- The View from Murney Tower: Salem Bland, the Later Victorian Controversies, and the Search for a New Christianity
In 1971 historian Richard Allen's The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada 1914-1918 launched a generation of scholarship on the interplay of social thought, politics, and theology in the history of Christianity in Canada. While scholars debated and expanded Allen's work, he left his academic post at McMaster University to serve for thirteen years as a New Democratic Party MPP in the Ontario legislature. Now Allen has returned to the academic conversation, determined to correct what he feared in 1971 was a 'somewhat truncated' history with an intense investigation of the life and thought of one of Canada's key social gospellers, the Methodist minister and scholar Salem Goldworth Bland (1859-1950).
This volume covers 'Book One' of Bland's story, from the Bland family's Methodist roots in the mists of early-nineteenth-century Yorkshire to Salem's decision in 1903 to accept a faculty post at Wesley College, Winnipeg. Biography it is, for we follow our earnest subject from his birth morning on a rural Methodist circuit in rural Quebec, through childhood, youth, and several Methodist itinerancies in eastern Canada, to his departure for the west at forty-four. Bland, however, resists emotional scrutiny, and we encounter instead a rich intellectual journey through the late Victorian world.
The 'Murney Tower' is an 1846 gun tower nestled on the edge of Kingston's harbour and often visited by the young Salem Bland. Allen uses it as a touchstone for Salem Bland's spiritual journey. The notion of a 'view' also describes the book itself, as Bland and his biographer conspire to become a lens through which to observe the panorama of philosophies, theologies, social movements, and political and institutional developments that formed and reformed this serious and reflective cleric. Allen's goal is at heart a simple one: to challenge the long-held criticism that the social gospel was theologically and intellectually superficial. The fulfilment of that goal is not a simple task, however. Allen and Bland lead us on a quest for a spirituality that 'called at once for an authority dogmatically unequivocal on the unity of the divine and human natures in Christ, intellectually compatible with the needs of the hour, historically satisfying, and appropriate to his expanding social vision.'
The result is a masterwork. Allen leaves no intellectual stone unturned, yet one need not be a specialist in Victorian studies to follow his narrative. From the Darwin controversies to labour unrest in nineteenth-century Ontario towns, from the Orange Lodge to the Boer War, from Nietzsche to church union in Canada, Allen focuses us persuasively on the maturation of Bland's world view. When Bland came to assert that 'all [End Page 369] worthwhile social reforms, including socialism lay "in the folds of Christ's garments,"' it was a contention born of decades of thoughtful scholarship. As he headed for the prairie frontier, Bland took with him both an encyclopedic knowledge of the world of his day, and a painstaking weaving of these threads into a conviction about the social role of Christianity in the life of the nation and the world.
Salem Bland's world was largely a male domain: male leaders in church and state, male thinkers in the academy and the science labs. Allen, in his extensive prologue - which deftly summarizes the key research in social Christianity since The Social Passion - and elsewhere in the book, strives mightily to acknowledge the role of women in late Victorian progressivism. However, Bland's intellectual interlocutors were most frequently men; the women's stories require other tellers.
Allen does not ignore Bland's personal life, but it functions as a backdrop to the 'real' story of the intersection of ideas, faith, and social realities. Bland knew suffering, and the poignancy reaches through the brisk prose. He suffered an early childhood leg injury, necessitating a brace, crutches, and eventually an artificial...