The oldest of six children, James Shaver Woodsworth was born in Etobicoke Applewood Farm, near Toronto, Ontario, to Esther Josephine Shaver and James Woodsworth. His father was a Methodist minister, and his strong faith was a powerful factor in shaping his later life. His grandfather, Harold Richard Woodsworth, had opposed William Lyon Mackenzie in the 1837 Rebellions.
The Woodsworth family moved to Brandon, Manitoba, in 1882, where his father became a Superintendent of Methodist Missions in western Canada. Following in his father's footsteps, J. S. Woodsworth was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1896 and spent two years as a circuit preacher in Manitoba before going to study at Victoria College in the University of Toronto and at Oxford University in England. While studying at Oxford University in 1899, he became interested in social welfare work. During his stay, the Second Boer War broke out, and Woodsworth was immersed in discussions about the moral values of imperialism. In 1902, following his return to Canada, he took a position as minister at Grace Church in Winnipeg, and in 1903, married Lucy Staples.
In this role, he worked with the poor immigrants in Winnipeg and preached a social gospel that called for the Kingdom of God "here and now". It was not long, however, before Woodsworth became restless as a minister. He had difficulty accepting Methodist dogma, and questioned the wisdom of the Church's emphasis on individual salvation without considering the social context in which an individual lived. In a statement of explanation presented to the Manitoba Methodist Church Conference in 1907, he cited concerns with matters such as baptism, tests for those entering the Church, and fasting as a religious exercise. He tendered his resignation, but it was refused and he was offered the opportunity to assume the Superintendency of All People's Mission in Winnipeg's North End. For six years he worked with the poor and immigrant families, and during this time, he wrote and campaigned for compulsory education, juvenile courts, the construction of playgrounds, and other initiatives in support of social welfare.
Early social activism
As a Mission worker, Woodsworth had the opportunity to see first hand the appalling circumstances in which many of his fellow citizens lived, and began writing the first of several books decrying the failure to provide workers with a living wage and arguing for the need to create a more egalitarian and compassionate state. In 1909, his Strangers Within Our Gates was published, followed in 1911 by My Neighbour. In Strangers Within Our Gates, Woodsworth elaborated on concerns related to immigration, and expressed sympathy for the difficulties new immigrants to Canada faced but also offered eugenic interpretations of human abilities and worth based on race. The organization of the book reflects Woodsworth's "hierarchy" with early chapters focusing on "Great Britain", "the United States", "Scandinavians," "Germans," and later chapters focusing on the "Italians," "Levantine races," and "Orientals," ending with a chapter titled "the Negro and the Indian" (see table of contents).
Woodsworth left All People's in 1913 to accept an appointment as Secretary of the Canadian Welfare League. During this time he travelled extensively throughout the three Canadian prairie provinces, investigating social conditions, and writing and presenting lectures on his findings. By 1914, he had become a socialist and an admirer of the British Labour Party.
In 1916, during World War I, he was asked to support the National Services Registration, better known as "conscription". As church ministers were being asked to preach about the duty of men to serve in the military, Woodsworth decided to publish his objections. As a pacifist, he was morally opposed to the Church being used as a vehicle of recruitment, and was fired from his position with the Bureau of Social Research, where he was working at the time. In 1917, he received his final pastoral posting to Gibson's Landing, British Columbia. Woodsworth resigned from the Church in 1918 because of its support of the war. "I thought that as a Christian minister, I was a messenger of the Prince of Peace", he is quoted as saying. His resignation was accepted.
Woodsworth and his family remained in British Columbia, where, despite his slight stature, he took work as a stevedore. He joined the union, helped organize the Federated Labour Party of British Columbia, and wrote for a labour newspaper.
In 1919, he set out on a tour of Western Canada, arriving in Winnipeg just as the Winnipeg General Strike was underway. He immediately began presenting addresses at strike meetings. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged into a crowd of strikers demonstrating in the centre of Winnipeg, killing one person and injuring 30, Woodsworth led the campaign of protest, and soon became involved in organising the Manitoba Independent Labour Party (ILP).
Woodsworth briefly returned to British Columbia in 1920 to campaign as a Federated Labour Party candidate in Vancouver. He received 7444 votes, but was not elected to the provincial legislature.
He became editor of the Western Labour News. A week after the editor of the strike bulletin was arrested and charged with seditious libel, Woodsworth found himself in the same position, but was released on bail after five days' imprisonment, and the charges were never filed. These events were instrumental in establishing Woodsworth's credentials with the labour movement and in propelling him to a twenty-year tenure in public office. They also affirmed his beliefs in the importance of social activism.
In December 1921, Woodsworth was elected as the Independent Labour Party Member of Parliament for the riding of Winnipeg North, a constituency he served until his death. The first bill he proposed concerned unemployment insurance and, even though he was informed by the Clerk of the House of Commons that bills involving federal spending had to be presented by the government, he nonetheless continued to press his case for constitutional reform. Fourteen years later, the government agreed to set up a committee to discuss possible constitutional reforms. During this time, Woodsworth was an unflagging advocate for the worker, the farmer, and the immigrant.
In 1929, Woodsworth was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Student Christian Movement of Canada, a fledgling social justice movement founded in 1921, and inspired Stanley Knowles, then 21, who later became ordained and helped found the New Democratic Party.
Rejecting violent revolution and any association with the new Communist Party of Canada, Woodsworth became a master of parliamentary procedure and used the House of Commons as a public platform. He sat with the Progressive Party of Canada and was a leader of its radical faction, the Ginger Group.
When the Canadian Liberal Party nearly lost the 1925 election, Woodsworth was able to bargain his vote in the House for a promise from the Liberal government to enact an old age pension plan. Introduced in 1927, the plan is the cornerstone of Canada's social security system. In 1932, Woodsworth toured Europe as a member of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva.
When the Great Depression struck, Woodsworth and the ILP joined with various other labour and socialist groups in 1932 to found a new socialist party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), with Woodsworth as its first leader. Woodsworth said: "I am convinced that we may develop in Canada a distinctive type of Socialism. I refuse to follow slavishly the British model or the American model or the Russian model. We in Canada will solve our problems along our own lines."
In 1933, the CCF became the official opposition in British Columbia and, in 1934, the party achieved the same result in Saskatchewan. In the 1935 election, seven CCF Members of Parliament were elected to the House of Commons and the party captured 8.9 percent of the popular vote. The CCF, however, was never able to seriously challenge Canada's party system, which was then dominated by the Liberals and Conservatives. In particular, the enormous prestige of the long-time Liberal Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, prevented the CCF from displacing the Liberals as the main party of the left, as had happened in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
In 1939, the majority of CCF members refused to support Woodsworth's opposition to Canada's entry into World War II. During the debate on the declaration of war, Mackenzie King said: "There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament."
Nevertheless, Woodsworth was almost alone in his opposition to the war, he was the only Member of Parliament to vote against the bill, and his days as a party leader were over. He was re-elected to the House in 26 March 1940, but suffered a stroke in the fall and, over the next 18 months, his health deteriorated. He died in Vancouver, British Columbia in early 1942, and his ashes were scattered in the Strait of Georgia.
Woodsworth's daughter, Grace MacInnis, followed in his footsteps as a CCF politician.
Woodsworth strongly influenced Canadian social policy, and many of the social concepts he pioneered are represented in contemporary programs such as social assistance, pensions, and medicare, which are deemed to be fundamentally important in Canadian society today. While the party for which he was central founder, today called the New Democratic Party, has largely abandoned Woodsworth's vision of a socialist Canada, Woodsworth's memory is still held in great respect within the party as well as across Canada.
Woodsworth College of the University of Toronto, and J. S. Woodsworth Secondary School in Ottawa, Ontario (closed in 2005) are named after him. There is also a housing co-operative in downtown Toronto named after him. There is also a J.S. Woodsworth Senior Public School in Scarborough, Toronto. In Winnipeg a chrome coloured sixteen-story Manitoba provincial office building built in 1973 is named after him. The Ontario Woodsworth Memorial Foundation merged with the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation in 1987.
The Woodsworth home at 60 Maryland Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba is now the location of the Centre for Christian Studies. CCS purchased Woodsworth House from the Woodsworth Historical Society in 1998, with a commitment to keep the Woodsworth name and to continue to display photographs of Woodsworth and reminders of his commitment to the social gospel and social justice.
In 2004, a CBC contest rated Woodsworth as the 100th Greatest Canadian of all time.
In October 2010, the town of Gibsons, British Columbia announced that it would be naming a street in a new subdivision after Woodsworth. Woodsworth lived in Gibsons for a short time, beginning in 1917.