Born in Delta, Ontario, he was educated at Queen's University, Victoria University (University of Toronto), the Union Theological Seminary of New York, New York University, and Wesleyan Theological College, Montreal. He became a minister of the Methodist Church and later of the United Church of Canada. In 1916 he married Edith Chown, a member of a prominent Kingston family. In 1920 he was named literary adviser to the Ryerson press, and from 1922 to 1960 was its editor. In 1926 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada.
As an editor at Ryerson who was also an ardent Canadian nationalist, Pierce consistently used his authority to encourage Canadian writers by both publication and advice. Among the poets he introduced were E. J. Pratt, Raymond Knister, Earle Birney, A. J. M. Smith, Dorothy Livesay, Louis Dudek, and P. K. Page; and he was the first editor to accept a novel (Settlers of the marsh, 1925) by Frederick Philip Grove. His desire to stimulate Canadian writing, however, led him to rely heavily on copy-editors to redeem manuscripts of questionable promise.
His sentiments and interests were expressed early in his editorial career when he instigated three series of short books on Canadian subjects: Makers of Canadian literature (from 1925), the Ryerson Canadian history readers (from 1926)—to celebrate past achievements—and the Ryerson poetry chapbooks (from 1925) to stimulate future efforts. In order to familiarize school-children with the native literature Pierce edited the Ryerson (later Canada) books of prose and verse, which began to appear in 1927. For adult readers he edited, with A. D. Watson, Our Canadian literature: representative prose and verse (1922). Its poetry section, edited with Bliss Carman, later became Our Canadian literature: representative verse, English and French (1922), and was revised in 1954 by V. B. Rhodenizer as Canadian poetry in English. Pierce was the author of Fifty years of public service: a life of James L. Hughes (1924); Marjorie Pickthall: a book of remembrance (1925); An outline of Canadian literature (French and English) (1927); and William Kirby, the portrait of a Tory loyalist (1929). He also wrote two histories of the Ryerson Press: The chronicle of a century, 1829–1929: the record of one hundred years of progress in the publishing concerns of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in Canada (1929) and The House of Ryerson, 1829–1954 (1954). Three Fredericton poets (1933) reflected his close friendship with Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and Bliss Carman (who made him his literary executor). In numerous pamphlets Pierce urged upon Canadians the possibility of national greatness, to be achieved through awareness of spiritual foundations and the cultivation of bonne entente between English- and French-speaking Canadians.
His many publications aside, Pierce has a claim to remembrance as a literary entrepreneur who unstintingly devoted his time and money to the promotion of Canadian literature and art. To this end he donated to the Royal Society of Canada the Lorne Pierce medal for distinguished service to Canadian literature; took a leading part in founding several organizations, including the Canadian Writers' Foundation; and built up an important collection of Canadian books, manuscripts, and correspondence that is now deposited at Queen's University. His career is described appreciatively by C. H. Dickinson, the Book Steward of the Ryerson Press from 1937 to 1964, in Lorne Pierce: a profile (1965).
See also Criticism in English: 2.