Albert Edward Smith

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Rev. Albert Edward Smith

Rev. Albert Edward Smith (October 20, 1871—1947) was a Canadian religious leader and politician. A social gospeller, Smith was for many years a minister in the Canadian Methodist Church before starting his own "People's Church". He served in the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba from 1920 to 1922 as a Labour representative. In 1925, he became a member of the Communist Party of Canada.

Early life[edit]

Smith was born in Guelph, Ontario, the son of William George Smith and Elizabeth Bildson,[1] working-class immigrants from England. His family later moved to Hamilton, where he developed an interest in religion after joining the Gore Street Methodist Church. After passing an oral examination to become a preacher, Smith was transferred to MacGregor, Manitoba in 1890 to begin field work. His appointment came from James Woodsworth, superintendent of Methodist missions for western Canada and father of J.S. Woodsworth.

Smith was a vocal supporter of Thomas Greenway's Liberal government in Manitoba during the 1890s. During the Manitoba Schools Question, he defended the Greenway government's decision to remove funding from French-language denominational schools.

Ordination[edit]

After three years' work as a probationer, Smith enrolled as a student for the ministry at Wesley College in Winnipeg in 1893. He was formally ordained to the ministry in 1897. He married Maude Mercy Rogers in 1898.[1] After working in Dauphin and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Smith was stationed at the MacDougall Memorial Methodist Church in north-end Winnipeg in 1902.

Left-wing politics[edit]

Smith's political views now turned to labour, and he spoke in support of Labour MP Arthur W. Puttee's re-election in the 1904 federal election.

Smith left Winnipeg in 1906, and moved to Portage la Prairie. In 1910, he accepted ministerial work in Nelson, British Columbia. He spoke at Socialist Party gatherings, and became acquainted with Jack Johnstone, later a leading figure in the Communist Party of the United States. Smith returned to Manitoba in 1913, to accept a position as minister of the First Methodist Church in Brandon.

Smith was an advocate of church union with the Presbyterians throughout the 1910s. In 1925, this union came about via the creation of the United Church of Canada.

Smith was asked to consider running in the 1917 federal election as a supporter of Robert Borden's Union government of pro-conscription Liberals and Conservatives. Although he rejected these requests, Smith's name was put forward for the Unionist nomination in Brandon. Borden's government was supported by both mainstream labour and the Methodist Church, and some local government supporters believed Smith's name would aid their cause. Asked to make a speech at the nomination meeting, he informed the delegates that he had no confidence in either of the older parties, and did not believe the Union arrangement would make any difference. To the surprise of none present, Smith did not receive the nomination.

Socialist politics[edit]

In 1917, Smith read the Communist Manifesto for the first time. He later claimed that the work was "like a revelation". Smith's religious views were, by his own admission, unorthodox for the standards of his age: he believed that the message of Jesus was "the proclamation of a new social order of human society", and rejected the "harsh theologies" of mainstream Christian churches. "In my sermons", he wrote, "no miracle was required to explain the birth of Jesus or his life and teachings [...] His name was to be cherished because He died as a leader of the people, for His principles and in protest against the unjust rulers of His day" (Albert Smith, All My Life, pp. 42–43). After reading the Communist Manifesto, Smith eventually reached the conclusion that Jesus was a Communist.

Smith's views had not yet developed to this stage in 1917, however, and he joined the social reformist Dominion Labour Party at the end of World War I. Smith supported the strikers from his pulpit during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, and opened his church to Brandon civic workers who voted for a parallel strike in their city. As a member of the Brandon Trades and Labour Council, Smith provided extensive logistical support to Brandon's strike committee.

Not surprisingly, Smith's labour activities were opposed by more conservative figures in his Methodist church. At a special meeting of the church board held on May 26, 1919, a prominent church member moved that Smith "be restrained from any further preaching in First Church". No formal charges were made against him, and the motion was withdrawn. Nonetheless, his role as Brandon's Methodist minister had become untenable. On June 8, he announced the formation of a new People's Church in the city.

Labour MLA[edit]

In 1920, Smith was prevailed on to run for the provincial legislature as a labour candidate. He received the nomination of a local group called the "Brandon Labour Party", which was aligned with the Winnipeg branch of the Dominion Labour Party. He was successful in the 1920 provincial election, defeating Liberal incumbent Stephen E. Clements by 604 votes. Some of Smith's opponents blamed vote-splitting by the Liberals and Conservatives for his victory.

For the next two years, Smith sat with the labour parliamentary group led by Fred Dixon in the legislative opposition. Unlike other labour members, Smith did not join the Independent Labour Party when the Winnipeg branch of the Dominion Labour Party split in late 1920. In August 1921, he instead attended a meeting of the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council which led to the creation of the Canadian Labour Party. While joining the CLP took Smith on a different path from his co-legislators, he remained a member of the labor parliamentary group.

Labour's political support in Manitoba had declined somewhat by the 1922 provincial election. Smith lost his seat to John Edmison, who ran as a "fusion" candidate of the local Liberals and Conservatives. No longer receiving a salary as a Methodist minister or Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Smith experienced financial difficulties in Brandon and decided to return to Ontario. He moved to Ontario in 1923, and immediately started a People's Church in Toronto.

Smith was also involved in the Forum Committee of the local Labour Temple, and became a prominent member of the Canadian Labour Party in the city. Unlike James Simpson, Smith supported opening the CLP to members of the newly formed Communist Party of Canada.

Joining the Communist Party[edit]

Smith's personal philosophy continued to develop in this period, and in January 1925 he made the decision to join the Communist Party himself. His membership in the party was confirmed at a small upstairs room at 8 Gerrard Street East in Toronto, where a meeting of the party was held. He later explained his decision to a Toronto Star reporter by arguing that communism was a part of man's social evolution. Smith remained a member of the Communist Party for the rest of his life. Still a prominent figure in Toronto, he often defended the Communist Party against threats from hostile governments. He became a prominent organizer for the Canadian Labour Defence League across Canada in the 1920s, and served as its general secretary until it was shut down by the Canadian government in 1940.

He campaigned for the Canadian House of Commons in the 1925 federal election as a candidate of the CLP in the northern Ontario riding of Port Arthur—Thunder Bay. He finished fourth, with 1,363 votes. The winner was William Fitzgerald Langworthy of the Conservative Party. At the time of the election, Smith described his occupation as "educationalist". He ran again in the 1926 election, and finished third with 1,382 votes. The winner was Conservative Donald James Cowan.

Smith ran for municipal office in Toronto during this period. In 1925, he ran for alderman in Ward Seven as a candidate of the Labour Representation Political Association, a broad-tent group aligned with the Canadian Labour Party. He was defeated, and lost a second time in 1926. He also ran as a candidate of the Ontario division of the CLP in the 1926 provincial election, receiving 416 votes in Hamilton Centre. The winner on that occasion was Thomas Jutten of the Ontario Conservative Party. In the 1930 federal election he ran as an independent candidate in Fort William winning 594 votes.

Opposition to Trotskyism[edit]

During the late 1920s, Smith became a prominent opponent of Trotskyism within the Communist Party of Canada. He supported the removal of Maurice Spector and Jack MacDonald from the CPC, and endorsed Tim Buck, a strong supporter of Joseph Stalin, to become the party's new leader in 1929. In his autobiography, Smith accused Trotsky of attempting to betray the Russian Revolution, alleging that he had been in the "in the service of British agents" in 1926.

With the Canadian Labour Party falling into disarray, Smith returned to northern Ontario for the federal election of 1930 to contest Fort William as an independent candidate. He received 594 votes, finishing third. The winner was Robert James Manion, who later served as leader of the federal Conservative Party.

Stalinism[edit]

Smith visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1932, and wrote favourably of the experience upon his return. In July 1936, he traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War as an emissary of the "Friends of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion".

Smith was one of Tim Buck's most vocal defenders in the early 1930s, when Buck was detained and nearly killed in the Kingston Penitentiary. In the 1934 provincial election, Smith ran as a candidate of the Ontario Communist Party against Conservative Premier George Henry in the constituency of York East. He finished fourth, though still polling a respectable 664 votes. Later in 1934, Smith polled a surprisingly high 8,500 votes for Mayor of Toronto.

Returning again to northern Ontario, Smith ran for the House of Commons as a candidate of the Communist Party candidate in the 1935 federal election, receiving 1,161 votes for a fourth-place finish in Port Arthur. The winner was Clarence Decatur Howe of the Liberal Party.

Later years[edit]

Smith largely curtailed his political activities after this time, though he remained an active figure within the Communist Party. He returned to Manitoba for the 1945 federal election, and campaigned for the Labor-Progressive Party (as the Communist Party had renamed itself) in his old riding of Brandon. He received 497 votes, finishing fourth. The winner was Liberal James Ewen Matthews.

Smith's autobiography, All My Life, was published posthumously in 1949. The work chronicles his religious and political evolution, and gives extensive consideration to the Communist Party's struggles of the 1930s. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin is never mentioned by name in this book.

To the end of his life, Smith argued that his beliefs were a reflection of the message promoted by Jesus of Nazareth.

A.E. Smith's son, Stewart Smith, was a leading member of the Communist Party in his own right.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Chambers, Ernest J (1921). Canadian Parliamentary Guide.