Portrait of Egerton Ryerson by Théophile Hamel
|Born||Adolphus Egerton Ryerson
24 March 1803
Charlotteville Township, Norfolk County, Upper Canada
|Died||19 February 1882
|Known for||public education in Ontario|
|Spouse(s)||Hannah Aikman (m. 10 September 1828, d. 1832)
Mary Armstrong (m. 1833)
Adolphus Egerton Ryerson (24 March 1803 – 19 February 1882) was a Methodist minister, educator, politician, and public education advocate in early Ontario, Canada. He was the leading opponent of the closed oligarchy that ran the province, calling it the "Family Compact."
Ryerson was born in 1803 in Charlotteville Township, Upper Canada to Joseph Ryerson (1761-1854), a United Empire Loyalist and military officer from Passaic County, New Jersey and Sophia Mehetable Stickney Ryerson and one of six siblings.
He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church at 18, and was forced to leave the home by his Anglican father. After leaving home, Ryerson worked as an usher in a London grammar school, before his father sent for him to return home. He returned home and farmed for a small period of time before leaving again, this time to Hamilton to attend Gore District Grammar School. In Hamilton, he studied Latin and Greek with such fervor that he became ill with a fever that almost claimed his life. This enabled him to become a Methodist missionary or circuit rider. His first post was the York region surrounding Yonge Street. The circuit took four weeks to complete on foot or horseback, as it encompassed areas with roads in extremely poor condition. However, the experience gave Ryerson a first hand look at the life of the early pioneer.
In 1826, sermons from Anglican Archdeacon Stranchan of York, were published asserting that the Anglican Church was, by law, the established church of Upper Canada. Methodists were singled out as American and therefore disloyal. Money was requested of the crown to allow the Anglican church to maintain ties to Great Britain. As Ryerson was the son of a Loyalist, this was an abomination.. He emerged as Episcopal Methodism's most articulate defender in the public sphere by publishing articles (at first anonymously) and later books that argued against the views of Methodism's chief rival John Strachan and other members of the powerful Family Compact.
Ryerson was also elected (by one vote) to serve as the founding editor of Canadian Methodism's weekly denominational newspaper, the Christian Guardian, established in York, Upper Canada in 1829 and which was also Canada's first religious newspaper. Ryerson used the paper to argue for the rights of Methodists in the province and, later, to help convince rank-and-file Methodists that a merger with British Wesleyans (effected in 1833) was in their best interest. Ryerson was castigated by the reformist press at that time for apparently abandoning the cause of reform and becoming, at least as far as they were concerned, a Tory. Ryerson resigned the editorship in 1835 only to assume it again at his brother John's urging from 1838 to 1840. In 1840 Ryerson allowed his name to stand for re-election one last time but was soundly defeated by a vote of 50 to 1 in favour of his co-religionist Jonathan Scott.
In April 1831, Ryerson wrote in The Christian Guardian newspaper, "On the importance of education generally we may remark, it is as necessary as the light -- it should be as common as water and as free as air. Education among the people is the best security of a good government and constitutional liberty; it yields a steady, unbending support to the former, and effectually protects the latter... The first object of a wise government should be the education of the people...Partial knowledge is better than total ignorance. If total ignorance be a bad and dangerous thing, every degree of knowledge lessens both the evil and the danger."  This quote could be seen as a fore-telling of Ryerson's contribution to education in Upper Canada.
"Ryerson helped found the Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg in the 1830s. When it was incorporated in 1841 under the name Victoria College Ryerson assumed the presidency. Victoria continues to exist as part of the University of Toronto. Ryerson also fought for many secularization reforms, to keep power and influence away from any one church, particularly the Church of England in Upper Canada which had pretentions to establishment. His advocacy of Methodism contributed to the eventual sale of the Clergy Reserves—large tracts of land that had been set aside for the "maintenance of the Protestant clergy" under the Constitutional Act of 1791. "In honour of his achievements on behalf of the Methodist Church, Egerton Ryerson received a Doctor of Divinity degree from the (sic) Wesleyan University in Connecticut and served as President of the Church in Canada from 1874 to 1878."
Such secularization also led to the widening of the school system into public hands. Governor General Sir Charles Metcalfe asked him to become Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844. It is in this role that Ryerson made his historical mark.
His study of educational systems elsewhere in the Western world led to three School Acts, which would revolutionize education in Canada. His major innovations included libraries in every school, an educational journal and professional development conventions for teachers, a central textbook press using Canadian authors, and securing land grants for universities.
With the intent of providing education for all children, Ryerson began lobbying for the idea of free schools in 1846. His convictions on the matter were strengthened after studying systems of education in New York State and Massachusetts where financial provision for education was a cardinal one. Proving his point that education was a necessity, he was able to show, for example, in Toronto alone, less than half of the 4,450 children in the city were regular school attendees.
In his Circular to the County Municipalities, in 1846, he argued the following:
" The basis of this only true system of universal Education is two fold:
1. that every inhabitant of a Country is bound to contribute to the support of its Public Institutions, according to the property which he acquires, or enjoys, under the Government of the Country.
2. That every child born, or brought up in the Country, has a right to that education which will fit him for the duties of a useful citizen of the Country, and is not to be deprived of it, on account of the inability, or poverty, of his parents, or guardians."
Among other noble intentions, he was determined to provide education to those less privileged, as a means of improving the opportunities of all; or as he so eloquently described it as the "only effectual remedy for the pernicious and pauperizing system which is at present. Many children are now kept from school on the alleged grounds of parental poverty." Ryerson was persuasive in his arguments such that principle for free education, in a permission form, was embodied into the School Law of 1850. Subsequent debate followed until 1871 when free school provision was included in the Comprehensive School Act of 1871.
Ryerson's legacy within Canada's education system also included the hand he played in the implementation of the controversial Canadian residential school system. It was his study of Native education commissioned in 1847 by the Assistant Superintendent General of Indian Affairs that would become the model upon which Residential Schools were built.
The Normal School at St. James Square was founded in Toronto in 1847, and became the province's foremost teacher's academy. It also housed the Department of Education as well as the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts, which became the Royal Ontario Museum. An agricultural laboratory on the site led to the later founding of the Ontario Agricultural College and the University of Guelph. St. James Square went through various other educational uses before it eventually became part of Ryerson University.
He was also a writer, farmer and sportsman. He retired in 1876, and died in 1882 having left an indelible mark on Canada's education system. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.
Ryerson University (Toronto), Ryerson Press (McGraw-Hill Ryerson), and the Township of Ryerson in the Parry Sound District, Ontario, were named after him, as well as the small park, Ryerson Park, in the city of Owen Sound, at the northeast corner of 8th Street East and 5th Avenue East. There is also an intersection of two small streets in Toronto, Egerton Lane and Ryerson Avenue, between Spadina and Bathurst north of Queen Street West.
Ryerson was married twice and had two children:
- Charles Egerton Ryerson (July 5, 1847 – June 4, 1909) - secretary-treasurer and assistant librarian of Toronto; his children were:
- Reverend Egerton Ryerson, a missionary in Japan
- Dr. Stanley Brehaut Ryerson (1911–1998)
- J.E. Ryerson
- Ella Ryerson
- Isabel Ryerson
Chris Ryerson, an engineer from Ottawa, is a descendent of Ryerson and a Ryerson University graduate.
- Putman, Harold J. (1912). Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada. Toronto: William Briggs. p. 7-10.
- Putman, Harold J. (1912). Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada. Toronto: William Briggs. p. 10-11.
- Hopkins, J. Castell (1898). An historical sketch of Canadian literature and journalism. Toronto: Lincott. p. 221. ISBN 0665080484.
- Putman, Harold J. (1912). Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada. William Briggs. p. 71-72.
- Putnam, Harold J. (1912). Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada. Toronto: William Briggs. p. 146.
- Hodgins, John George (1902). Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada. Toronto: L.K. Cameron Printer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty. p. 73, 76, 81.
- Ryerson Township - History of Ryerson
- French, Goldwin. Parsons & Politics. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1962.
- Thomas, Clara. Ryerson of Upper Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1969.
- Westfall, William. Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario. Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 1989.
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- Early standard biography by Nathanael Burwash
- Ryerson's autobiography edited by George Hodgins
Selected works available online
- Works by Egerton Ryerson at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Egerton Ryerson available at Internet Archive
- Dr. Ryerson's Reply to the Recent Pamphlet of Mr. Langton & Dr. Wilson on the University Question. Guardian Office, 1861.
- Copies of Correspondence between the Chief Superintendent of Schools for Upper Canada, and other persons, on the question of Separate Schools. Toronto: Lovell & Gibson, 1855.
- Sissons, C.B., ed. Egerton Ryerson: His Life and Letters. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1937, 1947.
- Sissons, C.B., ed. My Dearest Sophie: Letters of Egerton Ryerson to His Daughter. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1955.
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