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Manitoba History: Beatrice Brigden and Radicalism in the Methodist Church

by Tom Mitchell
Brandon University

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Early in the twentieth century, as Canadian society was transformed by the forces of industrialization and urbanization, and the problems of an industrial society multiplied in Canada’s growing urban centres, the influence of the social gospel, already evident in Canada in the late 1800s, spread among the leaders of Canada’s evangelical Protestant churches. During the Great War the central tenets of the social gospel were transformed into a critique of Canadian capitalism and the character of Canadian society. The influence of this critique in shaping the views of Canada’s Protestants was evident in the fall of 1918 when, during its General Conference in Hamilton, the Methodist Church adopted a program of social reconstruction which called for the dismantling of the capitalist system and its replacement with a new co-operative social order.

Beatrice Brigden and Rev. A. E. Smith were fervent supporters of the Church’s new radicalism. Brigden was born in Deloraine, Manitoba in 1888. In 1913 she was recruited by Dr. T. A. Moore, General Secretary of the Methodist Department of Social Service and Evangelism, to lecture and counsel young Methodist women on sexual hygiene and social problems. She spent the war years travelling Canada in this capacity. Rev. A. E. Smith, a native of Ontario, came west at the invitation of James Woodsworth, Methodist Superintendent of Missions in Western Canada, to train as a Methodist minister. In 1893 he joined Woodsworth’s son, James Shaver Woodsworth, at Wesley College. In the years following his graduation he served in various Manitoba communities. He came to Brandon as minister of First Methodist Church in 1912.

In the post-war labour crisis that swept Canada, Brigden and Smith associated themselves with the cause of labour. In Brandon Smith’s vigorous support of the Sympathetic Strike, initiated by the city’s workers’ in support of the Winnipeg General Strike, provoked leading members of his congregation to seek his resignation. On 8 June 1919 Smith left First Methodist Church and became the pastor of the Peoples’ Church, a labour church modelled after one organized in Winnipeg by William Ivens in 1918. Brigden followed Smith from First Methodist to the Peoples’ Church and became one of its principal organizers.

The Methodist Church came to view the labour church movement as a threat to its congregational integrity. A liaison developed between Dr. T. A. Moore and C. F. Hamilton of the Royal North-West Mounted Police. Their mutual hostility to the labour church movement caused Moore and Hamilton to cooperate with one another in the collection of information on the labour church movement in the west. In July 1919, Moore wrote to Brigden seeking information about Smith and the Brandon Peoples’ Church. Brigden’s response appears below. She had no reason to expect that Moore would share its contents with the Royal North-West Mounted Police.

This letter, and additional correspondence between Brigden and Moore, is contained in the Brigden Papers, MG14 C19 held in the Archives of Manitoba. Moore’s correspondence with Hamilton is available at the United Church Archives, Victoria University Archives, University of Toronto (The Board of Temperance and Moral Reform, the Methodist Church Files 122 and 123 Box 7).

July 26, 1919

Dear Dr. Moore[,]

In response to [your] request for information re Mr. Smith and his effort in connection with a working man’s movement in this city. May I say while I shall try to write with as little bias as possible, you will remember Mr. Smith has been for a long time a very good friend of mine. I shall write quite freely. From my chatter in your offices you will remember again that official conventionalities have not weighed very heavily upon me yet.

The Labor crisis through which we have just passed affected the people of the West in a very decided way. Feeling ran so high that every man was compelled to find a place in either one group or the other. Even more than the war did this crisis make our people think.

The strike seemed to be called prematurely. Hence some of the strong unions such as the running trades were undecided. There were Red Leaders in plenty—but from the beginning there was evidenced a strong tendency toward moderation. Mr. Smith then easily became a much sought after and well loved comrade and advisor of the men who were making real sacrifices for their cause.

There were a number of meetings held in public Parks—open to all. Our family attended most of them and heard nearly all of Mr. Smith’s addresses. His words were always brave words of encouragement and the ideas thrust out were constructive in nature. He advised the men to be quiet, to keep out of crowds, to stay at home and off the streets. Yet it was from one of those very meetings a man deliberately walked uptown and said Mr. Smith had urged men to break into shops on Rosser Ave. and carry away whatever they wished. Mr. Smith was the only public man who tried in any way to give leadership and wise counsel to the strikers. Not an M.P. [,] an M.L.A., nor a professional man came forward to advise the crowd whom so many were ready to denounce as ignorant and inefficient.

The second Sunday before Conference the strikers asked for a religious service in a park. At the close of Mr. Smith’s service at First Church he went to Rideau Park where probably two thousand people a great many foreign born had gathered and what thoughtful person can ever forget their singing “Lead Kindly Light” and “Nearer My God to Thee,” the bowed heads hats off while a Methodist preacher prayed or their breathless listening while he talked about the man Jesus. Yet the next day a man who stands high in Methodist Officialdom in my presence sneered at “Smith and his rowdies.”

There was very real sacrifice on the part of the strikers. In spite of any or all disagreeable features the strike laid bare the big heart and idealism of the workingman and also showed very plainly where Gov’s and leading local church officials stood. Are you surprised then that the sensitive imagination of such as Mr. Smith was touched into eager response[?]

Through the winter a peoples’ forum had been managed by a local committee at which Mr. Dobson, Mr. Ivens, Mr. Smith, and several professors from Brandon Baptist College had been the chief speakers. For several months this committee had been discussing the possibility of starting a Peoples’ Church. The strike thus proved the occasion, not the cause to be sure for the organization of such a church. Just before Conference the plans had been gotten into such order that the organizers were able to ask Mr. Smith if he would become their pastor and before leaving for Winnipeg he had decided to ask permission to be left without station for one year to undertake this work.

You are no doubt familiar with the Conference proceedings. Two thirds of the Stationing Committee favored Mr. Smith’s request. But a small group of men, Thompson of Young Church, Dr. Armstrong, Principal Ferrier, Mr. Flatt and others were apparently determined that the request should not be granted so the affair was dragged into a ministerial session and the vote stood 36 - 32 against.

A number of Mr. Smith’s friends and forward looking men had gone home. The President refused to allow him opportunity to present his case. There was only one thing left for him to do that was to resign—which he did. I attended conference and of course heard Mr. Smith and his proposal much discussed. Upper most in some men’s minds lay the anxiety to believe some very absurd stories that had found their way into Winnipeg South District meeting. Such as the congregation at First Church becoming so disgusted with one of Mr. Smith’s sermons that all walked out and four men carried their pastor kicking and scratching out and threw him into the street. In most correct Ecclesiastical forum and swathed in a “Blessed are the meek,” expression and verbosely proclaiming their brotherly love, they spread the stories and hoped for a positive reply ... [They said] they feared for Methodism—not a word about the unchurched masses only a sort of drowning man’s frenzy for more Methodists—frankly I came away ashamed and disgusted with the whole sham.

During the period of the strike four or five members of the Official Board of First Church became much alarmed—a meeting was called and for vituperation, reviling and unreasonable wrath I judge from reports a parallel would be hard to find. They proposed preventing Mr. Smith, “the Bolshevist,” from speaking again in the church. However a majority of the Board were opposed to any such action and were ready to stand loyally by their pastor. Unfortunately for First Methodist Church roll the news was quickly spread abroad and several families who would in all probability have not left the church have gone over to the Peoples’ Church. Mr. Smith will no doubt be blamed.

S.E. Clement M.L.A. may be quoted to you. It is true he is bitterly opposing Mr. Smith. But Mr. Clement has proven a most inefficient representative—a mere party follower and there is wide dissatisfaction. He knows Mr. Smith’s attitude and fears him. Mr. Clement revealed the source of his venom at Conference in conversation with a minister when he said “Smith must return to Brandon a discredited minister, if he doesn’t he is likely to unseat both Whidden and myself.” So the thoughtful churchgoer dominated by a disgruntled politician and a loquacious horse jockey, supposing they have money, is repugnant. To show that the row was confined to a very small number of the congregation a purse of $115.00 in gold was handed the Smith’s when leaving, as large a purse as has ever been presented to a retiring pastor’s family.

The Peoples’ Church congregation is entirely working class in its personnel—railroaders predominating. The membership numbers about two hundred. The collection last Sunday evening was $93.00 over $60.00 in envelopes. The Church has promised Mr. Smith $3,000.00 salary and he rents his own house. A large well furnished house was secured for them and I judge the Smiths are more comfortable than ever before. The house rents at $40.00 per month with furnishings.

The plan of services is after this manner. A meeting Sunday morning for Religious Education following the plan of Dr. Soars and others connected with Chicago University using Dr. Coe’s text books. The evening service for the discussion of the Social Gospel. There are people from every denomination on the membership role. The Ways and Means Committee have good hopes for securing the Congregational Church for Sunday morning and week night meetings. A downtown hall will be necessary to accommodate the Sunday evening crowds. The probabilities are that Mr. Smith will have ere long the largest congregation in town if that is not already true.

I have watched the methods and spirit of organization very closely and it is folly to say these people are not sincere. Am enclosing a little leaflet issued early in June, it speaks for itself. Some folks will no doubt criticize adversely the basis of membership. But past prejudice fled from me when I glanced about and saw what an opportunity was afforded. In one sweep of the eye I saw three men—one who has served time for attempting to murder his wife—second an influential Jew—third an Austrian Greek Catholic who bears the nickname of “King of the Austrians,” on the flats he holds the key to every Austrian home—all three men were eager and susceptible so far as I could judge. Let who cares to criticize adversely, I shall not take the risk.

I may say I am greatly interested. Mr. Smith is attempting the thing that I have thought about for the last ten years and talked about for five.

Communications have come from Calgary and Saskatoon announcing the beginning of such Peoples’ Churches in those cities and asking Mr. Smith for help in organization. So we see this movement is in no way local. It looks to me as though the organized church has missed her opportunity and that the Methodist Church is repeating in the case of her Labor movement such a stupid blunder as she made in the case of Booth of the Salvation Army and probably so far as the Holiness movement was concerned, though opinions may differ greatly about the latter. The Peoples’ Church or Labor Church whatever you have in mind to call them will receive leadership from the ranks of Methodism, make no mistake about that, it is part of the genius of the Methodist Church to produce such. After General Conference I almost felt the Millenium had come and saw a great future for Methodism, but to my amazement I find the local churches are in most cases repudiating or are ready to do so to the General Conference program.

Everywhere Methodists are saying “... the Methodist Church is a peoples’ church.” That is by no means true locally for when an ex-convict, not the one mentioned, and some Ruthenians found their way into First Church Brandon such loud remarks were passed about their undesirability that none of them ever returned. The wonder to me is that these people are not so embittered that they turn their backs on religion forever. It is not a matter for regret that the General Conference program did not have a very vigorous interpretation during the winter so that our people might have been prepared in some way for the crisis of this spring.

It would hurt me greatly to be disloyal to the Methodist Church it has given me opportunities and I cannot forget. But I can think of no greater offence and that is to be disloyal to the common people to whom I belong and no College training or official position or Government House can make me anything else than a daughter of the common people. The dialect of the common people is in my speech and the burden of their ignorance and helplessness, their worth and their aspirations is on my heart and I never expect to forsake them—so such time as I am in Brandon I shall work in the Peoples’ Church.

I have just learned that President Platt has changed his mind and would now like to grant Mr. Smith his request. The case has also been appealed by Principal Riddell. I do not know what Mr. Smith’s attitude will be.

In the mean time Mr. Smith is quite outspokenly the envy of every non-conformist minister in town. The membership of the new congregation is over seventy-five percent men. Surely this mere experiment would be worth while if only to see if a way could be found to hold a crowd of men together in a church. There is strong yeast in the pot today and I feel my patience quite gone at times when I see some of the blind men trying to mix the dough. After looking so carefully as possible over the situation I have concluded that the wise thing for the church to do would be to release such men as are necessary and capable and willing to undertake such work as Mr. Smith, Mr. Woodsworth, and Mr. Ivens are doing. Though the latter may not have much sympathy from many people, I believe Mr. Woodsworth is ready to undertake special educational work, and that the movement will gather strength very rapidly. There is no gainsaying the Mathers Commission report and other reports that have appeared in the daily newspapers. The hope of the church now is to stand for justice for all. The preaching of a full-orbed morality alone can meet the demands of the common people.

Am writing this in Confidence as you have written me, knowing however that my oration in the hands of General Conference Officers will be used partially or wholly from one end of the Communion to the other as the officers see fit. But you are free to do so if my writing can assist you in any way.

Sincerely Yours
Beatrice Brigden

Page revised: 27 June 2012

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