Religion in Canada: A Historical Survey, 1500 to the Present

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Religion in Canada: A Historical Survey, 1500 to the Present

Essay 2




















For centuries before the invasion and conquest by Europeans of what is today known as Canada, the vast territory was, like the United States, inhabited by many native tribes. The population density was not great, there being an estimated 220,000 persons living in Canada in 1500. The tribes that inhabited the shores of the St. Lawrence River, such as the Huron, were most affected by the first European settlements, but eventually almost every tribe felt the impact of European culture and governmental rule. The establishment of the dominance of the European settlers did away with the self-sufficient cultures of the Indians and eventually made them dependent on the larger resources developed by the newly arrived Europeans.

While much of the religious life of the tribes was either destroyed or transformed as tribal members responded to Christian missionary efforts, the story of North American Indian religion, especially as it continues in its contemporary forms, is integral to the story of Canadian religion. As with the Native Indian tribes in what is now the United States, the Indians of Canada exhibited a significant variation of religious belief and practice, from the Huron and Algonquin in the east, to the Blackfoot of the plains, to the Eskimo of the Arctic reaches, to the Kwakiutl and the other tribes of British Columbia known so widely for their totem poles. Native Canadians also shared with Native Americans the characteristic of integrating religion into their tribal self-identity and survival. Because of the harsher climate, the religion of the Canadian Indians reflected their ties to the land and the needs of survival even more than was the case with tribes farther south.

The initial settlement of Europeans in Canada in the 1600s had its primary impact on the tribes of the St. Lawrence Valley. Both the Huron and the Iroquois became entangled in the wars of the British and French for control of Canada, and were the target of missionary activities. The first Jesuits arrived in 1611, and many of them worked among the Huron and Iroquois. It is also among these tribes, quite apart from the missionaries, that the most destructive influence of the European intrusion became manifest. The Jesuits became trapped in the war that developed between the two tribes over the supply of beaver fur, which was being rapidly exhausted through the early decades of the seventeenth century. The Indians had become dependent on the European goods that they purchased with fur. In the resultant hostilities, the Huron were annihilated.

With the exception of a few European traders who began to enter the interior of Canada, the majority of Canadian Indians did not have to deal with whites until the nineteenth or even the twentieth century. The British initiated the penetration of the west through fur-trading companies that established settlements along the coast of Hudson Bay. During the 1700s, traders began the serious push inland that led to the fur companies’ control of the western half of Canada, a situation that persisted until the fur traders gave way to the new Dominion of Canada in the last half of the nineteenth century.

After the French era, as European Canadians moved into Indian lands and gradually took possession of most of them, the level of hostilities proved to be far lower than in the United States. Canada established a pattern of making treaties with the Indians that included land grants and, with few exceptions, honoring those treaties. Canada also pursued a policy of punishing violations of the treaties by non-Indians.

The relatively peaceful nature of the long-term relationship between the Canadian government and the Indian tribes allowed for the development of Christian missions and the conversion of the majority of Indians to Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the churches now comprising the United Church of Canada all developed strong missions, especially in western Canada. On the other hand, traditional Indian religions have survived and can be found among tribes in all sections of the country.

Especially notable among the surviving tribal religions of Canada are the Eskimo religions, which had been dominated by shamans, the ubiquitous leaders in Eskimo religious matters. The shamans, much like modern mediums, entered a trance state, during which they allowed various spirits to take possession of their consciousness and use their body to speak and dance. Integral to the shaman’s work, and characteristic of shamanism as compared to common mediumship, was soul flight, in which the shaman was believed to send his or her soul to the spirit realm on some errand, such as obtaining advice on an important question that had arisen in the tribe.

The practice of shamanism was also seen as integral to the survival of Eskimo tribes, for which starvation was a frequent problem. Eskimo shamans would predict (and even try to control) the weather and the supply of game. They would send their souls to placate a goddess such as Sedna, believed to control the sea mammals, or to locate the caribou and entice its appearance for the hunters. It was their job to spot violations of taboos that were believed to inhibit the luck of the hunt. They also attempted to improve fertility in the tribe using their special powers to aid infertile females. The practice of shamanism has been significantly limited by the inroads of Christianity, secular education, and the modern technological world in general. Its future is unclear, given the current rebirth of shamanism in other areas of the culture.


Most historians assume that the first sighting of North America by a European occurred around 986 c.e. when Bjarni Herjulfson and his crew of Norse sailors were blown off course while sailing in the waters off Greenland. Some 15 years later, Leif Eriksson explored the coast of North America, though scholars disagree as to the exact area described in the early accounts of his trips. Several other voyages followed, but scholarly knowledge of the full extent of Norse exploration has been hindered by the production of a number of fraudulent artifacts purporting to be relics of Norse explorers.

For the purposes of later history, however, the exploration of Canada began with the arrival of John Cabot (c. 1450–1499) off Newfoundland in the summer of 1497. Cabot was followed by other explorers looking for the Northwest Passage, as well as French ships that began exploitation of the fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Both the British and French established early claims to Canadian territory. Then, in 1534, Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to confirm the claim on New France made by Giovanni da Verrazano (c. 1485–1527) in 1523. Further British claims to present-day Canada would be delayed until the 1570s and the three voyages of Martin Frobisher (c. 1535–1594), followed by John Davis (c. 1550– 1605), George Weymouth, and John Knight (d. 1606).

During the sixteenth century, the economic pursuits of the explorers and their financial backers overrode any religious goals that might have been expressed for the New World that was being discovered. The first settlers were not particularly religious people. Nevertheless, both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism were introduced, though no permanent structures were created. Cartier included among his crew a priest who celebrated the first mass in Canada when the ship docked at Gaspe Peninsula. Anglican services were first held by a Master Wolfall, chaplain on Frobisher’s third voyage. The first communion service in Canada, according to the rite of the Church of England, was held in 1578 in Baffinland. During the sixteenth century, French efforts were concentrated on the St. Lawrence Valley, to be joined by the British settlement of Newfoundland after Frobisher’s voyages.

In the late 1500s, the French settled and began to develop the trading business in the St. Lawrence. Though the companies were responsible for supplying and supporting Roman Catholic priests in their Canadian centers, they did little to further the cause of religion during the remaining years of the sixteenth century. One must look to England for the public emergence of the religious impulse. In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539–1583) was sent to claim Newfoundland for England, and in the establishment of the colony he proclaimed that worship according to the Church of England should prevail. However, he was lost at sea on his return voyage home, and the colony soon dissolved.

Finally, early in the seventeenth century, a permanent religious structure was created with the founding first of Acadie (1603–1613) in Nova Scotia and subsequently of Quebec (1608) by Samuel de Champlain (c. 1570–1635). Champlain not only introduced Roman Catholic worship into his settlements, but seems to have been the first forcefully to articulate the desire to convert the indigenous residents of the surrounding lands. To that end, in 1615 he introduced the Roman Catholic Order of Recollects (one of several Franciscan orders), and when they proved ineffective, in 1625 he invited the Jesuits to begin work. Arriving with the first wave of Jesuits was Father Jean de Brèbeuf (1593–1649), who authored a number of reports that provide some of the best observations on French Canada during the 15 years between the first report and Brèbeuf’s death by torture in 1649 at the hands of those he was attempting to convert. During Brèbeuf’s Canadian career, the French territory expanded, new towns such as Montreal (1642) were founded, and more priests arrived (the Sulpicians joined the first two orders in the 1640s).

The success of the Catholic missionaries was demonstrated clearly in 1659 when François de Montmorency-Laval (1623–1708) was appointed vicar apostolic for Canada. That appointment was connected to the increased interest in New France expressed by King Louis XIV (1638–1715), who designated the region an official colony by royal decree four years later. Further growth of the church led to Laval being named the first bishop of Quebec in 1674.

The unfruitful Protestant efforts to colonize Canada continued in the 1600s, when a group of Danish Lutherans established a short-lived settlement on Hudson Bay. Their minister was among the first settlers to die of scurvy, which ravaged the colony shortly after it was settled. Meanwhile, under James I (1566–1625), the British renewed their interest in Canada. In 1610 James issued a charter for a colony in Newfoundland. John Gay of Bristol responded by establishing a “plantation” on Conception Bay, and in 1627 brought Erasmus Stourton (1603–1658), an Anglican priest, to the colony. Stourton thus became the first resident non–Roman Catholic clergyman to reside in Canada. Stourton remained in Canada for 15 years, his stay being made possible by the charter for Scottish (Presbyterian) settlement issued by James I (1622) on the lands formerly settled by the ill-fated colony in Acadie. The new colony, however, was no sooner established on a permanent basis than war broke out between France and England. In the treaty settling the conflict in 1632, Nova Scotia was returned to France and the settlers moved to Newfoundland. In 1633 King Charles I (1600–1649) chartered the colony of Newfoundland and decreed in the document that worship according to the prayer book of the Church of England should be conducted (by ship’s officers in the absence of clergymen) each Sunday.


During the rest of the century, both British and French colonization of Canada continued, though the French expansion into the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes region far outstripped British efforts. As colonization proceeded, British and French Canadians also found themselves in ongoing conflict as the worldwide interests of their home countries continually overlapped. The intermittent hostile actions periodically disrupted their lives and altered the development of Canada. During the seventeenth century, the French were able to continue their expansion in spite of the conflict, but after 1698 the trend of world events began to favor the British in Canada. In that year, the Anglican Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge began to actively support the Reverend John Jackson (d. 1717), the minister in St. John’s, Newfoundland (and the only Church of England priest in the territory). Three years later, the society turned its commitment over to a new missionary organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), which began to send missionaries into Canada. The British position and that of the Church of England were greatly improved in 1713 when the Treaty of Utrecht ended French-British hostilities for a generation. The British moved to build and consolidate their strength in Canada.

The beginning of the end of French power can be more clearly seen with the reopening of war in 1744. Britain’s successful action against the French stronghold of Louisburg in Nova Scotia, and its subsequent return with the peace treaty signed in 1748, forced the British to further strengthen their position in Nova Scotia. In 1749 they founded the city of Halifax as a military stronghold to counter Louisburg. The establishment of Halifax became a signal event in Canadian religious history, for it was here that the religious patterns that dominated subsequent Canadian history initially became apparent. Immediately after the founding of the community, non–Roman Catholic Christianity in all of its variety emerged in eastern Canada.

Responding to government action, the SPG promised six ministers and six schoolmasters to Halifax, and shortly after their arrival, on June 13, 1750, the foundation stone of St. Paul’s Church was laid. (Today’s St. Paul’s congregation worships in the oldest church building in Canada.) And, since King George II (1683–1760) of England was also king of Hanover, he encouraged his German subjects to emigrate. German Lutherans became a significant percentage of the early population of the new town, and they erected St. George’s Lutheran Church. A German Reformed congregation also arose, and St. Matthew’s Church (which served both Congregationalists and Presbyterians and was filled by British subjects from Ireland, Scotland, and New England) rounded out the religious life of the community.

The stabilization of life in Halifax was accomplished just as war returned. In 1755 the British moved against Acadie and removed the French settlers (an episode later immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 poem “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”). In 1758 Louisburg fell, and the following year Quebec fell. With the capture of Quebec, the British effectively ended French control of Canada, though further action continued into the next year. Following the fall of Quebec, the first Anglican service in the city was conducted in the chapel of the Ursuline Convent by a former Roman Catholic priest, Michel Houdin, chaplain for the British forces.


The Treaty of Paris of 1763, which made official the accomplishments of the war, also necessitated the altering of relations between the French Canadians and the now-hostile government. While the treaty guaranteed religious freedom, the British government moved to replace the Roman bishop with an Anglican one and to subvert the stability of the Catholic community by sending all the children to Anglican schools. When a new bishop was selected, the government refused to permit his consecration. The property of the Recollects and the Jesuits was confiscated, and both orders, as well as the Sulpicians, were forbidden to receive new members from abroad. This trend was reversed in 1774 when the Act of Quebec granted a high degree of tolerance. Local suspicion toward the Catholic community lessened when the French not only refused to support American efforts to gain them as allies during the American Revolution (1775–1783), but joined efforts to repel an attempted invasion by the rebels.

Meanwhile, as soon as the war ended, more Protestant groups made their way to Canada, though most came not to the newly conquered territory but to the Maritime Provinces, where so many Protestant firsts occurred. The first truly Presbyterian church in Canada was founded at Londonderry, Nova Scotia, in 1761 by a group of Irish Presbyterian immigrants. The growth of both Congregationalism and Presbyterianism throughout the decade led in 1770 to a unique occurrence brought about by the inability of the German Reformed congregation in Halifax to obtain a minister from Pennsylvania. They decided to ordain one of their own members, Bruin Romkes Comingo (1723–1820), after two Congregationalist ministers joined two Presbyterian ministers to constitute a presbytery for purposes of the ordination.

Around 1760, the first Baptists arrived to take possession of land abandoned by the Acadians. The arrival of the small Baptist community in Nova Scotia coincided with the expansion of the Congregationalists, both groups migrating from New England. Many of the Congregationalists were partial to the Newlight position, which accepted the theology and practices of the Great Awakening. Many Newlights found themselves more at home with the Baptists than with their more staid Oldlight Congregationalists. The issue was raised by Henry Alline (1748–1784), a talented Newlight preacher who forced a division among Congregationalists. Alline had an eccentric theology, but this was obscured by his preoccupation with revivalism and his evangelical fervor. Alline’s followers soon drifted into the Baptist camp and provided the initial substance out of which a significant Canadian Baptist church would emerge.

Finally, around 1775, as Alline’s influence was reaching its peak, the first Methodists appeared from among a group of Cornish immigrants in Nova Scotia. William Black Jr. (1760–1834) later emerged as their leader and traveled the communities of the province both establishing Methodism and opposing Alline. After the American Revolution, Black looked to Methodists in the United States for assistance. He traveled to Maryland in 1784 to attend the organizational session of the Methodist Episcopal Church. For a number of years, he attached himself to the American church, by which he was eventually ordained, and from which he was assigned assistants to extend his missionary endeavors. Eventually, however, the Canadians grew to resent American leadership, and Black turned to the Wesleyan Methodists in England, who accepted responsibility for the now-growing work.

Of more than passing interest was the development in Nova Scotia of both Methodist and Baptist work among Africans. During the American Revolution, many African Americans, most former slaves, were promised freedom and a stake if they remained loyal to Britain. After losing the war, the British transported many of these African people to Nova Scotia, particularly to towns along the southeastern coast. Among them were both Baptist and Methodist preachers, who led the congregations formed in the several African Canadian communities. William Black regularly visited the Methodists. Over the next few years, the Africans waited on the British government, which never gave them the promised stake. Finally, British abolitionists raised the money to transport them to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where they became the seed from which the Baptist and Methodist churches of that country were to grow.

In the generation after the founding of Halifax, the major religious pattern to be developed in the next centuries of Canadian history was established. The Church of England (or the Anglican Church) and those Protestant churches introduced into Nova Scotia during the 1750s and 1760s joined the Roman Catholic Church in creating a dominant consensus in Canadian religious life and thus initiated the major factor in the emerging Canadian religious story. Any account of Canadian religion must center on the movement of the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists in their efforts to church the sprawling nation, on their successes and failures in relating to one another, and on their ability to adjust to the growing ethnic and religious pluralism of twentieth-century Canadian life. The focus on these groups does not deny or diminish the important contributions of the hundreds of other Canadian religious groups. It merely recognizes that due to the simple appeal of these groups to the masses of Canadian citizens, they set the pace to which the others had to relate.

At least two other groups found their way into Canada during this initial period and opened their own niches in the religious community. As early as 1762, American Quakers arrived in Nova Scotia from Nantucket, Rhode Island. Though their original effort to settle did not last many years, it heralded a more permanent Quaker thrust into Canada a few years later. Second, the missionary-minded Moravian Church, directing their attention farther north, arrived in Canada in 1771 when missionary Jens Haven (1724–1796) established work in Nain, Labrador. The Moravians pioneered both Christian missionary and educational work among the Eskimo population. While never extensive, it was the forerunner of later efforts.


Even as the settlement and development of the church in Nova Scotia and the Maritime Provinces proceeded, the new British administration had to deal with the 70,000 French-speaking residents living in Canada proper, over which they now had governmental control. The British showed every intent of replacing Roman Catholic authority with the complete establishment of the Church of England. They confiscated the properties of the Jesuits and Recollects and forbade all orders to accept novices, and they initiated plans to educate all Catholic children in Anglican schools. Loyal Catholics in both Canada and France registered their opposition in every way possible. Assisted by the unrest in the colonies to the south, a decade of protest met with measurable success. Not needing a second revolt on their hands, the British moved to pacify the French by passing the Quebec Act of 1774. Although it returned some measure of religious toleration to the Catholic community, antagonism continued for many years while the Church of England pursued other means of cutting into Catholic support. However, the Roman Catholic community continued to grow, and by 1784 it numbered 130,000, aided substantially by the immigration of Catholics from the Highlands of Scotland during this period.

Though the British took control of eastern Canada and the St. Lawrence River Valley in 1763, growth of the Church of England was slow, at least for several decades. The colonies to the south attracted more immigrants from Europe due to the warmer climate. Thus a population favorable to Anglicanism did not arrive in great numbers until after the American Revolution sent waves of Loyalists north to escape rebel rule. Most of these were Loyalist Protestants, and many were Anglicans. The growth provided by the Loyalists justified the establishment of the first see for British North America, and Charles Inglis (1734–1816) was consecrated as the first bishop in 1787 with his seat in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Six years later, Jacob Mountain (1749–1825) was consecrated as the first bishop of Canada, with his seat in Quebec City.

Faced with the continued resistance of the French Canadians to proselytizing actions and to ensure that they remained peaceful and loyal British subjects, the Parliament in England passed the Constitutional Act of 1791. It divided Canada by setting off Upper Canada (Quebec), where most of the French lived, from Lower Canada (Ontario), where most of the British lived. Ontario was just beginning to receive the first waves of Loyalists. Each province had a separate parliament but was administratively under a single governor-in-chief. Important for the churches, the legislation also set aside land for the support of the clergy of the Church of England and made specific provisions for the support of Anglican clergy and the construction of rectories. The provisions of the 1791 act greatly assisted the Anglican Church in its spread and development across Canada. Parishes were established, churches and schools erected, and new ministries initiated. While not leading to success in Quebec, the expansion of the church in Ontario was demonstrated by the necessity of placing a bishop in Toronto in 1839. Government support undoubtedly gave the Anglicans an immense advantage for several decades, but also seriously hindered the church’s long-term development. The bishop’s attempt to administer the Canadian church’s affairs from England discouraged local development of active lay commitment. Thus, when the government withdrew financial support several generations later, the church had to quickly create a new ecclesiastical structure equipped to mobilize member loyalty and voluntary financial support.

Lower Canada, now known as Ontario, was soon to become the most densely populated section of Canada, and religiously the most diverse. The Loyalists brought with them the great variety of religions previously established in the American colonies. And, as Lower Canada was opened, new settlers directly from the British Isles brought the profusion of sects that arose as Protestant dissenters proliferated both in numbers and factions.

Presbyterians were among the most numerous of the new settlers. As early as 1791, Presbyterian congregations started by American ministers had formed on the Niagara Peninsula and by 1833 had founded the Niagara Presbytery. Growth was assisted by the movement into the church of many former Congregationalists. They were soon joined by immigrants directly from Scotland who established congregational outposts of the Church of Scotland and of the dissenting groups that had been created through protests over the loyalty oath and the church’s patronage system. Each group established its own synod, leaving the Presbyterians with the task of reconciling their differences, most of which were nondoctrinal and irrelevant to the Canadian environment.

Methodism, having gotten its Canadian start in Nova Scotia, found a second unrelated beginning in Lower Canada in the settlements of the war veterans in the 1780s. In 1791 Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816) directed Reverend William Losee (1757–1832) from New York to go to Lower Canada, where he oversaw the construction of the first Methodist chapel in the region on Paul Huff’s farm near the Bay of Quinte. Most influential in the development of the church were the Ryersons, originally an Anglican family who settled near Lake Erie in 1799. The sons all became Methodists, and Egerton Ryerson (1803–1882), in particular, manifested an ability as an educator and apologist for the family’s new faith, as they became frequent targets of Anglican critics. Originally trained for the legal profession, Egerton Ryerson joined the ministry in the 1820s and rose to prominence as the first editor of the Methodist periodical The Christian Guardian. Among his many accomplishments, he fought to break the hold of the Anglicans on university education, and eventually became the first principal of Victoria College.

The original work of the Methodists in Lower Canada occurred under the care of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which had been organized in the United States in 1784. During the early nineteenth century, Methodists from the several factions in England—the Wesleyans, the Primitive Methodists, and the Bible Christians—established competitive work and taunted those who were still attached to the disloyal former colonies. The War of 1812 demonstrated the problem of any church organization attempting to hold a membership across the American-Canadian border. After the war, Canadian Methodists initiated a break with their American comrades, and merged with the British Wesleyan Connection in 1833.

Because of the very visible support for the colonists by prominent Congregationalist ministers in the American Revolution, the equally important existence of many Congregationalist Loyalists is frequently overlooked. While most of these Loyalists left the United States via the short sea route from New England to Nova Scotia, by the first decade of the 1800s Congregationalist groups emerged in Quebec among settlers who simply walked across the border from Vermont. The greatest Congregationalist expansion occurred during the ministry of Henry Wilkes (1805–1886), for more than fifty years the pastor of a church in Montreal. He established Canadian ties with British Congregationalists and received funds from the London Missionary Society for the establishment of congregations in both Upper and Lower Canada. Wilkes did much to change the negative image of Congregationalists, whose identification with the Revolution had caused many of their number to become Presbyterians.

Lutherans led a migration of people of German background into Canada in the late eighteenth century. The Lutherans were accompanied in their migrations by members of other German groups, with whom they had to compete to gain and even hold members. While many of these settlers were dedicated to keeping the German language alive, the inevitable process of assimilation took its toll, and they lost members to the English-speaking Anglicans and the evangelistically oriented Methodists. The first wave of Lutherans, war veterans, received grants of land in Dundas, Lennox, and Addington counties in the 1780s. A decade later, responding to an invitation for Germans to settle in Ontario, a group of unhappy New York residents received a grant of 64,000 acres, upon which the town of Markham was built.

In spite of their early and continued establishment of new congregations throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the Lutherans suffered from a dire lack of clerical leadership and a resultant isolation of one organization from another. Only in the middle of the century, as Lutherans in the Synod of Pittsburgh learned of the state of the Ontario Lutherans, were qualified ministers sent to their aid. A Canadian Conference was finally created in 1853.

Baptists entered Upper and Lower Canada in three waves, the first coming into the Niagara area just as the Revolution commenced. Baptists filtered into Quebec in the 1790s and were joined in 1815 by a group migrating from Scotland. Once settled, the Baptists spread quickly. An association formed in 1816 became the precursor of many more. However, the Baptists were hesitant to unite in larger efforts beyond the associational level. Inherently independent, they were further divided over the question of the admission of non-Baptists to communion. Only in 1851, when the issue of the disposal of the government’s clergy reserves (in which the Baptists by principle never participated) became significant, did the Baptists finally form the Regular Baptist Missionary Convention of Canada West.


During the initial settlement of Lower Canada, various new church groups were introduced into the country. The encouragement of German immigration, for example, brought not only Lutherans but Mennonites and United Brethren as well. The first Mennonites came into the Niagara Peninsula in 1786, and during the next three decades approximately 2,000 migrated into Ontario. Many were a part of the predominantly Lutheran settlement at Markham. Others founded Ebytown, now the city of Kitchner. In 1824 the first congregation of Amish settled in Waterloo County.

Early in the nineteenth century, Germans from two groups heavily influenced by the Methodists—the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association—began to preach and build churches among the German-speaking settlements. In 1816 John Dreisbach (1789–1871) of the Evangelical Association traveled in Ontario, but he did not establish any congregations. However, four years earlier, United Brethren had been among German immigrants who moved from Pennsylvania into the Waterloo area. By 1825 a circuit had been established, and the Ontario Conference was created in 1856. Permanent Evangelical Association work had an unusual beginning. Several Waterloo families who had returned to the United States encountered association members in Ohio. Informed of the Canadian situation, ministers began to travel to Chippewa and the Waterloo area, and later to other German-speaking communities. The first German-language Sunday school in Canada was founded by Evangelical Association ministers in what is now Kitchner.

Among the migrants into Lower Canada after the Revolution were members of the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist group. The Brethren did not assume any permanent presence, however, as some of the families soon returned to the United States.

The great movement to church the western United States (then the area from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River), usually termed the Second Great Awakening, spawned several new denominations, among them the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Very soon after its formation, this highly evangelical group, loosely organized and, except for a few peculiar emphases, doctrinally close to the Baptists, moved into Canada. In 1807 Thomas Campbell (1763–1854) formed the first rudimentary organization, the Christian Association, and by 1810 work had spread to the Maritime Provinces. A few years later, centers could be found at Poplar Hill and Norval in Upper Canada.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Ontario also became home to a number of groups that had broken from the mainstream of the Western Christian tradition. Most of these groups were imported from the United States, where they had originally emerged. As early as 1832, Unitarians under the leadership of Benjamin Workman (1794–1878) began to gather in Montreal. His efforts would become the basis for a strong congregation, but not before he had moved on to Toronto, where in 1845 he formed the first Unitarian congregation in Canada. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not move into Canada in a substantial fashion until late in the century, it did make an important incursion in 1842. Missionaries in Toronto that year converted John Taylor (1808–1887). Taylor left Toronto for Nauvoo, Illinois, and became a close associate of Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr. (1805–1844). Taylor, who was one of the two men to survive the attack in which Smith was murdered, eventually became president of the church. He is remembered today as one of the last Mormon leaders to vigorously defend the practice of polygamy.


Though an occasional Jew will make a brief appearance at odd moments in Canadian history, the French ban on Jews in New France served to keep them out of Canada until the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1749 a small group of Sephardic Jews (of Spanish-Portuguese origin) organized in Halifax and bought a cemetery, but their community was short-lived. A decade later, Samuel Jacobs, who settled near Montreal, became the first of a number of prominent Jewish merchants in Upper and Lower Canada. He was joined the next year by Samuel Hart (d. 1810), who established his headquarters in Three Rivers. As other Jews arrived, several of whom prospered in business, Congregation Shearith Israel, modeled on the congregation of the same name in New York City, was formed. Though most of the members were of English background (and thus would seem to favor the Ashkenazic worship forms), they adopted the Sephardic ritual of their New York brethren, and in 1777 they erected a building. Congregation Shearith Israel was one of two Canadian synagogues during the next several generations. Records also speak of the “Hart synagogue” in Three Rivers. By 1825 there were still fewer than 100 Jews in Canada. This lack of members did not keep them in 1828 from petitioning for full recognition as a religious community (which would allow them to maintain their own records of births, marriages, and deaths), which was granted the next year. In 1832 Canadian Jews were granted equal rights as British subjects (which removed any barriers to their holding public office or serving as officers in the military), a privilege not granted British Jews until 1858.

Though still small in comparison to the total population, the Jewish population in Upper Canada grew perceptibly during the middle nineteenth century. A Jewish community emerged in Toronto in the 1840s. Following a general pattern in new Jewish communities, first, in 1849 a cemetery was purchased, and then a congregation, the Sons of Israel, was organized in 1856. In 1859 a second congregation, following the Ashkenazic ritual, was opened in Montreal. By 1860 there were approximately 1,200 Jews in Canada.


During the mid-nineteenth century, the major issue affecting all Christian churches in Canada was the changing relationship between the Canadian government and the Anglican Church. By the action of the British government in the decades after the fall of Quebec, the Church of England became the established church of Canada. By law and with the backing of public funds, worship and education in the tradition of the Church of England were developed, encouraged, and maintained. Canada’s ministers were directly responsible to the Lord Bishop of London. In 1787 the British Crown appointed the first bishop for British North America, and the governors of Nova Scotia and Quebec were given orders to assist him in the exercise of his jurisdictional duties. The church, in spite of local episcopal authority, remained in a missionary situation and developed no synodical structures.

In 1791, integral to the action that separated the region into Upper and Lower Canada, the government set aside lands for the support of the clergy and the church. As the church expanded, the government provided revenue to create new dioceses and appoint bishops. Decade by decade, however, forces grew in favor of unifying the separated Canadian provinces into a single governmental entity under a form of home rule that would be largely autonomous of England without breaking completely with the empire. The growing autonomy in the Canadian government forced significant shifts in the relations between the Anglican Church in Canada, the Church of England, and the governments. The crux of the changes centered on the disposition of the clergy reserves.

Vocal opposition to the 1791 provisions for clergy land grants had arisen from the beginning. Secular interests demanded the use of the revenues from the lands (which consisted of some 2.5 million acres) for other purposes, such as nonsectarian public education. Churches joined the battle from their varying perspectives. Some opposed the unfair advantage given the Anglicans (especially the Presbyterians, who wanted their share in light of their establishment in Scotland), while some, such as the Canadian branch of the Free Church of Scotland, opposed government support of churches on principle. The Anglicans were heavily dependent on these lands, which directly supplemented financial support from the church in England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the foreign missionary structure of the Church of England. The loss to the church would be significant. By midcentury, however, it was clear that the loss would occur, and in 1853 all of the clergy land reserves in Canada were secularized. The drawn-out battle over the clergy reserves had also created an unwanted side effect for the Anglicans. By focusing opposition on the Anglican’s favored status, the issue united the Protestant churches against the Church of England in Canada.

Financial concerns thrust a second issue on the Canadian Anglicans: the development of self-government. Because of their status as a missionary arm of the Church of England, the Anglicans in Canada had not been free to develop internally. Each diocese worked as a separate unit, directly responsible to authorities in England. In 1851, as the land reserves issue was reaching a climax, five of the seven Canadian bishops met and called for the creation of a province of Canada under a metropolitan (archbishop) and the formation of diocesan synods that would include lay participation. These new structures would facilitate the transformation of the church into a voluntary association that relied on its own membership for its major financial support. The first synod, that of the Diocese of Toronto, met in 1857. Four years later, the bishop of Montreal was appointed metropolitan of the Canadian province, and an initial provincial synod was held for what was termed the Church of England in Canada. The province did not include Manitoba and the territories to the west, which developed as a separate province, as did British Columbia. Eventually, in 1893, the several provinces were united into an autonomous General Synod under a Primate of All Canada. Thus, by the end of the century, the Anglicans in Canada had emerged as another independent member of the developing worldwide Anglican Communion.


Chartered in 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company had been given exclusive rights to the land north and west of Ontario. During the last half of the nineteenth century, the company’s monopoly collided with the needs of Canada for expanded territory. Land was becoming scarce, immigration was increasing, and population was exploding. At the same time, a new sense of Canadian nationalism emerged with some degree of support from the British homeland. The completion in 1869 of the transcontinental railroad across the United States merely highlighted the advantages of such a railroad across Canada.

Thus, in 1867, when the four Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, and the Maritime) united in a confederation, they immediately looked west. In 1870 the confederation took in Rupert’s Land, today known as Manitoba, and in 1871, on the condition that a transcontinental railroad be built, it added British Columbia. Railroad construction began soon afterward, and the line to Winnipeg was finished in 1881. It took only four more years to complete the track to the Pacific Coast. Though Alberta and Saskatchewan would not become provinces until 1905, the completion of the railroad effectively opened them to massive immigration. The older churches, which had already established initial centers, quickly moved in with the new immigrants, and just as importantly, numerous new religious groups found a home in the newly opened territory.

In 1812 Thomas Douglas, the fifth earl of Selkirk (1771– 1820), with the cooperation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded Kildonan, a community of Scottish immigrants, on the Red River near present-day Winnipeg. In order to protect the settlers from the rival North West Company, he hired German mercenaries. Concerned for the religious life of the soldiers, many of whom were Roman Catholic, he requested a priest, and in 1818 the Diocese of Quebec sent Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher (1787–1853). Besides serving the immediate community, he began to expand work to neighboring sites and to Indian and Eskimo missions. He soon received the aid of the Oblates of Mary, who took special responsibility for the missionary work. The growth of the work initiated by Provencher led in 1844 to his being named vicar apostolic, and in 1847 he became the first bishop of St. Boniface (Manitoba). During the first half of the nineteenth century, Provencher provided the foundation for Roman Catholic expansion in western Canada through the conversion of the native population, the immigration of Catholics from around the world, and the recruitment of members from among the new (but previously non-Catholic) settlers.

Anglican work in the west was initiated by Reverend John West (1778–1845), who served at Kildonan in the absence of a Presbyterian minister. With Anglican funds, West built two schools, one for the colonists’ children and one for the Indians. His missionary endeavors produced one priest, Henry Budd (c. 1812–1875), from among the Indian parishioners. West’s efforts were bolstered in 1822 when the Church Missionary Society decided to take responsibility for Indian missions and began to send clergymen from England. By 1849, two years after the naming of a Roman Catholic bishop, David Anderson (1814–1885) was consecrated the first Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land. In 1865 Robert Machray (1831–1904) became bishop of Rupert’s Land, a post he held for the rest of the century. During this period, operating independently of the province (limited to the dioceses to the east until the creation of the General Synod in 1893), Machray developed Rupert’s Land into a separate province that included nine dioceses between Manitoba and the Rocky Mountains.


The Methodists’ movement into the northwest followed a series of unusual events in England. The Canadian Methodist preacher Egerton Ryerson had an Indian friend, Peter Jones (also known as Sacred Feathers, 1802–1856), who traveled to England. Jones’s speeches before a variety of Methodist audiences excited them over the possibilities of missionary work among the Indians of Upper Canada. Learning of Jones’s work, Hudson’s Bay Company officials, possibly looking for a way to gain social control (through religion) over the Indians, invited the Methodists into their territory. To the company, Jones seemed a living demonstration that the Methodists could deal with the native population. Within a few years, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, bypassing the Canadian Methodists, sent James Evans (1801–1846), Thomas Hurlburt (1808–1873), and Peter Jacobs (c. 1807–1890) to establish work on Manitoulin Island. Evans soon broke with the Hudson’s Bay Company and established Norway House in northern Manitoba. Among his major contributions was the development of a syllabic system for printing the Cree Indian language, a system that was easily adapted to other languages. Evans’s career overlapped that of Robert Rundle (1811–1896), who moved among the tribes farther west from his base in Edmonton, Alberta.

The Wesleyans supported the missions around Norway House and Edmonton for several decades, but in 1853 turned the work over to the Canadian Methodists. The following year, John Ryerson (1800–1878) made a trip through the territory and noted 18 Protestant missionaries, of which 13 were Anglican, four Methodist, and one Presbyterian.

That one Presbyterian was John Black (1818–1882), a graduate of Knox College in Toronto, who had settled in Kildonan to serve the Scots who had waited 20 years for a Presbyterian minister. Black stayed in Kildonan for more than 30 years. The Presbyterian work expanded in the 1860s through James Nisbet (1823–1874), who went out from Kildonan to found the town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and initiate Presbyterian work in that future province.

By midcentury, settlers began to trickle into western Canada in increasing numbers, and the other churches soon came to provide their spiritual nurture. In 1873 the first Baptist missionary arrived in Winnipeg, and throughout the decade Baptist churches were started in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Baptists turned their attention to the various non-English-speaking immigrants who began to pour into the area, and soon raised a number of ethnic churches. Early churches tended to be located along the railroad routes that brought the immigrants to their new homes.


British Columbia developed somewhat independently of the steady western movement of Canadian life. In like measure, the stream of both Roman Catholic and Anglican development flowed along an independent course, only to be merged at the end of the nineteenth century. In British Columbia, two paths to the farthest reaches of Canada converged. Many of the earliest settlers trekked northward from California along the Pacific Coast. Then, in 1792, Alexander MacKenzie (1764–1820) made it over the mountains to the coast and initiated the rich fur trade that was started by the North West Company in 1806. The west coast remained the territory of the North West Company (and then, after 1821, the Hudson’s Bay Company) until British Columbia joined the confederation in 1871. In addition, until the settlement of the boundary between Canada and the United States in 1846, the entire Pacific Coast north of California was disputed territory. As a result, the progress of the Roman Catholic missionary work in the region, begun in 1838, was delayed almost a decade when the bishop of Quebec, who had initiated work in the Oregon Territory, questioned his prerogative in sponsoring the mission because the territory seemed to also belong to the bishop of St. Louis in the United States.

The Oregon Mission included not only Oregon and Washington, but Fort Vancouver and all of British Columbia. Soon after their arrival, the first priests, Francis Norbert Blanchet (1795–1883) and Modeste Demers (1809–1871), began to envision the possibility of bringing the Indian population into the church. They saw a bright future if only a bishop, with authority to recruit a cadre of priests and religious workers, could be sent to the northwest. In 1843 Rome responded by appointing Blanchet as vicar apostolic for the territory. Blanchet, somewhat overwhelmed, requested that the vast territory under his authority be further divided. Then, immediately after the border between the United States and Canada was established by treaty in 1846, the Holy See named Blanchet bishop of Oregon, as well as archbishop of the new province of Oregon City. Four days later, his brother, Augustin-Magloire Blanchet (1797–1887), was named bishop of Walla Walla (Washington), and the next year Demers became bishop of Vancouver, as part of the Oregon City province.

The work prospered for several years, only to be ravaged by the California gold rush. By 1855 only seven priests were left in the province, the rest having followed their flocks south. Three years later, the diocese’s fortunes reversed with the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in British Columbia, and the town of New Westminster emerged quickly as a new population center. With the completion of the railroad in the 1880s, the number of residents of British Columbia steadily increased, and the work of the church stabilized into a pattern of growth that followed the population trends.

The Church of England in Canada was much slower to respond to the needs on the Canadian Pacific Coast than was the Roman Catholic Church. In part, the Church of England in Canada was distracted by its midcentury problem of building a new financial base and redefining itself independently of the bishops in England. Also, being a national church, the settlement of the boundary dispute with the United States had much more severe implications for the extension of the ministry.

Following the 1846 treaty, the Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned its major post on the Columbia River and in 1849 founded Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island. An Anglican priest, R. J. Staines (c. 1820–1854), was appointed priest and schoolmaster of the new settlement. He worked alone for the rest of his life. He would later be succeeded by a lay teacher in 1857 and a missionary to the Indians in 1858. Then in the wake of the discovery of gold and the influx of thousands into the area, an urgent request for assistance in British Columbia fell into the hands of a wealthy and devout heiress in London. She endowed a bishopric for British Columbia, and in 1859 the Reverend George Hills (1816–1895) was consecrated for the new diocese. Hills recruited men and raised funds before his arrival in Victoria in 1860. With initial financial backing from the Church of England, he was able to organize the work without financial support from the Canadian government, and he put it on a firm and stable foundation from the beginning. The dioceses of New Westminster (at the mouth of the Fraser River) and Caledonia (centered on the headwaters of the Fraser), created in 1879, become the backbone of the province of British Columbia in the next century.

The initiation of Congregationalist work in British Columbia grew out of concern in Great Britain for slaves who had escaped the United States and found their way to the Vancouver area. In 1859 the Colonial Missionary Society sent a minister to Victoria to create a church and serve the black residents. His interracial efforts met strong opposition from the larger community of white residents and the work collapsed when the society withdrew the missionary. A decade later, a second missionary was sent, and he organized two congregations, one each in 1879 and 1881. But Congregationalism had trouble competing with the more aggressive Presbyterians and Methodists, and made little progress in western Canada as a whole.

The other Protestant churches lagged in their movement to the coast. A Presbyterian minister arrived at Fort Camosun on Vancouver Island in 1861. Beginning in the courthouse, he established what was the only Presbyterian congregation west of Kildonan. A Baptist, John Morton, arrived in 1862 to homestead some 600 acres of what is now downtown Vancouver. A generation later, enough Baptist churches had been formed to justify the formation of the Baptist Convention of British Columbia in 1897.

With the formation of the Roman Catholic and Anglican dioceses in western Canada and the movement of the older churches into the territory, especially after the completion of the railroad, the initial churching of Canada could be said to have been completed. All of the churches continued to grow and spread as the population grew, but that growth consisted of the spreading of the already dominant structure. In the process, a number of issues came to the fore, to which the churches would have to give their time and energy. Like their sister churches south of the border, all the Canadian churches were forced to respond to the new ideas and realities that emerged so forcefully in the late nineteenth century—biblical criticism, the biological and geological sciences, urbanization, and historical consciousness—out of which grew an embittered phase of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. By the end of the century, the Protestants were focused on the possibility of building a united church from the multitude of sectarian and regional church bodies.


Dating largely from the opening of the West by the railroad, Canada became home to a wide variety of ethnic groups and an even wider variety of new (at least for Canada) religions. Among the first new groups to arrive in the West, Mennonites from Russia settled along the Red River south of Winnipeg in 1874. A second wave after World War II (1939–1945) settled on farms in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. In the United States, these Mennonites split into several factions, the largest being the General Conference Mennonite Church.

After the Mennonites, other churches also representative of the European free church tradition found western Canada a suitable place for settlement. Possibly the most controversial of these groups is the Doukhobors, who began to arrive in 1899. Controversy followed their attempts to keep their religious practices intact in the face of Canadian laws (such as those dictating educational standards). One group has been accused of staging violent protests (at least against property), and some fame has come to certain groups for their practice of disrobing in public as a means of protest.

Following their inability to reach a suitable accord with the U.S. government after its entry into World War I, the pacifist, communally organized Hutterite Brethren systematically sold their American farms and relocated in western Canada. Though many later returned to the United States, the Hutterites retain a strong Canadian presence.

Eastern Europeans also began to move into western Canada prior to the turn of the century and continued after immigration restrictions were imposed in the United States in 1924. For example, more than 8,000 Romanians, mostly farmers, migrated to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba prior to World War I (1914–1918). The first church, St. Nicholas, was built in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1902. Canadian Ukrainians, now headquartered in Winnipeg, were present in numbers when the struggle for Ukrainian independence led them to organize separately from the Russian Orthodox Church. Their first congregation was formed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Scandinavian ministers entered Manitoba as early as the 1870s to begin work among the Swedes. An Evangelical Covenant Church was organized in Winnipeg in 1904, about which time ministers of the Evangelical Free Church arrived to initiate work among the Norwegians and Danes. The first Evangelical Free Church was organized in 1913.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also entered Canada during this period. In 1887 a group of 41 led by Charles Ora Card (1839–1906) migrated north from Salt Lake City to what is today the province of Alberta. At that time, Canada had no laws against polygamy. Card’s group founded the town of Cardston, about 40 miles from Lethbridge, where a temple was built and from which the church has spread throughout Canada. At a later date, members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would also begin to colonize Canada.

As with the United States, Asian immigration into Canada commenced on the West Coast following the gold rush. Of the Chinese who flocked to the gold fields, many stayed and introduced Buddhism to Canada. By the end of the nineteenth century, Indians, primarily Punjabis, migrated to British Columbia and brought their Sikh faith with them. The construction of the first house of worship, a gurudwara, was initiated in 1906 in Vancouver.

The churches described above represent only a few of the many ethnic church groups that were established in western Canada. These were later joined by new indigenous churches that split from the older church bodies. Together, they have given western Canada the same pluralistic flavor so evident in the large urban centers in the eastern half of the nation.


Modernism, a theological perspective that accepted and even celebrated the changing world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blossomed in Canada as it did throughout the West. Responding to the scholarly community, modernists embraced the new “scientific” approach to history (as exemplified in critical methodologies) and society (through the new discipline of sociology), and the radical new assertions of biology and geology. British scholars exposed Canadian churchmen to the historical-critical methods of Bible study as early as 1860 through the publication of the book Essays and Reviews, which attempted to inform the British public about the new German scientific critique of scripture. In Canada, the book initiated a continuing debate over the authority of the Bible, the integrity of the biblical text, and the nature of miracles. The debate led to the adoption of both historical and textual criticism in Bible classes in most Canadian seminaries. In like measure, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) provoked extended and heated debate over the supernatural origins of humanity, a debate that still divides. The issues raised by Darwin were given added weight by new discoveries in the geological sciences that called for pushing back the age of the earth by hundreds of thousands of years. Modernists accepted the new discoveries and developed a theology that placed humanity within the unfolding process of evolution.

Canadians also responded to the social displacements of urbanization, especially as Toronto and Montreal grew with the late nineteenth-century influx. By the 1890s, Canadian voices had arisen to address the social implications of Christianity and build new urban ministries. In 1890, for example, Presbyterian Daniel James MacDonnell (1843– 1896), pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in Toronto, opened mission houses near the slums in Toronto and began night classes for the education of working women. Closely tied to the social gospel was a new belief in the goodness and perfectibility of humans, a view that saw the race progressing into the kingdom of God. Given a new view of their long history on earth, thinkers began to project the future in almost utopian terms.

Among the leading Canadian modernists was Presbyterian George Monro Grant (1835–1902), author of the best-selling book Ocean to Ocean, an optimistic look at the Canadian future first published in 1873. First at Dalhousie University and then at Queen’s Theological College, Grant championed the modernist cause, demanding that all religious teaching become intellectually respectable. He was joined by professors John Watson (1847–1939) and George Paxton Young (1818–1889).

The progress of modernist thought was not always smooth. Methodist George Workman (1848–1936) was forced to resign his post at Victoria University in 1899 after his public denial of the “dictation theory” of biblical inspiration, a frequent step in the acceptance of biblical critical methodology. Finding a post at another school, he was again forced out in 1907. Daniel James MacDonnell, though acquitted, was forced to stand trial by the General Assembly of the Canadian Presbyterian Church for a comment denying the doctrine of everlasting hell.

Possibly the most disturbed by the growth of the new theological perspectives were the Baptists. Shortly after the turn of the century, charges were leveled at McMaster University, the Baptist’s university in Toronto, with the primary target being Professor Isaac G. Matthews (1871–1959). Matthews was accused of attacking the integrity of the book of Genesis. Rising to lead the attack on McMaster was Thomas T. Shields (1873–1955), the pastor of Jarvis Avenue Baptist Church in Toronto, soon to become an internationally known spokesperson for fundamentalism, the conservative theological perspective based on a defense of the unique divine authority of the Bible and the traditional Christian affirmations (the “fundamentals”). Fundamentalists vigorously fought the growing acceptance of critical methods of Bible study, as well as the social gospel and evolution. After an examination, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec exonerated Matthews, which led Shields and his supporters to break with the convention. Several new Baptist groups eventually emerged from that schism, most notably the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches.

By World War II, the issues raised by the controversy had been settled in the modernists’ favor, and the majority of the mainline churches had gone on to other matters. In Canada, fundamentalism did not retain the power it has held in the United States, though most of Canada’s denominations outside of the mainline are evangelical in doctrine.


At the same time that modernism emerged within the larger churches, a drive to unite the scattered sects of Protestantism gathered strength. While there had been no schisms among Canadian Protestants like those that rent the U.S. churches during the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Canadian churches in the late nineteenth century existed in a disunited state because of sectional divisions over the vast Canadian territory, as well as the establishment of many similar but organizationally separate churches by each new wave of immigrants. Efforts to unify led to the formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925 and the Canadian Council of Churches in 1944.

The work of uniting the churches began as individual denominations identified likeminded groups and began a process of denominational family cooperation. For example, in the early nineteenth century, the Methodists sought out means to bring together the non-episcopal British Wesleyans with those who were episcopally led. The process of a merger culminated in 1864 when the Canadian branches of all the various British Methodists merged into a single Methodist body for the country. The even larger number of Presbyterian bodies followed a similar pattern between 1817 and 1879. The Congregationalists had two major unions in 1906 and 1907.

While the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists were merging their denominational families, as early as the 1860s serious proposals for unions across denominational lines were entertained by Methodists and Presbyterians. Similar proposals were considered in the 1870s by Congregationalists and Presbyterians and a decade later by Anglicans with all three denominations. However, nothing came of these discussions prior to the turn of the century.

In 1902 an idea originally suggested by George Monro Grant in 1874 of a united “Church of Canada” began to bear fruit. That year the Methodist general conference issued an overture to its sister denominations to appoint committees to plan for union. The overture was received favorably by the Presbyterians and Congregationalists at their gatherings during the next two years, and the three initiated work on a “basis of union” document in December 1904. After four years, an agreement was reached and passed on to the three churches. The main topics of discussion included doctrine (which led the Baptists to decline participation) and polity (over which the Anglicans ultimately withdrew). A variety of names were proposed and discussed. Once submitted to the denominations, a lengthy struggle to gain commitment to the plan and the proper enabling legislation to have the plan adopted and implemented ensued. Finally, in 1925, the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches merged to form the United Church of Canada, which immediately assumed its place as the third major church body in the country.

By the time of the formation of the United Church of Canada, the spirit of Christian cooperation and unity, at least on the councilor level, was growing. In the United States, the Federal Council of Christian Churches was fruitfully functioning. On the international level, the conferences that were to lead to the formation of the World Council of Churches were underway. The idea of a council to facilitate communication, prevent duplication of efforts, coordinate ministries, and provide fellowship seemed a practical step toward unity. Thus, in 1944, 12 denominations came together to form the Canadian Council of Churches. It included both Protestant and Eastern Orthodox bodies. Over the years, the Lutherans, one of the few major Christian bodies not among the charter members, joined, while the Baptist Federation of Canada withdrew (even though its major component, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, immediately joined). In more recent years, the Canadian Conference of (Roman) Catholic Bishops has become an associate member. The council now includes the overwhelming majority of Canadian Christians among its member organizations.

The trend to unity also played out in Canada’s evangelical churches. In 1964 Harry Faught, pastor of Danforth Gospel Temple in Toronto, worked with Oswald J. Smith (founding pastor of the Peoples Church) and Arthur Lee (Calvary Church, Toronto) to form the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The organization appointed Brian Stiller its first full-time director in 1983, followed by Gary Walsh in 1997 and Bruce Clemenger in 2003. As of 2008, the fellowship comprised 41 denominations. Since Stiller’s time, the fellowship has sought to influence the social fabric of Canada and has had a significant impact through political connections in the nation’s capital.


Though always a small minority, the Jewish community of Canada spread as the country grew. Jews were among the first settlers in the west. A synagogue was established in Victoria, British Columbia, in the 1860s. The first informal congregational service was held in Winnipeg in 1882, and Congregation Beth El was organized two years later. A congregation is noted in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1913.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jews migrated to Canada in large numbers. More than 80,000 arrived between 1900 and the beginning of World War I. Most of the new arrivals were Orthodox, and even though Reform Judaism arose among Canadians quite early, it never gained the support it had in the United States. During the period between the wars, the religious segment of the community aligned itself with the three main Jewish groups (Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox), with both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Orthodox congregations in existence. Most of the congregations also aligned with one of the several congregational associations headquartered in New York City.

Immediately after World War II, Canadian Jewry experienced a second major wave of immigration, as survivors of the war and the Holocaust poured into the country. Since then, the community has grown to approximately 300,000. Again, the new arrivals tended to be Orthodox and included members of several Hasidic groups (such as the Lubavitchers), though the growth of Conservative congregations has been noticeable and a few Reconstruction synagogues have been established.


Throughout Canada, since the middle of the nineteenth century, the larger church bodies have been faced with the organizational splintering of Christendom. While finding some unity in the formation of the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Council of Churches, such efforts have always been countered by schisms in Canadian church bodies. For example, a large minority of members of the Presbyterian Church refused to join the United Church of Canada, and remains today as a separate organization, though a member of the Canadian Council of Churches. In addition to the schisms, Canada has seen the arrival of new churches from Europe and, most importantly, the constant importation of the hundreds of sectarian bodies that have formed in the United States and that view Canada as a mission field.

During the 1850s, for example, Spiritualism, which started in New York, spread from Ontario to the Maritime Provinces, and letters attesting to the power of Spiritualist phenomena regularly filled the pages of early Spiritualist periodicals. During the twentieth century, Canadians formed several national Spiritualist associations. In the 1860s, Seventh-day Adventists arrived in eastern Canada, spreading their message of the Second Coming, Sabbath observance, and trust in Ellen G. White’s (1827–1915) prophetic status. The Holiness movement came to Canada in the 1800s and produced several new churches, the most prominent being that led by Ralph Cecil Horner (1854–1921), a former Methodist. He organized and led the Holiness Movement Church, but when asked to retire as its bishop in 1919, he left to found the Standard Church of America.

Pentecostalism spread quickly to Canada from the 1906 revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Canadians later initiated two of the important teachings in Pentecostalism, which led to the development of two new subgroups, producing a score of new denominational organizations. Possibly the first Canadian Pentecostal was Robert Edward McAlister (1880–1953). At a camp meeting in Los Angeles in 1913, he preached on water baptism in the name of “Jesus only,” thus initiating what was to become the apostolic or non-Trinitarian Pentecostalism. In 1948 in western Canada, at an independent Bible school, the Sharon Orphanage and School at North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a Pentecostal revival began and swept across North America. The Latter Rain revival brought to Pentecostalism a new emphasis on prophecy and the laying-on-of-hands. Though considering itself a nondenominational movement, the Latter Rain revival produced more than 20 new denominations in North America.

In 1994 the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, part of the Association of Vineyard Churches, became the site of a major charismatic renewal known as the Toronto Blessing. The church (later renamed the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship), pastored by John and Carol Arnott, became a spiritual tourist destination as millions arrived in the mid-1990s to experience alleged supernatural manifestations, including holy laughter.

The Church of Christ, Scientist, came to Canada during the life of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910). In 1906 to 1907 Canada became the location of two important court cases involving Christian Scientists. In both cases, parents who had used Christian Science treatment in the place of standard medical assistance were convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of their children.

While a growing number of Christian sects found their way to Canada prior to World War II, in more recent decades Canada has faced the same rapid proliferation of new and diverse groups, especially in its major cities, as has the United States. Many of these groups have been imported from the United States, but many have also come directly from Asia and the Middle East (usually by way of Europe or Australia). For example, the Baha’i faith was brought to Canada in 1903 when Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell (1874–1952) married an American Baha’i practitioner. However, it was not until 1949 that the work grew to a point that it could be set apart under its own National Spiritual Assembly.

Included among the recently arrived are not only teachers seeking to convert Canadians, but also a new wave of Asian immigrants who are building Buddhist and Hindu temples. Besides the well-known new religions, such as the Unification Church and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Canada is the headquarters of the Zen Lotus Society, the Yasodhara Ashram Society, and the Sivananda Vedanta Yoga Centers, as well as of Kabalarian philosophy. In addition, British Columbia is home to the largest Sikh community outside of India. Though the first Sikhs came to Canada in 1897, their numbers remained small until the loosening of Canada’s immigration laws in the 1960s.


Canada’s current religious makeup reflects the whole of Western society. While Christianity shows every sign of continuing as the faith of the majority of Canadians for the foreseeable future, the country has become home to an ever-increasing number of the world’s faiths.

Two contradictory trends have emerged in Canadian religion since the late twentieth century. Canada has become home to the same kind of diverse religious life that characterizes the contemporary West in general. Thus, to leave one of the older churches is not necessarily to drop out of the religious life altogether, and the decline of the dominant liberal Protestant faiths should not be interpreted as a sign of the secularization of society so much as a readjustment in the face of an increasingly diverse religious economy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby tracked the negative side of recent Canadian religious history, both the decline of church membership over the previous generation and the startling decline in church attendance. All of the major denominations, including Roman Catholicism, showed a membership increase in the decades immediately following World War II, but the numbers peaked in the late 1960s and began to decline in the 1970s. The decline has not been reversed. During this period, the population increased, and thus the percentage of people affiliated with a religious organization declined decade by decade. Equally important, the percentage of church members attending services regularly dropped dramatically, by almost 50 percent for Roman Catholics and more than 50 percent for Protestants.

The interpretation of these trends varies considerably, but most observers suggest that Canada offers an open and fluid religious situation as it enters the twenty-first century. Bibby has adopted an optimistic view, arguing for a renaissance in religion. However, a reversal of the increasingly entrenched direction that religion is taking may be difficult to achieve.

As the new century begins, Canada is home to well over 600 different religious bodies. Most are affiliates of bodies based in the United States or around the world. In the entries below, for churches whose main headquarters is in the United States, an effort has been made to also list the address of the Canadian headquarters. The next largest group is constituted by autonomous bodies that became independent of groups based in the United States, with whom they retain a fraternal relationship. There are also a small number of groups that originated in Canada.


General Sources

Beverley, James, and Barry M. Moody, eds. The Life and Journal of the Rev. Mr. Henry Alline. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1982. 268 pp.

Bibby, Reginald W. Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada. Toronto, ON: Irwin, 1987. 319 pp.

———. Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada. Toronto, ON: Stoddart, 1993.

———. Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. Toronto, ON: Novalis, 2004.

Crysdale, Stewart, and Les Wheatcroft, eds. Religion in Canadian Society. Toronto, ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1976. 498 pp.

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Religion in Canada: A Historical Survey, 1500 to the Present

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Religion in Canada: A Historical Survey, 1500 to the Present