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  • A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada by Phyllis D. Airhart
  • Frederick Jones
Phyllis D. Airhart, A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 446pp. Cased. $110. ISBN 978-0-7735-4248-8. Paper. $34.95. ISBN 978-0-7735-4249-5.

An exhaustive account, with an impressive array of sources, and meticulous detail, this history of the United Church of Canada traces its origins from ecumenical gestures between Methodists and Presbyterians in the nineteenth century, through formal union in 1925, to some power and influence and an eventual catastrophic loss of membership in recent times.

Throughout its history, the UCC appears to have been in constant debate as to its beliefs and mission. One might say that it exemplifies the saying that ‘he who marries the Spirit of the Age will be a widower tomorrow’. Rather than seeing itself as part of a universal church preaching a largely unchanging gospel, the UCC has sought to be the unestablished church of Canada, Protestant, National, and Anglo-Saxon. However, Canada has changed because of immigration, leading to a multi-religious society, and also because of secularism emanating from Europe. Weber’s ‘disenchantment of the world’ proceeds apace. Prepared neither to retain the old-time religion of Billy Graham, which now exists in the growing evangelical sects, nor to become a largely social service organisation with religious overtones, the UCC seems insecure as to its basis. It always had a problem with welding together Arminian Methodists and Calvinist Presbyterians, leading to the accusation that it was a ‘Church without a Creed’ (p. 41). Many Presbyterians remained outside. The UCC’s somewhat grandiose name, reflected in the title of this book perhaps comes from the idea that it was akin to the Protestant model developed in the sixteenth century and ‘there is no room, properly, in any one nation, for any other Church of that nation, which shall be the expression and organ of the national religious life’ (p. 58). Nor did the UCC resolve the tensions inherent in giving its belief in ‘social justice’ a definite application to the world outside. [End Page 283]

Reinhold Niebuhr, an eminent Protestant theologian, proved to be an incisive critic complaining that such liberal Christianity ‘was a pious hope that people might be good and loving’ and should have less ‘moral idealism and more religious realism’ (p. 112). The UCC, however, does seem to have remained anti-Catholic, as Pierre Trudeau found when he sought Protestant opinion on appointing an envoy to the Vatican. As for attitudes to the Jews in the 1930s, I found no mention of any UCC outrage at their treatment in the Third Reich, although refugees after the war were helped.

A massive addition to the religious history of Canada, this book should prove indispensable in the study of the UCC.

Frederick Jones


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pp. 283-284
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