Review: John Moir, Early Presbyterianism in Canada

Published by Gravelbooks, Gravelbourg SK, 2003

Peter BushJohn Moir is among the most influential historians of Christianity in Canada, having a special interest in The Presbyterian Church in Canada. He is the author of the denomination's official history, Enduring Witness (now in its third edition); editor of two volumes of Called to Witness and two volumes of Gifts and Graces which tell the stories of notable Presbyterian women and men; and (following the retirement from teaching at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto) writer of three congregational histories. Moir, ordained a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church, writes from inside the denomination. His influence goes beyond the written word. In the classroom, in discussions over coffee, in moments caught in hallways at conferences, he has nurtured a collection of graduate students and younger scholars, inspiring, challenging, guiding. This volume of twelve essays, and its companion, Christianity in Canada: Historical Essays (Redeemer's Voice Press, 2002), are a fitting tribute to a great teacher and historian.

The title of this essay collection may cause some to decide against picking it up. Such a decision would be unfortunate. The Clergy Estates debates of the 1840s and 1850s, a research interest of Moir's, which seem distant from and irrelevant to the new millennium, take on a contemporary edge in the light of present-day debates about the role of the church in the life of the state, and the state's ability to threaten the charitable status of the church.

Any discussion of church-state relations in North America begs the question, "What, if any, are the differences between the Canadian and American churches?" A number of the collected essays touch on this controversial question, noting the nuances which make church life unique on either side of the border.

The call to mission was heard clearly by groups like the Glasgow Colonial Society and the Laymen's Missionary Movement. These groups sought to create a passion for mission among people who questioned the value of such an endeavour. While the challenges faced by these groups were different than those faced by today's mission-minded leaders, the willingness of previous generations of leaders to take risks and think "outside the box" reminds present day leaders that "the cloud of witnesses" includes those who have faced enormous challenges to proclaim and live out the gospel.

As Presbyterians recognize the multi-ethnic nature of the denomination in the 21st century, Moir reminds readers that The Presbyterian Church in Canada has among its roots ethnic backgrounds that are not Scottish or Irish. Both Huguenot and Dutch influences are to be found, along with a significant number of leading clergy who did advanced theological training at German universities. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of our multi-ethnic heritage as we seek to live as a faithful church.

"A Select Bibliography of Canadian Presbyterianism" is an essential resource for anyone interested in learning more about or doing research on the Presbyterian Church.

Readers of these twelve essays will find themselves experiencing "Ah-ha" moments, saying to themselves, "Now I understand why such and such is the way it is." At other points, readers will find questions pushing in on them, questions that will help them think through more clearly how to live as faithful Presbyterians in the present time. This book not only introduces readers to John Moir's writing, it helps them understand The Presbyterian Church in Canada today.

(Available from the Book Room for $19.00)