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  • “God Has Opened the Eyes of the People”Religious Rhetoric and the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837
  • James Forbes

Is not revolution in such a case a bible duty? Is not the whole scripture, given for our use and example, full of authorities for revolt against wicked rulers? We know that it is.

—William Lyon Mackenzie, Constitution, November 29, 1837

Radical journalist William Lyon Mackenzie printed the call to arms and distributed copies outside of Toronto, Upper Canada on December 1, 1837. The call decried abuses of executive power and offered hope of “a government founded upon the eternal heaven-born principle of the Lord Jesus Christ.”1 Over the next few days, Mackenzie and a small circle of supporters spread the word about an armed march on Toronto to seize the city’s armory, arrest the lieutenant-governor, and declare a provisional government. This attempted revolutionary course followed years of political struggle between the elected legislative branch and the appointed executive branch of government, the latter repeatedly overturning democratically enacted legislation and rejecting calls for constitutional reform. British colonial secretary Lord Russell’s “Ten Resolutions” in March 1837 reasserted [End Page 1] the principle of rule by executive decree, which signalled to reformers that their desired constitutional changes had reached a decisive dead end.2 In concurrence with their political counterparts in neighboring Lower Canada (present-day Quebec), some among the Upper Canadian reform party came to view armed rebellion as the last remaining option for challenging what they perceived to be an unaccountable body of elites.

This article examines the religious context and thought processes that helped to turn a group of reformers into revolutionaries. For scholars wishing to understand the role of religious rhetoric and conceptions in the process of radicalization, the Upper Canada Rebellion offers a useful case study. Rebel activity in 1837–38 took place in several regions of the Canadian colonies (including the Montreal area of Lower Canada and the western district of Upper Canada), but this article focuses on the rebellion led directly by Mackenzie at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street north of Toronto.3 Although the rebellion itself was a failure, its aftermath yielded a number of significant changes in Canadian government and politics,4 and it has therefore occupied a central place in Canadian historiography. The earliest political histories of the rebellion were partisan accounts either sympathetic or opposed to the rebel cause, and these were followed in the twentieth century by several revisions, including in-depth analyses of rural populism, British colonial policy, and more recently, the role of transatlantic ideological developments in the 1837–38 rebellions.5 The economic context of the rebellions has been subject to its own revisions, most notably to acknowledge the “hybrid discourse” that combined notions of paternalism, patriarchy, and preindustrial notions of class to shape Upper Canada’s radical movement of the 1830s.6

Amidst this innovative body of scholarship, the explicitly Christian nature of rebel rhetoric has yet to receive its own thorough analysis.7 Recently, however, two scholars of this era’s political ideologies have called for a fresh examination of Christianity’s role in Canadian radical politics.8 This article provides one answer to the call, arguing that Upper Canada’s religious culture of Protestant dissent provided a central interpretive lens through which rebels envisioned, justified, and recruited for the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. Applying their religious worldview to contemporary events, previously reform-minded colonists came to believe that immediate drastic action was necessary to prevent the ascendance of an impious and tyrannical government. Drawing upon well-established tropes in the dissenting tradition, rebel [End Page 2] leaders asserted that it was a “Bible duty” to overthrow “wicked rulers.”9 Despite the importance of political ideology in shaping rebel aims, it was the rebels’ religious conceptions that provided the imperatives, alternative source of authority, and oppositional community necessary to turn so many of Toronto’s colonial reformers into revolutionaries.

Mackenzie was already a household name in the colony of Upper Canada when he led his supporters to rebellion. As a former mayor of Toronto, newspaper editor, and former member of the colony’s legislative assembly who had been re...


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