William Aberhart

As premier of the province of Alberta, Canada, from 1935 to 1943, William Aberhart (1878-1943) was the first political leader who made the theories of social credit a basis for government.

William Aberhart was born on a farm in Huron County, Ontario, on Dec. 30, 1878. He was educated in the local schools, attended business college, and later received a teacher's certificate. After 2 years in a rural school, he moved to the small manufacturing city of Brantford and became a public school principal. In 1910 he received a bachelor of arts degree extramurally from Queen's University, an achievement which gave him great satisfaction. In the same year he moved with his wife and two daughters to Calgary, Alberta.

In 1915 Aberhart was appointed principal of a new high school in a prosperous, middle-class area. Although his enormous energy and organizing abilities brought him wide respect as a principal, he was less admired as a teacher of mathematics and commercial subjects because of his dependence on rote.

Religious revivalism was a strong influence in Aberhart's boyhood. In Brantford he had led a Bible class associated with a Presbyterian church and espoused premillennialist teachings. He established Bible classes successively in one Presbyterian and two Methodist churches in Calgary, leaving each because of disagreements with clergy more theologically liberal than himself and his inability to work with any group he could not dominate. From 1915 he built up a large Bible class in association with a local Baptist church, and this led to the establishment of the nondenominational Prophetic Bible Institute, directed by Aberhart.

As one of the first regular broadcasters on the Canadian prairies, Aberhart had a ready-made audience among his religious followers. He responded to the devastating effects of the Great Depression on the farm economy of Alberta by adding to his evangelical radio message the doctrines of social credit, which had originated with an English engineer, Clifford Hugh Douglas. Always the teacher who reduced complexity to simple formula, Aberhart asserted that the answer to poverty in the midst of plenty was to make purchasing power equal to productive power by issuing paper credit. Promising $25 a month to every Albertan, the new Social Credit party under Aberhart's leadership swept into office in the provincial election of 1935, ousting the United Farmers of Alberta government, in office since 1921. After considerable delay and a threatened revolt within the party, Aberhart's government passed legislation to give the province control over banking and credit, but these measures were either disallowed or declared unconstitutional in the courts.

By Aberhart's death on May 23, 1943, social credit theories were disappearing before wartime prosperity, and they were lost entirely when the province became rich on oil and natural-gas development. Increasingly conservative Social Credit governments continued to hold power in Alberta thereafter.


Further Reading on William Aberhart

Much of Aberhart's career may be traced in numerous volumes on social credit; his character is examined in John A. Irving, The Social Credit Movement in Alberta (1959). Also useful are C. B. Macpherson, Democracy in Alberta: The Theory and Practice of a Quasi-Party System (1953), and J. R. Mallory, Social Credit and the Federal Power in Canada (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Elliott, David Raymond, Bible Bill: a biography of William Aberhart, Edmonton, Alta., Canada: Reidmore Books, 1987.

William Aberhart and Social Credit in Alberta, Toronto: Copp Clark Pub., 1977.