A Church with the Soul of a Nation

A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 408
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    A Church with the Soul of a Nation
    Book Description:

    "As Canadian as the maple leaf" is how one observer summed up the United Church of Canada after its founding in 1925. But was this Canadian-made church flawed in its design, as critics have charged? A Church with the Soul of a Nation explores this question by weaving together the history of the United Church with a provocative analysis of religion and cultural change. The story begins in the aftermath of Confederation, when the prospects of building a Christian nation persuaded a group of Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian leaders to set aside denominational differences and focus instead on shared beliefs. Phyllis Airhart traces the new church's struggle to save its reputation during a bitter controversy with dissenting Presbyterians who refused to join what they considered a "creedless" church. Surviving the organizational and theological challenges of economic depression and war, the future of the church seemed bright. But the ties between personal faith and civic life that the founders took for granted were soon tattered by the secular cultural storm sweeping through western Christendom. The United Church's remaking came with the realization that creating a Christian social order in Canada was unlikely - perhaps even undesirable - in a pluralistic world. A Church with the Soul of a Nation sheds light on the United Church's past controversies and present dilemmas by showing how its founding vision both laid the groundwork for its accomplishments and complicated its adaptation to the new world taking shape.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8929-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Figures and Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. xvii-2)

    “I look uponall the world as my parish,” Methodist John Wesley famously wrote in his journal as he braced himself for clashes with critics of his itinerant preaching that would flout the parish boundaries of his day. “In whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation.”¹ Two centuries later, those who joined with Wesley’s spiritual descendents to create the United Church of Canada had a more modest mission in mind. “Canada is our parish,” wrote Presbyterian E.H. Oliver...

  6. 1 “Friendly Service” to the Nation
    (pp. 3-29)

    The day after the inauguration of the United Church of Canada, author Lucy Maud Montgomery mulled dejectedly over glowing newspaper accounts of its “birth.” In recent years she and her husband, Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, had made no secret of their opposition to the proposed union. Nevertheless, one of his two pastoral charges had voted to unite with the insufferable Methodists in Zephyr, Ontario. They now faced the unwelcome prospect of packing up the family belongings and moving from the Leaskdale manse. Cynical about the claims made for union and embittered by the outcome of the vote, Montgomery wrote...

  7. 2 Controversy and the Construction of Identity
    (pp. 30-64)

    When William M. Birks looked for a turning point to explain his support for the church union movement, it was an unexpected Saturday night stopover on a business trip to Schreiber that came to mind. On what he described as a typical November Sunday, he worshipped at the Presbyterian church in that northern Ontario town with two men, a few women, and some children. He later learned that attendance at the other places of worship in Schreiber was no better: two men at the nearby Anglican church, three men at the Methodist church across the road, and only one man...

  8. Illustrations
    (pp. 65-72)
  9. 3 The Mission and the “Machinery”
    (pp. 73-101)

    S.D. Chown had reason to be well pleased as he prepared to introduce the newly formed United Church to theChristian Union Quarterly’s international readership. With the inaugural service behind him, the man often hailed as the architect of church union enthusiastically divulged what he saw in store: God was calling this young church to observe Christian principles and practices “more fully than they have been obeyed in any previous period in the history of the Church of Christ.” This would entail advancing in key areas: rescuing sinners from sin through individual conversion; solving social problems; banishing superstitions and half-truths...

  10. 4 The Search for a Faith for Sociable Souls
    (pp. 102-125)

    With only a few hours remaining in his term as first moderator of the United Church, George Pidgeon rose to preach at the opening service of the second General Council. Words from the prophet Zechariah had given him a title for his sermon and inspired an image of the church he hoped would be built in Canada: “The City without Walls.” What he had witnessed in communities across Canada over the past year had been heartening. But as he looked ahead, he saw a danger: the church could be “dwarfed into a sect.” A sectarian spirit characterized by sharply drawn...

  11. 5 Christian Canada in a “New World Order”
    (pp. 126-153)

    Many a Canadian would have smiled in agreement had they heard Lester Pearson’s reply when asked in 1941, “Are you American?” The diplomat who would later become prime minister answered tactfully, “Yes, I am Canadian.”¹ Accustomed to thinking of themselves as ‘British’ in some sense, Canadians shared a continent with a country that claimed the name ‘American’ all for itself. A decade or so later, Canadians were less likely to think of themselves as either British or American; they were becoming simply Canadian. It was a small but telling detail of how quickly the Second World War erased old social...

  12. 6 Calling Postwar Canada to Christ
    (pp. 154-186)

    “The Hidden Failure of Our Churches” was how theMaclean’scover story in the 25 February 1961 issue announced the startling findings uncovered in its survey of churchgoers. Canadians had been attending religious services in record numbers for over a decade, and the United Church was among the churches enjoying the statistical windfall. “Amazing” was a word that cropped up often as its growth met and even exceeded expectations. This long-awaited revival of religious interest begged the question: how much influence did the churches really exert on people’s lives once the Sunday morning services were over?Maclean’sdecided to ask....

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. 187-195)
  14. 7 Uncoupling Christianity and Culture in Canada
    (pp. 196-224)

    As the retiring United Church moderator stepped forward to give his final address, few of those assembled for the 1962 General Council were expecting a speech that would make headlines the next morning. The Rev. Hugh A. McLeod had been introduced to delegates two years earlier as the “quiet and highly respected minister” of Winnipeg’s Knox United Church – more of a “highland mystic” than an agitator. Yet reputedly where he stood was always clear if he thought it necessary to take a side.¹ On this occasion, there would be no doubt about his views on immigration trends.² The nation’s future...

  15. 8 Listening to the World
    (pp. 225-254)

    J.R. Mutchmor’s retirement in 1964 was aptly billed by theObserveras “The End of an Era”¹ – for the man and for the United Church. As Mutchmor prepared to give his final address as moderator, a position to which he had been elected two years earlier, there was much to celebrate. The United Church’s membership was still on the upswing, despite a downtrend in the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches.² And there was other good news to report. Fundraising had set a new record, ministers’ salaries were up, and properties were in good shape. However, other numbers were not so...

  16. 9 Reconceiving the United Church
    (pp. 255-291)

    Preaching at the annual pilgrimage service of the historic Old Hay Bay Church in 1965, general secretary Ernest Long warned an over-flow crowd that unless his church changed its ways, it was headed for a “stunning defeat” over the next twenty years.¹ Sounding even less optimistic two years later, “Mr United Church” (as Long was nicknamed) made headlines when he warned that his church had “five years to change radically – or else!”² Defending his dire outlook for the future, he bluntly declared that the old idea of a world-dominating Christendom was dead.³ It was evident to Long that the very...

  17. Epilogue
    (pp. 292-300)

    The result of a “lamentable misunderstanding” was how Walter Bryden of Knox College described the United Church as he defended his decision to remain a Presbyterian. “The Church is and shall remain the Church of God just in so far as she is not indigenous with the soil of any country, or determined by the habits, thoughts and customs of any people ... The true Church belongs to no age and no country.”¹ Those who had founded the United Church disagreed. They saw adaptation to time and place as a sign of vitality, and believed that they had been called...

  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 301-304)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 305-418)
  20. Index
    (pp. 419-440)