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The Observer has a bright future ahead

The magazine's newest editor says she's often felt pulled between preserving its past and evolving to meet present-day challenges.

By Jocelyn Bell

Welcome to The Observer’s 190th anniversary year! You may know that you’re holding the oldest continuously published magazine in North America. We trace our roots back to 1829, to the founding of The Christian Guardian and a young editor named Egerton Ryerson.

Ryerson was only 26 when the Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada elected him the first editor of its new paper. The story of his ascent to prominence is intriguing and speaks to the denominational divisions of the times.

Three years earlier, Ryerson read a sermon by an archdeacon of the Church of England. It painted Methodists as unintelligent and disloyal to the Crown, and asserted the Church of England’s authority as the official church of Upper Canada.

Ryerson believed in freedom of religion, at least among Christians, and found the sermon deeply offensive. He penned an impassioned rebuttal in a journal called the Colonial Advocate. Two Methodist leaders were together when they read Ryerson’s essay. One later wrote: “As we read, we wept . . . and thanked God for the able and timely defence of truth against falsehoods. . . . Little did we then think that the able reviewer was a youth.”

Ryerson’s star rose quickly after that. He served as editor of The Christian Guardian until 1840. He later laid the foundation for public education in Ontario and was the first principal of Victoria University in Toronto. He also helped develop the residential school system, whose disastrous outcome for Indigenous children is well-known today. 

When The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, the publications of its three founding denominations — Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians — were rolled into one and called The New Outlook. I rather like that name, but people of the time did not, so in 1939 they changed it to The United Church Observer, a name now marking 80 years.

It’s quite a legacy to inherit. As The Observer’s newest editor, I’ve often felt pulled between preserving this magazine’s past and evolving to meet present-day challenges. But I’ve also realized that change is as vital to our history as our founding Christian values are to our future.

In this issue, you’ll find a bit of the past and the future. We introduce “Retrospect,” a department that celebrates our 190 years. You’ll also find our cover story, “There’s no way this should have worked,” the result of an innovative partnership between Reader’s Digest Canada and The Observer.

Some months ago, Reader’s Digest editor-in-chief Dominique Ritter floated the idea of collaborating on a feature. Soon after, veteran Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong pitched a story idea about the daring rescue of Syria’s heroic White Helmets. Ritter and I pooled our magazines’ resources, enabling Armstrong and photographer Peter Bregg to travel to the Middle East last August to report the story.

Armstrong’s gripping account of this secret international operation is a testament to the good world leaders can do when they set aside political differences and work toward a common cause.

Author's photo
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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Paul Fraumeni (r) with his father, Jack, and sister, Julie, at a 2006 Tigers-Yankees playoff game at Comerica Park in Detroit. Fraumeni and his father had their differences, but baseball always brought them together.  (Photo courtesy of author)

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