Fr. John Hodgins of St. Thomas More, Toronto, writes the following assessment of Robert Baldwin, former Co-Premier of Canada, an ancestor of Fr. John’s wife, Jane, and after whom the parish’s home-schooling academy is named:
Robert Baldwin – The Great Reformer – A forerunner of the Ordinariate?
Could we say that Robert Baldwin, the nineteenth century architect of the union between colonies in British North America in what became the united Province of Canada, was a forerunner of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter as well as of the Confederation of Canada?
Were Baldwin’s religious views such that he was moving towards unity in religious matters as well as political?
These intriguing questions have their roots in the life of the Honourable Robert Baldwin (1804 – 1858). Born in Toronto (York) he was a contemporary of John Henry Newman and was, by his own admission, a high church Anglican who was conversant with the ideas of the Oxford Movement as they became known in the British colonies.
Certainly Robert Baldwin was a lifelong Anglican (technically a member of what was known as the Church of England in Canada at the time). His family had emigrated to North American in 1799 when his father, William Warren Baldwin, and grandfather, known as Robert the Emigrant, left County Cork in Ireland.
The Baldwin family had long experience of co-operating with Catholics in the politics of Ireland. In fact, it was this experience of the Baldwins, many of whom were lawyers and involved in the administration of the island, which moved them to promote what they termed “Responsible Government” i.e. government that was responsible to and/or elected by the population that it served. In the case of Ireland, the vast majority of these folk were Catholics.
The idea of Responsible Government was not pure democracy (if there is such a thing) but it did give the franchise initially to men who owned property and had a material stake in the welfare of their community.
The closure of the Irish Parliament and the concentration of power at Westminster in England at the close of the 18th Century was the last straw for Robert’s grandfather, Robert the Emigrant. He picked up with his son William Warren Baldwin (The Reformer’s father) and made for Upper Canada (later to become Ontario). There they hoped to work in the new world for Responsible Government still loyal to the British Crown.
Long an opponent of aggressive Protestantism, Baldwin’s Secret Societies Bill, sought to outlaw the Orange Order and its political violence. His alliance with Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine was more than simply political. They were close friends and because Baldwin did not speak French, he saw to it that his children were all educated in French in Québec. His daughter Marie was reconciled to the Catholic Church following her education at the Ursuline Convent in Québec. She did not marry and nursed Baldwin in his final illness until his death.
Robert Baldwin had become, he told John Ross in December 1853, “rather a High Churchman as I understand the distinction between High and Low Churchman, though I trust without bigotry or intolerance”. (Dictionary of Canadian Biography). His concern was with maintaining the traditional internal government of the church and his views on the separation of Church from the power of the state was, he had argued, necessary to prevent the Church from becoming a political football.
He did not approve of any democratization of the church believing, in line with what the Oxford Movement held, that the Church should be governed according to her own apostolic principles and governance. He advocated for the right to Catholic Education against Protestant prejudice and the Orange Order.
Baldwin worked with both high and low churchmen as president of the Upper Canada Bible Society until 1856.
All of this and much more Baldwin and his colleagues accomplished with virtually no bloodshed, unlike the American, French and other republican movements. Truly Baldwin was a man of unity and would likely see the Ordinariate and its witness to unity as a development which he and Newman could support.