BRIGGS, WILLIAM, Methodist minister and publisher; b. 9 Sept. 1836 in Banbridge (Northern Ireland), son of Thomas Briggs and Mary ——; m. 27 Aug. 1868 Rosalie Marian Clarke (d. 1919) in Montreal, and they had a son; d. 5 Nov. 1922 in Port Credit, Ont.
William Briggs was born into a Scottish-Irish family. His mother died when he was six. Around this time the family moved to Liverpool, England, where Briggs was educated at Mount Street Grammar School and Liverpool Collegiate Institute. He subsequently acquired some commercial training, but soon rejected the idea of a business career. According to the Reverend John Saltkill Carroll*, Briggs experienced “an undeniable conversion” in boyhood, and he was soon preaching in and around Liverpool. He immigrated to the Canadas in his early twenties and was introduced into the Canada Conference of the Methodist Church. Received on trial as a lay preacher at Durham (Ormstown), Lower Canada, in 1859, he was ordained into the ministry in 1863. During the next 15 years he served at churches in Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, London, Cobourg, and Belleville.
By the late 1870s Briggs was at the height of a successful ministerial career. In 1876 he had become pastor at the centre of Canadian Methodism: Metropolitan Church in Toronto. Though little is known of his religious or social views, he was a popular preacher, by all accounts one who combined theology with humour and pragmatism. “While others have been best at first, and have gradually degenerated into mere dawdling, goody-goody talkers,” one newspaper reported, “Mr. Briggs has gone steadily forward in pulpit power, in broad mental culture, and in general excellence and influence.” His administrative abilities had been recognized with appointments as financial secretary (1874) and secretary (1876-77) of the Toronto Conference and chairman of the district (1875).
In February 1879, as part of a reorganization of the church’s publishing wing in Toronto, the Methodist Book and Publishing House, Briggs was elected book steward, or business manager. The house was then a small bookstore and plant that sold bibles, hymn books, catechisms, commentaries, biographies, and Sunday school books, printed such publications as the Christian Guardian, and did a small amount – two or three titles a year – of original publishing. Under Briggs’s leadership, it was to become one of the most important Canadian publishing houses by the end of the century.
As book steward, Briggs continued to concentrate on church-related material; the output of Sunday school publications, in particular, expanded greatly. However, with the house firmly established as a profitable business and ensconced in new quarters in 1889, his energies turned to the development of a secular list. The number of British and American works that it reprinted rose dramatically; non-religious works appeared under the imprint “William Briggs.” The firm also entered the school-textbook market and was active in commercial job printing.
Perhaps most important, Briggs oversaw a significant increase in the number of Canadian publications. By the 1890s his house was publishing about 20 original works each year. Some were about religion or were written by Methodist scholars, among them George John Blewett*, but new subject areas were also developed, especially history, fiction, and poetry. Most of the titles in these areas dealt with Canadian subjects. Indeed, the Methodist Book and Publishing House consciously presented itself as a publisher of Canadian works, frequently emphasizing the patriotic and nation-building aspects of its activities. Briggs was aware that a market was developing for books by Canadian authors and dealing with Canadian themes, and his success lay in his ability to respond to this cultural nationalism. Possessed of sharp critical and commercial faculties and capable of gauging public tastes, Briggs provided opportunities for Canadian authors, offering them encouraging editors such as Edward Samuel Caswell*, and he trained a new generation of publishers. Among the bestsellers to emanate from his house were Songs of a sourdough (1907) by Robert William Service* and Sowing seeds in Danny (1908) by Helen Letitia McClung [Mooney*].
Briggs’s involvement with books did not curtail his participation in other areas of the church. He continued to preach and was a delegate to every General Conference between 1874 and 1918. As well, he was a delegate to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States (Washington, 1882) and to ecumenical conferences in Washington (1891) and London (1901). Awarded an honorary dd in 1886 by Victoria University in Cobourg, he was a member of its board of regents in 1906–7. He also held positions outside the church: he became a member of Toronto’s Board of Trade in 1898 and served terms as president of the Master Printers’ and Bookbinders’ Association of Toronto.
Accounts of Briggs often mentioned his blend of personal sincerity, geniality, and commercial aggressiveness. In 1880 John Carroll described him physically: medium in height and weight, “oval yet full-faced, with a noticeably well-developed head, beyond the average size.” “As a man,” Carroll continued, “he is modest without bashfulness; as a Christian, religious without cant; as a preacher, fervent and eloquent without rant; as a platform speaker, ready, pointed, and pertinent; and as a Connexional business man, capable and successful without being fussy and pretentious.”
In the last decade of Briggs’s stewardship, original publishing declined. He seemed more concerned with the erection of a substantial new building in 1913-15 and the sale of foreign books (agency publishing), a valuable part of the business. The General Conference named him book steward emeritus in 1918, when he was succeeded by the Reverend Samuel Wesley Fallis, and he stepped down altogether in 1919. On 1 July of that year the Methodist Book and Publishing House was renamed Ryerson Press after its founder, Egerton Ryerson*, and in 1920 it began a fresh phase under its new editor, Lorne Albert Pierce*. At a time when religious impulses were expressing themselves more and more in secular form, Briggs had steered the house away from its earlier focus on creed and narrow denominationalism and had been instrumental in its major expansion. As the Bookseller and Stationer (Toronto) commented, during his career as steward the name of William Briggs “became a household word wherever books were read in Canada.”
Briggs died in 1922 at his son’s home in Port Credit and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. He left an estate worth more than $80,524, a personal testament to the sound business sense of a popular Methodist preacher.
ANQ-M, CE601-S109, 27 août 1868. AO, RG 22-359, no.4066. UCC-C, Fonds 513/1, 83.061C. Christian Guardian, 16 April 1919. Daily Mail and Empire, 6 Nov. 1922. Bookseller and Stationer (Toronto), 38 (1922): 62. Christina Burr, “The business development of the Methodist Book and Publishing House, 1870-1914,” OH, 85 (1993): 251-71. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). J. [S.] Carroll, “The Rev. William Briggs,” Canadian Methodist Magazine (Toronto and Halifax), 12 (July–December 1880): 97-99. The chronicle of a century, 1829-1929: the record of one hundred years of progress in the publishing concerns of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in Canada, ed. L. A. Pierce (Toronto, 1929). Dana Garrick, “The United Church of Canada Board of Publication collection: a major resource for the history of the book in Canada,” Biblio. Soc. of Canada, Papers (Toronto), 32 (1994): 11-30. G. L. Parker, The beginnings of the book trade in Canada (Toronto, 1985). L. A. Pierce, The house of Ryerson, 1829-1954 (Toronto, 1954). The Ryerson imprint: a check-list of the books and pamphlets published by the Ryerson Press since the foundation of the house in 1829, comp. W. S. Wallace (Toronto, 1954). Judith St John, Firm foundations: a chronicle of Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church and her Methodist origins, 1795–1984 (Toronto, 1988). Standard dict. of Canadian biog. (Roberts and Tunnell), vol.2.