David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Brandon's Messenger of Peace: J.S. Woodsworth

Brandon Sun, November 9, 2015 - David McConkey

War and religion usually go well together. One hundred years ago, religions enthusiastically supported the Great War. But there were a few religious dissenters. In Canada one of the most famous was J.S. Woodsworth. And a point of interest: Woodsworth grew up in Brandon.
James Shaver Woodsworth was born near Toronto on July 29, 1874. In 1885, the family moved to Brandon. His father, a Methodist minister, was in charge of the church’s missions in western Canada. The Woodsworths lived at 107 Lorne Ave. E. (Their house is no longer there.)

In 1891, Woodsworth went to Winnipeg to attend Wesley College (which later became United College, then the University of Winnipeg). Woodsworth also studied at the University of Toronto and at Oxford. Returning to Brandon, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was ordained as a Methodist minister. Woodsworth moved again to Winnipeg, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Who were the Methodists? Methodism developed from the preaching of John Wesley, an Anglican priest in 1700’s England. Canadian Methodists would later join with the majority of the country’s Presbyterians in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada.

“With me, it was not a case of ‘entering’ the church,” Woodsworth noted. “I was born and brought up in the Methodist Church and easily found my way into its ministry.” The problem? “Within a short time after my ordination,” he said, “I was much troubled.” He had found that his beliefs did not line up with his church. 

The crux of the matter: Woodsworth was interested in saving people now, not in saving their souls later. Advocating radical reform of society, he preached a social – even socialist – gospel.
Because of his theological misgivings, Woodsworth considered leaving the church. But Methodist leaders – no doubt recognizing in him a charismatic star – persuaded Woodsworth to stay. In 1907, the church offered him the job of superintendent of the All People’s Mission. It was a perfect fit. Woodsworth thrived as he helped the immigrants and the poor of Winnipeg’s North End.

When war broke out in 1914, Methodists patriotically supported their country. With few exceptions, this was the case with others in Canada and elsewhere: like Protestants, Roman Catholics and Jews in the U.K., France, Austria-Hungary and Germany; Russian Orthodox in Russia; Muslims in Turkey.  

But Woodsworth was dismayed. He condemned church acceptance of “the horror and futility and wickedness of war.” He lamented that “churches have been turned into very effective recruiting agencies.” In 1918, Woodsworth left the church for good.
Leaving the church “means a crisis in my life,” Woodsworth said. “My associations, my education, my friends, my work, my ambitions have all been connected with the church. After 22 years it is hard to go out, not knowing whither I go . . . ”

But the church’s loss became society’s gain. Woodsworth went into politics, and was elected as an Independent Labour MP. In the 1920s, he and a colleague held the balance of power and pressured the Liberal minority government to start the first old age pension program. In the 1930s, Woodsworth helped create and then became the leader of the CCF: the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. (The party later evolved into the NDP.) Woodsworth died on March 21, 1942.
What of the Woodsworth legacy here? Brandon historian Tom Mitchell regards Woodsworth as the greatest politician ever to hail from our city. “Brandon University embraces the memory of Tommy Douglas,” Mitchell said to me, “but who in Brandon celebrates the memory of Douglas's leader in the CCF – Brandon boy J.S. Woodsworth?”

From today’s perspective, Woodsworth was ahead of his time. He had radical, modern views of religion and of society. He saw science as more credible than the Bible. He saw Jesus as a pacifist and a socialist. And he saw wonder beyond the confines of church dogma and ritual.

“Religion,” Woodsworth said, “is for me not so much a personal relation between ‘me’ and ‘God’ as rather the identifying of myself with, or perhaps the losing of myself in, some larger whole.” 

Still, Woodsworth might have found a way to remain in the church – but not after the church supported the Great War. 

“I had thought that as a Christian minister I was a messenger of the Prince of Peace,” Woodsworth wrote in his letter resigning from the church. “For me, the teachings and spirit of Jesus are absolutely irreconcilable with the advocacy of war.”

* * * *
See also:  

"Following the Gleam: A Modern Pilgrim's Progress to Date," by J.S. Woodsworth

Reflections on the Great War

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

Remembering Nellie McClung

Role of Religion in War and Peace

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Citizen Active



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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