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  • Dry Patriotism:The Chiniquy Crusade
  • Jan Noel

Between 1848 and 1851 thousands of French-speaking Catholics in the Province of Canada came forward in their parish churches to take the temperance pledge. As word of this conversion reached non-Catholics across North America, the reaction was one of pure astonishment. For several decades evangelical Protestants had laboured long and hard to eradicate drunkenness; and now a Catholic priest was securing more converts in a single day than these earlier workers had won with years of steady effort. Contemporaries shook their heads and laid it down to the eloquent charm of Father Charles Chiniquy. This idea has stood the test of time; the full-length biography of Chiniquy published by Canadian historian Marcel Trudel in 1955 attributed the priest's vast influence to "honeyed flattery" and other excesses of his oratory.1

When we move beyond personal qualities to examine Chiniquy in the context of his times, however, it appears that his popularity was not a product of eloquence alone. The man's impact was greater than this exclusive emphasis on his speaking ability would suggest. One function of charismatic leaders is to mediate between old and new authority,2 to usher in a changing of the guard. Chiniquy was part of a much broader process in which a whole people took a turn to the right, rejecting radical politics and turning instead to ecclesiastical leadership in time of change. Since former anti-clericals became ardent admirers of the church-led temperance crusade, it seems quite possible that this startling success played a part in establishing the Catholic church as arbiter of social questions in French Canada. Because the church retained this decisive influence for a full century, Chiniquy's contribution to its prestige at a crucial time was more important than his fleeting effect on the consumption of alcohol.

The greater submissiveness of French Canadians after 1840 is in little doubt, not just on the question of drinking but in a general receptivity to the teachings of their church. Historians have noted the transformation of French-Canadian society in the dozen years following the rebellions of 1837–8.3 Before the [End Page s411] rebellions the parti patriote, led by the flaming orator Louis-Joseph Papineau, commanded both the Assembly and the popular imagination. Besides objecting to British rule, these leaders also acted in opposition to their own clergy, who acquiesced in that rule. Many patriotes, inspired by liberal currents in Europe and America, opposed church control in such vital areas as education and tithing. Before the 1830s ended, thousands of people joined the uprising which the patriotes led. In the decade that followed, though, the church recovered the popularity it had lost, and a new fervour arose among the people.

There were many signs of Catholic renewal. The clergy grew in number and offered an unprecedented variety of institutions and services. Processions and pilgrimages proliferated, and streets were renamed in honour of saints. The hierarchy began to forge an alliance with elected politicians, and an agreement with the Reform party on an education bill was one important outcome. Impressed with this new vigour in an old institution, influential individuals began to endorse its efforts. Etienne Parent, longtime editor of Le Canadien and French Canada's leading intellectual, abandoned his former scepticism to support an activist social catholicism which envisioned priests as national leaders. Another intellectual and former patriote, François-Xavier Garneau, held out slightly longer. A critical attitude towards the clergy surfaced in the first volume of his Histoire du Canada in 1845. By the time the third volume appeared four years later, Garneau, after weathering much criticism, was ready to concede that religion and nationality were inseparable. It took some time for the changed climate to affect everyone. Enthusiastic converts to secular liberalism did not relinquish their ideas without resistance, and it was not until Confederation that conservative Catholic influences really stifled liberal expression.4 By 1850, however, it was clear which way the wind was blowing.

In the midst of this reorientation of French-Canadian society, the temperance movement enjoyed its years of greatest success. The movement appears to have made its own contribution to the...


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pp. 411-426
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