Putting In Its Place: Canadian Presbyterian Independent Journalism

Don MacLeodDon MacLeod is the Convener of the Committee on History of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and teaches Church History as Adjunct Professor at Tyndale Theological Seminary. He did graduate studies in history at Harvard as a Woodrow Wilson fellow.

On hearing the claim that the problems of the day were directly attributable to Christianity and journalism, a former British prime minister is said to have responded: "Christianity of course … But why journalism?" Today journalism and Christianity in Canada rarely intersect. When they do, they seem unable to understand each other. Few Canadians realize that Presbyterians have historically played an important significant role in Canadian journalism. Maclean's magazine owes its name to John Bayne Maclean who recast it into what became Canada's weekly news magazine. The Toronto Globe and Mail, which modestly describes itself on its masthead as "Canada's national newspaper," was started in 1844 by young Scots immigrant George Brown. Brown had arrived in Toronto the year before with his father Peter who had a mission to establish an independent Presbyterian journal. The Mirror, as he named it, would be the first of many such. Channels is the most recent in a succession of independent Canadian Presbyterian magazines.

Peter Brown launched The Mirror on August 18, 1843, three months after the Disruption of the Church of Scotland. As a modest Scot, Peter Brown described that schism of Presbyterians in the homeland as "an event unparalleled in the world." His broadsheet would advocate that those sharing the same religious convictions in British North America should also separate. The establishment the next year of a Canadian Free Church, known as the Canada Presbyterian Church, was the direct result of his impassioned journalism. Peter Brown went on to further controversy. He would write to ensure that no worship service in that new denomination would be tainted by instrumental music or the use of hymns. Another independent Presbyterian journal The Canadian Presbyter, in Lower rather than Upper Canada, took up the cudgels for innovation and experimentation in worship. As father Peter became more reactionary, son George used the editorial page of The Globe to be the radical voice of liberal democracy.

1844 was the first time that Canadian Presbyterianism experienced a disruption but it would not be the last. The battle over the church union of 1925 was fought out in the pages of independent religious newspapers for almost a quarter of a century. Victorians loved their newspapers and magazines: they were what television is for many today. The religious press was hugely popular and widely circulated. By the 1880s there were a variety of offerings for Canadian Presbyterians. The Presbyterian Review, for instance, was published out of Toronto each Thursday. Others included The Presbyter, The Western Presbyterian and The Canada Presbyterian, all of which joined at the turn of the century to form The Westminster. Subsequently, The Westminster would merge with The Review, to become The Presbyterian: A Weekly review of Church Life and Work.

The Westminster and its successor, The Presbyterian, made a substantial contribution to Canadian culture, introducing members of Canada's largest Protestant denomination to talented authors. Significant among these was Ralph Connor, the pseudonym of Rev. Charles Gordon, whose novels were serialized in its pages. Black Rock, Sky Pilot and Glengarry School Days, titles barely known today, were all best sellers in their day. Gordon would later describe how Westminster's editor James A. MacDonald recruited him for his stable of writers. As theological students in Toronto MacDonald had assisted Gordon in the production of The Knox College Monthly. Gordon graduated and became a church planter in Winnipeg. MacDonald made his career in religious journalism. Later they met up in Toronto and as they reminisced MacDonald turned to Gordon and exclaimed "Charles, my boy — I've got it! I've got it! You write me something when you go back to Winnipeg!" In 1902 J. A. MacDonald was appointed editor of The Toronto Globe. Charles Gordon's assessment was that MacDonald became "the greatest editor in Canada and one of the greatest in all America."

During that same conversation Gordon complained to MacDonald about the name of the magazine. Westminster not only had a "sanctimonious" ring to it. It reminded Gordon of the Westminster Confession of a faith which he said was "a great historic mausoleum for ancient creeds, beautiful rituals, saintly preachers and d-d-." He stopped in the middle of the sentence. MacDonald cautioned him against using profanity. Gordon said he was free, presumably as a journalist not a minister, to complete the sentence. He knew that MacDonald, a notorious stutterer, would trip his tongue over the missing "damned." Gordon's outburst was highly revealing. He would go on, as a leading advocate of church union, to argue for the elimination of creedal subscription in the interests of bringing Christians together in a single denomination.

The Westminster, now renamed The Presbyterian, vigorously promoted church union. It became the major forum for those determined to bring about a merger of Canadian Protestants. MacDonald's successor Robert Haddow engaged in journalistic combat against outspoken anti-unionist Ephraim Scott, editor of the official Presbyterian Record. At one point Haddow called for Scott's resignation, but the wily fighter was protected by Robert Campbell as Convener of the Record committee. The Presbyterian became increasingly strident in its advocacy of church union, abandoning any pretense of objectivity. Ephraim Scott, as an official of the church, had to be more measured.

Prior to the second vote about church union in 1915, an editorial committee was set up to provide an independent journal that would counter the views of The Presbyterian in a way that Ephraim Scott was unable to do. The first issue of the resulting publication, called The Presbyterian Advocate, was actually written entirely by Scott without consultation. A second issue with thirty-four laymen and clergy from coast to coast expressing their reasoned opposition to organic church union met with the approval of the editorial committee. Bundled out to churches across Canada, The Presbyterian Advocate proved highly effective as a counterweight to The Presbyterian which continued to lobby for a positive vote. "In my humble judgement," Robert Haddow wrote, "the answer ought to be in the affirmative and the vote ought to be unanimous." In spite of his efforts the second ballot of 1915 not only failed to be unanimous, it revealed a divided and fractious church.

After the 1915 vote a Presbyterian Church Association was formed to mobilize opposition to church union. The Association's strategy included a plan to establish "a high class national weekly" published by an incorporated company with a capitalization of $100,000. This grandiose scheme never came about. Instead a small offprint, The Message, appeared. Its stated object was "to expound in a systematic manner, the cause of the Presbyterian Church." The Message sputtered and died after five issues. Meanwhile The Presbyterian, in reaction, no longer tolerated any expression of opposition to church union. Neither side could claim objectivity in their journalism.

Anti-unionist journalism was revived following the 1923 Port Arthur General Assembly as the inevitability of church union became starkly apparent to its opponents. The Presbyterian Church Association now produced The Presbyterian Standard. In the division of spoils after June 10, 1925, and the consummation of church union, Ephraim Scott brought the official magazine The Presbyterian Record into the continuing church.

A pattern had been established. Independent Presbyterian journals presented an opportunity for minorities to present their views and gain an audience. Only a decade after church union, a new independent journal would appear. Bible Christianity owed much to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s from which Canada was largely spared. The magazine, supported by W. D. Reid, minister of the well-heeled Stanley Church, Westmount, Montreal, became known for its outspoken opposition to what it perceived as liberalism in the continuing church. Bible Christianity was edited by J. Marcellus Kik, a Presbyterian minister who was among the first graduates of Westminster Seminary after it split from Princeton in 1929. Kik had been minister in New Brunswick but came to Montreal in 1936 and served there in various capacities (for a time as full-time editor and religious broadcaster) from 1936 to 1952. Bible Christianity should not be confused with the later Bible Presbyterian, which was published out of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, by dissident Presbyterian minister Malcolm MacKay.

Back files of Bible Christianity appear to have been lost. But from correspondence to the Editor Marcellus Kik, graciously provided by his son Frank, the magazine appears to have been feisty and opinionated. Bible Christianity launched strong attacks against Presbyterian College, Montreal, and specifically against Principal Scott MacKenzie and Professor Frank Baird, both of them regarded as old-time liberals. W. D. Reid, now 71 and just retired, wrote in 1937 a scathing article denouncing Baird's teaching as being against the Westminster Confession of Faith. Baird responded in outraged innocence. Later Kik would get into trouble for accusations he published in the paper. He was censured by the Presbytery of Montreal and was asked to apologize for remarks the Presbytery regarded as intemperate. In 1952 Kik, deeply disturbed by the rejection by the General Assembly of his friend Stanford Reid for a position at Presbyterian College, returned to the United States. There he made a name for himself as an editor colleague to Carl Henry when Christianity Today was established by J. Howard Pew and Billy Graham in 1957.

Stanford Reid, now a full-time Professor at McGill, no longer had his own pulpit. To provide a forum for his views, following the demise of Bible Christianity he established a new journal which he called Reformation Today, which made its debut in October of 1951. Reformation Today was broadly based denominationally. In its editing and production Reid formed a close partnership with respected Bishops University history Professor Donald Masters and his wife Marjorie who handled the production of the magazine. Donald and Marjorie Masters were Low Church Anglicans of an Evangelical persuasion. In spite of that broader perspective, Reformation Today became, as a forthcoming biography of Stanford Reid will demonstrate, Reid's bully pulpit in the 1950s for reform of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The magazine raised questions about mission policy, ecumenical engagement and particularly what it meant to be a confessional church. Each Christmas it did an evangelistic article but mostly its appeal was in-house to Presbyterians worried by the superficiality of church life in the 1950s.

After three years of publication, and following warnings of imminent financial collapse, Reformation Today folded at the end of 1954. It had served both as an irritant and a stimulant. At one point Stanford Reid wrote defensively: "The primary reasons so we have been told for people objecting to Reformation Today, and some even advocating that it be suppressed, is that the paper raises disturbing issues in the church, and that it is critical in its attitude." It did not need to be suppressed: Reid became engaged in other pursuits. The difficulties of producing a magazine dependent on volunteers, and with limited finances, continued to challenge independent religious journalism.

Five years later Stanford Reid resurrected the concept of an independent journal. In January of 1960 Presbyterian Comment first appeared. This time Reid had gathered around him a new editorial committee, comprised mainly of friends and colleagues in the Presbytery of Montreal. In 1966, following his move to Guelph and the death of his Westmount High School classmate Donald Gowans who had handled all the administrative details, the magazine moved to central Ontario, where it continued until 1980.

Initially Presbyterian Comment sought to be irenic. C. Ritchie Bell of Presbyterian College, who had worked closely with Reid in the establishment of the new denominational Administrative Council, provided the lead article for the first issue. "Did I Make a Mistake in 1925?" he asked, and his answer was a resounding and predictable "No." Presbyterian Comment received an initial positive response. But as the fissures in society and in the church became more and more apparent in the 1960s, the magazine gained a reputation (not wholly undeserved) for crankiness. At the same time the magazine provided a valuable forum for independent opinion when the official pages of The Presbyterian Record were closed to such views. As Editor Stanford Reid struggled with contributors who failed to produce promised articles, missed printing deadlines and marginal finances. Frequently he was called on to ensure that the printers, the Durham Chronicle, were paid for a previous issue before the next one could appear.

The perception that Presbyterian Comment was negative and carping was widely held. The likeable Dilwyn Evans was irritated enough to respond as Chair of the General Board of Missions at the time. In response a 1965 critique by Reid of Board policy he wrote: "apparently among the many and varied activities in which you are involved, one is being editor of Presbyterian Comment." He offered Reid the chance to speak directly to those with whom he disagreed, rather than airing differences in the pages of a magazine, so that Reid might "have [his] questions answered directly and quite factually."

As the years went on, and Reid mellowed with age, Presbyterian Comment became less abrasive. Between 1972 and 1978 he wrote eleven articles about the Holy Spirit and showed considerable interest in the charismatic movement. With retirement from the University of Guelph in 1979, Reid gave up the editorial post. No one else was prepared to put the time into it that he had, and that such a periodical demanded. For a brief period Foundations, published out of Parry Sound, Ontario, by Ken Stewart, appeared to fill the vacuum but it soon experienced the same difficulties. When the idea of Channels was floated Stewart graciously became an immediate and (one suspects relieved) backer, joining his efforts with the Renewal Fellowship and sharing his mailing list. In an early issue of Channels he spoke appreciatively of its layout and professional appearance.

It is easy to understand, given its four predecessors, why Channels was so enthusiastically received when it debuted in the Fall of 1983. The second and third issues of the magazine were filled with letters to the Editor expressing surprise and pleasure. There was a whole new image to evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, bruised over the women's ordination debate. Its contents were positive and constructive. The format reinforced that new image with good layout and colour on the cover. Each of the previous four independent journals had layout that was at best amateur. Presbyterian Comment's layout was almost accidental, its articles hard to follow as they moved from page to page. Inadequate editing by volunteers meant there were frequent typos and stylistic crudities. Channels reflected a whole new image. No longer just a broadsheet, the twenty-four page magazine was well laid out, professionally produced, and eminently readable. In seeking to provide Channels for communication and blessing, the magazine struck an immediate and positive note. Its appeal was broad and engaging.

No one was quicker to notice this, and to acknowledge it, than Stanford Reid. In one of the early issues he wrote: "The other day I received a sample copy of Channels and thought it was a very good production." And in 1986, when a dozen issues of the periodical proved that it was no flash-in-the-pan, he wrote again; "Channels seems to be getting quite a lot of favourable comment from people with whom I discussed it, and I hope that it will continue to have a strong and evangelical impact on the Presbyterian Church in Canada." He would contribute four articles in the years ahead: on "The Preacher as Teaching Elder," "Church Renewal and Social Reform," "Needed: A Spiritual Revolution," and "Urbanization: A New Factor in Christian Missions." The titles suggest that his interests had broadened and were constructive and positive. His final article "Helping the Lonely," was personal, poignant and profoundly moving. It was his valedictory to a church that he loved and had served faithfully.

Channels presented a broader-based evangelicalism than any of its predecessors among independent Presbyterian journals. Ian Rennie commented on this in a letter to the Editor in the second issue: "I am sure it was providential that the direction of Channels is in British Columbia and is thus portraying a significantly different face of evangelicalism to the Presbyterian Church at large than [is] given by the Confessionalists of eastern Canada, who although they are only a minority in the evangelical forces here, nonetheless have such a clear-cut and articulate profession that they are often assumed to represent the whole. How delightfully you are disabusing people's minds of this notion."

On the tenth anniversary of the Renewal Fellowship veteran Mariano DiGangi reflected on the first decade of the organization and its magazine. "The Fellowship did not like Athena, spring full-grown from the head of Zeus. It had its antecedents in ad hoc groups like The Reformation Fellowship." He then reminded that Channels likewise "had precedents in publications such as Presbyterian Comment and Foundations." "What distinguishes the Fellowship is the Renewal Fellowship and Channels however, is the way in which they have survived and thrived over these ten years."

That single decade has now extended to two. Both the Fellowship and Channels continue, a considerable achievement in itself. Both are part of the heritage of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Channels seeks to provide constructive and practical help as it seeks to be a channel to renew the church and to strengthen its mission. Channels has, it is generally agreed, fulfilled the vision of its founders. This has happened only because it stood on the shoulders of those who went before and who kept the faith.

The material in this article owes much to Norman Clifford's The Resistance To Church Union In Canada 1904 — 1939 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1985), Charles Gordon's Postscript To Adventure (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1937), A. Donald MacLeod's W. Stanford Reid: Evangelical, Calvinist and Academic (soon to be published by McGill-Queens Press) and Richard Vaudry's The Free Church in Victorian Canada, 1844-1861 (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1989).