RYERSON, GEORGE, militia officer, teacher, Methodist preacher, and Catholic Apostolic minister; b. probably in March 1791 in Sunbury County, N.B., eldest son of Joseph Ryerson and Mehetable Stickney; m. first in 1820 or 1821 Sarah (d. 10 July 1829), sister of John Rolph*, and they had one son and one daughter; m. secondly 15 June 1836 Sophia Symes of London, England, and they had one daughter; m. thirdly in 1853 Isabella Dorcas, daughter of the American jurist and politician Ansel Sterling, and they had one son, George Ansel Sterling*; d. 19 Dec. 1882 in Toronto, Ont.
George Ryerson was about eight when his loyalist family left New Brunswick to settle in Norfolk County, Upper Canada, on a generous land grant on the shores of Lake Erie. George’s father had come to rejoin his brother, Samuel, and the two families set about establishing themselves as part of the local gentry. Being the eldest son, George, with his bookish tastes, no doubt influenced his younger brothers, and Colonel Ryerson was anything but pleased that William*, John*, Egerton, and Edway Marcus followed George’s example rather than that of the second son, Samuel, the only one to whom farming appealed. Despite their father’s objection to their devotion to reading, the boys attended the London District Grammar School near their farm. If relations between George and his father were strained, they improved quickly when, at the age of 21, George joined his father, and brothers William and John, to fight for their king.
In the tense months which preceded the declaration of war in June 1812, the militia in Norfolk under Colonel Joseph Ryerson was reorganized into two regiments, both of which established flank companies. The 1st Norfolk militia, with the elder Ryerson continuing in command, listed Lieutenant George Ryerson as second in command of their flank company. In August 1812 this company played a significant role under Major-General Isaac Brock* at the capture of Detroit; it was charged with constructing the masked batteries which fired the only shots of the engagement. Ryerson had scarcely had time to savour the victory when he was further honoured by being chosen to carry dispatches containing the news to Colonel Thomas Talbot*.
After being stationed at the Sugar Loaf, Ryerson and his company moved on in mid November to Fort Erie. They were placed in support of the batteries at Frenchman Creek, where they had their first taste of combat. On 28 November the Americans launched a fierce pre-dawn attack on the batteries; before being repulsed they inflicted heavy casualties, one of whom was Ryerson. A shot hit him in the face, entering his mouth, knocking out several teeth, and exiting through the right side of his badly fractured jaw. For days he could barely swallow, for months he could not speak, and it was not until several years later that the wound healed. Even then the bone in his jaw never set properly and the lasting effects of the wound “impaired his utterance, and spoiled the ease of his elocution.” Determined to return to combat, in the spring of 1813 Ryerson had “enlisted men for a lieutenancy” in the Volunteer Incorporated Militia Battalion and by summer was back on active duty. He participated in the battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams (1813) as well as Fort Erie and Lundy’s Lane (1814) before being “seized with typhus fever, from which he almost died.” This ended his active involvement in the war although he was listed as in service until the regiment disbanded in April 1816. He then received a land grant in Norfolk as well as an award of £56 9s. 9d. from the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada; although he attempted to obtain a government pension, the Medical Board of Upper Canada, despite the severity of his injuries, found that he was “not labouring under any Disability.”
It was probably during his convalescence that Ryerson, a member of the Church of England, decided to join its clergy. He was therefore not caught up in the tide of Methodism which, to the great distress of their father, swept away his brothers John and William, but rather proceeded to the United States to obtain a classical education. When he returned to Canada, expecting to be ordained, Ryerson found that his impaired speech coupled with an edict from England calling for restraint in increasing the clergy’s numbers, had caused the deferment of his preliminary examination and effectively ruined his chances. Back in Norfolk he took possession of his land grant, became the teacher in the grammar school, and gave early “indications of taking a prominent part in the life of Upper Canada.” On 31 July 1821 he was appointed a justice of the peace for the London District, and in the general election in 1824, no doubt proclaiming the Reform ideals which he was to hold throughout his life, he was an unsuccessful candidate in Norfolk for the House of Assembly. Late in 1827 he sailed for London to attempt to straighten out complications which had arisen in the settlement of the estate of his wife’s mother. From the time of his rejection by the Church of England until his departure, two factors seem to have dominated his actions: his growing closeness to his brother Egerton and, more importantly, his search for a practical expression of his Christian energy.
Despite George’s inability to provide much direction to his own affairs, he was influential in those of Egerton. He was probably the “kind friend” who supplied his teenage brother with books of a classical nature to memorize, and examined him on them afterwards. In 1821, when their father’s opposition to active involvement in Methodism forced Egerton to leave home, George made him an assistant at the school for two years. Further “guided by his brother,” Egerton entered the Gore District Grammar School to continue his classical studies in 1824. George seems to have played a paternalistic role in Egerton’s development, and his counsel continued to be pre-eminent with Egerton until the elder Ryerson withdrew from public affairs.
Before George finally accepted his inability to penetrate the ranks of the Church of England clergy, he displayed an admirable degree of creativity in attempting entry. In 1816 he had founded the Vittoria Sunday School, one of the first such enterprises in the province, and by April 1826 was involved in the Sunday School Union Society, planned to encompass the entire province. He unsuccessfully applied to Sir Peregrine Maitland* for patronage of the project on 9 June of that year, doubtless with an eye to his own involvement in a vastly expanded network of Sunday schools. The previous year he had applied to John Strachan* for a missionary posting at the Grand River Reserve and, after Strachan’s suggestion that immediate endeavour among these Indians might influence any decision, Ryerson began to visit the reserve. But Ryerson’s further suggestion to Maitland that he be appointed permanent Anglican missionary at the reserve also fell upon deaf ears and it was probably at this time that George abandoned hope of a position in the established church and decided to follow a course he had no doubt been considering for some time; he would join his brothers in the Methodist Episcopal Church. By late 1826 he was questioning Egerton concerning the latter’s work for the Methodists among the Indians, and in February 1827 George preached at the quarterly Methodist meeting at the Credit River Indian Reserve. This informal connection was interrupted later in 1827 when George set off on his first trip to Britain.
Shortly after his arrival early in 1828 George received a letter from a committee headed by Jesse Ketchum* asking him to act as the agent for a petition, signed by 8,000 Upper Canadians, presenting the arguments of non-Anglicans to counter those contained in Strachan’s “Ecclesiastical Chart.” A select committee of the British House of Commons had been formed to investigate the civil government in Canada, including the disposal of the clergy reserves and the charter for a university in Upper Canada; at issue was the number of practising members of each denomination in the province. Ryerson presented the petition to the house in May and gave testimony before the committee in June before returning home. The report which the committee issued later that year was favourable to the non-Anglicans and Charles Bruce Sissons* claimed that Ryerson “was the first of the Canadian reformers . . . to seek redress at the foot of the throne, and perhaps not the least effective.”
His connection with the Methodists was formalized shortly after his return when, on 8 Oct. 1828, he was received on trial and stationed at the Credit River mission. In the light of future events it is ironic that on this occasion he was placed on a committee with William Case* and James Richardson* “to correspond with the British Conference, in order to establish a friendly relation and intercourse between the two connexions.” Ryerson dedicated himself to his work among the Indians for slightly more than two years; he was transferred to the Grand River mission in 1830. During this period he continued to sit on the committee and was seriously considered for the position of editor of the Christian Guardian when it was founded in 1829. After much discussion Egerton was chosen as editor but at his request George contributed articles and advice over the next two years. Early in 1830 George used the pages of the Guardian to rebut an attack from “Calculator” which had appeared in the Upper Canada Herald (Kingston) on 13 January accusing him of giving evidence in Britain which exaggerated the number of non-Anglicans in the province. Ryerson’s experience in Britain in 1828 and his position on the committee precipitated his being selected to accompany Peter Jones [Kahkewaquonaby*] to England in 1831 to raise money for the Indian missions and to present further petitions to parliament on behalf of the non-Anglicans; he could also attend to the still unresolved matter of the Rolph estate.
The two men arrived in Liverpool on 30 April after spending some time in the United States, where Ryerson was impressed by the “Religious Liberty” evident in the republic. The British Wesleyans dispensed much hospitality, but more condescension, and Ryerson’s correspondence indicates a growing distaste for his hosts and a firm opposition to union between the Canadian and British conferences. He suspected the British conference of seeking both power for its own sake and a dumping ground for its redundant preachers; he had only to remember his own treatment by the Church of England. Moreover, his words suggest an overriding, perhaps understandable, pessimism: his pious wife had died working among the Indians in 1829, his industrious brother Samuel the next year; the intrigues surrounding the settlement of the Rolph estate continued, reflecting distasteful self-interest; the worldly concerns of his British brethren were set against what he considered the appalling godlessness of London; and now cholera erupted in London and Paris, threatening an apocalyptic destruction of a decadent society. Unable to reconcile the tenets of Methodism with the reality surrounding him, Ryerson, when exposed to the community led by Edward Irving, converted once again. Irving’s movement, which was to become the Catholic Apostolic Church, was based on a belief in the unity of all Christians adhering to the Apostles’ Creed and it attempted to eliminate sectarian rivalries by emphasizing spiritual life and the importance of ritual worship. Believing that “God’s answer was a restoration of the gifts of the Spirit,” including prophecy and speaking in tongues, the community’s members withdrew into their meetings, had their “prophets” select 12 “apostles,” and awaited the second Advent. Almost immediately after joining, George “altogether retired from public life,” as Egerton claimed in his reply to a scathing attack by William Lyon Mackenzie* who accused George of preaching “toryism in the unknown tongues.” Regardless of Mackenzie’s vituperation or his brothers’ sorrow, George Ryerson had finally found his ecclesiastical niche. Even as George tried to explain his withdrawal to Egerton, he remained concerned about his younger brother, who was obviously on the threshold of an influential career, and he warned Egerton to “avoid popular politics. There is a mystery of iniquity about the subject which you do not understand.”
Early in 1833 the brothers were reunited when Egerton arrived in England to obtain the Methodist union favoured by himself and his brother John, who had become Egerton’s principal adviser. During that summer George persuaded Egerton to accompany him to several Irvingite gatherings; while Egerton found Irving “the perfect gentleman” in private, he confessed that “his pulpit exercises made the most unfavourable impression.” George may have returned to Canada briefly in 1834 or 1836 in the company of William R. Caird, an influential member of the movement, and aided him in obtaining entry to Methodist pulpits. George did not, however, finally settle in Toronto until 1836.
Ryerson was designated angel (bishop) in Toronto in 1837 and was “placed in charge of work in America, as apostles messenger.” His was the second Catholic Apostolic congregation created in the province, Kingston having established one the previous year, and apart from some minor aggravation by Methodists concerning the loss of a few members to his church, he seems to have lived out his remaining years in tranquil obscurity. In 1843 Catholic Apostolic “services [were] temporarily discontinued & [the] flock put in care of the Bishop of the Ch. of England in Toronto”; Ryerson revived the congregation in the fall of 1848 in the building next to his home on Bay Street. A fire on 16 Aug. 1861 destroyed both buildings and the peripatetic congregation was then forced to accommodate itself in rented premises until 1878. Ryerson “gave up the Angelship” in 1872 but remained involved in the church until his death. Although he generally led a quiet life during his years in Toronto, he may have commanded an outpost east of the Don River during the rebellion of 1837 and he acted as secretary to the trustees of the Toronto General Hospital, at least in 1847. He proudly assembled with other veterans of the War of 1812 at Brock’s Monument during the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1860 and in Toronto in 1861.
After his conversion George’s relationships with his brothers are difficult to assess. He had always been closest to Egerton and, despite some bickering in the 1850s and 1860s about the settlement of their father’s estate, in 1873 Egerton claimed “though he and I have since differed in religious opinions, no other than the most affectionate brotherly feelings has ever existed between us to this day.” Viewing the loss of George with regret and sorrow, the brothers may have deflected their frustration and anger to the movement which had caused the separation. Egerton sarcastically noted that the Catholic Apostolic Church found its converts among “unsuspecting persons of strong imagination and ardent temperament, especially when in a low state of religious enjoyment.” John had indicated an appreciably stronger resentment in 1838 when he suggested to Egerton that a £100 reward should be collected for “the Christian act of Col. Brown,” who had kicked an Irvingite downstairs for telling an attempted suicide that he was possessed of the devil.
George was to outlive all his brothers, dying of “no particular cause, but . . . the result of the infirmities consequent upon his great age.” By his later years he had become known as something of an eccentric, but mainly as the older brother of Egerton Ryerson. The final measure of the obscurity surrounding the man, who at one time seemed the Ryerson who would be remembered, can be seen in the heading of his lengthy obituary in the Globe, “The late Rev. Wm. Ryerson.”
Methodist Missionary Soc. Arch. (London), Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Soc., Corr., Canada, “Resolutions on Mess’ Ryerson and Jones’ visit, 1831: extract from minutes of a meeting of the general committee held May 11, 1831” (mfm. at UCA). PAC, RG 8, 1 (C ser.), 703c: 15–16. UCA, Church hist. files, Ont., Toronto, Catholic Apostolic Church, “History of the. congregation gathered in Toronto, Can., by restored Apostles – a Catholic Apostolic Church”; Egerton Ryerson papers. [William] Canniff, “Fragments of the War of 1812: the Rev. George Ryerson and his family,” Belford’s Monthly Magazine: a Magazine of Literature and Art (Toronto), 2 (1877): 299–308. Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries. J. G. Hodgins, The Ryerson brothers ([Toronto], n.d.) (copy at AO). Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, Minutes of the annual conference ([Toronto]), 1828–32. Egerton Ryerson, The story of my life . . . , ed. J. G. Hodgins (Toronto, 1883). [George Ryerson], “George Ryerson to Sir Peregrine Maitland, 9 June 1826,” ed. C. B. Sissons, OH, 44 (1952): 23–29. Advocate (Toronto), 29 May 1834. Christian Guardian, 21 Nov. 1829; 23 Jan., 6, 20 Feb. 1830; 5 March, 9, 16 April, 7 May, 25 June 1831; 25 Jan., 29 Feb., 18 April 1832; 6 Nov. 1833; 19 Nov. 1834. Colonial Advocate ([Toronto]), 5 July, 7 Aug. 1828; 26, 30 Oct., 7 Nov. 1833. Globe, 21, 22 Dec. 1882. Toronto Daily Mail, 20, 21 Dec. 1882. Upper Canada Herald (Kingston, [Ont.]), 13 Jan. 1830; also issued as [Calculator], [Letter] to Mr. George Ryerson (Hamilton, [Ont.], 1829?).
Cornish, Cyclopædia of Methodism. Dominion annual register, 1882. A. W. Ryerson, The Ryerson genealogy: genealogy and history of the Knickerbocker families of Ryerson, Ryerse, Ryerss; also Adriance and Martense families; all descendants of Martin and Adriaen Reyersz (Reyerszen), of Amsterdam, Holland, ed. A. L. Holman (Chicago, 1916). L. J. Ryerson, The genealogy of the Ryerson family in America, 1646–1902 (New York, 1902). D. B. Read, Life and times of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, K.B. (Toronto, 1894), 147–59. Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, II: 633–64; IV: 545–50; VI: 587. G. [A.] S. Ryerson, Looking backward (Toronto, 1924). P. E. Shaw, The Catholic Apostolic Church, sometimes called Irvingite: a historical study (New York, 1946). Sissons, Egerton Ryerson.
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Cite This Article
Charles Dougall, “RYERSON, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ryerson_george_11E.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:
|Author of Article:||Charles Dougall|
|Title of Article:||RYERSON, GEORGE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|