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Egerton Ryerson: The Father of Education in Ontario

Egerton Ryerson was born in the Township of Charlotteville a short distance south of the village of Vittoria, once capital of the London District, on the 24th of March 1803. He was a son of one of the pioneer United Empire Loyalist families, which settled in Norfolk County just before the turn of the l9th century.

His father Colonel Joseph Ryerson, a native of the State of New Jersey, distinguished himself for his bravery during the American Revolutionary War, having entered the ranks of the Loyalists when a mere lad of fifteen years and having taken part in many battles.

When hostilities came to an end, he and his brother, Samuel, who had also fought as a Colonel on the British side during the war, joined the trek of Loyalists to the province of New Brunswick. Here Colonel Joseph Ryerson married Mehetabel Stickney, said to have been the first child of English stock born in the colony.

In 1794, Colonel Samuel removed to Upper Canada and settled at the mouth of Young's Creek, where Port Ryerse stands today. Five years later he was followed by Colonel Joseph Ryerson and his family, who endured great hardships during the journey, as well as during the early years of their pioneer life in this province. He received a grant of 2,500 acres of land lying between Vittoria and Port Ryerse, as well as a deed of the island now known as Ryerson's Island, adjoining Long Point Island.

Colonel Joseph fathered six sons, five of whom became ministers of the gospel. Egerton was the fifth son. The three older boys took an active part in repelling the American invaders in the War of 1812. Egerton, although only ten years of age at the time, was fully imbued with the patriotic ardour of his brothers and regretted that his tender years did not permit him to share their experiences.

Young Egerton was bred to farming pursuits and expected to do a man's work long before he was man’s age. He was always given to study however, and even when busy in the fields, he would find odd moments in which to acquire useful knowledge from his books.

He also attended the District Grammar School near Vittoria at intervals. Judge James Mitchell was the able teacher of this school and he afterwards married a younger sister of Egerton.

At an early age, Egerton was strongly drawn towards that militant Christianity preached by the early Methodist Society. This fact created an estrangement between him and his father. Colonel Ryerson was an Anglican, though he already had two sons in the Methodist ministry, which he evidently considered enough.

He gave Egerton the choice of leaving the church or quitting his house. The young man revealed his independence of spirit by choosing the latter alternative.

He obtained a position as usher and assistant teacher in the District Grammar School, which he filled successfully for two years. Then his father capitulated and requested him to come home again and devote his energies to the task of farming. Egerton was proud of the fact that he could do more farm work in a day than any hired man his father ever had.

Complying with his father's request, he returned to the farm where he remained until he attained his majority. Then the urge for learning was too great and he enrolled in the Gore District School at Hamilton, where he placed himself under a talented classical master.

So diligently did he apply himself to his new studies that after six months a breakdown in his health occurred and for a time his life was despaired of. He decided at this time that if he recovered, he would devote his abilities to the Methodist ministry.

Ryerson was a religious man, and he had his first religious experience known as "Conversion" which is essential for anyone teaching Methodism. after this experience, Egerton remained teaching Methodism for several years.

Ryerson's Love Life

Although Ryerson led a very busy life, he still found time for love. Egerton first thought about marriage in 1824. This is after he became Romantic involved with a young woman named Hannah Aikman. He first met Hannah in 1821 when he went to her father's while studying. it was not until 1824 however that their relationship intensified, but both of there prospects of marriage were poor, and so their marriage was delayed. It is not known for sure, but it is said that Hannah had a small affair with one of Ryerson's brothers. Not long before 1828 Ryerson was transferred to Cobourg, but soon returned to York.

He was a founder (1829) and the first editor of the Christian Guardian, a Methodist periodical that achieved wide circulation under his guidance. His attack (1826) on the powerful Church of England clergyman John Strachan, exponent of clergy reserves and ecclesiastical control of education, was the beginning of many years of political controversy. Ryerson founded and was first president (1841) of Victoria College, Cobourg (later Victoria Univ.).

In midlife, Egerton Ryerson shifted from Methodist minister to civil servant and established a system of public education in Ontario that became a model for other English-speaking provinces. By the age of forty-one, he had served as a revivalist preacher, acted as the chief debater for the Methodists, learned five languages, been the editor of a prominent newspaper, received an honourary doctorate, and been appointed the superintendent of education for Upper Canada.

Egerton Ryerson died in February 1882 in Toronto. Ontario

United in Methodism in honouring his life and work. His conviction was that he had tried, “however imperfectly,” to serve God. as a minister, polemicist, writer, and tireless civil servant, he had sought tenaciously to inculcate in his community a fuller understanding of the import of its political, cultural, and religious traditions and a firm commitment to perpetuate them through its school and colleges. In so doing, he was faithful to the spirit of Methodism and exemplified the authority and the meaning of Christian commitment.

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