Maritime Baptist Union and the Power of Regionalism

Article excerpt

The best-known church union in Canadian history is without doubt that of the United Church of Canada in 1925, when the nation's Congregationalists, Methodists, and roughly two-thirds of its Presbyterians joined together. This moment was born out of a long series of studies and negotiations rooted in the notion that a national or even quasi-established church could extend Christian influence much further in Canadian society than large denominations could, if their efforts remained separate. Leading up to the formation of the United Church of Canada were a series of mergers within the Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominational families that advanced the Old World notion that strong national churches would be in the best position to make Canada "[God's] Dominion." (1) Twenty years before the actual formation of the United Church of Canada, a lesser-known ecclesial union was achieved when three Maritime Baptist denominations came together in 1905 and 1906 to create the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces (UBCMP). The dynamics leading up to Baptist union were similar to those preceding the formation of the United Church but differed in some crucial ways. An examination of Maritime Baptist union in comparative perspective reveals the extent to which competing visions of church union in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Canada reflected commitments to regional, national, and international religious identities.

In 1946, historian George Levy wrote The Baptists of the Maritime Provinces, 1753-1946 to help his denomination celebrate its fortieth anniversary as a union of Arminian and Calvinistic Baptists. During the period from 1905 to 1906 three denominations, the Maritime Convention of Maritime Baptists, the Free Baptists of New Brunswick, and the Free Baptists of Nova Scotia, merged to create the UBCMP. In the chapter "Consummation of Union," Levy cited the often-repeated pragmatic causes for church unions in Canada, regardless of denomination, such as duplication of pastorates, shortages of ministers, and the growing need for collective home and foreign mission efforts. One less tangible factor leading up to Maritime Baptist union was, according to Levy, "the feeling that the ... denominations ought to be one." (2) Although he attempted to suggest that the Regular (Calvinist) and Free (Arminian) Baptists of the region gradually became more like each other, he did not explore why. What happened in the nineteenth century to soften the denominational boundaries to the point that these three groups were able to see themselves as possessing the same identity? Although the practical issues surrounding denomination-building are not in doubt, they do beg the question of self-understanding. Why were Calvinistic and Arminian Baptists willing to create a new denomination and leave behind the denominations they had worked so hard to build? This is the question that concerns this study.

It is the argument of this essay that Maritime Baptist union was achieved in large measure because religious identity among these groups was forged in the same nineteenth-century context. All three founding denominations had strong roots in the late-eighteenth-century revivals of the Maritime region and remained committed to the new birth, (3) believer's baptism by immersion, and the believer's church. In addition, they experienced a heightened sense of free moral agency that was spread by the emergence of market capitalism and responsible government. This in turn led to the modification and decline of Calvinism among the Regular Baptists. Each of the founding groups called upon the authority of the past to make the case for union during a time when a particular interpretation of the "founders'" wishes proved to be convincing. As all of these Baptists sought to increase their influence by moving toward the Protestant mainstream of Maritime society, they rejected extreme expressions of their traditions and theological innovations, including Calvinistic and Arminian primitivism, the belief in instantaneous sanctification, and biblical higher criticism. …