Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“Remarkable for self-sacrifice, devotion, downright honesty,
resolute firmness, and unflagging industry.”
Few individuals influenced Canada’s early development more than John Strachan. He was the first Anglican bishop of Toronto and the founder of Ontario’s school system and of three of its universities—McGill, Toronto, and Trinity College. Strachan’s activities from the first day of the nine-teeth century until his death at his age eighty-nine in 1867 were centred in Ontario. His impact as an educator, a legislator, and a religious leader, however, extended to eastern Canada and later helped to shape the western provinces. His long, active, and multifaceted sixty-seven years in Canada earned him admirers and enemies, even after his passing.
Strachan was born in Aberdeen in 1778. He was the youngest son of a quarryman, who was a member of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and of a pious mother, who belonged to a Presbyterian secession body. His mother wanted him to become a minister, but after his father was killed in a blasting accident Strachan began teaching to earn his university tuition. In 1799, he arrived in Kingston, Upper Canada, to tutor the children of Richard Cartwright, a prominent loyalist who, with Anglican missionary John Stuart, inspired Strachan with admiration for British political and religious institutions.
Strachan’s early years in Canada contributed greatly to his Canadianization. Canada offered Strachan the best opportunities for advancement. He obtained the Anglican rector-ship of Cornwall in 1803 and started a school there for the children of leading colonial families. Four years later, he married Canadian-born Ann Woods, and in 1812 he became the rector of St. James Church in the tiny provincial capital of York (Toronto). Strachan was also the principal of York’s grammar school and the chaplain to its legislature.
In 1813, York was captured and sacked by Americans. Strachan’s stand against the pillagers convinced him that his life’s mission was to make Upper Canada a loyal British and Christian colony. To achieve these goals, he joined the province’s executive council, or cabinet, in 1817, and its legislative council in 1820, and in 1823 he became the president of the province’s education board.
By the 1820s, many of Strachan’s former pupils—the so-called family compact—were in positions of political power. With their support, he exerted his influence on behalf of the Church of England and of British constitutionalism. Believing that every nation required an established church, he worked to strengthen Anglicanism’s preferred status, including its monopoly of the Clergy Reserves—almost two and a half million acres set aside in 1791 “to support the Protestant religion.”
From his position of privilege, Strachan defended the rights of the establishment and disparaged rival dissenters as uneducated, disloyal, and fanatical. In 1826, Strachan was publicly challenged by EGERTON RYERSON, who defended the province’s Methodists and launched a vigourous attack on the political churchmanship that Strachan typified, including the tendency to reduce the church of Christ to a tool for political preferment. Arguing that there was no basis in Scripture for formal ties between church and state, Ryerson insisted that Strachan’s proposals degraded Christianity by obscuring and perverting its spiritual mission. The interdenominational strife that ensued forced Strachan to resign from the executive council and political activities in 1835.
Meanwhile, the growing Church of England in Upper Canada had long needed a local bishop, and Strachan was consecrated in 1839 at age sixty-one. Theologically, Bishop Strachan belonged to the High and Dray school, which relied on the book of Common Prayer as a corrective for excessive ritualism and evangelicalism. He also ejected ecclesiastical colonialism and strengthened his church by introducing syndical government by clergy and laity. His ambitions for a state church, a completely integrated education system, and a universal polity loyalism were, however, never achieved.
More than a century after Strachan’s passing, Canadians view him as either a saint or a scoundrel. To Strachan’s pupil and successor as bishop, A. N. Bethune, he was “a fast friend, a man of prayer” who disliked pretence. Another long-time acquaintance said that Strachan had many opponents, but no enemies. Even Ryerson, an early opponent of Strachan’s politics, called him “as thoroughly Canadian as any native of the country” and “remarkable for…self-sacrifice, devotion, downright honesty, resolute firmness, and unflagging industry.”
To many opponents, though, Strachan was a dishonest “demon” and a “hypocrite.” He was depicted as proud, arrogant, autocratic, reserved, and possessed of, or by, an iron determination. William Lyon Mackenzie nicknamed him “the Governor’s jackal,” and in an age that required thirteen loaves in a baker’s dozen as proof of a baker’s honesty Strachan was considered “His Majesty’s Baker.” Strachan’s occasional dictatorial lapses, moreover, were widely publicized.
Strachan, however, disdained popularity and said that he would defend to the death his unpopular beliefs. Those who could not, or would not, share his convictions were stigmatized as ignorant or wrong or both. He has been vilified as ambitious, manipulative, and even devious, yet his efforts were always directed toward a single goal: building a Canada loyal to the best political, religious, and educational traditions of Britain—goals to be achieved, he thought, by the Anglicanization of Canadian society. And in private life he was a loving husband and father and a caring and generous friend.
Strachan, a born organizer, was not so much an original thinker as a synthesizer of others’ best ideas, a man who informed himself fully before forming a judgement that, for him, was henceforth etched in stone. Physically slight, Strachan was nonetheless energetic and a workaholic who demanded as much effort from everyone else. At eighty-one, he travelled more than one thousand miles (three-quarters by stagecoach) and confirmed over sixteen hundred persons in forty-four churches in thirty days.
Any brief evaluation of John Strachan and his place in Canadian history is complicated by his wide-ranging interests and enigmatic character. Throughout his life, he was consistently fearless: facing invading Americans and cholera epidemics. Although supposedly an arch-conservative, he introduced student government at his Cornwall school and recommended a five-and-a-half-day workweek so that a labourer’s life could contain more than physical toil. Strachan was a mediocre sermonizer, but he published some ninety pamphlets of speeches and homilies and one arithmetic textbook. He was, in the Scottish phrase, a “lad o’pairts”—educator, politician, and churchman. A father of universities, the first architect of Ontario’s education system, the first bishop and primary formative influence in the Anglican diocese of Toronto, John Strachan was, above all, a remarkable Canadian and a faithful Anglican.