ROWELL, SARAH ALICE (Wright), social reformer and editor; b. 4 Dec. 1862 in London Township, Upper Canada, daughter of Joseph Rowell and Nancy Green; m. 26 June 1884 Benjamin Gordon Hobson Wright in London South (London), Ont., and they had four sons; d. 26 June 1930 in London.
Sarah Rowell was strongly influenced in her youth by her father, a farmer from Cumberland, England, who was a Methodist lay preacher and temperance leader, and by her maternal grandmother, a keen and intelligent conversationalist who lived with them. Educated in the village school in Arva, Sarah (known to her family as Sazie) gained some early recognition as a painter and a writer of fiction. She settled in the city of London with her family about 1883, and in 1884 she married Gordon Wright, a native of London Township then in business in Columbus, Ohio. After moving there, she resolved to serve Christ and, accepting a call to mission, began working with black children. In 1886, however, economic hardship forced the Wrights back to London, where Gordon entered the millinery trade – he would eventually set up his own hat company – and they joined Queen’s Avenue Church and later First Church (Metropolitan). As Sarah again moved to act on her beliefs, she publicly displayed the strong personality noted by the biographer of her younger brother Newton Wesley*, a lawyer and Methodist activist.
Wright focused her awe-inspiring energies and talents on three organizations with interrelated programs and many common members: the Lord’s Day Alliance (of which she was a vice-president), the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church of Canada, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. As evidence of her ongoing commitment to mission work, she accepted the presidency of the London Conference branch of the Woman’s Missionary Society and for eight years was associate editor of the Methodist Missionary Society’s Missionary Outlook (Toronto), where her evangelicalism and anti-Catholic sentiments had free rein. Her involvement in the WCTU was even more sustained.
Beginning in 1894, she held the superintendency of the literature department of the London WCTU, which placed temperance materials in public areas such as barber-shops and otherwise arranged for their wide distribution. She also headed the anti-narcotics department, which engineered campaigns against tobacco, illicit substances such as opium, and the overuse of prescription drugs. As well, she worked on a variety of other projects, including the provision of non-alcoholic refreshments at fall fairs. In 1896 she accepted the presidency of the London union, one of the strongest locals in the Ontario WCTU. (The London union would later be named after her.) In this post she exemplified the dutiful, evangelical membership of the WCTU: at her inaugural meeting, on 1 Dec. 1896, she “requested that the first act of this new regime should be one of prayer for Divine Guidance.” She continued to take an active role in devotional exercises at all levels of the WCTU and was a key figure in Methodist affairs in London. In 1906, after lectures there on new approaches to biblical criticism, which troubled many, she appealed to the Reverend Albert Carman* for direction on this “perplexing question,” but her faith never wavered.
In 1895 her election as recording secretary for the Ontario WCTU had made her an essential executive member, responsible for its detailed annual reports. Between 1897 and 1905 she also took on the tasks of corresponding secretary, a position of great importance since the provincial body was heavily dependent on the mails to exert pressure on public officials. Her marked success in fund-raising throughout the last decade of the 19th century and well into the 20th is reflected in the WCTU journal, Canadian White Ribbon Tidings (London). Within the Dominion WCTU, she occupied the positions of vice-president from 1903 and president from 1905 until her death; in recognition of her service she was made a life member of the dominion organization (1903), an honorary life member (1909), and a memorial member (1930). In addition, she was a vice-president of the World’s League Against Alcoholism.
To replace the WCTU’s defunct periodical, the Woman’s Journal, Wright had begun the Canadian White Ribbon Tidings in 1904 with another WCTU stalwart, May Rowland Thornley of London. Although editorial control was contested by the Ontario and dominion levels, the journal flourished under Wright’s able direction as editor, proof-reader, and business manager. When she became president of the dominion body, she was unable to carry the added burden of producing the paper. Not surprisingly, it proved difficult to find a successor with her range of abilities. In 1906 Tidings formally became the journal of the Ontario body and in 1910, during Wright’s presidency, the Dominion WCTU launched Canada’s White Ribbon Bulletin (Ottawa) for the discussion of pan-Canadian issues. In the 1920s Wright would resume her association with Tidings as its editor-in-chief.
In all of these capacities, Wright, who excelled as a speaker, stood as an implacable foe of alcohol, tobacco, and domestic violence, one whose talks and writings were laced with feminist and sometimes nativist argument. Like many temperance reformers of her era, she believed the menace of alcohol to be so monumental that the combined forces of several organizations were needed to ensure triumph. Hence, she belonged to many groups and supported even more. A known suffragist, in 1905 she insisted, as a member of the Ontario WCTU, on the municipal enfranchisement of qualified women. She backed the newly formed National Equal Franchise Union in 1914, and spoke that year in Ottawa at the Social Service Congress, which, she concluded, confirmed the link between suffrage, temperance, and the emerging Social Gospel. In November 1926 she was the featured lecturer at a public meeting in Peterborough’s Grand Opera House sponsored by the Women’s Prohibition Committee; the local WCTU resolved to attend en masse in support of their president. In 1929 she was one of five women appointed to serve on an international advisory council of the World’s WCTU, of which she had been named a world memorial member the previous year. In addition to providing temperance leadership, she served as a vice-president of the National Council of Women of Canada and of the Social Service Council of Canada. During the Great War, in which at least one of her sons served overseas, she was first vice-president of the Western Ontario Red Cross, and in 1918 she participated in the Women’s War Conference in Ottawa, organized by her brother Newton as chair of the federal War Committee.
Her final years were filled with challenges and unrelenting activity. In 1927, while she was lecturing in British Columbia after the annual meeting of the Dominion WCTU, her husband, also a temperance advocate, died suddenly in London of a heart attack. It was at this meeting that she had lamented the introduction of the controlled sale of liquor in several provinces: “If ever we needed a prayer-hearing, covenant-keeping God, it is now, when our hopes for Canada are for the Present moment immersed in a sea of great and almost universal defeat.” Unswayed, in June 1930 she addressed numerous audiences during the electoral campaign in New Brunswick, where control had been adopted in 1927; on 24 June she still had the energy to speak to the WCTU branch in Ingersoll, Ont. Two days later she was dead. She was buried from Knox United Church in London.
Sarah Wright had long been regarded by the press as “one of the brightest” of Canadian women. Indeed, she gives evidence of having had a keen intelligence, an exceptionally strong sense of duty, and marked abilities to work with like-minded reformers in many associated causes to good effect.
AO, F 885, MU 8394.1, 8396.11, 8404.9–12, 8440.6–7 (mfm.); Minute-books of selected Ontario Woman’s Christian Temperance Union locals (mfm.); RG 22-321, no.20234; RG 80-5-0-127, no.7316; RG 80-8-0-1068, no.21832. LAC, RG 31, C1, 1901, Westminster Township (London South), Ont., div.4: 13 (mfm. at AO). Univ. of Western Ont. Arch., J. J. Talman Regional Coll. (London), Minutes of the London Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1893–1906. London Free Press, 24–25, 28 June 1927; 27 June, 1 July 1930. Richard Allen, The social passion: religion and social reform in Canada, 1914–28 (Toronto, 1971; repr. 1990). C. L. Bacchi, Liberation deferred? The ideas of the English-Canadian suffragists, 1877–1918 (Toronto, 1983). Canadian annual rev., 1913: 432. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). S. A. Cook, “Through sunshine and shadow”: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, evangelicalism, and reform in Ontario, 1874–1930 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1995). R. R. Gagan, A sensitive independence: Canadian Methodist women missionaries in Canada and the Orient, 1881–1925 (Montreal and Kingston, 1992). B. D. Merriman, The emigrant ancestors of a lieutenant governor of Ontario ([Toronto], 1993). Margaret Prang, N. W. Rowell, Ontario nationalist (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1975). Mariana Valverde, The age of light, soap, and water: moral reform in English Canada, 1885–1925 (Toronto, 1991). Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1878–1978, London centennial ([London, 1979?]; copy in Univ. of Western Ont. Arch., J. J. Talman Regional Coll.). Women of Canada (Montreal, 1930).