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  • Times Have Changed:Recent Writings on the History of Christianity in Canada
  • Denis Mckim (bio)

IN HIS CLASSIC STUDY The Writing of Canadian History, Carl Berger lamented the state of religious historiography in English-speaking Canada. Before the 1960s, he wrote, scholars who discussed religion almost invariably portrayed it as "subsidiary" to other topics–for example, by emphasizing the religious underpinnings of French-English tensions or by focusing on the correlation between Confederation and the creation of national churches. Moreover, their works, which were largely confined to the periphery of Canadian historiography, gave short shrift to such issues as the intellectual substance of religious belief. Writing in the mid-1980s, Berger argued that the pattern of Canadian historians subordinating religion to other topics had continued in the two decades after the 1960s, as evidenced by works that focused on Christianity's contribution to 20th-century "social activism," although he acknowledged that books written in this era–A.B. McKillop's Disciplined Intelligence (1979) and Ramsay Cook's The Regenerators (1985), for instance–had begun to illuminate religious history's intellectual dimension.1

Berger surmised that many Canadian historians' disregard for religion may have stemmed from a desire to distance themselves from the repressive religious environments in which they had grown up. Additionally, he suggested that younger scholars' lack of interest in religious history also derived from their enthusiasm, in many cases, for social history. This subfield's emphasis on "material circumstances," Berger intimated, may have rendered religious history unappealing, given its traditional preoccupation with abstractions. Whatever the reasons for Canadian historians' lack of interest in religion, however, Berger concluded that it had been neglected for much of the 20th century.2

Times have changed. The study of religion–and, in particular, Christianity–has flourished over the last 30 years. Central to this development has been a vigorous debate over the "secularization thesis," which posits that, as modernity waxes, religiosity wanes. Proponents of the secularization thesis have argued that Christianity's influence in Canada declined precipitously beginning in the late 19th century due to such factors as the ascent of Darwinian science, liberal clergymen's abandonment of orthodox theological doctrines, and changing notions of satisfaction on the part of the populace, which increasingly prioritized material fulfillment in this life over spiritual salvation in the next. Critics of the secularization thesis, conversely, have argued that Christianity successfully adapted to the challenges of the modern [End Page 191] age–including urbanization, industrialization, and scientific innovation–and played a crucial role in shaping 20th-century Canada.3 For all their differences, studies on both sides of this debate, which crested in the late 1980s and 1990s, demonstrated that works of religious history were no longer restricted to Canadian historiography's margins and that their authors did not see religion as subordinate to other topics.

The momentum created by the secularization debate has been sustained in recent years by diverse works on an array of topics relating to the history of Christianity in Canada, including colonial Christianity's trans-Atlantic orientation, Christianity's complicated relationship with the state, and Christianity's impact on several generations of a middle-class family from Quebec's Eastern Townships.4 Such works attest to the major historiographical shift that has occurred over the past three decades. In contrast to the circumstances lamented by Berger, Canadian religious history has become a vibrant scholarly subfield.5

For further evidence one need look only to the four books reviewed in this essay. The first two–Peter Ludlow's The Canny Scot: Archbishop James Morrison of Antigonish and Alan Wilson's Highland Shepherd: James MacGregor, Father of the Scottish Enlightenment in Nova Scotia–are biographies of Maritime clergymen that seek to burnish their subjects' reputations. The second two–Phyllis D. Airhart's A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada and Eldon Hay's The Covenanters in Canada: Reformed Presbyterianism from 1820 to 2012–are denominational histories that explore challenges faced by Protestant churches. Collectively they reveal the vibrancy of contemporary scholarship on the history of Christianity in Canada.6 [End Page 192]

Ludlow's The Canny Scot chronicles the life and times of Archbishop...


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