Whose Dominion? — Christianity and Canadian Culture Historically Considered

John G. Stackhouse, Jr.John G. Stackhouse, Jr. teaches in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba and was the speaker at the 1996 Renewal Fellowship Annual Meeting.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Crux, a journal published by Regent College, in June 1992.

About twenty years ago, a squat, tanned, middle-aged pastor from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) glared defensively out at his Canadian audience. "Our schoolchildren recite the Lord's Prayer every day. They all learn the Ten Commandments. And they have instruction in the Christian faith as part of their regular curriculum." He took a breath and went on. "We honour the Sabbath day. We have prayers at official functions. We have statesmen who aren't afraid to attest to their personal faith in Christ." Then he growled out his concluding challenge: "Who really lives in a Christian country?" And with that, he stalked down the platform, leaving his audience to reflect on this testimony.

Canadian Christians sometimes look back with nostalgia to the time of Confederation in which our national leaders took the language of the Bible seriously enough to employ it for the national motto, A mari usque ad mare: "He shall have dominion from sea to sea" (Psalm 72:8). Yet nowadays the word "God" is in the national anthem and also in the Constitution. So is Canada a Christian nation? Is it more or less Christian today than previously? Is there anything important to be made of these prooftexts from the national canon?

In the illustrative sketches that follow, two themes will emerge. First, and more important, is that there have been a number of episodes in Canadian history in which substantial populations of practically unchurched people were reached and enfolded by Christian churches. Yet even when this process of Christianization reached its zenith, in none of these instances was the culture that resulted thoroughly and therefore exemplarily Christian. Second, and a minor theme, is that Christianity helped to shape particular Canadian societies into more unified wholes, that is, it had a culturally-unitive effect — at least until the twentieth century, and arguably even now if one sees Canadian culture as generally residually Christian in many respects.

Before the historical stories begin, it is appropriate to set out the theological terms. The question of "What is a Christian nation?" has received much more attention south of the border than it has in Canada in recent times, prompted especially by the rise of the New Christian Right in American politics. An especially succinct discussion of this matter is presented by historians Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden in The Search for Christian America (1983):

    First [Christian] can have a weak generic meaning as simply describing some connection with the Judeo-Christian heritage. Almost everything in Western culture from the late Roman Empire until about 1800 was "Christian" in this sense. Yet it is clear that there are many such "Christian cultural developments" — the Thirty Years War and persecution of the Jews and the Waldensians, for instance — of which we would not approve.

    A second common use of the term Christian and related terms refers to the presence of many individuals in a culture who were apparently Christians. A brief reflection indicates that the presence of Christians is no guarantee that the cultural activities they pursue warrant our approval. Throughout history many genuine Christians, even when they have been attempting to apply their Christian principles to guide their cultural activities, have turned out to be drastically mistaken.

    If we wish to talk about Christian cultural activities in a evaluative way, then, we will have to indicate that we have a third and more restricted meaning in mind. We will mean cultural phenomena produced by apparently Christian persons who not only are attempting to follow God's will but who in fact succeed reasonably well in doing so. That is, although we would not expect perfection, we would expect that a "Christian" society in this sense would generally distinguish itself from most other societies in the commendability of both its ideals and its practices. Family, churches, and state would on the whole be properly formed. Justice and charity would normally be shown towards minorities and toward the poor and other unfortunate people. The society would be predominantly peaceful and law-abiding. Proper moral standards would generally prevail. Cultural activities such as learning, business, or the subduing of nature would be pursued basically in accord with God's will. In short, such a society would be a proper model for us to imitate.

Bearing this in mind, then, let us consider two important episodes in the shaping of various Canadian cultures. These are selected as especially good illustrations of instances repeated on other scales at other times and places in the Canadian past.

The Great Awakening in the Maritimes

Certainly this was the most notable "outbreak" of revivalism in Canada in the eighteenth century, and perhaps ever, in terms of lasting cultural influence. The revivals sparked by the Methodist Freeborn Garrettson (1752-1827) and especially by the "New Light" Henry Alline (1748-1784) in the last quarter of the eighteenth century marked Maritime culture to this day.

Born in Rhode Island, Alline moved with his family to present-day Nova Scotia in 1760. He underwent a profoundly emotional conversion experience in 1775, and shortly thereafter went out preaching the "new birth." Although he reached much of the Maritimes, his most enthusiastic audience was his fellow Yankees in rural Nova Scotia who were experiencing severe economic hardship and a psychological rootlessness exacerbated by their decision to remain neutral during the American Revolution. They were estranged both from their American relations to the south and also from the English colonial regime in Halifax that, for its part, cared little for the "foreigners" in the hinterland. Alline's powerful preaching and the emotionally and socially explosive experience of his revivals helped people find their feet in a bewildering time. They found a new sense of community (however briefly) in the shared experiences and doctrines of the New Light revivals. And they found a sense of eternal importance and security in the face of apparent temporal unimportance and terrible insecurity. They were not renegade New Englanders nor second-class British colonials: they were on the crest of a new wave of revival, they thought, that would sweep the world.

Another brief sojourn by an American preacher helped stir revival fires in the Maritimes. Shortly after Alline's death in 1784, revival again swept through many of the Yankee settlements of Nova Scotia, this one due largely to the tireless efforts of Freeborn Garrettson. Born in Maryland, Garrettson spent most of his life in the United States, but his brief sojourn in Nova Scotia in the latter 1780s added to the momentum of the Allinite revivals to help produce a lasting revivalist culture in the Maritimes.

    I began to visit the towns, and to traverse the mountains and valleys, frequently on foot, with my knapsack at my back, up and down the Indian paths in the wilderness, when it was not expedient to take a horse and I had often to wade through the mud and water of morass, and frequently to satisfy my hunger from my knapsack, to quench my thirst from a brook, and rest my weary limbs on the leaves of trees. This was indeed going forth weeping; but thanks be to God, he compensated me for all my toil, for many precious souls were awakened and converted.

Under the influence of Alline, Garrettson, and others, a new generation of strong leaders would emerge to develop the strong Maritime Baptist-Methodist revivalist stream. As Gordon Stewart and George Rawlyk have argued, "By creating a religious ideology that was specifically geared to conditions in the northern colony, the Great Awakening began to turn the Yankees into Nova Scotians," and something similar can be said — perhaps even more so — about many in New Brunswick.

All this is not to question that these revivalists genuinely "led people to Christ": it is to appreciate something of what it meant for these people to find Christ, themselves, and each other. Once again, that is. Christianity had come with fresh force to a largely unchurched or previously unresponsive group of Canadians. And it would shape the entire culture — according to George Rawlyk, for at least a century afterward: "By the late nineteenth century, one in four New Brunswickers was a Baptist, and one in five Nova Scotians, but only one in twenty Islanders; about one in ten persons was a Methodist in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined and one in eight on Prince Edward Island." This dominance, Rawlyk goes on, had considerable effect: "the political culture of the region had congealed by the late 1850s into something "fundamentally conservative" and traditional and this process of congealment owed a great deal to the power of Evangelical religion in this region."

The legacy was not, however, entirely positive from a Christian point of view: there were divisions, sometimes bitter ones, among the immediate heirs of the revival. Women, blacks, aboriginals, and others in the Maritimes would remain second-class citizens, or worse, for generations to come. And by the twentieth century many Maritimers would call themselves Baptists or other much-removed heirs of the revival, and yet practise Christianity hardly at all.

Nineteenth-Century Ontario

It was only with Loyalist immigration that the English population of what would become Ontario finally grew large enough to support churches. (Indeed, John Webster Grant indicates that in early nineteenth-century Upper Canada, people were more ready to build churches than to pay for the clergy to staff them: "There seems… to have been a feeling that buildings were communal assets that encouraged settlers and thus raised the price of land, while parsons promised no comparable tangible benefit!") But these large enough numbers needed in fact to be harnessed for the church, whether through Anglican enfoldment or evangelical revival. They were made up mostly, as Grant puts it, of "the indifferent, the careless, and the uncommitted." And to the task of "soundly converting" and enlisting these numbers, the churches devoted themselves with considerable vigour.

Generally dominated by the emerging Anglican order, the English-speaking population by the later 1700s nonetheless was being reached by Methodist preachers from the United States. Indeed, by 1794 their circuits were organized into a separate district of the New York Conference. This relative success for the Methodists came in the teeth of resistance from the Anglican bishop and government officials. Throughout the first third or so of the nineteenth century, the Methodists continued to grow and to challenge the assumed privileges of the Church of England. Indeed, under the leadership of Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882), the Methodists joined with others to challenge government support of the Church of England, especially through the Clergy Reserves, and by mid-century the Church of England was effectively disestablished.

This levelling of denominations, however, had an ironic result. Just as Methodism rose to rival the Anglicans in numbers even as it helped to reduce the Anglican church to the level of one-among-many, so Ontarian culture became significantly more secular. Increasingly the churches began to feel the threat of marginalization — just when some former sects, like the Methodists, thought they had come into the centre — and the churches began to adopt similar strategies for influencing the new country after 1867. William Westfall has shown this graphically through the emergence of a general style of "Ontario Gothic" in church architecture through the latter half of the nineteenth century as Methodists, no less than Anglicans or Presbyterians, used medieval styles to symbolize their determination to assert a Christian moral order in a society increasingly preoccupied with material gain.

In many respects this Christian consensus won important victories, whether in Lord's Day legislation, temperance societies, poor relief, and so on. Michael Gauvreau and others have shown that evangelicalism shaped the intellectual culture of most of the colleges that would in the next century become some of Canada's leading universities. As John Webster Grant has put it, "in those days, the term 'evangelical' denoted a belief in the transforming power of faith in Christ to which the great majority of Protestants would have laid claim." Indeed, he continues, "by 1867 church and world were virtually identical in composition." There was good reason, then, to call Victorian Canada "His Dominion."

This most obvious of Canadian Christian success stories, however, has its ironies and ambivalencies as well. Was Canadian culture sufficiently Christian by the early twentieth century that evangelicals could just keep on doing what they had done in fighting the remaining social ills and winning the remaining souls? Was this broadening of evangelicalism a mark of success or of compromise?

Rigorous church discipline virtually disappeared in the later nineteenth century as the churches melded with society at large. Prophetic critiques of the emerging industrial and mercantile order came only from the margins, while denominational leaders wooed the well-financed in their midst for continued support of a wide range of benevolent organizations. Female and lay leadership — so prominent in many voluntary organizations that helped transform Ontario into a decidedly more Christian society — was threatened by the interests of a more professional, male, clergy. This simply reflected the second-class status of women in the culture at large, as women were allowed to vote in Canadian provincial elections for the first time only in 1916 (in Manitoba), and federally in 1918. Furthermore, the "Christian Canada" of the mid-to late-nineteenth century was hardly a paragon of biblical justice in its treatment of others, whether native peoples who did not share in the growing wealth of the new country, or non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, most obviously in Chinese, Irish, Italians, and others on whose backs the "National Dream" of a trans-Canada railway was built.

So: Was Canada Christian at this time? At this time and at others, one asserts; with full scholarly ambivalence, a firm "Yes" and "No." For many, yes; but for many others, no. Was Canada more Christian then than now? Again, yes, in many respects. But in terms of justice for women and minorities, in terms of civil rights for all, in terms of community support for the poor and disadvantaged, there are many respects in which Canada keeps better to community support for the poor and disadvantaged, there are many respects in which Canada keeps better to biblical guidelines today. Because of this, we cannot look back to some golden age of a Christian Canada as our model. And we ought not to allow ourselves to be motivated by calls to turn back the clock to some supposedly better era. But we can look back with careful appreciation for what considerable good was accomplished in these and other contexts, and then turn to the challenges of our own day.

Conclusion: Possibility

In the 1981 census, 7% of all Canadians indicated "No Religion" as their option of preference. This number rose to 11% in the 1991 edition. Yet the proportion of the population expressing "no religious preference" (not quite the same thing) in Ontario in 1842 was almost 17% (vs. 1% in 1871). And similar dismal proportions of uninterested Christians likely would have characterized pre-revival Maritimers and the colonists of New France. Furthermore, Canada today is still much more "un-Christian" than "non-Christian" — despite disproportionate media attention to different religions among Canadians. While due regard must be given to the relatively larger number of adherents to non-Christian religions in Canada today, and especially in certain areas of concentration such as major cities, it remains that most Canadians retain links to a relatively small number of Christian denominations. And it is this pattern that has characterized Canadian populations in the past, as these sketches have shown.

There are grounds, therefore, for some Christian optimism. Secularization is not an irresistible force, not a tidal wave. There are no sure evidences of an irreversible decline of Christianity in Canada. "Un-Christian" societies have had to be converted or revived time and again in Canadian history, and there is no obvious reason why they cannot be so in our time. And with this galvanizing of Christians has come positive culture-shaping and culture-unifying influence.