Remembering Ted Byfield

By Jonathon Van Maren

Edward “Ted” Bartlett Byfield passed away in his Edmonton home on December 23, 2021, at the age of 93. For more than a half-century, he was one of Canada’s most significant public Christians, and his life’s work included the founding of a religious order, the formation of several Christian boarding schools for boys, a series of influential newsmagazines, laying the groundwork for a political movement, writing books, and serving as editor on a magnificent 12-volume history of Christianity, The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. His departure leaves a gaping hole that cannot be filled.

I last saw Ted Byfield in July on the weekend of his 93rd birthday. We spent several days together, sitting in his office and outside on the sunny deck of his Edmonton home reading aloud the chapters of his biography that I’ve been working on for several years, the culmination of countless hours of conversation and research. He listened intently, riveted both by his own life and how fast it seemed to have gone; frequently, he would break out into that wonderful, raspy chuckle his friends know so well. When I looked up after reading about his beloved Ginger, he had tears trailing down his face.

Virginia died in 2014—they had been married 65 years and had worked together for a lifetime. When she passed, Ted told me, he wanted to die, too. His wife must have known this. “Her last words to me,” he said, “were: Don’t. You. Quit.” And Ted never did, not for a moment. Until nearly the very end, he was working on new projects (including a book on the fruits of Christianity), pitching new ideas, and offering his encouragement and friendship to others. “Tell me about this ‘podcast’ thing,” he said on one phone call. “Should we be doing something like that?”

The Toronto of Ted’s youth was, he said, an “Anglo-Saxon town” where Queen Victoria’s birthday was a mandatory celebration, his aunt was a member of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and the death of King George V in 1936 brought bitter tears. The abdication of Edward VIII to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson was an event that loomed large in public consciousness—everyone was, Ted said, simply “stunned that the monarchy could possibly get involved in a dirty thing like divorce.” One of the highlights of Ted’s youth came on May 20, 1939, when Vernon managed to get his family into the press gallery over the Speaker’s Chair while King George VI granted Royal Assent to nine bills. “I was ten feet away,” Ted told me. “It was electrifying.”

When World War II arrived, Toronto filled up with uniforms. Ted was, he often said, “not in the War, but of the War” as he was too young to enlist, but he recalled Churchill’s growling radio broadcasts, rationing, young men just slightly older than himself being killed in action overseas, and the obsession boys had with deciding which branch of the armed forces they would join when their time came (Ted wanted the Navy.) There was suddenly an abundance of work, and Ted’s lifelong work ethic was forged as a delivery boy on Toronto’s streets and his first foray into the newspaper business came when he began selling Liberty Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post on the beaches of the Toronto Islands.

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