The Making of “Bible Bill” Aberhart


Official Portrait of the Honourable William Aberhart by Nicholas de Grandmaison, 1943. Used by permission of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.
Perhaps, no single figure better personifies the prophet-politician than William Aberhart, who ruled the Province of Alberta with an idiosyncratic mix of premillenial prophecy, bizarre economic theories and an authoritarian fist. Born on December 30, 1878, to a German immigrant in what is today East Huron, Ontario, William Aberhart was a middling and unexceptional student who busied himself learning to play various instruments.

His father died in 1910 when, reaching under the counter of a pharmacy owned by William’s brother Charles, the senior Aberhart mistakenly took a long pull from a bottle that turned out to be carbolic acid, not the whiskey his son usually put there for him. William, now living in Calgary, did not make the trip home for the funeral.

He dabbled at several professions before settling into the job of teaching, a profession at which he seemed proficient, and for which he was typically praised. As a child, he had attended Sunday School at a local Presbyterian church, and for a time adopted the biblical literalism and predestinarian doctrines taught there, but soon became interested in bible prophecy, particularly the Dispensationalism of fellow Presbyterian-turned-Congreg-ationalist C. I. Scofield. Scofield’s theological scheme taught that there were seven “dispensations” in which God dealt differently with his creatures in each time period. The theories had gained a foothold among Presbyterians, most notably James H. Brookes, pastor of Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. William quickly jettisoned the historic Presbyterian theology in favor of the Dispensational scheme, and was soon a passionate defender of Arminianism, (named for the 17th Century Dutch theologian James Arminius, an opponent of predestinarianism).

William’s theology continued to evolve. Soon, he was denied teaching privileges in his local Calgary Presbyterian church and, after dabbling with Methodism, settled into a local Baptist congregation. His Bible class soon had to move to a local theater to accommodate the crowds he attracted and before long his sermons were being broadcast on CFCN radio, reaching a large audience in Canada and several northern states of the U.S. He also took an interest in “British Israelism”, a racial philosophy that tied the British race to the lost tribes of Israel.

It was during this period that “Bible Bill”, as he came to be known, became acquainted with the economic philosophy that would change his life, and the Province of Alberta, for the next half century and beyond. Based upon the writings of Clifford Douglas, the “social credit theory” posited that the Great Depression then afflicting Canada disproportionately hurt the poor and working classes, resulting in wages that could not afford the goods workers produced. While Douglas borrowed this theory from John Maynard Keynes, he went further and laid the blame at the feet of international financiers, especially Jewish ones. The solution, according to the social credit notion, was to simply send everyone a monthly stipend to even things out. While the theory never survived constitutional challenges, and was never actually implemented, it was wildly popular among the hard-pressed farmers and workers of Alberta.

When the ruling party refused to adopt his scheme, Aberhart helped to begin the Social Credit Party of Alberta, which not only won the 1935 elections in a landslide, but wiped out the previous ruling party. The Social Credit party would continue to rule uninterrupted until 1971, when the Progressive Conservatives would finally wrest control from the party begun by Aberhart. Throughout its reign, the Social Credit party remained amix of odd economic theories and social conservatism. Following World War II, its leaders were compelled to root out anti-Semitic voices that had long been a part of the legacy of Aberhart and his followers. Once installed as the Albertan premier, Aberhart set to work to clean up the provinces morals, and to pull the fangs of the bankers.
William (Bible Bill) Aberhart speaks at a rally before being elected as premier. (Photo courtesy of Brian Brennan)
His newspaper invited notorious anti-Semite and proto-fascists such as fellow broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, and the founder of the British Fascist Party’s “black shirts,” Oswald Mosley to write for the party’s newspaper. While it is often unfair to judge men’s actions in the light of subsequent history, there were undoubtedly deep flaws in both Aberhart’s theology and politics. Both men were virulently pro-fascist and anti-Semitic, views often held by the “British Israelism” movement.

When the newspapers criticized his bizarre schemes, Aberhart was quick to suppress them, securing passage of “The Accurate News and Information Act”, which required that,

“…every person that is the proprietor, editor, publisher or manager of any newspaper published in the Province shall when required so to do by the Chairman [of the government board established by the Act], publish in that newspaper any statement furnished by the Chairman which has for its object the correction or amplification of any statement relating to any policy or activity of the Government of the Province published by that newspaper within the next preceding thirty-one days.”

In 1938, “Bible Bill” Aberhart was ready to put the force of government behind his campaign for racial improvement. Alberta already had a Sexual Sterilization Act, implemented by the previous ruling party, the United Farmers. Aberhart took it a giant step further, authorizing involuntary sterilization. Later studies would reveal that the targets of sterilization were not only the mentally disabled and criminally insane, but were disproportionately composed of ethnic minorities. Eventually, the government would pay huge compensation awards to the victims, but the forced sterilizations occurred right up until the Progressive Conservatives ran the Social Credit government out of office in 1971.
Oswald Mosley by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1925
Jane Harris, author of Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada’s Nasty Little Secret, calls Alberta’s Social Credit campaign “…the worst forced sterilization scandal in the British Empire (Commonwealth), the one in which nearly 3000 Albertans were sterilized at the hands of the provincial eugenics board (another 1900 were ordered sterilized, but escaped the knife). Vulnerable Albertans were also lied to, beaten, used a cheap domestic labour, and made guinea pigs.”{footnote}Harris, Jane;{/footnote}

Chilling in retrospect, the Eugenics Board actually traveled from place to place seeking out candidates for forced sterilization. Even the horrors of the Nazi eugenics campaign did not deter the Social Credit engineers from pursuing their aberrant political theology. “Bible Bill” Aberhard, radio preacher, Dispensationalist, Presbyterian-turned-Baptist, “British Israelite” and economic crackpot, remains an iconic figure in Canadian politics long after his theory of bettering the race by controlling behavior has been assigned to the scrapheap of history.