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  • The Covenanters in Canada: Reformed Presbyterianism from 1820 to 2012 by Eldon Hay
  • Denis McKim
The Covenanters in Canada: Reformed Presbyterianism from 1820 to 2012. Eldon Hay. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. Pp. 397, $39.95

Presbyterians are known to be a fractious lot, as the following joke attests. A member of the denomination is rescued after spending years stranded on a deserted island. The sea captain responsible for rescuing the Presbyterian asks why the island, which only had one inhabitant, has three huts. The Presbyterian, in response, explains that the first hut was his home, and the second hut was his church. “And the third hut?” inquires the captain. “Oh,” the Presbyterian answers, “that’s the church I used to belong to.”

The joke reveals much about popular perceptions of Presbyterianism. While it is by no means unique to them, a quarrelsome predisposition among devout Presbyterians has long been blamed for the denomination’s fragmentation into a multiplicity of factions. Such an interpretation has considerable merit, given the division-inducing conflicts that pervade Presbyterian history. But where did this predisposition come from, and why has it been so influential? Eldon Hay provides answers to these questions in his painstakingly researched, utterly comprehensive study, The Covenanters in Canada. The book traces the development over nearly two centuries of the Canadian branch of one Presbyterian faction, the Covenanters (or Reformed Presbyterians), a small yet resilient group whose fractiousness springs in large part from their commitment to religious principles. [End Page 605]

Hay’s is a significant contribution to Canadian religious historiography. Recent writings on the history of Canadian Christianity, while far from monolithic, have tended to emphasize the ways in which the study of religion can illuminate important aspects of the country’s past. And rightly so – early religious education, for example, tells us a great deal about the strategies by which colonial officials hoped to implant notions of loyalty and docility in young people’s minds, while church-run social functions in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries shed valuable light on shifting conceptions of middle-class respectability. Yet for all of its insightfulness such an approach runs the risk, however unintentionally, of downplaying the principles integral to the very phenomenon of religiosity. Perhaps the most important aspect of Hay’s study, then, is that it underscores the centrality of bedrock beliefs to Canadian religious history.

Although the name “Covenanter” alludes to the bond that unites God and Israel in Genesis, the denomination’s roots lie in early modern Scotland. There, devout Presbyterians signed documents – the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 – through which, among other things, they rejected Episcopalianism and called for the implementation of Calvinistic, or Reformed, Protestantism throughout the British Isles. Presbyterians subsequently endured persecution between the Restoration of 1660 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Most members of the denomination welcomed the Revolution Settlement that accompanied the latter event, since it recognized Presbyterianism as Scotland’s national religion. A minority – the Covenanters – did not. From their perspective, the Revolution Settlement was unacceptable largely because it failed to acknowledge Christ’s sovereignty over the state. A repudiation of civil authority, which emerged as one of the Covenanters’ core principles, rendered them unwilling to join the Presbyterian mainstream. Alongside other denominational traditions (many of which they share with other Presbyterians), this Covenanting characteristic – which prohibited such phenomena as voting and taking oaths – was exported to various parts of the world, surfacing in British North America in the 1820s.

As Hay demonstrates, the Covenanters’ uncompromising views toward the state proved controversial in a colonial context. For example, they almost certainly impeded the denomination’s growth in the Canadas in the era of the rebellions, when a refusal to swear allegiance to the British regime could raise authorities’ suspicions and result in the confiscation of one’s property (139). Yet controversial though they were, the Covenanters’ principles – including their repudiation of an allegedly ungodly civil authority – did not prevent the denomination [End Page 606] from acquiring modest backing in various settings, including the Chignecto region of the Maritimes, the Prairies, and communities in and around Ottawa, where contemporary...


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