played a significant role in making a leading public university). Grant, like Strachan, began as a Presbyterian, but by 1956 Grant and his wife, Sheila, became Anglicans—Grant was teaching philosophy at the time at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
There can be little doubt that George Grant became, in the mid to latter half of the 20th century, the most prominent Tory Anglican in Canada—his lectures on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in the 1950s (Northrop Frye was also emerging at this time as Canada’s leading literary critic and was often on the CBC) positioned Grant as the voice of a thoughtful conservative. The publication of Philosophy in the Mass Age (1958) solidified Grant’s reputation as a leading public intellectual in Canada, although many of his previous writings in the 1950s had dealt with theology, education and politics in post-World War II. Grant’s article on “Adult Education in an Expanding Economy” was published in The Anglican Outlook (1955)—the threading together of faith, education and public responsibility was something that Strachan, Leacock and Grant shared as Tory Anglicans—Leacock and Grant did this as laymen—Strachan as a bishop and churchman.
George Grant was initially hired as the first Professor of the Philosophy Department at the fledgling York University in the early 1960s, but an ongoing clash with the chair of Philosophy at University of Toronto (Fulbert Anderson) that had begun in the late 1940s when Grant dared to challenge Anderson led to Grant’s resignation from York—Anderson had insisted that Grant use texts that undermined both Plato and Christianity. Grant was asked, shortly thereafter, to start the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University.
The Grant family were quite active in the local Anglican parish when at McMaster and at larger diocesan and national levels. The fact that Grant had decided High Tory leaning meant that he had ongoing concerns about the trendy drift within the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) towards an uncritical attitude about liberalism. In fact, Grant wrote often about this issue in both correspondence and articles. I have tracked and traced some of Grant’s engagement with the Anglican Church of Canada in my book, George Grant: Spiders and Bees (2008). When the General Board of Religious Education (GBRE) of the Anglican Church of Canada asked Pierre Berton (a lapsed Anglican and much respected Canadian journalist) to do an assessment of the Anglican Church of Canada in 1963, few expected the publication of his book in 1965, The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age, would evoke such strong reactions. The Comfortable Pew was very much an apologia for the incoming trendy liberalism of the 1960s both in society and the church. It is significant that George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism was also published in 1965. There is an intellectual depth and breadth in Lament for a Nation decidedly lacking in The Comfortable Pew. Grant calls forth the pedigree of Hooker, Swift, Johnson and Coleridge (who stand on the shoulders of many who went before them) to buttress a notion of the Anglo-Canadian intellectual and political heritage that Berton has little understanding of. We can see, in a most obvious way, how the differences between Berton and Grant embody and reflect two paths (liberal and High Tory) the Anglican Church of Canada could have taken—Berton tended to be heeded more faithfully, and the Anglican Church of Canada has had to deal with the consequences of ignoring the more prophetic Grant.
It is somewhat telling that in Grant’s review of a book on the history of St. James’ Anglican parish in Dundas (where the Grant family attended), Grant holds high the role and significance of Bishop John Strachan in the building up and consolidating of the Anglican way in Ontario in the 19th century. Strachan, like Grant, feared that the corrosive impact of liberalism would erode and undermine the richness and fullness of the Anglican tradition—Strachan faced the problem in its infant form in the 19th century—Grant confronted the fully grown and dominant adult form in the 20th century.
There is so much more that could be said about George Grant as theologian, Biblical exegete, philosopher, educator, writer-lecturer, public intellectual and troubled thinker as an Anglican (who saw all too clearly and wisely how Canadian Anglicanism was being co-opted by an ideological liberalism at all levels of church and seminary life). Grant was, probably, the pre-eminent Canadian prophet in both church and society in the mid-latter years of the 20th century.
Philip Carrington did much spade work in the late 1950s-early 1960s on unearthing the Canadian Anglican way: The Anglican Church of Canada: A History was published in 1963 to coincide with the large gathering of the Anglican Communion in Toronto for the Anglican Congress—Strachan is given, tentatively, his due and a nod—Leacock and Grant are absent. The more recent biography of Archbishop Ted Scott, Radical Compassion: The Life and Times of Archbishop Ted Scott (2004), ignores Grant even though Grant thought that Scott was a good hearted but unthinking devotee of cause du jour liberalism. The recent history of the Anglican Church of Canada, Seeds Scattered and Sown: Studies in the History of Canadian Anglicanism (2008) tends to tip a wary hat to Strachan (most liberals within the church, academy and society view Strachan as a relic of a past Canadians need to bid adieu to)—Leacock and Grant are virtually absent from Seeds Scattered and Sown. We do need to ask, by way of conclusion, why such a read of Canadian and Anglican history dominates the way it predictably does. Why are three of the most prominent Canadians (better known than most Anglicans in church and public life) absent from the telling of the Anglican tale? The answer, in many ways, is most obvious—the liberal paradigm so dominates the day that an older High Tory tradition is submerged and marginalized. It is such a Tradition, though, that can come as a prophetic corrective to the Liberal heritage that often silences other voices. The more a sane and wise read of Bishop John Strachan, Stephen Leacock and George Grant comes to the fore again, the more mature our understanding of the 2000 year old Anglican Church will fully reveal herself.
Originally published in in the Summer-Autumn 2014 issue of Anglican Tradition (Renewal). © Ron Dart, 2014.
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