Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“A true renaissance Christian gentleman.”
Notman & Fraser / National Archives of Canada / PA-028631
Oliver Mowat remained in office as premier of Ontario for twenty-four years, longer than any other first minister in a commonwealth parliament to that date. He is perhaps best known for his successful resistance to Sir John A. MacDonald’s imposition of a strong centralist government, by advocating instead a strengthening of provincial rights.
Mowat was born in Kingston, Upper Canada, in July 1820. His father, John, was a former member of the British army who settled in Kingston with his wife, Helen. He went into business as a general merchant; and together they raised their children in the Presbyterian faith. As a youth, Oliver Mowat “studied the evidence of Christianity very earnestly … and came to the conclusion that Christianity was no cunningly devised fable, but was very truth.” From his father, Mowat learned the value of good literature and poetry, history, biography, science, and theology earned him the reputation as a true renaissance Christian gentleman.
Before his sixteenth birthday, Mowat had completed his education and successfully passed the entrance exam for the Law Society of Upper Canada. In January 1836, he began his articles of clerkship with a Kingston lawyer who was to later reach fame as Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald. Mowat enjoyed a successful legal career for almost twenty years, during which time he handled many cases ultimately decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy council in London, England, which then functioned as Canada’s final court of appeal.
In standing for federal election in 1857, Mowat committed himself to the principle of representation by population and to law reform. He declared that if elected he would do his “duty in Parliament in the spirit and with the views which become a Christian politician.” His first election saw him victorious over a seasoned political opponent by almost a two to one margin.
His duties as the postmaster general of Upper Canada prevented him from attending the Charlottetown Conference in September 1864, but he did attend the Quebec Conference a month later. There and thereafter, Mowat worked tirelessly to protect provincial rights and helped to create a truly federal system of government. He has been credited with putting the resolutions of the Quebec Conference, which eventually formed the British North America Act of 1867 and gave birth to a new nation, into “constitutional and legal shape.”
Subsequently, Mowat took a position as a Chancery Court judge. Mowat’s biographer notes that during his political career to that point “he had made many friends and few, if any, enemies; and when he left political life—forever as it seemed—it was good wishes from both sides of the House and with many regrets from the Reformers.”
A legal periodical of the day noted that as a judge “his reported decisions are clear and logical, and have always been held to be of high authority in our courts. He was an ideal Equity Judge—learned in jurisprudence, skilled in technique, familiar with precedents, but with all master of reason.” In deciding cases, Mowat often cited principals of the law as enunciated by the Christian jurist William Blackstone. Mowat, however, also moved the law along when its archaic principles seemed unfair.
In 1872, Mowat was convinced to step down from the bench to take over the leadership of the Ontario Reform movement. He served as the premier and the attorney general of Ontario from 1872 until 1895. His return to political life brought accolades from the press: “Mr. Mowat will no doubt prove acceptable to all parties. He stands very high as a Christian gentleman, and is moderate in his political views.”
Mowat’s goal was to create a strong administration that fought for provincial rights, opposing MacDonald’s attempt to make the federal government constitutional and legal procedures that Mowat had gained on the judge’s bench stood him in good stead. Mowat’s administration is remembered for constitutional litigation, much of it to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council seeking to define provincial rights under the British North America Act—the very provisions that Mowat had helped draft at the Quebec Conference. In addition, Mowat was politically adept at balancing his pro-business policies with attention to the concerns of working people.
As shown by repeated electoral success, Mowat had the support of most Ontarians in his struggles against Ottawa. He also had the admiration of many Canadians in other provinces. During his long period in office, Mowat extended the provincial franchise, laid the foundations for orderly municipal government, and acquired the mineral-rich areas of the Canadian Shield when Ontario was extended northward to Hudson’s Bay.
Throughout, Mowat displayed a sense of social justice that sprang from his Christian convictions, which, in turn, manifested themselves in his various affiliations. He became a director of the Upper Canada Bible Society and remained its vice president from 1859 to 1903, the year of his death. He remained a member of St. Andrew’s Church of Toronto during his adult life and in 1851 became a director of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. For more than twenty years, Mowat served as the president of the Evangelical Alliance.
After careers in law, politics, and judiciary, Oliver Mowat spent his concluding years, from 1897 until his death, as the lieutenant governor of Ontario. During this time, he studied theology and wrote apologetic works on the life and nature of Jesus Christ. His publications include Christianity and Some of Its Evidences, a compilation of statements concerning Christianity’s validity and conclusions that can be drawn from the life and miracles of Christ, particularly His resurrection from the dead. Mowat also wrote dents. In his writings, he held to a solidly orthodox but not denominationally narrow creed.
Lieutenant Governor Mowat died in April 1903 at age eighty-two. Tributes portrayed him as the Christian politician and Canadian statesman that he was. Representative of the many tributes were the remarks of Dr. Armstrong Black: “May God still give us men who will sway the people with moderation, who will chasten and stay the sacred name of liberty by a cultured reverence for the past … He owned himself a humble follower of Jesus Christ; enduring hardness for His sake as a good soldier, disciplining his moral nature, revering the Sabbath, haunting the sanctuary, studious of God’s Word, observed of all as a man of faith and prayer, ever giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God that things that are God’s.”