Out of the Cloister but Still on the Margins? Recent Publications in Canadian Religious History

Article excerpt

A Concise History of Christianity in Canada. Eds. Terrence Murphy and Roberto Perrin. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Henry John Cody. An Outstanding Life. D.C. Masters. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1995.

Changing Roles of Women Within the Christian Church in Canada. Eds. Elizabeth Gillian Muir and Marilyn Whiteley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Femmes et religions. Dir., Denise Veillette. Quebec: Corporation canadienne des sciences religieuses, Les Presses de l'Universite Laval, 1995.

"Through Sunshine and Shadow": The Women's Christian Temperance Union, Evangelicalism, and Reform in Ontario, 1874-1930. Sharon Ann Cook. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

The Work of Their Hands: Mennonite Women's Societies in Canada. Gloria Neufeld Redekop. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press for the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion, 1996.

Christian Ethics and Political Economy in North America. P. Travis Kroeker. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

Religious history has been one of the most vibrant fields in Canadian historiography over the past decade. It has been at the centre of discussions about modernization, with a particular focus on the question of secularization. The secularization debate is primarily concerned with the role or power of religion and churches in society. This emphasis has diverted attention away from how religion shapes individual lives, and it obscures how religion shapes many other themes in Canadian history. How religion intersects with questions of ethnicity, gender identification and class consciousness is now becoming a major interest to historians of religion.1 In particular, as the books I review here indicate, religious history is being integrated with gender, especially the experience of women, and ethnic identity. In other words, it is being integrated with the main currents of Canadian historiography.

As the social history of religion emerges, the Church is no longer a prism to understand the religious past. The shift towards religious history also reflects important alterations in the Canadian religious landscape. As Terence Murphy concludes in the epilogue to A Concise History of Christianity in Canada, "the defining reality of contemporary Canadian society is pluralism, which includes not only ... religious diversity, but also recognition of tolerance of differing beliefs and customs as a basic societal value. Whatever the fortunes of the Christian churches they must live within a framework that precludes the sort of cultural authority they once enjoyed" (369). The move away from Church history parallels the decline of the historic "mainstream" churches and the emergence of many new religious movements. Religious beliefs that are not defined by adherence to a particular church or denomination play an important role in the contemporary religious landscape. With the current sensitivity to the diversity of the Canadian experience, any overarching religious paradigm has been shattered. The books under review are a good reflection of the diversity of subject matter in religious history and of the difficulty in defining a Canadian religious community or national religious experience. Instead of shedding light on what is distinctive about religion or church life in Canada, historians of religion in Canada now focus on how religion contributes to the many identities in Canada.

The multi-authored A Concise History of Christianity in Canada is a good reflection of the emphasis on religion as opposed to Church and the integration of religious history with the main currents of social history. The volume is structured around the major landmarks in religious history. Key dates are 1840 for Quebec and 1854 for English Canada. In French-speaking Canada, 1840 marked the beginnings of religious revival. The Catholic church began a serious campaign to make French Canadians a truly Catholic people. …