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  • The Blue Banner: The Presbyterian Church of Saint David and Presbyterian Witness in Halifax
  • Denis McKim
The Blue Banner: The Presbyterian Church of Saint David and Presbyterian Witness in Halifax. Barry Cahill, Laurence Dewolfe, Murray Alary, Elizabeth A. Chard, and Lois Yorke. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. Pp. 352. $39.95

The Blue Banner is a superb study of Halifax's Presbyterian Church of Saint David. It illuminates the church's history and inner workings and chronicles in exquisite detail its contribution to the survival of Presbyterianism in one of Canada's principal urban centres.

The book is the product of a collaborative labour of love. Each of its five authors – Barry Cahill, Laurence DeWolfe, Murray Alary, Elizabeth A. Chard, and Lois Yorke – has been involved in some capacity in the congregation's affairs. Their emotional attachment to Saint David's is [End Page 172] palpable and is reflected in the sympathetic manner in which they unravel its elaborate eighty-three-year history. Yet their fondness for Saint David's is by no means incompatible with substantive scholarship. On the contrary, The Blue Banner is characterized throughout by painstaking research and incisive investigation.

Based on church documents, contemporary newspaper accounts, and personal reminiscences, The Blue Banner offers an exhaustive exploration of the anatomy of Saint David's. The book consists of three parts – a succinct sketch of the turbulent circumstances that precipitated the church's formation; thumbnail biographies of each of the five ministers who have presided over the congregation of Saint David's since its inception; and an examination of myriad aspects of congregational life, including vivid depictions of the church's musical tradition and vigorous involvement in social outreach programs.

The authors' main contention is that the survival of Presbyterianism in Halifax following the establishment of the United Church of Canada in June 1925 is largely the result of an abiding commitment on the part of the congregation of Saint David's to doctrinal integrity and the principle of religious pluralism.

With the founding of the United Church – which absorbed Canada's Methodists and Congregationalists, as well as two-thirds of its Presbyterians – Halifax's Presbyterian congregations ceased to exist. A majority within each of the city's nine Presbyterian churches voted in favour of church union. Thus, at a stroke, what was then Canada's largest Protestant denomination vanished from metropolitan Halifax.

Yet Halifax's Presbyterians proved a resilient bunch. The staunchest anti-unionists – or 'continuing Presbyterians' – rallied around a deep-seated aversion to the union scheme. They objected to what they perceived as the United Church's doctrinal laxity and institutional homogeneity, both of which were viewed as threats to Presbyterian uniqueness. Seeking to safeguard the denomination's characteristic tenets and traditions, opponents of church union established a new Presbyterian congregation, Saint David's, which found a home for itself in the winter of 1925 in a vacant Methodist church located on the southwest corner of Grafton and Blowers Streets. Owing to the sophistication of its institutions, the dedication of its members, and the stewardship of its ministers and staff, Saint David's would go on to distinguish itself as a bulwark of Atlantic-Canadian Presbyterianism.

The most impressive aspect of this book is its impassioned defence of the continuing Presbyterians' resistance to church union. The authors are at pains to emphasize that the defiant anti-unionists were guided by neither petty sectarianism nor an irrational Scots [End Page 173] Presbyterian ethnocentrism. Rather, they were spurred on by a desire to defend doctrinal orthodoxy and institutional independence. The continuing Presbyterians, they explain, 'were not fighting for a church – much less a Scottish-Canadian church – but for the church, the spiritual body of Christ' (44). What appeared to many non Presbyterians to be an expression of stubborn anti-ecumenism, then, was in fact a principled opposition to the unionists' supposed disregard for evangelical preaching, and the fact that distinctive denominational traditions were likely to be swamped within a monolithic multi-denominational church.

The authors attribute the unionists' perceived lack of concern for doctrinal orthodoxy to an overriding preoccupation with the social gospel movement, which crested during the lead-up to church...


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