restricted access The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian Canada by Ramsay Cook (review)
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The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian Canada, 2ndedition. Ramsay Cook. With a Foreword by Carl Berger and an Introduction by Donald Wright. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. Pp. 344, $31.95 paper

In a tribute to Ramsay Cook at his death in July 2016, the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson mused that, like no other historian, Cook had defined the way Canadians understood their country from the 1960s to the 1980s. Unlike those who burrowed deeply into their historical research, Cook’s preferred approach was, in his own words, that of a “grasshopper,” landing briefly in relatively unknown territory and then moving on in search of something new. Well established through his writings in the 1960s and 1970s on nationalism, especially French-Canadian nationalism, he published a book in 1985 on his long-standing fascination with the relationship between religion and social reform in the late nineteenth century. The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian Canadadepicted an eclectic and eccentric group of Protestant social reformers drawn to liberal theology during a time of intellectual turmoil, who unwittingly laid the foundations for a secular Canada. Sprightly and engaging, the book won that year’s Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. It also sparked a heated scholarly debate that helped bring the history of religion in Canada to the fore as scholars contested, in some instances with dogmatic finality, the timing and origins of Canadian secularization. The book’s republication, shortly before Cook’s passing, offers an opportunity thirty years later to recall briefly its immediate impact and assess its long-term influence in defining Canadian religious history.

Reprinted without change, the new edition replaces the original cover depicting Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Lynch slaying the serpent of “free thought” with a more appropriate Bengough cartoon featuring Goldwin Smith, a Protestant equally concerned about the dangers of [End Page 144]“a moral interregnum.” An address by Carl Berger in 1997 on the occasion of Cook’s retirement from York University, presented now as the foreword, offers a brief and appreciative survey of a respected colleague. The ironic approach to secularization in The Regenerators, suggests Berger, owed more than a little to Cook’s own Protestant upbringing in a United Church prairie manse and to his studies in the 1950s at United College and Queen’s University. That Cook took Christian belief seriously is well documented in Donald Wright’s thoughtful, thoroughly researched introduction. Currently working on Cook’s biography, he offers detailed insight into the personal and academic concerns that laid the groundwork for The Regenerators. An active listener in the 1950s to theological debates at the Presbyterian Knox College, where “everyone it seemed” was reading neo-orthodox theologians Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, Cook agreed with their critique of liberal theology. There was no doubt in his mind that liberal thought’s emphasis on divine immanence had undermined the “otherness of God” and turned Christianity into an essentially this-worldly religion. Later, in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, now teaching a graduate course at Toronto and then at York on late nineteenth-century social and religious critical thought, he found himself confronted by a new generation of women and men calling for change. Analysis of an earlier cohort of social activists became an opportunity to draw on the past to understand the present, much as he had done in his essays on French-Canadian nationalism.

Cook’s “regenerators” are a fascinating collection of late Victorian women and men linked only by their diverse and idiosyncratic approaches to social reform. Among them are such well-known public figures as W.L. Mackenzie King, Goldwin Smith, W.D. LeSueur, J.S. Woodsworth, Principal George Grant of Queen’s University, and Richard Bucke, a mystic pushing the boundaries of psychic experience. The book also raises the profile of lesser known activists like Kingston’s Agnes Maule Machar and Alice Chown, defrocked Methodist minister Benjamin Fish Austin, enthralled by the new science of “spiritualism,” and the un-forgettable Allen Pringle, a beekeeper from Selby and president of the Canadian Secular Union who tirelessly championed the gospel of free thought in the hostile environment of...