Writing the History of Canadian Christianity: A Retrospect and Prospect of the Anglophone Scene

Article excerpt

In order to understand where we are collectively as a discipline, we must first look at where we have been. Only after we have figured where we have been and how we got from there to where we are now will we be in position to appreciate what our discipline is currently up to. Over the past generation, the history of Canadian Christianity in anglophone circles has gone through a number of significant phases, which taken together form the trajectory that has led us to where we are as field today. I would like to trace this trajectory by examining the four major works of synthesis that have appeared during the past thirty years, beginning with the trilogy, A History of the Christian Church in Canada by H.H. Walsh, John Moir, and John Webster Grant that appeared between 1966 and 1972, followed by Robert T. Handy's A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, published in 1977, and wrapping up with the 1990 survey edited by the late George Rawlyk, The Canadian Protestant Experience, and Mark Noll's A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, which came out in 1992. (1)

One way to identify historians' basic assumptions is to closely examine what topics they choose to concentrate on, along with the reasons they offer in favour of that choice. In the case of Walsh/Moir/Grant trilogy two topics stand out. The first of these topics is announced in three key words in the trilogy's general title, The Christian Church. (2) The authors' chosen subject was the Church, with a capital "C," not as some historians would have it churches, denominations, or Christianity per se. In many respects, using the term "Church" as a central organizing concept marked a distinct advance: it was inclusive in scope and ecumenical in spirit. Moreover, the term served to capture a salient characteristic of Canadian church history. As Walsh argued, the Canadian churches, unlike their American counterparts, looked "beyond denominationalism as the final destiny of the church" to that of ecumenism. (3) From this perspective, then, the primary feature of denominationalism is that it foments division and conflict both religious and social.

This brings me to the second central topic in the Walsh/Moir/Grant trilogy: the churches' place in and their contribution to the country's national development. (4) Three questions loomed especially large in this regard: what was distinctively Canadian about Christianity in this country? how did the churches' campaigns to Christianize Canadian society contribute to the country's cultural dualism? and, how can the study of the churches' role in Canadian society unlock that enigma known as the Canadian identity?

There is no question that A History of the Christian Church in Canada represents historical scholarship at its best. Supplementing the rather limited secondary literature that was then available, the authors extensively mined archival resources to produce the most comprehensive historical survey of Christianity in Canada to date, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Yet despite its high standard of scholarship, the Walsh/Moir/Grant trilogy made little impression upon the Canadian historical profession as a whole. By and large, the profession ignored religion at the time and has continued to do so. Nor has the trilogy's perspective had as much influence as one would expect upon the many specialized studies that have appeared since its release in 1972, the volumes in the McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion being a case in point. The authors of these studies have no doubt frequently consulted the volumes by Walsh, Moir, and Grant, but it is nevertheless the case that, for reasons that I will explore later on in this essay, the vast majority of these studies are concerned with very different themes and issues.

The Walsh/Moir/Grant trilogy has not received the critical acclaim it deserves in this country. But, in a curious twist of fortune, American historians of Christianity have given it a warm reception. …