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William "Bible Bill" Aberhart combines salvation with economics - and a new political party is born
In the depths of the Depression, a radio evangelist with a golden tongue preached a new economic gospel. His words inspired the people of Alberta and a new political party was born: the Social Credit Party.
Alberta radio evangelist William Aberhart combined economics with salvation during the Great Depression. Pictured here, Aberhart addressing a rally. (National Archives of Canada, C-009339)
Alberta radio evangelist William Aberhart combined economics with salvation during the Great Depression. Pictured here, Aberhart addressing a rally. (National Archives of Canada, C-009339)

William "Bible Bill" Aberhart was a stout, earnest-looking Baptist minister and one of the first preachers in Canada to use the radio to spread the word of God. His Sunday afternoon broadcasts were a beacon of light for Albertans in the first grim years of the Depression.

In 1932, Aberhart began combining salvation with economics when he was inspired by an obscure monetary theory called "social credit." The doctrine - first espoused by a British engineer named Major C.H. Douglas - argued that capitalist governments should distribute money or "social credit" to increase spending and stimulate economies.

Aberhart modified and popularized the doctrine proposing each citizen be given $25-a-month by the provincial government. The plan was simple; Albertans could buy their way out of the economic crisis.

"You remain in the depression because of a shortage of purchasing power imposed by the banking system," Aberhart told his followers. "Social Credit offers you the remedy. If you have not suffered enough, it is your God-given right to suffer more. But if you wish to elect your own representatives to implement the remedy, this is your only way out."

The charismatic Aberhart used his radio show and his popular Bible Institute Baptist Church to spread his message of deliverance.

"He had a voice that made the pilot lights on your radio jump," one listener said. "You simply had to believe him. Sometimes when I heard him, I used to say to my wife, 'This man seems to be in direct contact with the Supreme Being.'"

The grassroots movement grew into the Social Credit Party when other Alberta political parties showed little interest in adopting Aberhart's ideas.

The new party's timing was impeccable. Alberta was mired in the Depression. In 1931, Edmonton had over 14,000 people on relief - almost 20% of the population. At the same time, the ruling provincial party, the United Farmers of Alberta, was caught up in a sex scandal involving Premier John Brownlee and a 22-year-old government stenographer.

In September 1935, Social Credit took 56 of 63 seats in the Alberta legislature and swept the United Farmers of Alberta from office.

Once in power, political reality confronted Premier Aberhart. There wasn't enough money in the treasury to meet that month's government payroll, let alone pay 400,000 people $25 each in social credit.

Aberhart's solution was to have Alberta print its own money, a move that was denounced in the press as dictatorial. "The spirit of Christ has gripped me," Aberhart responded. "I am only seeking to feed, clothe and shelter starving people. If that is what you call a dictator then I am one."

Aberhart took other drastic steps to deal with his province's economic problems. He passed the Accurate News and Information Law, which gave him control of the press. He also restricted banking activities and debt collections on farms.

His schemes didn't work. Provincial employees were paid with "prosperity certificates" but even the beer stores, which were owned by the province, wouldn't accept them. The Supreme Court declared that the certificates weren't legal tender and that the banking laws were unconstitutional.

Aberhart's "social credit" solutions might have failed but he emerged as a politician willing to fight for his constituents during the tough times. He remained premier until 1943 when he died in office.

His successor Ernest C. Manning, buoyed by massive oil revenues to provincial coffers, won nine successive elections for Social Credit and governed the province until 1971. William Aberhart's original Social Credit Party doctrine was replaced with Manning's more conservative financial and social politics.

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