"Evangelization, Not Legislation": Christian Fundamentalism, the Briercrest Bible Institute, and the Politics of the Great Depression

By Brown, Nolan | Manitoba History, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

"Evangelization, Not Legislation": Christian Fundamentalism, the Briercrest Bible Institute, and the Politics of the Great Depression


Brown, Nolan, Manitoba History


During the exceptionally dry and hot summer of 1933, Sinclair Whittaker, the Conservative member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly for Moose Jaw County, called a series of meetings with his constituents. In the grip of the Great Depression, over 90% of the population of Moose Jaw County was on some form of relief. (1) As crop failures and farm foreclosures became the norm, thousands of people abandoned the region for the parkland in the north of the province or better prospects in other areas of Canada. Whittaker, however, claimed that he had found a solution to their problems. The panacea did not include "some social legislation" or a radical shift in economic policy, as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) had recently proposed in its "Regina Manifesto." Instead, Whittaker told the crowd that he underwent a spiritual experience that "changed his outlook on life." The solution to their problems was "the salvation offered by Christ in the Bible." (2)

No record exists as to how Whittaker's constituents responded to his "solution," but it speaks to the larger phenomenon of the intersection of religion and politics as a result of the "dirty thirties." At its base were two diametrically opposed philosophies--the "social gospel" and premillennial fundamentalism. Social gospellers formed the core of a liberalized Christianity which abandoned the 19th-century focus on individual salvation in favour of societal reform. The movement sought to maintain Christianity's relevance by joining with the state to deal with social problems. (3) The social gospel, Richard Allen explains, "rested on the premise that Christianity was a social religion." It was a call to "realize the Kingdom of God in the very fabric of society." (4) Fundamentalists opposed this shift. The ills in modern society were a product of sin, not the disparity inherent within capitalism. Premillennialism's focus on Christ's imminent return resulted in a worldview wherein the Depression became part of God's punishment for a modern and decadent society. They believed that the end times were near and society was doomed. (5) With little time left before Christ's return and the final judgement, fundamentalists spent the Depression focused on saving as many souls as possible. (6)

These Christian theologies are at the centre of our understanding of Alberta and Saskatchewan's different political responses to the Depression. In Alberta, historians emphasize William Aberhart's background as a fundamentalist preacher and radio minister as a central element in the rise of Social Credit. John Irving, for example, describes Aberhart's partisanship as being "continuous with the religious and educational activities" of his fundamentalist ministry. Social Credit was "an extension of an already well-established fundamentalist and prophetic movement." (7) Aberhart used his popularity as a religious leader to convince the people of Alberta to vote for an unconventional economic system. As Gerald Friesen explains: "Aberhart was... a respected sincere educator and religious leader. If he saw a way out of the economic morass and could associate this plan with biblical prophecy, then he offered hope to thousands who had little else left." (8) Aberhart's conception of the Depression was predicated on his belief that it was a sign of Christ's imminent return. Clark Banack argues that Aberhart's decision to enter politics was not the result of a desire to "save the world," as was the case with many social gospellers, but an evangelical crusade to "save souls." (9) Aberhart believed that poverty and economic turmoil created a barrier between people and their salvation. Social Credit's economic and political reforms, therefore, attempted to lift people out of poverty and offer them the freedom necessary to create a personal relationship with God before judgement day. (10) While historians have argued that some of Social Credit's programs--including employment insurance and universal healthcare--demonstrate the party's initial left-leaning stance, the ultimate purpose behind these reforms were decidedly conservative. …

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