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ALDER, ROBERT, Methodist minister and Anglican priest; b. in England in 1796; d. at Gibraltar, on 31 Dec. 1873.

A compositor in his early years, Robert Alder volunteered in 1816 to become a Wesleyan Methodist missionary, evidently hoping that he would be stationed in Ceylon. Instead he was sent as the first ordained Methodist minister to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to whose 5,000 citizens, bedevilled by New Light teaching, he proclaimed a “free, full and present salvation.” He then served on several circuits in the Maritime provinces and Lower Canada before returning to England in 1827. Alder was resident in London as one of the secretaries of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society from 1833 to 1851. In this post he was responsible specifically for the supervision of the Wesleyan missions in British North America and thus exercised a strong influence on their development.

Before becoming a secretary, Alder helped in 1832–33 to effect a union between the Methodist Episcopal Church in Upper Canada and the English Wesleyan Methodist Conference. He visited Upper Canada in 1834 and again in 1839 to consolidate the union and to iron out differences between the two conferences. These latter efforts were largely unsuccessful; his intransigence on the points at issue precipitated an epic clash with the Ryerson brothers – William, Egerton*, and John – which was one factor in the dissolution of the union in 1840. In the ensuing seven-year period he supervised the operations of a separate Wesleyan district in Canada West. When his brethren decided in 1846–47 to make a settlement with the Canadian conference, he fell into line. As the representative of the parent conference, he forced the Wesleyans in Canada West to accept reunion. Ironically but fittingly he was designated as the first president of the Canada Conference after the union was re-established in 1847.

In this same period Alder watched vigorously over the growth of the Methodist organization in the Maritime provinces. Apart from regular and detailed correspondence, he visited the area in 1839 and in 1847. On the first occasion he presided at a special meeting of the missionaries from the four provinces, in which they decided to seek permission to found an academy (later Mount Allison University) and agreed to support publicly the principle that a Christian government has a responsibility to provide for the religious needs of its subjects. Ill health prevented him from holding extended meetings in 1847, but he did press directly for the formation of a Maritimes conference; the creation in 1855 of the Conference of Eastern British America owed much to his initiative and persuasion.

Similarly, although he never travelled to the immense territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company, he participated in the negotiations with that body which led to the inception in 1840 of the Wesleyan mission in the North West. So long as he was in office he guided and encouraged the missionaries – men such as James Evans*, Robert Terrill Rundle*, and the Indian minister, Peter Jacobs*. When Jacobs visited London in 1842 he lived in Alder’s home and was introduced by him to English customs and churches. It is noteworthy that Jacobs held Alder in great esteem, as did the Wesleyans in the eastern provinces.

In his limited ecclesiastical sphere, Alder played a role analogous to that of the colonial officials in the broader secular context, and, like them, he brought ambivalent attitudes to his tasks. His legacy was in consequence equally mixed. A man of vision, who, with his associates, was continuously challenged by the disparity between the magnitude of the missionary task and the society’s limited income, he sought from the outset to foster self-reliance among his brethren in British North America. The Methodists in the Maritime provinces, especially, were pressed to organize their work efficiently, to recruit lay and clerical leaders, and to raise their own funds. Yet independent initiatives on their part were regularly criticized by Alder as insubordinate or imprudent.

Underlying his curious behaviour was not only the natural paternalism and caution of the parent organization, but a concern lest Methodism in British North America not develop on sound lines. What was required, in Alder’s view, was continued deference to the Anglican establishment, a friendly relationship with the Church of England, and a strong bias toward the liturgical element in the Wesleyan tradition. This orientation was reinforced by his conservative political ideas; for him, as for many in his generation, democracy and infidelity were intimately related. Not surprisingly, therefore, he regarded the Upper Canadian Methodists as Yankees in disguise and sought to bring them fully into the Wesleyan orbit. He was strongly critical of their independent stand on the clergy reserves and on political change, and, as has been indicated, for some time tried to undermine their conference by fostering a rival Wesleyan organization in Canada West.

The tension generated by Alder and his likeminded associates was often a source of concern to his brethren, but its effects were instructive. Out of it came a deeper awareness among Canadian Methodists of the need for religious and thus secular independence. Conversely, the restraints that were imposed and the attitudes that were transmitted by the English conference helped to maintain continuity between the religious traditions of England and British North America and hence between the two cultures.

Although he was greatly respected in England and America, as indicated for example by the conferring on him in 1839 of an honorary doctorate of divinity by Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Alder resigned his position as a missionary secretary in 1851. This decision was doubtless precipitated by the deepening conflict between the Methodist reformers and the Wesleyan leaders, and the consequent discrediting of the latter. Two years later he left the Methodist ministry and was ordained in the Church of England. His effulgent oratory and measured zeal brought him prompt recognition in that body. He became a canon of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Gibraltar. It was fitting that his career ended in this great outpost of the Victorian empire.

G. S. French

Methodist Missionary Society (London), records of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (copies at UCA). Christian Guardian (Toronto), 1832–47. Minutes of the Methodist conferences, from the first, held in London by the late RevJohn Wesley, A.M., in the year 1744 (12v., London, 1812–55), IV, VII, XII. Wesleyan Methodist Magazine (London), 3rd ser., XLV (1822)–LXVII (1844). Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries. G. G. Findlay and W. W. Holdsworth, History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (5v., London, 1921–24). G. S. French, Parsons & politics: the rôle of the Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada and the Maritimes from 1780 to 1855 (Toronto, 1962). Anson Green, The life and times of the RevAnson Green, D.D. . . . (Toronto, 1877).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

G. S. French, “ALDER, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/alder_robert_10E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/alder_robert_10E.html
Author of Article:   G. S. French
Title of Article:   ALDER, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   May 21, 2024