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Manitoba History: Review: Hugh Dempsey (editor), Heaven is Near the Rocky Mountains: The Journal and Letters of Thomas Woolsey

by Rev. S. C. Sharman
St. Andrew’s On-the-Red

Number 23, Spring 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Hugh Dempsey, ed., Heaven Is Near The Rocky Mountains: The Journal and Letters of Thomas Woolsey, 1855-1869, Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 219 pp., illus. 1989. ISBN 0-919224-89-X

Heaven is near the Rocky Mountains and so too was the missionary Rev. Thomas Woolsey of the Methodist Church. On 3 October 1857, Woolsey recorded in his journal that, “The Rocky Mountains, with their ‘cloud-capped’ and snow-clad summits, seem very near, although the utmost range is said to be three or four day’s journey from this place” (p. 63). His wanderings across the Western Plains in search of Native people to convert to Christianity had brought him within sight of the Rocky Mountains and within memory of his earlier hopes and dreams. As he prepared to leave London, Ontario for Fort Edmonton he told a conference of his Methodist brethren: “I do not regret the step I have taken. Thank God, heaven is as near to the Rocky Mountains as to this place, and it matters not from what portion of earth we set sail, as long as we ultimately reach the haven of eternal repose” (p. 2).

Thomas Woolsey was one of the lesser lights of Methodist missionary work in Western Canada. He came between the pioneering efforts of James Evans at Norway House, Robert Rundle at Fort Edmonton and the better known work of his successors, George and John McDougall. Woolsey spent nine years (1855 to 1864) working among the Cree and Stony Indians around Fort Edmonton. Hitherto, he has been known chiefly from references contained in the books of his successor, John McDougall. Now Hugh A. Dempsey has gathered his extant writings together in this book, Heaven Is Near the Rocky Mountains. The book consists of an introduction describing Woolsey’s life and career as a Methodist missionary, as well as a collection of his journals and letters. It is, unfortunately, an incomplete collection. As Dempsey tells us, Woolsey “did not write books, nor did he leave a body of original journals and diaries for historians to ponder over” (p. xxviii). Much has been lost that modern historians might wish to see including, for example, Woolsey’s register of baptisms and marriages. Dempsey has carefully gathered the materials for this work from a variety of sources: periodicals such as The Nor’Wester and The Christian Guardian, collections of papers in various archives such as the Hardisty Papers in the Glenbow Archives, and material from the papers and reports of the Palliser Expedition which was interested in Woolsey’s records of the weather. Dempsey has attempted to collect all of Woolsey’s writings that bear on his career as a missionary in Western Canada. We are tempted to ask whether all this careful collecting was worthwhile. Woolsey is, after all, a very conventional missionary, interested in Christianizing and “civilizing” the Indians. He watches over them paternalisticly and wishes them to adopt settled, agricultural lives. Describing the “transformation” of one man, Woolsey tells us (p.48) that he

was formerly a pagan, had two wives (sisters) and was greatly addicted to the firewater ‘but’ he is now a christian, the husband of one wife, and a total abstainer from the intoxicating cup.

How do the writings of one more missionary, whose vision is so coloured by the assumptions of his time and calling, increase our knowledge of the history of Western Canada? Dempsey argues (p. xxix):

Their importance—and the reason for them being published—is not simply as a record of Woolsey’s missionary endeavors. Rather, they form a significant account of Western Canadian history at a period when there were few recorders. Other than fur trade records, which tend to be businesslike and sparse, the only accounts available are from casual visitors, a few literate residents like Peter Erasmus, H. J. Moberly, and Isaac Cowie, and the clergymen of all faiths.

Dempsey also argues that publishing Woolsey’s writings helps to form a more “insightful and sympathetic picture” of the missionary. Woolsey is a more significant person that hitherto realized, Dempsey claims, and one who (p. v):

Led an active nine-year campaign to gain the conversion of Crees and Stoneys and for a time he was the only effective opposition to Oblates and their popular priest, Albert Lacombe. Woolsey converted one of his church’s martyrs, Maskepetoon, and laid a solid groundwork for the later—and more publicized—efforts of the father and son team of George and John McDougall.

This reviewer found Woolsey’s writings valuable for the light they shed on, among other things, his relations with other Christian missionaries, chiefly Oblates of the Roman Catholic Church and members of the Church Missionary Society of the Anglican church. The first he deeply disliked and distrusted, with the exception of Fr. Lacombe. With the second he enjoyed the most cordial relations. These writings also provide a glimpse of the labours of a Methodist missionary who, despite Dempsey’s careful work, remains a somewhat shadowy figure in the history of Western Canada.

Methodist missionary John McDougall (seated at left) with Indians from the Fort Edmonton area, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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