Friday, May 06, 2005

Review: The Evangelical Century

(The Evangelical Century: College and Creed in English Canada from the Great Revival to the Great Depression by Michael Gauvreau. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.)

This book is a history of the theologies of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in Canada (and the United Church, which much of those two plus the Congregationist Church came together to form in 1925) between 1819 and 1930.

At first glance, this might seem to be a peculiar book for me to be reading. While I was raised in a liberal protestant household, originally Lutheran and later Presbyterian, I do not identify as Christian. The book has some connection to my family history, in that my grandfather was an elder in a Presbyterian church (though in Scotland rather than Canada) and one of my great-grandfathers grew up in England but was, among other things, a lay preacher in the Methodist church in Canada towards the end of the period examined by the book.

However, my reason for reading it was because it connects to my work -- there are strands of the democratic socialist tradition in Canada that trace their origins to the "social gospel" movement that came out of evangelical Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of the very oldest of interview participants in my project were politicized in the 1920s and 1930s in the context of the United Church, under the influence of the theologies described in this book. From what I understand, many of the folk involved in the organizations that became the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and later the New Democratic Party, partiuclarly those coming from a middle-class faith background, were influenced by these approaches to theology.

The basic thesis of the book is a reaction to what seems to be the standard history of this connection. According to the standard way of seeing things, Darwinism shook the foundations of evangelical Christianity in Canada after 1860 and initiated a process of secularization, turning Christian thought towards a de-Christianized sociology and social work and social change orientation by the early 20th century. This book, however, significantly recasts the progress of change. It argues that, unlike in the United States and Britain, Darwinism did not provoke a crisis in evangelical Protestant churches in Canada, and did not occasion a polarized division of them into "liberal" and "conservative" camps. Unlike those other countries, from quite early on Canadian Protestant theology tied itself to the study of history, and by creating a particular version of that study that prioritized the "truths" of the Bible, the hand of God in human affais, and seeking to cautiously and moderately incorporate historical insights from the broader society it managed to keep connected both to the faith of the ordinary believer and to the intellectual life of the country, and had the advantage of the authority that came from a coherent unity between the demands of faith and the products of reason. This consensus started to crumble after 1905, as society began to be permeated by readings of history that not only questioned the accuracy of some things in the Bible, which this historical theology had managed to deal with quite handily, but which questioned the very possibility of the kind of certainty that this theology counted on its approach to history to provide. World War One threw in an additional wrench by creating unimagineable trauma among large numbers of people, which required different theological approaches. During the '20s, a new theological consensus was reached, but it was one which was no longer unified with the evangelical origins of these two denominations, and it resulted in a loss of the powerful unity between theological professors and practicing preachers (and between the demands of faith and the fruits of reason in a way that gave authority to an evangelical version of Christianity) that had earlier been such a strength.

Some versions of this history, apparently, cast the turn towards social action as being either coincident with or caused by the turn towards secularization. This history points out that in the late 19th and early 20th century, the evangelical orientation was intact and it placed somewhat greater emphasis on individual salvation, but a call towards participation social salvation was very much there and not seen to be at odds with any other part of the faith of the time. Certainly those people I interviewed who were politicized just at or just after the end of this era did not experience their polticization as being exclusively secular -- it was and still is, for them, very much connected to faith.

There were odd things about reading this book, however. For instance, I could not help connect what I read to the society I'm currently living in. This book did not look in detail at the experience in the United States, but it did occasionally draw comparisons, and I could not help but contrast the evangelical Protestantism of Canada in 1900, say, which encouraged intellectual inquiry and progressive social change work, with the evangelical Protestantism of the United States in 2005 with its aggressive anti-intellectualism and its regressive social agenda (which most adherents would still see as being about the salvation of society, of course.) Though it is important to keep in mind that there is a minority of white evangelicals and a majority of Black evangelicals in this country whose politics are more progressive than the majority of white evangelicals.

As well, I couldn't help but notice what was absent from the book. There were a few pages devoted to the rabid anti-Catholic sentiment that pervaded Protestant theology in that era, but no attention to the broader social implications. There was a recognition of the explicit commitment, which the book emphasized was formative in how Canadian theology came to be, of the practical work of "Christanizing a new nation" and the advocacy of a natural connection between theology and nationalism, but again no examination of the implcations. Even during the later period, the advancement of progressive social reforms was seen as being of a piece with the process of "Christianization." Rev. Samuel Dwight Chown, writing in the 1890s, said,

Canada is God Almighty's last opportunity opon this planet of planting a Christian nation in virgin soil. Let us lay every foundation in the cement of righteousness. Let every drop of our blood burst with patriotism and every energy of our being be consecrated to the christianizing of this glorious land.

I find it disappointing that there is no reflection in this book on the implications of the way that Protestant theology was used as a means of legitimation and support for colonialism and genocide of Aboriginal peoples over the course of the period of study -- certainly those on the receiving end would offer a different perspective than the white Presbyterian and Methodist ministers most often quoted in this book about Canada being "virgin soil" in which a nation could be planted, and on what exactly the process of "Christianization" entailed. Connected to all of that, I would be interested in learning more about how this mix of progressive and oppressive elements carried over into the early years of the democratic socialist tradition in Canada.

Anyway, this was certainly an interesting and useful book for me to read. Even beyond its applicability to my work, I always like it when the receipt of gifts or the demands of necessity take me outside of the range of things I would normally read, because it challenges me to think about new things and in new ways.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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