Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Methodist minister, politician, and social reformer, James Shaver Woodsworth was born on July 29, 1874, near Toronto, Ontario. He moved with his family to the Great Plains in 1882 when his Methodist minister father took a new position in Winnipeg. Woodsworth followed his father into the ministry; he was ordained in 1896 and worked for several years as a circuit rider in the Manitoba Plains. In 1899 he traveled to Oxford, England, where he studied for two years and worked in settlement houses in the slums of East London. The extreme poverty and dire living conditions he witnessed had a profound impact on the minister; thereafter he became a proponent of the "Social Gospel" and strived to improve the living conditions of the poor. By 1904 he was back in the Great Plains, working with immigrants in the slums of Winnipeg's North End. For almost ten years he operated a settlement house called the All Peoples Mission. He also wrote extensively on the plight of poor immigrants and the working class, producing two books, Strangers within Our Gates (1909) and My Neighbor (1911).

World War I marked a turning point in Woodsworth's career. As a staunch pacifist, he opposed Canadian involvement in the war and spoke openly about his views. He particularly despised the draft and the participation of Methodist ministers as recruiters. Because of his vocal opposition, Woodsworth lost his government job and, unable to find work as a minister in Winnipeg, was forced to move his family to Vancouver. There he became became increasingly more politicized, as he worked on the docks, joined the longshoremen's union, and wrote for labor newspapers. In June 1919, while visiting Winnipeg, he was arrested for writing "seditious" editorials during the Winnipeg General Strike. Woodsworth's arrest and his widely read coverage and criticism of the government's handling of the strike boosted his popularity among Canada's working class. In 1921 he was elected to Canada's House of Commons as a member of Manitoba's Independent Labour Party. As a legislator, Woodsworth became one of Canada's leading social reformers; among other reforms, he helped create Canada's Old-Age Pension Plan. In 1932 he helped form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner to the New Democratic Party), a political party comprised largely of labor, farmer, and socialist groups from western Canada. He served as the party's chair and its parliamentary leader until his death.

World War II was Woodsworth's final political battle. Once again, he opposed Canadian involvement, and in 1939 he was the only member of the House of Commons to vote against a declaration of war. Despite Woodsworth's opposition to the war, he remained party chairman and was elected in 1940 to another term in the House of Commons. Weakened by ill health, however, Woodsworth returned with his wife to the family home in Vancouver, where he died on March 21, 1942.

See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

Mark R. Ellis University of Nebraska at Kearney

Mills, Allen George. Fool for Christ: The Political Thought of J. S. Woodsworth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Woodsworth, James Shaver. My Neighbor: A Study of City Conditions, a Plea for Social Service. Toronto: Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1911.

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