Ralph Connor
Novelist With Muscular Spirit 1860-1937

Charles William Gordon, pen name “Ralph Connor,” clergyman and author, was perhaps the most successful Canadian novelist of the early twentieth century. Western missionary, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, statesman of Church Union, army chaplain, diplomat, labour conciliator, and popular writer – at the height of his career he was arguably the best-known living Canadian and his name was a household word throughout the English-speaking world. As the prolific author of 24 novels, three separately issued extracts, three shorter tales, five religious pamphlets, one biography of his mentor and missionary superintendent, the Rev. James Robertson, and his unfinished autobiography, Postscript to Adventure, Connor ranks with Stephen Leacock, Mazo de la Roche, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Marshall Saunders, and Robert Service as the best-selling authors of Canada’s first century.

Charles W. Gordon was born in the Presbyterian manse at St. Elmo, Glengarry County, Canada West on September 13, 1860, the son of the fiery Rev. Daniel Gordon, Free Kirk minister in the Indian Lands, and the equally saintly Mary Robertson, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Charles was named after one of his father’s most faithful supporters, Charles McDonald, for 68 years an elder of the Indian Lands Church, a man of clear intellect and staunch integrity.

Arguably the best-known living Canadian at the height of his career, Ralph Connor wrote many of his works in a cottage tower on Gordon Island in the Lake of the Woods. [Photo, courtesy Charles J. Humber Collection]

When Charles was not yet four, the Gordon Free Church was built in St. Elmo and officially opened by his father on July 20, 1864. Closely associated with the dedication of the new place of worship was the “Great Revival,” a remarkable religious awakening in the Indian Lands of Glengarry that continued every evening with unabated fervour for well over a year. These spiritual stirrings made a lasting impression on the young Charles, as chronicled in The Man from Glengarry and Torches through the Bush, but it was the kinder, gentler faith of his mother that influenced him more profoundly than his father’s strident sectarianism.

Charles Gordon left Glengarry at the age of ten when his father took on a new pastorate in Zorra, Oxford County, Ontario, in 1871. (By a strange coincidence, in that same year across the road in St. Elmo in the Congregationalist manse was born [Sir] Edward Peacock, later to become a prominent British financier and a Director of the Bank of England.) Gordon was educated at the University of Toronto, Knox College, and the University of Edinburgh. Ordained in the Presbyterian ministry in 1890, he undertook mission work for four years in Banff, Alberta, with his mission field extending to mining and lumbering camps and to Prairie pioneers. In 1894, he was called to the new parish of St. Stephen’s in what was then the outskirts of Winnipeg. Serving on the Social Service Council of Canada, he became an early theorist and staunch advocate of the Social Gospel Movement. During World War I, he served with distinction in the front-line trenches as Chaplain of the 43rd Cameron Highlanders and was later appointed senior Protestant Chaplain to the Canadian Forces. In 1917 he was sent to the United States to enlist the American people to the Allied cause: at one point he aggressively lectured Woodrow Wilson on the moral inadequacies of American neutrality. In 1918 he returned to St. Stephen’s and remained its pastor until his death on October 31, 1937, also serving as Chairman of the Manitoba Council of Industry set up following the Winnipeg General Strike and became one of the nation’s most successful mediators of industrial disputes. As an ardent advocate of Church Union, he was instrumental in helping to create the United Church of Canada in 1925. Himself one of a family of six sons and one daughter, Gordon and his wife, Helen King, had a family of six daughters and one son, J. King Gordon, who followed in the footsteps of his father in his concern for social justice and progressive reforms.

Although Gordon always considered himself first and foremost a clergyman, it was as a tremendously popular author that he will be remembered. He believed that the novel was an instrument with which to teach and improve others: a secular sermon or parable. He could not have been less interested in the novel as an art form: for him it was a means of drumming up financial and spiritual support for missions in the West. If his novels were laced with melodrama, sentiment, and pathos, by his own admission he had not the slightest ambition to be a writer and paid little attention to literary style. His first novel, Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks (1898) originated in response to a request for a literary contribution from the Rev. James Macdonald, who had been with him at Knox College, and was then editor of the Westminister magazine (and later editor of the Toronto Globe). “Christmas Eve in a Lumber Camp” was expanded to nine chapters and renamed Black Rock. Macdonald asked his friend for a nom de plume: Gordon, who was then Secretary of the British Canadian Northwest Mission, glanced at the heading on his stationery, “Brit.Can. Nor.West Mission,” and chose “Cannor.” The telegraph operator mistakenly changed the message to “Sign article Connor” and Macdonald added “Ralph” because it sounded “euphonious.” Thus was born “Ralph Connor.” The first edition ran to 5,000 copies, an unheard-of figure for a first effort by an unknown Canadian novelist. In no time, a dozen American editions appeared, some of them pirated, that achieved a combined sale of more than half a million copies. The Sky Pilot the following year surpassed a million copies, and, with the appearance of The Man from Glengarry in 1901, the three novels achieved combined worldwide sales of over five million copies.

Connor himself attributed the great success of his novels in which “things just came to him and he put them down” to two factors: his novels presented a quality of religious life that “red-blooded” men could read and enjoy. And they gave an authentic picture of life in “the great and wonderful new country in Western Canada, rich in colour and alive with movement..., the land of the trapper, the Mounted Police, and that virile race of men and women, the first pioneers who turned the wild wilderness into civilization.” This formula, applied to later novels, of the missionary-hero as larger than life muscular Christian who confronted spiritual issues with clear and strong action proved to be a phenomenally popular theme that Connor varied time and again. Connor’s books were thus based on a religion which he felt represented “all that is virile, straight, honourable and withal, tender and gentle in true men and women.” It was hard for an Edwardian to argue with such sentiments.

The most successful novel written by Ralph Connor was The Man From Glengarry (1901) which, along with The Sky Pilot (1899) and Glengarry School Days (1902), had combined sales of 5 million copies, an unheard of tally at that time and a number that would make today’s Canadian publishers drool. [Photo, courtesy Charles J. Humber Collection]

But Connor’s best works from a literary perspective were those that centred upon the scenes of his youth in Glengarry. In this, he was profoundly influenced by an 1866 novel, Shenac’s Work at Home, by Margaret Murray Robertson. It was set in the Maxville-St. Elmo area and described the customs of Glengarrians. And the author just happened to be his mother’s sister. Connor’s finest work, The Man from Glengarry, communicated the “Glengarry mystique” to an immense audience worldwide. Through a faithful rendering of dialect and the use of detailed local colour, Connor presented accurate, minute, and vivid recreations of the pioneer era in his native Glengarry for future generations. This penetrating realism was comprehensive, save for his glaring omission of local superstitions. The copious and authentic detail was repeated in Glengarry School Days the following year, 1902. However, the only Connor novel to make it to the silver screen was Corporal Cameron (1912), released in 1921 as Cameron of the Royal Mounted.

Ralph Connor will be long remembered for his two dozen phenomenally popular novels that spanned almost 40 years and addressed a wide range of contemporary social and economic issues in a compassionate and commonsense style. Vividly told with enthusiastic characterizations and unabashed sentiment, they celebrate the active commitment to faith of dedicated men and women. Ralph Connor may well have been the most popular novelist Canada has ever produced.

Murray Barkley