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Manitoba History: Review: Allen Mills, Fool for Christ: The Political Thought of J. S. Woodsworth

by Robert W. Brockway
Professor Emeritus of Religion, Brandon University

Number 23, Spring 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Fool for Christ: The Political Thought of J. S. Woodsworth. Allen Mills. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. xiv + 306 pp., ill. ISBN 0-8020-6892-1.

Like most New Democrats and old CCFers I know very little about James Shaver Woodsworth, the founder of the movement to which I adhere. We continuously invoke his name, along with names like Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles, without, however, really knowing who he was. We know that he was a pacifist who voted against Canada’s entry into World War Two. We know that he was a Protestant minister and an adherent of the Social Gospel, that he was arrested during the Winnipeg Strike of 1919, and that he had something to do with founding the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation during the Depression. Most of us also know someone who knew someone who knew him. We know little else.

Front page of Winnipeg Free Press, 21 March 1931, showing J. S. Woodsworth speaking to a large crowd.

After reading Allen Mills’ Fool for Christ (1991) I also read Kenneth McNaught’s A Prophet in Politics (1959), which I am told is the standard biography. Of the two I liked McNaught’s better, because of the writing style and because I learned much more about Woodsworth the man. The two titles are interesting. McNaught characterizes Woodsworth as a prophet and Mills as a saint. The two are not synonymous. Prophets are charismatic leaders like shamans. They have deep, dreamlike, visionary experiences which they usually expound in symbolic language. They compose myths. Saints, on the other hand, are usually very austere, contemplative figures who engage in good works. If Catholic they work miracles. If Protestant they specialize in moral purity. Having read both biographies, I would not regard Woodsworth as a prophet. Tommy Douglas fits that role much better. I would, however, regard Woodsworth as a secular saint. He was not a Protestant saint.

Mills actually says remarkably little about Woodsworth’s life and personality. For that I turned to McNaught. Instead, Mills, who is a political scientist at the University of Winnipeg, concentrates on Woodsworth’s intellectual life. Consequently, the two biographies do not duplicate each other. Too, McNaught is somewhat hagiographical, but Mills’s study is more detached and critical. It is intellectual history.

Mills first paints a broad picture of the Canadian political milieu, with frequent glances at Britain, and then fits Woodsworth into the design. There is much discussion of Woodsworth’s scholarship, the influence of Hobson on his thought, the points where he agrees with Marx and where he differs. Too, one comes away from Mills with the distinct impression that the CCF/NDP is indigenous to Canada, as much so as the Labour Party is inherently British and Swedish social democracy inherently Swedish. This is a useful counter to the general impression that Canadian social democracy is an import. The CCF/NDP owes more to its Canadian context than it does to ideas from abroad. However, Woodsworth was profoundly steeped in British political and social philosophy. He was in Europe at the turn of the century, and was deeply influenced by both British and German social thought. These were his formative years, intellectually speaking. To that extent, Canadian social democracy shares the Western European heritage. Moreover, the movement emerged from the urban working class in Canada, which was predominantly immigrant. As Mills shows, the movement did not emerge from the agrarian portion of the population, which had comparatively fewer immigrants.

Woodsworth was born on the Applewood farm at Etobicoke near Toronto in 1874. However, his rural roots were less important than his urban. He was a bourgeois urban intellectual with working class sympathies. In this he typifies the leaders of the socialist movement throughout the world. Virtually all socialist movements were founded by people of the same background. One can find parallels to Woodsworth in Marx, Lenin, Mao Tze Tung, and Ho Chi Minh.

During his early years, Woodsworth lived for a time in Manitoba, and attended Brandon College. Indeed, according to some local historians, the roots of Canadian social democracy are much less in Saskatchewan than in Manitoba. Because of the railroad, there was a strong labor movement in Brandon from the founding of the city in 1883. There is also a strong radical tradition in Brandon of very long standing.

Like Douglas and Knowles, Woodsworth seems to have imbibed some of his social democracy while at Brandon. The epithet “Wheat City” is misleading. From its earliest days, Brandon was primarily a railroad town, and to this day, is far less agrarian in mood and character than usually thought. Provincial government agencies are the basis of the economy. Too, the university, and its predecessor, Brandon College, is not as conservative as some might think.

From Mills’s book I gained the distinct impression that Woodsworth came from a very prudish and puritanical Protestant household in which all pleasures were frowned upon—card playing, for example. McNaught did not disabuse me of this impression but softened it somewhat. In this, Woodsworth typified the non-conformist conscience of many British social democrats. Poverty of data concerning Woodsworth’s inner life is consistent with the quality. He does not seem to have confided much that is personal in his letters and papers. Instead, he constantly focused on issues. Some socialists discourage the personal viewpoint out of a revulsion against narcissism.

Despite the strong stand he took during the Winnipeg Strike and again at the outbreak of World War II, Woodsworth was anything but a man of passion. In temperament he was reserved, cerebral—he was first and foremost an intellectual. However, he had to have more of a personal life than is divulged in either of these biographies. Both ignore the psychological dimension completely, and I would fault both on those grounds. I still do not know anything about J. S. Woodsworth the man. I learned about his ideas.

The view we get is two dimensional. We learn about the man’s principles and ideals, but nothing about the inner dynamics motivated from within. We read about thoughts and deeds. We read little or nothing about intuitions, feelings, and the inward side. Above all, one misses the vulnerable spots, the vices, weaknesses, anxieties, failures and, above all, the sense of humour. Reading these biographies, I came away feeling that while I agreed with Woodsworth ideologically, I might have found him rather remote and difficult to know. He was a person so much preoccupied with causes as to have no lighter side. He was too sober.

Concerning Woodsworth’s religious background, both studies show that, although he grew up in a strict Methodist household, he left orthodoxy behind and became a secular humanist. He left the parish ministry, a point that is not stressed sufficiently in my view. Woodsworth was not really an adherent of the Social Gospel but a secular socialist who transcended his religious background. In this he differed from Douglas and Knowles, both liberal Protestants of the Social Gospel tradition. Woodsworth was radical in religion and politics, considerably to the left of Douglas and Knowles and far to the left of Audrey McLaughlin and Bob Rae. One admires his staunch adherence to principle, his refusal to make pragmatic compromises. All of this makes the rise of the CCF all the more remarkable. At its inception it was a genuinely idealistic movement. What is more, Woodsworth was no charismatic leader. Yet, unlike the Independent Socialist Party and other predecessors, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation became a potent political force, Canada’s third party. Faced with decline and extinction in 1959, it was reborn in the New Democratic Party which has a much broader base than the old CCF, but at the expense of Woodsworth’s most cherished ideals. Woodsworth was not a moderate, not a small “l” liberal, and he went far beyond the Social Gospel. Yet he was not a Marxist.

Would Woodsworth be pleased with the recent victories of the NDP in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia? Of course. However, he might worry lest the party become intemperately temperate.

The All People’s Mission, 1909, founded by J. S. Woodsworth. The mission was located at the corner of Euclid and Sutherland avenues in Winnipeg.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 27 February 2011

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