Born December 30, 1878 at Tuckersmith Township – Died May 23, 1943 at Vancouver, British Columbia
William Aberhart, also known as “Bible Bill” for his outspoken Baptist views, was a Canadian politician and the seventh Premier of Alberta (1935 to his death in 1943). He was the founder and first leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party.
William Aberhart was born December 30, 1878, in Tuckersmith Township (now part of Huron East, Ontario) to William (c. 1844 – 1910) and Louisa (c. 1850–1944) (née Pepper) Aberhart. William Aberhart Sr. had immigrated to Canada from Germany with his family at the age of seven, while Louisa Pepper was born in Perth County, Ontario. At school, Aberhart was a hard-working but average student. Aberhart was not a social child but was a capable athlete.
In 1896, Aberhart attended three months of model school in Mitchell. Although this training qualified him to work as a schoolteacher, he instead enrolled in business college in Chatham, from which he withdrew after four months of successful study. In 1897–98, Aberhart attended Seaforth Collegiate Institute. In 1911, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
In the fall of 1901 Aberhart was hired as a teacher at the Central Public School in Brantford. He fast won a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. His supervisors gave him uniformly positive reviews. His school’s principal died in 1905, and Aberhart was selected to replace him. In response to glowing reviews from his colleagues, the Calgary Board of Education offered him a principalship. Aberhart accepted and moved to Calgary that spring. Besides his administrative duties, Aberhart taught English and math. In 1922 he organized an elected student council years before the concept became widespread in Calgary. He urged his students to adopt four axioms he followed in his own life: “be enthusiastic, be ambitious, develop a distinctive personality, and have a hobby and ride it hard.”
Though his parents were not churchgoers, as a child Aberhart attended Sunday school at a Presbyterian church. In high school he became a devout Christian. While in Brantford, Aberhart studied at Zion Presbyterian church. His initial Bible Study Teaching in Calgary commenced at the Grace Presbyterian Church at the Young Men’s Bible Class. He then moved on to teach successively at the Wesley and Trinity Methodist Churches. When he became involved with Westbourne Baptist Church in Calgary as a lay preacher, he and his wife were baptized in the Baptist faith. He eventually led Westbourne Baptist Church out of the Baptist Union of Western Canada in 1922.
Aberhart became interested in politics during the Great Depression in Canada, a time which was especially harsh on Albertan and Saskatchewan farmers. Particularly, he was drawn to the Social Credit theories of Major C. H. Douglas, a British engineer. From 1932 to 1935, Aberhart lobbied for the governing political party, the United Farmers of Alberta, to adopt these theories, but it never did. Aberhart then helped found the Social Credit Party of Alberta.
The Socreds won the 1935 provincial election by a landslide. Aberhart was formally sworn in as premier on September 3. Aberhart served as Minister of Education and, starting in 1937, Attorney General. The Socreds believed the Great Depression was caused by ordinary people not having enough to spend. Therefore, Aberhart argued that the government should give each Albertan $25 per month to spend to stimulate the economy, by providing needed purchasing power to allow needy customers to buy from waiting businesses.
Aberhart threatened the power of private banks with his government’s extension of the UFA government’s foreclosure moratorium and mandatory debt adjustment. Aberhart instituted a variety of relief programs to help people out of poverty, as well as public works programs and a debt relief program. The programs were later overturned in the mid-1940s by the Supreme Court, although it aided people for a number of years during and, for a short time, after the Great Depression. In keeping with his evangelical views, Aberhart added a heavy dose of social conservatism to his politics. Most notably, he enacted very tight restrictions on the sale of alcohol.
Aberhart’s government was re-elected in the 1940 election with a somewhat reduced mandate, with Aberhart being elected to a Calgary seat. Although Aberhart was unable to gain control of Alberta’s banks, his government gained a foothold in the province’s financial industry by creating the Alberta Treasury Branches in 1938.
On July 29, 1902, Aberhart married Jessie Flatt, whom he had met in 1901 at a football game. A daughter, Khona Louise Aberhart, was born in the winter of 1903, and a second, Ola Janet Aberhart, followed in August 1905.
Death and Legacy
Aberhart died unexpectedly on May 23, 1943, during a visit to his daughters in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was interred in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Burnaby.
The Aberhart Centre, a long-term medical care centre at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, is named in his honour, as is William Aberhart High School in Calgary. In 1974, he was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada. A plaque commemorating this sits inside Crescent Heights High School in Calgary, Alberta.