Founded in 1829, The United Church Observer is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America and the second oldest in the English-speaking world. It has won international acclaim for journalistic excellence and garnered more awards for writing than any other Canadian religious publication. Editor Jocelyn Bell says that the publication's staff aims to offer United Church readers, and Canadians on the whole, a church magazine that eclipses expectations of church magazines. But she says they try to stay mindful of the magazine's history as they shift into a new era for faith-based media.
In the early part of the 19th century, leadership within the Canadian Methodist church wanted to keep in touch with the growing denomination across the country and started The Christian Guardian in 1829, with educator and political activist, Egerton Ryerson, as the founding editor.
Ryerson quickly earned a reputation as “a doughty controversialist who, by his facile pen, fought the battle of civil and religious liberty.” His passion and determination were his greatest strengths—and often his worst enemies: in his first 11 years as editor, he was voted in and out of office on three separate occasions by the Methodist Conference.
Starting with meagre resources, Egerton Ryerson guided The Christian Guardian to a circulation of 3,000 by the end of its third year. The publication came to be regarded as a major voice in the life of the growing country: as today, it commented not only on matters of religion but education and political affairs. Ryerson went on to serve in government and is credited with founding the public school system in Upper Canada.
His counterpart in the Presbyterian Church in Canada was Peter Brown, editor of the Banner: his family was publisher of the Toronto Globe, now known as The Globe and Mail. He was a father of Canadian Confederation.
When The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist publications merged into The New Outlook. By 1939, church leaders decided the magazine needed a name that more aptly celebrated the growing, confident young denomination. Since its name change, The United Church Observer has had only six changes in editorial leadership: Rev. A.J. Wilson (1939-55); Rev. Al Forrest (1955-79); Hugh McCullum (1980-90); Muriel Duncan (1990-2006); David Wilson (2006-2017); and the current editor, Jocelyn Bell.
Since 1986, The Observer has been independently incorporated, which makes it unique among major North American denominational publications. The magazine sets its own editorial policies and program and is overseen by its own board of directors. While it maintains a healthy relationship with The United Church of Canada, it does not speak as the denomination’s official voice, receiving only about 7 percent of its funding from the United Church’s General Council. Other funding comes from individual subscriptions, newsstand purchases, the Friends of the Observer Fund and government grants. The Observer’s financial and legal independence permits the publication to comment freely on matters within and outside The United Church of Canada. Says editor Wilson: “In the same way that The United Church of Canada is part of the Canadian identity, an independent Observer is inextricably part of the United Church identity — one of those unique features of the United Church that Canadians admire, whether they’re in the pews or on the sidelines.”