ABERHART, WILLIAM (1878-1943)
William "Bible Bill" Aberhart was a dominating figure in Alberta political, religious, and educational life during the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Perth County, Ontario, on December 30, 1878, Aberhart moved to Calgary in 1910. While serving as a respected high school principal for the next twenty-five years, he became increasingly involved in Baptist lay preaching, founded the fundamentalist Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute in 1927, and successfully established himself as a pioneer radio evangelist.
By the early 1930s the plight of many Albertans, ravaged by drought and economic depression, was desperate. Aberhart's preaching began to incorporate a personalized version of the "social credit" doctrines of the British economic thinker Maj. C. H. Douglas, and Prophetic Bible Institute study groups became the nucleus of a provincewide Social Credit crusade. After attempting unsuccessfully to convince the United Farmers of Alberta government to adopt social credit policies, he moved in 1934 to transform Social Credit into a fullblown political party.
Aberhart's brand of "social credit" resonated with the traditional Alberta mix of "radical" economic panaceas, grassroots democracy, and Christianity. Political opponents dismissed his program of twenty-fivedollar monthly dividends and attacks on the financial establishment's "Fifty Bigshots" as "funny money" nonsense, and they branded Aberhart himself as a dangerous charlatan. Yet attempts to discredit Aberhart and his message mattered little to growing numbers of small businessmen, urban workers, and farmers; it was enough that he promised action and offered hope.
Aberhart's Social Credit swept into power in 1935 with 54 percent of the popular vote and fifty-six of sixty-three legislative seats. By merely advocating the control, not the elimination, of capitalism, Aberhart's version of "social credit" had appealed to those who rejected the capitalist status quo but feared embracing the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
When "dividends" to increase the purchasing power of the poor failed to materialize, Premier Aberhart claimed Albertans had only voted for "good government." Nevertheless, a caucus insurgency fueled by grassroots discontent finally compelled passage of "social credit" financial and economic legislation in 1937-38, only to have it promptly ruled unconstitutional. Thereafter, disillusioned with Aberhart's authoritarian leadership style and his government's failure to act aggressively enough on social and economic reforms, many radical Social Creditors abandoned the party. Press-gag legislation designed to muzzle political criticism further alienated the establishment and frightened intellectuals across the country. Fortunately for Aberhart, a less dramatic agenda of health and education reforms, as well as legislative measures favorable to small business and consumers, enabled Social Credit to stave off stiff challenges from the right and the left in 1940.
World War II revived Alberta's economy and made governing easier, and major oil discoveries immediately following the war altered the province's economy and society almost beyond recognition. The political legacy of William Aberhart, who died suddenly in Vancouver on May 23, 1943, remains controversial. Few disagree, however, that the rightwing path along which he intended to lead the party, and which his protégé and successor, Ernest Manning, would take it during his long tenure as Social Credit premier, was clear after 1940.
Patrick H. Brennan University of Calgary
Elliott, David, and Iris Miller. Bible Bill: A Biography of William Aberhart. Edmonton: Reidmore Books, 1987.
Finkel, Alvin. The Social Credit Phenomenon in Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.
Irving, John. The Social Credit Movement in Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959.