Canadian Presbyterians Engage the Political Principalities and Powers

Peter BushPeter Bush is Teaching Elder at Knox Presbyterian Church, Mitchell, Ontario. He is the author of Western Challenge (2000) and, with Christine O'Reilly, Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered (2006).

Four Canadian branches of the Presbyterian Church came together, in 1875, to form The Presbyterian Church in Canada. These strains of the Reformed tradition, sharing much in common, had little difficulty agreeing on most doctrinal issues and church polity. Yet there was disagreement in one area, the relation of the church and the magistrate (as the Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF] entitles the topic). The Basis of Union of 1875, therefore, named the WCF as the subordinate standard of the new denomination, but explicitly stated Chapter 23 (the section of church-state relations) was not to bind any member, ordained or lay.

At first glance it might seem Canadian Presbyterians did not care what the government did, eschewing all political involvement. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. All the branches of the new denomination were very concerned about decisions governments had made. It was never a question of whether the church could or should call the state to account. All Presbyterians agreed with the words of the contemporary Preamble to the Ordination questions: "Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church." The church was to be free from state interference. Rather the point of dispute was how involved could a Presbyterian be in the political scene and remain free to act as the conscience of the state. This article explores some of the ways Canadian Presbyterians have been involved in the Canadian political sphere. One magazine article cannot touch on all the Presbyterians who have influenced Canadian public policy; what follows is a selection. Some people have been chosen because they are well-known figures, in other cases they serve as examples of the actions of hundreds of other unnamed Presbyterians, and in still other cases, they are here because their stories are so fascinating they deserve to be told, even if only briefly.

From the beginning of the Canadian dream, Presbyterians have played a significant role in the political life of the country. The well-known painting of "The Fathers of Confederation" is a compilation of the people present at the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences which led to Confederation. Twenty-four delegates attended the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, including six Presbyterians: Adams Archibald and William Henry of Nova Scotia; John Gray, the Premier of Prince Edward Island served as host and chairperson for the conference; and George Brown, Alexander Galt, and John A. Macdonald, of The Canadas. At the Quebec Conference later that year there were 28 delegates, eight were Presbyterian: the six from Charlottetown along with Peter Mitchell of New Brunswick and Oliver Mowat of Canada West.

A number of these men had distinguished careers after Confederation in 1867. Adams Archibald, an advocate for public education and supporter of John A. Macdonald, was named Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba in 1870 when the province was created. He led the province through the fall-out from the first North-West Rebellion, and brought responsible government and the cabinet system to Manitoba. He later served as Lieutenant Governor of his home province for a decade. William Henry, present at the conference in London, England, where the British North America Act (Canada's first constitution) was written, is rumoured by unproven tradition to have been its primary author. Henry went on to serve on the Supreme Court of Canada for 13 years. Peter Mitchell became the first federal minister of fisheries and oceans, leading him into critical negotiations with the United States during which Canada's right to control fishing off its coast was first recognized internationally. George Brown, an elder at Knox Church, Toronto, editor of the Globe (now the Globe and Mail), was a Liberal and one of the harshest critics of the Macdonald government, although they agreed on the need for Confederation. Alexander Galt, a prominent businessman, became the first Minister of Finance of Canada, and then in the 1880s became the first High Commissioner from Canada to Great Britain. John A. Macdonald, self-described as a pillar of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, albeit "an outside pillar," became the first prime minister of Canada. Leading Canada through the storms of both North-West Rebellions and the building of the railway across Canada, Macdonald has been identified by some historians as Canada's finest Prime Minister. Oliver Mowat, a member at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Toronto, and president of the Evangelical Alliance of Canada for 20 years, was a regular speaker at religious functions. While being identified in the public's mind with Christianity and Presbyterianism, Mowat served as the Premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1895.

Mowat and the others named above saw no inherent contradiction between being people of faith and being politicians. Aware of the potential for conflict, they sought to act by Christian values in their political lives. Life was not simpler back then; these politicians faced complex challenges which would give pause to political leaders in our time. These leaders asked not only what was right in human terms, they sought to ask what was right in God's eyes. That is not to say that they always made the right, or even moral decisions. They were, after all, human leaders, fallen like the rest of us. What is significant is they asked themselves the question, "What would God have us do?" In asking the question they exhibited humility in their leadership.

Sometimes the political forum has witnessed Presbyterians at logger-heads with one another. Through the 1920s and 1930s two federal politicians dominated: the Liberal elected from Saskatchewan, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and the Conservative elected from Manitoba, Arthur Meighen. King is remembered for his shrewd political mind and his commitment to Canada becoming an independent nation. His vision led to the development of the Commonwealth. Meighen, while serving as Prime Minister twice briefly, held virtually every significant ministry in Ottawa during his time in federal politics, including overseeing the creation of the Canadian National Railway. Meighen was federal Minister of the Interior during the difficult Winnipeg Strike, taking the train to Winnipeg to oversee the forceful end of the conflict.

Other Presbyterians have served in Ottawa. Cairine Wilson was Canada's first woman senator appointed by William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1930. She was only the second woman to hold a political office on the Hill, Agnes MacPhail having been elected to the House of Commons in 1921. Wilson, a leading figure in the Liberal party, none too sure she wanted to be the first woman in the upper chamber, served with ability, bringing a unique perspective to its deliberations for over thirty years. Ralph Ferguson, from southwestern Ontario, served as Minister of Agriculture during the 1980s. The Rev. Walter McLean served as Secretary of State and then as Secretary of State with special responsibility for Immigration in the mid-1980s. David Kilgour, from Edmonton, served as Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, and later as Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific, during the first decade of the new millennium. During the political crisis of 2005, Kilgour used his position to bring Canada's lack of action regarding the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, to the attention of the media and the Prime Minister. This is by no means an exhaustive list of Presbyterians who have served federally, and if readers know of others I would be very interested in hearing about them.

At the provincial level, Presbyterian politicians have acted with wisdom and compassion. The turbulent 1870s and 1880s saw friction and threats of violence between Protestants and Catholics in New Brunswick. Andrew Blair, the premier of the province, and John Boyd, chair of the St. John School Board and later a Senator, acted to bring about accommodation and mutual respect among the competing religious groups. In British Columbia, John Robson served in the provincial legislature advocating for school reform, responsible government and temperance causes. Starting in 1885 he annually introduced a private member's bill seeking to give women the vote. When the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were created in 1905, C.W. Cross, a member of First Presbyterian Church, Edmonton, and John Lamont, also a Presbyterian, were appointed Attorneys-General of their respective provinces. In their ministerial responsibilities they joined Manitoban Colin Campbell, another Presbyterian, who served as his province's Attorney General. Richard Motherwell, a farmer, activist, and Presbyterian elder in Saskatchewan (his homestead near Abernathy, Saskatchewan, is a National Historic Site) fought for farmers' rights as a provincial politician, becoming Minister of Agriculture in Saskatchewan before moving to the federal scene in the 1920s. Motherwell served as the federal Minister of Agriculture throughout the 1920s.

As most politicians will indicate, government owes much of its effectiveness to the work of civil servants. Throughout Canada's history, Presbyterians have served in the ranks of the civil service federally and provincially. It is impossible to do more than give brief sketches of a handful of committed and gifted bureaucrats who have worshiped in the pews of Presbyterian churches and have served their fellow citizens.

David Laird, a politician from Prince Edward Island, was appointed lead negotiator for the federal government in the Treaty negotiations with the Native Peoples on the Prairies and in the North. Over the space of 37 years (1873-1910), Laird, who the Native People dubbed "the man whose tongue is not forked," participated in seven treaty negotiations. Asserting Canadian sovereignty on the Prairies and seeking to limit the devastating effects of cheap American alcohol on the Native population, the federal government established the North-West Mounted Police (later named the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). James Macleod served as a Superintendent with the NWMP, becoming Commissioner in 1876, a position he held for four years. Macleod then became a magistrate, and in 1887 was appointed to the first Supreme Court of the North-West Territories. Macleod, for whom Fort Macleod is named, envisioned the West as "a place where newcomers and the native population might live together in peace and where disputes could be settled by reason."

Through the last three decades of the 19th century, two Presbyterians revolutionized the care of those institutionalized in Ontario. John Langmuir, appointed inspector of the province's prisons in 1868, oversaw the replacement of old decrepit prisons and the marked improvement in the care of inmates. He went on to write the report leading to Ontario's first juvenile delinquency act. Made responsible for the welfare system and the asylums for the mentally ill, Langmuir approached his task with vigour and a desire to see results. Again, living accommodations were improved, care was improved, and the Office of the Public Trustee was transformed into a respected government agency. Langmuir was described as "a brilliant public servant." While Langmuir was reforming the structures of the mental health system, Daniel Clark was caring for the clients in the Toronto Asylum for the Insane. Hoping to be a minister, Clark attended Knox College before a severe illness led his doctors to suggest he seek a less demanding profession. Clark entered medical school. For thirty years he served as medical superintendent of the asylum in Toronto. Believing it should be a curative institution, Clark sought to bring help and healing to his patients through a variety of means, including regular attendance at worship services and occupational therapy. Widely respected by his colleagues as a skilled practitioner, his methods were copied by other asylums. Toronto's Clark Institute is named for this man of faith who served the public good.

Frank Mantle came to Canada from Great Britain in 1882 as an orphan, ending up in Saskatchewan. By 1910, he had risen to the position of Deputy Minister of Agriculture for the province, a difficult and demanding job in a province where agriculture was everything. Mantle was a member at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Regina. In 1916, Mantle felt compelled to return to Europe to defend his homeland. Appointed a Captain in the 28th Infantry Battalion, Mantle was killed on the Somme in Sept. 1916, two days after arriving on the front. Mantle's story highlights the way hundreds of Presbyterians lived out their faith and their loyalty to their country. Many like Mantle saw little or no conflict between being a good citizen and a good Christian. A good Christian was by definition a good citizen.

The events of World War II caused this hand-in-glove connection between Church and State to be questioned. The Nazi party had co-opted part of the church to serve the party's diabolic destruction of the Jews, the Gypsies, the Slavs and others. In the wake of the war Canadian Presbyterians, even those serving in the civil service were aware that their political masters and their Divine Master might call for different actions. Elizabeth MacCallum, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, was a member of the Canadian delegation to the 1945 San Francisco Conference which created the United Nations. She went on to become the first female Charge d'Affaires in the Canadian diplomatic corps when she was appointed to that post in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1954. In her role, MacCallum would have come to understand that truth can become a slippery concept in the hands of skilled politicians and diplomats. What was said, was not what was meant.

Ian Shugart, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister of Health with the Federal Ministry of Health, and an elder in The Presbyterian Church in Canada, expressed the challenge very neatly at a conference in 2002. In introducing his presentation on the federal government's proposed legislation on stem cell research, he said, "I am speaking today as a servant of Her Majesty, not as a servant of His Majesty." Shugart, along with many contemporary Canadian Presbyterians, recognizes that being loyal to the government of Her Majesty the Queen and being loyal to the King of Glory, the Lord of Hosts, are not the same thing. In fact, seeking to be loyal to both will most likely bring about a conflict.

This is not an entirely new discovery for Canadian Presbyterians. A number of Presbyterians have understood they are to be the conscience of the government and their fellow citizens. They have held society and individuals to account, challenging government and community decisions, and the unwillingness to face injustice.

James MacGregor in the 1790s called on Nova Scotia Presbyterians to free any slaves they owned and to stand against any who dared to own another human being. In his widely read open letter on the issue, he stated the slaves owned by another Presbyterian minister were his sisters, part of the human family. Some readers mistook his meaning, thinking he was claiming the slaves as his blood kin. Michael Willis, professor at Knox College, during the 1840s and 1850s was deeply involved with the Anti-Slavery Association. He, together with William King, played leading roles in the development of the Buxton (Elgin) Settlement in southwestern Ontario as one of the terminuses of the Underground Railroad.

The commitment to support the oppressed and the persecuted was evident at the General Assembly in 1886. A year after the second Riel Rebellion, William Caven, one the most respected clergy in the denomination and Principal of Knox College, introduced a motion which read in part: it seems to be established by irresistible evidence that in too many instances, a people who are wards of the Government are being wronged and defrauded by those who are specially appointed to care for them and promote their interests.

The motion passed. The church had no trouble calling the state to account, even when that caused it to hold positions unpopular with many Canadians. Unfortunately, the church was unable to see that the system which made the Native Peoples wards of the government was itself so flawed that even if "good" people were put in as "Indian agents" there would be no transformation of the situation.

No discussion of Presbyterian engagement with society would be complete without reference to George Grant. Grant, long-time Principal of Queen's University, understood the church was the conscience of the state. He used his position to speak on behalf the poor and the oppressed, joining his voice to those of missionaries like George Leslie Mackay and the Chambers brothers in calling for a more open immigration policy. Many who rose to prominence in the fledgling bureaucracies in Ottawa and the provincial capitals were students of Grant's, and his influence spread through them. Further through his prolific writing, including the runaway best-seller From Ocean to Ocean, Grant imprinted in the minds of readers a vision of Canada as a nation where life was better, fuller, and more meaningful if God was honoured, and people stopped weekly to gather to worship their Maker and Redeemer.

Farm issues have been a large concern for Presbyterians. James Moffat Douglas served six years as a missionary in India before returning to Canada. By 1896 he was a farmer-minister at Moosomin, Saskatchewan. He ran for a seat in the House of Commons which he won. He introduced a private member's bill, in 1898, which led to an investigation of collusion among grain elevator operators on the Prairies. For the next six years, Douglas was a powerful voice in the Commons calling for just treatment of Prairie farmers. Another minister, The Rev. John McDougall, of Spencerville, Ontario, gave a series of lectures in 1913 outlining the changes taking place to rural life in Canada. The subsequent book, Rural Life in Canada, had wide-ranging impact on government policy makers and church leaders. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Ralph Ferguson, one-time Federal Minister of Agriculture was a powerful voice calling for fair prices for farmers. The General Assembly lent its voice to this cry as in 1987 and 1988, resolutions were passed describing what economic and social justice for Canadian farmers should look like.

Presbyterian women have played a significant role in bringing about social change in Canada. In recent times it has become commonplace to ridicule the temperance movement of the 1910s and 1920s. Such criticism overlooks the reasons driving the movement. Middle- and upper-class women were concerned their sisters in the working classes were suffering because their husbands drank away their paychecks. When drunk, these men returned home to engage in abusive behaviour. Thus the temperance movement was an early feminist movement, in which women acted as leaders in seeking justice for women and children. The Presbyterian Church in Canada, an active supporter of the temperance movement, encouraged the introduction of prohibition. It was quickly evident that prohibition would not pass if men alone had the vote. Therefore temperance activists also became advocates for women's suffrage. Prominent suffragists like Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, and Jessie McEwen, President of the Canadian Women's Suffrage Association, Canada's first women's suffrage organization, were also deeply involved in the life of the church, developing mission organizations, opening hospitals, and challenging the church to be engaged in the improvement of the nation.

Just as the temperance movement has faced ridicule, so has the Sabbatarian movement. Led by social reformers like John G. Shearer, the movement sought to have Sunday be a universal stop-day in Canada. While clearly Sabbath advocates hoped workers would attend worship on that day, they were equally concerned that employees not work seven days a week, allowing families to be together enjoying shared activities. These concerns led some, like Shearer, into lobbying efforts to improve child labour laws, worker safety programs, and the development of urban parks.

In the midst of World War II, the Presbytery of Paris (Ontario) sent an overture to the General Assembly asking for clarification of The Presbyterian Church in Canada's position regarding church-state relations. The presbytery was well aware that the Basis of Union of 1875 did not clearly delineate the relationship. In 1875 that had been a reasonable compromise, by 1942 the situation had changed. As they looked towards Europe, many Presbyterian clergy, having done advanced theological studies in Germany, were only too aware of how easily large sections of the German church had become a pawn of Hitler and the Nazi regime. These same clergy were also aware of the Barmen Declaration, in which leading German-speaking theologians had marked out a very different relationship between the church and the state. The Declaration called for active resistance to unjust and evil regimes, a resistance dramatically lived out by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Against this background the overture came to General Assembly. Over the next decade The Presbyterian Church in Canada struggled with this question. Beginning with biblical reflection and cognizant of the experience of the European Church and the Canadian Presbyterian heritage of acting as the conscience of the state, The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation was written. In 1954, it became a subordinate standard of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. As such it is assented to by all ministers and elders at their ordinations.

The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation, one of the finest pieces of theological writing by Canadian Presbyterians, makes clear the church owes loyalty only to Jesus Christ. That loyalty, however, is not to be lived out in separation from the political and social realities of the culture. The church is to be engaged in the political and societal realms, calling on leaders to act in ways consistent with God's holiness and the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. Thus the church lives in the midst of a culture, but is out of step with it. The church marches to the beat drummed out by Jesus Christ, the Church's only King and Head, a beat often at variance with the surrounding culture. The church is to be at the forefront of attempts calling totalitarian regimes to account, speaking up for the rights of all persecuted people to live free from harassment and abuse. The members of the church do these things regardless of personal cost, for they do them in service to Jesus Christ, to whom they owe their very lives. The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation not only answers the questions left unanswered by the Basis of Union of 1875, it is also an insightful guide for the present-day church seeking to live out its loyalty to Jesus Christ alone while not separating from the surrounding culture.

Presbyterians have been actively engaged in the political and social reform of Canada, guided by the principle that the church is the conscience of the state. Over time the church has found it necessary to more clearly articulate what that means, writing The Declaration of Faith Concerning Church and Nation. As Canadian society appears increasingly hostile to any who articulate an overtly Christian worldview, it is time to again reflect on the truth that Jesus Christ the only King and Head of the Church leads his Church into engagement with the political principalities and powers.