Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Making Neo-Britons: The Transatlantic Relationship between Wesleyan Methodists in Britain and the Canadas, 1815-1828

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Making Neo-Britons: The Transatlantic Relationship between Wesleyan Methodists in Britain and the Canadas, 1815-1828

Article excerpt

The question of what it meant to be a Methodist was a complicated one in early nineteenth-century Upper and Lower Canada. There were two groups of Methodists in the Canadas between 1815 and 1828: British Wesleyans and members of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States. The relationship between these two groups has been analysed primarily from an institutional point of view: British missionaries came to Upper and Lower Canada and attempted to impose their politically and doctrinally conservative ways on the more liberal Methodist Episcopals.1 The British Wesleyans, so it is argued, were not very successful in this endeavour. They had no significant impact on Canadian Methodism during this period, or, any impact they did have was negative - leading to division and stunting the growth of the denomination in the Canadas.2 This picture is not incorrect; it is, however, incomplete. It ignores the cultural transformation that occurred among the British Wesleyans in Upper and Lower Canada between 1820 and 1828.

Historians of Methodism in Canada, and of religion in general, have tended to downplay the complex nature of transatlantic British identity in the early nineteenth century. In 1974, J.G.A. Pocock called for a complete rethinking of the concept of British history. It was best conceptualised, Pocock argued, as the story of the interrelations of the three kingdoms and cultures of England, Scotland and Ireland. This new British history, Pocock stated, should also include the relations between the United Kingdom and its settler communities across the Atlantic and the Pacific from the seventeenth century onwards. Canada, in Pocock's view, was a part 'of an expanding zone of cultural creation and conflict' emanating from the British Isles. Canadians, like Australians and New Zealanders, were also Britons, though their relationship with the home land was anything but uncomplicated. While the great outpouring of English, Irish and Scottish emigrants to Canada in the nineteenth century fixed that settler community into a larger, north Atlantic and imperial context, this does not mean that cultural formation among Britons in Canada was a 'simple one-way imperial success story'. It was full of ambivalences, leading to the creation of 'a diversity of interacting and varyingly autonomous cultures' within the larger framework of Britishness.3 Carl Berger made a similar point four years earlier, arguing that, from Confederation onwards, British imperialism was a form of Canadian nationalism. Canadian intellectuals took great pride in the achievements of the British empire and glorified Canada's role in that grand enterprise. However, some went so far as to argue that, at some not too distant point, Canada would take up the leading role in the empire, usurping the central position of tired, old England. In making his argument, Berger, unlike Pocock, was careful to note the role that a sense of Protestant mission played in the creation of this world view.4 Historians of religion and cultural formation in Canada have been slow to take up the insights of either Pocock or Berger.5 This article is an attempt to integrate Canadian religious history with the new British history.

To do so we will use the insights of Pocock and Berger to analyse the interactions between the Wesleyan leadership in Britain, primarily the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, and their missionaries in the Canadas between 1815 and 1828. Here we find an example of the interplay between local and transatlantic contexts, between politics and culture that lies at the heart of the new British history. The British Wesleyan missionaries and laity in Upper and Lower Canada forged a new identity as a result of the changing nature of the relationship between the Wesleyan Methodists in Britain and the Methodist Episcopals in the United States. By 1828 they had become neo-Britons.

Hand-picked by the British Methodist hierarchy,6 the first Wesleyan missionaries in Upper and Lower Canada were well schooled in the conservative political stance of their church leadership. …

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