In his capacities as a minister, teacher and administrator, Nathanael Burwash exerted tremendous influence on both the course of the Methodist Church in Canada and the development of the educational system in Ontario for over half a century. In view of this dual role, Burwash's papers are of cardinal interest to religious and educational historians; nevertheless, they also contain valuable insights into the political, social and economic conditions in Canada between 1860 and the end of the First World War. The collection held by the Archives includes a large selection of Burwash's correspondence, diaries, sermons, addresses, essays, lectures, manuscripts, and biographical material.
Burwash's correspondence has been organized chronologically and thematically. The bulk of the material has been classified as general correspondence, but, where the volume or importance of correspondence on a particular subject warranted, a separate file was created. When ever possible, Burwash's replies were placed with the letters in response to which they were written. The major portion of the correspondence relates to the administration of Victoria College: included are letters from students seeking advice, requests for academic recommendations and honourary degrees, applications for staff openings and salary increases, questions concerning curriculum and examinations and debates over the relationship between the university and the government. The close ties between Victoria and other Methodist institutions such as Albert College, Columbian Methodist College and Wesley College in Winnipeg are clearly illustrated. Information concerning the university's financial arrangements and endowments has largely been segregated, but the researcher should also scan the general correspondence and the Massey family correspondence for a more complete picture. The family correspondence provides insights into Burwash's private opinions and reflects many values of Canadian family life. Although there are occasional questions regarding spiritual matters, the problems of training young men for the ministry or mission work, there are not as many as might be expected from the nature of Burwash's involvements. The bulk of the religious correspondence deals with the issue of Higher Criticism (particularly the Workman and Jackson controversies). Because Burwash was generally perceived to be a moderate liberal in theological matters, he received solicitations for support from both conservatives and radicals within the Methodist Church.
Although a number of the diaries are little more than listings of appointments and meetings, others are detailed accounts of Burwash's daily activities as a young preacher and professor and outline the nature of his spiritual concerns. The division of the remainder of the material into sermons, addresses, lectures, articles, essays, and manuscripts was often difficult and, of necessity, occasionally arbitrary. Within each category, the material was arranged chronologically. Generally, any piece containing a text (unless a title indicated otherwise) was classified as a sermon; pieces addressed to an audience (usually without a text) were labelled as addresses or lectures. The lecture notes contain examples of Burwash's work both as a student and as a teacher. Compositions which seem to have been written strictly for publication rather than for an audience were considered to be essays, articles, or manuscripts. The collection includes the complete manuscript for A Manual of Christian Theology in the Inductive Method and the manuscript and several drafts of The History of Victoria College.
Burwash's writings reflect an emphasis on the inner spiritual life of the individual and the importance of such Wesleyan traditions as Christian perfection. His work was an interesting example of a nineteenth century struggle to reconcile spiritual and scientific truths, although like most Methodists he was confident that all modes of truth were ultimately harmonious. Burwash's articulation of Wesleyan doctrine was designed to separate superficial and fundamental concepts in order to prepare a doctrinal basis for church union. The biographical and autobiographical material,initially prepared by Burwash and subsequently by his eldest son Edward,is incomplete in that it deals only with the period of Burwash's life prior to the 1890's. However, it contains interesting information on the nature of the educational system in Ontario, the lifestyle of a young preacher in both rural and urban stations, and the problems facing Victoria College immediately prior to federation.
The fonds is arranged in five series: Correspondence, 1965-1925; Diaries and journal, 1859-1914; Writing, 1860-1917; Notes and manuscripts, 1862-1923; and Records, 1863-1927.