Christian Churches and Their Peoples, 1840-1965: A Social History of Religion in Canada

By Fay, Terence J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Christian Churches and Their Peoples, 1840-1965: A Social History of Religion in Canada


Fay, Terence J., The Catholic Historical Review


Christian Churches and Their Peoples, 1840-1965: A Social History of Religion in Canada. By Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau. [Themes in Canadian History, 9 ] (Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2010. Pp. x, 232. $65.00 clothbound, ISBN 978-0-8020-8949-6; $27.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0-8020-8632-7.)

The well-known authors of Canadian religious history, Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau, team up in this volume to assert that the Canadian people from 1840 to 1965 experienced their religion both inside and outside institutional churches. From this central theme they develop the argument that the study of popular religion for the historian is as important as the study of institutional religions. They see popular religion not as the radical religious fringe but as "the beliefs and practices of laypeople" (p. 1) who simply follow the forms of religion that are different from those recommended by clergy. The authors go on to contend that although institutional religion fluctuated during this extended period, popular religion "remained relatively constant between 1840 and the 1970s" and grew in number (p. 4).

The authors develop their themes chronologically beginning with the period from 1840 to 1870 when the institutional churches left their other-worldly view of religion behind to move "to more open and anonymous institutions ... to evangelize Canadian society" (p. 60). Adjusting to expectations of religious people, these religious institutions initially gained congregants by voluntary attendance, but the subsequent period (1880-1910) turned out to be "one of the most conflictual periods in Canadian religious history" (p. 61). Tensions rose between rural people and urbanists, individuals within sectarian congregations, and males and women's rights advocates. For many religionists, social service became central to Christian life and replaced the concern for the fatherhood of God.

But the most pellucid of their arguments was the authors'discussion of the Christian missions to the Canadian Northwest. Casting doubt on the historical view of missionaries as "heroic figures" and likewise the revised view of the missionary as an "anti-hero wreaking utter destruction upon non-Christian societies," the authors choose a third, more complex interpretation of mission work as a "cultural encounter between missionaries and non-Christian peoples" (p. 107). This fresh view contends that "the aboriginal societies were able to select and reinvent the Christian message in order to fashion an indigenized but no less authentic expression of Christianity" (p. 107). In a second assertion about Canadian missions, the authors point out that the different viewpoints among the missionaries, merchants, and government officials in the Northwest were many and that they were far from an oppressive monolith aligned against Indigenous people. …

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