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The Double Life of Charles Gordon

This story was initially published in 2002

On September 13, 1860, Charles William Gordon was born in Glengarry County, Canada West (now Ontario), to Reverend Daniel and Mary Gordon. First and foremost a clergyman, Charles Gordon also became one of Canada’s most successful novelists of the early 20th century.

Rev. Charles Gordon<br>43rd Cameron Highlanders

Rev. Charles Gordon
43rd Cameron Highlanders

© Provincial Archives of Manitoba
Negative 4575

After studying classics and English at the University of Toronto, Gordon pursued theology at Knox College, Toronto. Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1890, he spent his early career as a missionary in Banff, Alberta, where he ministered to men in mining and lumbering camps. In 1894, he took charge of another mission on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a position he held until his death. The mission soon became St. Stephen’s congregation, which, under Gordon’s leadership, grew from 14 members in 1895 to more than 1000 by 1915.

Gordon involved himself in many causes in Winnipeg including the prohibition movement, immigrant welfare and the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1914, when the First World War broke out, Gordon travelled to England and was appointed senior chaplain to the Canadian forces. The next year, he went to France as senior chaplain of the 3rd division, where he served men fighting on the front lines. After the war, when social unrest in Winnipeg culminated in the General Strike of 1919, Gordon was asked to chair the Joint Council of Industry which aimed to settle industrial disputes peacefully. He agreed and was instrumental in the settlement of 117 cases.

While Gordon was occupied with his clerical duties and social work, he nevertheless found time to write novels, under the pen name “Ralph Connor.” His first book, Black Rock, based on his experiences as a missionary on the western Canadian frontier, was published in 1898. Its first edition of 5000 copies – a very high number at that time – quickly sold out and Gordon was on his way to international fame and fortune. 

Charles Gordon conducts church service<br>at the Banff Highland Festival

Charles Gordon conducts church service
at the Banff Highland Festival

© Glenbow Archives PD-302-37

His fast-paced, melodramatic adventure stories with their larger-than-life Christian heroes were incredible bestsellers, with sales exceeding five million copies! As one of the most popular novelists in the world, Gordon was able to preach his religious and social ideas to a wide audience. His most well-known novels include The Man from Glengarry, Glengarry School Days and The Sky Pilot.

Charles William Gordon, known worldwide as "Ralph Connor," died in Winnipeg in 1937 and is recognized today as a person of national historic significance.

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