Series: Political Myth and Consequence in Alberta
Myth is powerful. Leading up to Alberta’s 2019 provincial election, the story Albertans have told about themselves and been told by others since becoming a province is firmly connected to events transpiring today.
The following interpretation of Alberta’s dominant political and cultural history highlights and traces the contextual, defining features and nuances in the evolution of Alberta’s identity through reconstruction, as Albertans seek to rise from the ashes once more at the ballot box this spring.
This series will be featured in the following sections:
1. Foundations of Alberta’s Conservatism: Confederation to 1935
2. The Social Credit Generation: 1935 to 1965
3. Progressive Conservatism: Lougheed and the Oil Boom
4. Return of Ideology: The Wildrose Alliance Party
5. The Re-Merge: Jim Prentice to the United Conservative Party
The Social Credit Generation: 1935 to 1965
William Aberhart and Ernest Manning
William Aberhart, known also as “Bible Bill,” was Alberta’s Premier from 1935 until his death in 1943, at which time his protégé Ernest Manning became his political successor as Premier until 1968.
Neither William Aberhart, a lay preacher who was not well read with limited education and lacked business experience, nor Ernest Manning, who dropped out of public school in grade 8, had any formal education or comprehensive training pursuant to guiding people’s theological convictions or competently leading a provincial government, yet endeavoured to reshape Alberta’s society and government based on their personal religious beliefs. Aberhart, who was economically illiterate and lacking in mental sophistication, was anti-finance and anti-capitalism. As W.L. Morton wrote of Aberhart, “That propagandist genius compounded out of fundamentalism, enthusiasm, and a gloss of economic literacy, a gospel of evangelistic materialism which carried over the air the promise of secular salvation.”
The religious doctrine of Aberhart and Manning is the pinnacle from which all of their decisions personally, politically, administratively, and ethically were derived from. The most crucial feature to recognize when considering the source of their political motivation, are Aberhart’s extreme and unorthodox religious beliefs that he indoctrinated to Ernest Manning, who then dutifully passed these beliefs down to his son, and Aberhart’s godson, Preston Manning. The central goal of this religious doctrine was control over how people lived their lives – morally, ethically, religiously, socially, and economically.
Aberhart had an authoritative, combative, and insolent personality combined with left-leaning and overtly fascist tendencies politically and economically. He was on a religious crusade based on fear and conspiracy theory, and Social Credit was his vehicle to achieve his goals of indoctrination of the populace and fulfillment of his religious views dominating society.
Aberhart’s brand of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity was not mainstream nor accepted by any religious denomination, comprised of products of his own imagination and borrowed concepts from various sectarian groups. He placed extreme emphasis on ‘prophetics’ regarding the Rapture and a secret removal of all ‘true’ Christians before the reign of the anti-Christ – a super-human demonic dictator who was to rule the world for seven years until Christ returned to earth. He made excessive claims for the absolute infallibility of the King James Version of the Bible and even created the position of ‘apostle’ for himself and linked himself with the original apostles through a dubious use of church history.
Officials at Aberhart’s Westbourne Baptist Church were not pleased with his creations, did not like his authoritarian personality, or his refusal to take ecclesiastical direction. Aberhart soon found the Baptist church too confining as well, wanting virtually complete control over church organization and scriptural interpretation.
The Westbourne Baptist congregation, which had been unable to find a minister who could work with Aberhart and accept the doctrinal peculiarities that he had made part of the church’s creed, broke with Aberhart over theology, finances, and leadership issues. Biographer David Elliott suggests one of the main attractions the Baptist church held for Aberhart was its tradition of congregational autonomy, which provided the scope he wanted so that he could guide church policy and incorporate his personal beliefs into church services, without a formal role on the board of deacons.
From his loyal followers Aberhart organized a new church called the Bible Institute Baptist Church, which met in the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute. The new church distinctively had high sectarian theology and separatist attitudes. Aberhart’s early interdenominational emphasis soon faded and his church became an elitist and separatist religious sect, featuring his own unique doctrinal interpretations.
Aberhart was the principal at Crescent Heights High School, and the Calgary Board of Education received complaints that he had been using students – whom he assigned numbers to and would refer to them by their number, rather than by their name – to stuff envelopes for his religious organizations during and after school.
To further his religious crusade, Aberhart had begun to broadcast his Sunday services in 1925 over CFCN, the most powerful radio station in Alberta at the time, weaving British Major Clifford Douglas’ social credit theories into his sermons with claims that social credit would save Albertans from economic hardship caused by eastern bankers and financiers. During the Great Depression, people sought solace in religion, adding to Aberhart’s success and credibility. Aberhart promoted the social credit philosophy as the economic part of God’s divine plan for the salvation of humankind.
Aberhart also opened his Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute in 1927 to train ministerial students of his own brand of Baptist fundamentalism. Ernest Manning was his first graduate after three years of studying subjects such as Bible history and interpretation, apologetics, homiletics, and systematic theology, all with the emphasis of dispensationalism. Instructors at the Institute did not include anyone with formal theological training, but were insurance agents, accountants, dentists, and several homemakers who had previously taken Bible study courses from Aberhart at Westbourne Baptist Church. Aberhart claimed he had no time for pastors and teachers who tried to turn the Bible into a tool to address social issues.
Aberhart introduced charismatic practices and doctrines into the church, much to the consternation of the local Baptist ministers. His Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute used textbooks that reviled modernism, Roman Catholicism, and all forms of skepticism. The official doctrine of Aberhart’s school included “the everlasting happiness of the righteous and the awful and everlasting misery of the unbelieving wicked, in a literal lake of fire, prepared for a real, personal Devil and his angels.” As he identified with the fundamentalist movement, he became increasingly antagonistic to mainstream denominations.
From the beginning of their foray into political life, Aberhart and Manning perfected fear mongering and deeply ingrained the sentiment of western alienation in Alberta politics by intensifying the tension felt between Alberta and Ottawa in an era when relations between the two still had the potential to progress more positively, rather than based on a myth of exaggerated universal discontent and inevitable conflict. Aberhart took pride in intentionally antagonizing Ottawa, particularly over ‘eastern banks’ and alleged communism and socialism, and lambasted the enemy federal government to Albertans, solidifying an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality in many Albertans.
Albertans had been suffering during the Great Depression and were desperate for relief. While UFA Premier Brownlee was being publicly shamed with a paternity suit, lay preacher Aberhart’s morals went unquestioned, allowing him to play on the public’s fears and desperation, offering his Social Credit solution to become Premier. Aberhart was a fundamentalist who appealed to regional prejudice, faith, and emotion to sway the public. Political theorist C.B. Macpherson has reasoned that Social Credit’s election theory was whereby a politician would “promise everything and discuss nothing … assert that you had all the answers and demand to be taken on trust.” The public would be treated with contempt and there was no mechanism to stop the experts from establishing a dictatorial, technocratic state.
Aberhart and Manning assumed no distinction between politics and religion, and believed they were on a religious crusade to convert everyone to their brand of Christianity in order to save people’s souls and prevent and reverse the supposed decay of society. They did not believe Social Credit was even a political party explicitly, but a religious movement, using Aberhart’s followers to actively spread the gospel of Social Credit through education and mobilization during the election leading up to Aberhart’s first win.
During the election, The Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute was Aberhart’s campaign headquarters, and his political speeches were full of religious imagery, where Aberhart compared himself to Moses, Daniel, and Jesus Christ. Aberhart attacked partisan politics, called for a reawakened democracy, yet advocated for a form of government-by-experts that would have undermined British parliamentary traditions, and possibly, democracy itself. He and Manning seized the opportunity to deliberately present Social Credit as a movement, rather than a political party, responding to the distress people felt during the Great Depression by utilizing existing distrust of politicians and banks to identify these groups as the enemy that Social Credit would protect people against.
Aberhart rallied to unite Albertans behind his narrative, regularly denouncing traditional political parties in his radio broadcasts and attempting to convert the public to his brand of Christianity, which had incorporated Social Credit economic theory. His supporters were attracted to his engaging sincerity, warmth of personality, common touch, humanitarian concern and confidence in the future. Aberhart’s obsession with opposing centralization came from his conspiracy-based economic policy for Alberta, which he had altered from the social credit theory of Major Douglas in Britain. Albertan’s perceived threat by and opposition to centralization, therefore, was a construct of Aberhart’s that has consequently remained a theme in Alberta’s identity.
Being a populist movement, Social Credit’s propaganda of this threat was particularly effective through Aberhart’s use of religious symbolism to develop the myth. Aside from the core of evangelicals and religious fanatics, Social Credit attracted radical reformers, working class social democrats, small business owners, the unemployed, and victims of the Great Depression as supporters. The supposed wide-range influence of the grassroots was a myth: Social Credit policy and party platforms were prepared and planted by party leaders, for these resolutions to be accepted by the grassroots members at party conventions. Yet once Aberhart was in power he exercised authoritarian state control over the economy and excluded his supporters from providing input, insisting the implementation of Social Credit policy needed to be left to the so-called experts. In fact, Aberhart was only willing to serve Albertans if he would be Premier and did not seek a seat during the election. He waited to ensure Social Credit would form a majority government before pushing the MLA for Turner Valley to step down so that he could hold a legislative seat and become premier. When Social Credit formed a majority government in 1935, taking 56 of 63 seats in the legislature, the majority of Social Credit MLA’s were farmers, small businessmen and teachers, few of which had any higher education or prior political experience, and most with strong religious affiliations.
In a radio broadcast during the Second World War, Manning argued Canadians faced “a choice between Christian democracy … and the materialistic and pagan doctrine of state socialism.” Social Credit’s conspiracy theory fueled Manning’s distrust of socialism, and warning listeners of his radio sermon in 1991 to prepare for an age of the anti-Christ, Manning said, “for which secular humanism and apostate religion even now are preparing this way … It won’t bother them [the people of a distressed and perplexed world society] that he’s a Satanist, and that Satan is the source of his wisdom and power. By that time Satanic New Age philosophy will have conditioned people to regard Satanism as progressive thinking, and they will willingly join the anti-Christ in his idolatry.”
Aberhart and Manning considered it to be their divine right to direct society’s morals and define social conservatism. Manning held the position that it was impossible for atheistic socialists and communists to interact with those who had religiously based moral constraints, saying the rejection of God led to the ignoring of moral and ethical standards. He believed religiously based values were better for society than those rooted in atheism, and that Social Credit stood for Christian values and democratic principles, which were part of God’s divine plan.
As dispensationalists, Aberhart and Manning believed that despite the risk of failure in attempts to evangelize all of humanity, inaction could not be excused with the Antichrist’s arrival so close at hand and seized upon social credit as the weapon with which to combat the Antichrist and create a socioeconomic system in which people could more readily seek salvation in Christ. To oppose Social Credit was to oppose Christianity. At one time or another, Aberhart had criticized or denounced Roman Catholicism, Spiritism, Christian Science, Theosophy, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists. Anyone who did not conform to Aberhart’s brand of Christianity was unchristian, undemocratic, and godless.
Manning made no secret of his preference to surround himself with his brand of Christians, even in his government Cabinet selections, having said, “If I had a choice between two people with comparable qualifications other than the spiritual dimension – experience, knowledge of the area, and so on – and one was a committed Christian and the other was totally disinterested in it, I would take the committed Christian every time … I would pick him first every time because he has the additional dimension that the other one lacks.”
After Aberhart’s death, Manning became his religious successor, continuing to practice and preach over the radio shows National Bible Hour and Radio Sunday School, and at the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute and Fundamental Baptist Church he attended, that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ was the answer to the deepest human need and the only way to salvation. Fundamentalism was a forceful presence in society during this time, and had been in Aberhart’s, increasing out of the view that mainstream denominations were drifting leftward toward unsavory “modernism,” the intellectualized attempt to substitute rationalism for the authority of the Bible.
Two jokes that circulated the Alberta civil service when Ernest Manning was premier illustrate his superiority complex. In the first joke, St. Peter welcomes a psychiatrist at the Pearly Gates and says he needs immediate help. ‘We’re having a little trouble with the Supreme Being,’ explains Peter, ‘because he thinks he’s Manning.’ In the second joke, Manning is looking to buy a burial plot but concerned about the high cost. The owner points out that the plot has a lovely view, looking west to the mountains and east to the prairies. ‘You don’t seem to understand,’ responds Manning, ‘I’ll only be needing it for three days.’
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Alberta Formed - Alberta Transformed; Alberta 2005 Centennial History Society; 2006
Alberta in the 20th Century; United Western Communications; 1991 – 2003
Alberta Premiers of the 20th Century; Bradford Rennie; 2004
Like Father, Like Son; Lloyd Mackey; 1997
Major Douglas and Alberta Social Credit Ideology, 1932-1948; Bob Hesketh; 1993
Moral Clarity; Susan Neiman; 2009
Storming Babylon; Don Braid and Sydney Sharpe; 1991
The Armageddon Factor; Marci McDonald; 2011
The Ku Klux Klan in Central Alberta; William Peter Baergen; 2002
The Other Alberta; Doreen Barrie; 2006