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William 'Bible Bill' Aberhart, Social Credit pioneer

Albertans don't elect parties so much as anoint political dynasties. And the governments — led by some of the most colourful, popular and durable premiers in Canadian history — have tended to rule for decades. CBC Archives looks back at pivotal election campaigns in Canada's bastion of conservative populism; the glory and the gaffes, the landslides and the losers, the radio preachers and the man they just call Ralph.

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The founder of the Social Credit Party of Alberta, William Aberhart, died May 23, 1943 at the age of 64. In the depths of the Great Depression, Aberhart rose from his job as a school principal to become premier of drought-ravaged Alberta. Possessing a magnetic personality and fiery oratory, the part-time Baptist preacher managed to capture the public's imagination with his radical theories that promised to lift Albertans from their economic hardships. This clip from CBC Television looks at Aberhart's unlikely rise to power, his challenges once in office and his surprise death.

William Aberhart swept to power in 1935, earning him a spot in political history as the leader of the world's first Social Credit government. His unique blend of bluster and righteous wrath earned him the nickname "Bible Bill", but it would be his innovative take on an obscure economic theory that would earn him his place in history.
• William Aberhart was born Dec. 30, 1878, on a farm in the town of Kippen, Ont., near London.
• As a boy, Aberhart aspired to be a minister, but he decided to pursue a career in teaching instead. In 1899, he taught in a schoolhouse in Wingham, Ont., and later became a principal in nearby Brantford.
• A devout Christian, he spent much of his spare time preaching and leading Bible classes at local Baptist churches.

• In 1910, Aberhart, his wife and two daughters moved to Alberta, where he took a job as a principal in Calgary. He continued to preach, eventually becoming the unofficial minister of Westbourne Baptist Church in 1915.
• Aberhart quickly became known for his sermons, which combined his charismatic personality with a righteous religious wrath.

• Aberhart's sermons proved so popular that in 1925, a local radio station began broadcasting them live every Sunday. The Back to the Bible Hour evangelical show eventually drew more than 300,000 listeners throughout Canada and the U.S.
• In the summer of 1932, Aberhart attended a teachers' meeting where he expressed despair at seeing so many of his students graduate and go without work during the Great Depression.
• Aberhart heard about a little-known monetary theory, devised by British engineer C.H. Douglas, which promised to counter the effects of the Depression.

• Douglas argued that capitalism was fatally flawed because it led to a chronic shortage of purchasing power for average citizens.
• According to his "social credit" theory, the economy could be repaired using a system of checks and balances including tighter control of the credit industry and government-issued discounts for consumers.
• Aberhart adapted Douglas's theory and infused it with his own religious beliefs.

• For the next three years Aberhart promoted his ideas to the ruling United Farmers of Alberta Party (UFA). When his efforts failed, he re-organized his Alberta Social Credit League into a political party called The Social Credit Party of Alberta.
• In 1935, the party ran in the provincial election on a platform that promoted a "basic dividend" of $25 per month, which would be paid to every adult Albertan.

• The message of guaranteed prosperity was unbeatable at the polls. In August 1935, Aberhart's Social Credit Party won 56 of 63 seats in the Alberta legislature, ousting the UFA.
• Aberhart's success was soon put to the test, as he struggled to see many of his election promises through to reality.

• The federal government launched a court challenge to his attempts to control the banking and credit industries, which led to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled that his efforts were unconstitutional.
• When Aberhart realized the provincial budget wouldn't allow him to fulfil his $25 promise, his solution was to have Alberta print its own money. He also passed laws that restricted press freedom and limited banking activities on farms.

• Though the $25 dividends never materialized, Aberhart proved popular enough to be re-elected in 1940. By then the drought and Depression had ended, and Social Credit evolved into a more traditional conservative party.
• Aberhart died of liver disease on May 23, 1943. Ernest C. Manning, his right-hand man (and father of Reform Party founder Preston Manning), became premier. He served until 1971.
Medium: Television
Program: Explorations
Broadcast Date: Jan. 10, 1962
Guest(s): William Aberhart, A.V. Bourcier, Fred Kennedy, J.M. Lymburn, Florence Todd, Clifford Willmont
Host: John Saywell
Duration: 12:15 Photo: Glenbow Museum Archives (ND-3-7105a)

Last updated: March 19, 2013

Page consulted on August 27, 2014

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