Joey's religion

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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With the recent focus on the 60th anniversary of Confederation, Joey Smallwood, the wedding planner of Newfoundland's marriage to Canada, has once again become the centre of attention. Among the intellectual and spiritual impulses that obsessed this consummate politician, religion held a lifelong fascination for the first premier of our province.

Interviews on religion

In trying to understand Joseph Roberts Smallwood's religious views, I have found valuable (in addition to Smallwood's own writing) two series of interviews. Robert D. W. Pitt, the former managing editor of the "Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador," recorded for MUN's ETV on video several question-and-answer sessions with Smallwood, which are now preserved in the Archives and Special Collections Division of the Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies at Memorial University's Queen Elizabeth II Library.

With the recent focus on the 60th anniversary of Confederation, Joey Smallwood, the wedding planner of Newfoundland's marriage to Canada, has once again become the centre of attention. Among the intellectual and spiritual impulses that obsessed this consummate politician, religion held a lifelong fascination for the first premier of our province.

Interviews on religion

In trying to understand Joseph Roberts Smallwood's religious views, I have found valuable (in addition to Smallwood's own writing) two series of interviews. Robert D. W. Pitt, the former managing editor of the "Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador," recorded for MUN's ETV on video several question-and-answer sessions with Smallwood, which are now preserved in the Archives and Special Collections Division of the Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies at Memorial University's Queen Elizabeth II Library.

Shortly before and after the retired premier's stroke, veteran journalist Ron Pumphrey recorded several loquacious but nevertheless quite revealing interviews, which he published in 1994 as a book, "The Last Days of the Last Father" (1994).

Some of the sessions with Pitt describe the territory of the churches, religions, and world views that Smallwood encountered or were meaningful for him. The interviews with Pumphrey are more reflective and occurred at a time in Smallwood's life when the sun was setting for this last father of Confederation.

Religious instincts

The premier did not hesitate to use any institution, including organized religion, for his own political benefit. While he was never a "card-carrying" church member, he had - by his own admission - "strong religious instincts" or "a religious outlook."

In forming such "instincts," Smallwood received no guidance from his nominally Methodist father, but he may have come to appreciate the value of religious experience through his mother, who converted from Roman Catholicism to become an early follower of Alice Belle Garrigus, the founder of Newfoundland Pentecostalism.

Although Smallwood later recalled having run errands for Miss Garrigus, the centrality of conversion and being born again in old-time Methodism or Spirit-filled Pentecostalism never appealed to him.

Churches in St. John's and New York

Among the major institutions shaping Newfoundland's religious landscape were the Methodist Church, the Church of England, and the Roman Catholic Church. Joey had been christened in the Methodist Church at Gambo by a visiting clergyman, Charles Lench, and in St. John's he attended for a while the Methodist College and Wesley Church on Patrick Street.

Later, as a Feildian, he could not easily escape attendance at St. Thomas' Church, since this was mandatory for all students attending Bishop Feild College. Yet whenever he could escape the master's watchful eye, Smallwood would attend Salvation Army meetings at a downtown citadel, which were his first introduction to evangelical religion.

Smallwood's exposure to a plethora of religious choices in St. John's, including a Roman Catholic day school, widened when he lived in New York, where he systematically attended many of the religious groups advertised in the Sunday edition of the New York Times.

Spiritualism

In New York, Smallwood first encountered Spiritualism, an interest he continued to nurture in London and Toronto. In London, he accompanied Lady Squires on Sunday evenings to the Aeolian Hall where Spiritualists held their meetings, although he never considered himself a Spiritualist like Sir William Coaker or Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

He remained interested in it and added it as one more component to his religious syncretism, which also included an esthetic sensibility for ritual and order.

Smallwood, although he venerated John Wesley and once called himself "the last Wesleyan," disliked any absolutist religious claims, whether doctrinal or spiritual. His anti-dogmatism opposed essential doctrines of classical Christianity - such as the divinity of Christ, atonement theology, and even life after death. The Masonic "Architect of the Universe" or the philosophical "First Cause" appealed to him more as a conception of God than the Christian notion of God as Father and Judge.

'The Messengers'

What Smallwood appreciated especially in religious leaders was personal charisma, which informed their spiritual vision and guided their followers and institutions. He designed a shrine for his bedroom, where facing his bed were images of persons he called "the Messengers": John Wesley, the founder of Methodism; William Booth, who organized the Salvation Army; Alice Belle Garrigus, who brought the Pentecostal message to St. John's; Pope John XXIII, whom Smallwood considered "possibly the greatest human being" of the 20th century for having "opened the windows of the Roman Catholic Church to let the fresh air in." Finally, he added a picture of a Korean Buddhist monk to whom he had been introduced by Geoff Stirling, the broadcaster, entrepreneur and fellow spiritual pilgrim.

These religious leaders whom he had encountered or venerated were, as Smallwood explained to his interviewer, Pumphrey, "all emissaries of the creator, not just one of them or two of them but all of them, were here to show The Way."

In a way, Joey Smallwood as a religious individual exhibited, before its time, a "postmodern" longing with all of its strengths and weaknesses: a deep spiritual and vital hunger for something ultimate that still refused to acknowledge any earthly institutional expression of the sacred as absolute.

Hans Rollmann is professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by e-mail: hrollman@mun.ca.

(Listed times are for Sundays, unless otherwise noted)

Organizations: Methodist College, Bishop Feild College, Special Collections Division Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies Queen Elizabeth II Library Methodist Church Roman Catholic Church Salvation Army Church of England Wesley Church New York Times

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Canada New York London Patrick Street St. Thomas Toronto

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