William Aberhart, "Bible Bill," radio evangelist, premier of Alberta, 1935-43 (born in Hibbert Township, Perth County, Ontario on 30 December 1878; died in Vancouver, British Columbia on 23 May 1943). An important influence in religious sectarianism in western Canada, Aberhart headed the world's first Social Credit government in 1935.
William Aberhart was trained as a school teacher at Mitchell Model School and the Normal School in Hamilton, Ontario. Wanting to become a Presbyterian minister (see Christianity), he began studying for an extramural BA from Queen's (completed 1911, after he had moved to Alberta) while he was principal of Central Public School in Brantford. In Ontario he became an active lay preacher and Bible-class teacher and was highly influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible and its dispensational system of interpretation.
In 1910 Aberhart moved to Calgary to become a school principal. His popular Bible class at Grace Presbyterian Church was transferred to Wesley Methodist Church in 1912 after he was embroiled in a dispute which probably involved both his theology and his personality. In 1915 he became the unofficial minister of Westbourne Baptist Church. In spite of attempts by Baptist leaders to remove Aberhart from the church, his congregation remained loyal. After a brief association with a Pentecostal minister in 1920, Aberhart began introducing "charismatic" practices and doctrines into the church, much to the consternation of the local Baptist ministers. He identified with the fundamentalist movement and became increasingly antagonistic to mainstream denominations.
Aberhart opened a school to train ministers and missionaries for the furtherance of fundamentalism. As early as 1923 he was teaching night-school classes in theology in the basement of Westbourne Baptist Church. He also realized the possibilities of radio and began broadcasting Sunday afternoon services in 1925. Needing a larger facility to house the Bible school and the crowds which were attracted to his meetings, he opened the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute in 1927 and taught many of its classes, administered the church and conducted the radio broadcasts while being employed as the principal of Crescent Heights High School. In 1929 Aberhart founded his own sect, the Bible Institute Baptist Church, after most of the Westbourne congregation had split from him. By 1939 over 9000 children were enrolled in his Radio Sunday School.
The Great Depression was devastating for the farm-based western economy and misery was widespread. The inability of political parties to find solutions to the problem of "poverty in the midst of plenty" drove Albertans to seek alternative remedies, and they were attracted to the ideas of Aberhart. Previously nonpolitical, in 1932 Aberhart became interested in the monetary-reform doctrines of a British engineer, Major C.H. Douglas, who believed that conventional capitalism would founder because private control of credit would lead to a chronic insufficiency of mass purchasing power. The solution, he believed, was state supervision of credit and the issuance of consumer discounts to balance consumption with full production. Aberhart modified and popularized this doctrine into a proposal that each citizen be given a $25-a-month "basic dividend" to purchase necessities. Aberhart built a grass-roots movement, the Alberta Social Credit League, to promote his ideas. When the existing political parties showed little interest, he took the league into the political arena. In September 1935, Social Credit took 56 of 63 seats in the Alberta legislature and swept the United Farmers of Alberta from office.
Life as Premier
After becoming premier, Aberhart found he could not fulfil his pre-election promises. His moratorium on debt collections saved some farms and homes, but his concept of Social Credit was never realized. In 1937, after a major crisis in his caucus, he was forced to accept assistance from Major Douglas's emissaries from England. The monetary legislation they introduced was quickly disallowed by the federal government and precipitated the Rowell-Sirois Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations.
Aberhart died in office in 1943. He was succeeded by Ernest C. Manning, the first graduate of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute.
J.A. Irving, The Social Credit Movement in Alberta (1959)
L.P.V. Johnson and Ola J. MacNutt, Aberhart of Alberta (1970)
L.H. Thomas, William Aberhart and Social Credit in Alberta (1977)
D.R. Elliott and I. Miller, "Aberhart and the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute," Prairie Forum vol 9, no 1 (1984)