Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Methodist Church of Canada


[This article was publihed in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the text.]

Methodist Church. John Wesley connected the origin of Methodism with three distinct periods: "The first rise of Methodism", says he, "was in November, 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford . The second was in Savannah [Georgia] in April, 1736. The last here [ London ] on this day [ May 1, 1738 ], when forty or fifty of us agree to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to have free conversation." Little towards the growth of Methodism, as a separate organization; seems to have resulted from Wesley's visit to Georgia, for the first Methodist churches in America, of which there is any certain record, were not built until 1768,-one in New York city, associated with the name of Barbara Heck, another in Baltimore, Maryland, resulting from the labours of Robert Strawbridge. Which of these was the first in point of time has been much disputed. Gradually the movement spread throughout the country, and many societies were formed. The success of the Revolution involved the dissolution of the Church of England in the United States, and the Methodist societies, which had looked to this Church for the administering of the Sacraments, were compelled to face the question of their own organization. Thomas Coke, a clergyman of the Church of England, had come under the influence of Methodism, and by his labours in the New World had attained preeminence. as a leader. At Bristol, England, in 1784, Coke was ordained superintendent or bishop of the Methodist societies in America by John Wesley and two other presbyters of the Church of England, and in December of the same year the American Methodist Episcopal Church came into being. Whether Wesley designed, by his ordination of Coke, to confer on him the office of a bishop or simply that of a supervisor has been much debated; it is a question beyond the function of this article to consider.


Meanwhile, Methodism in England was convinced that it must cease to be itinerant, and that, unless some wider organization could be effected, it must become congregational. A conference had been already decided upon, but a conference was not an incorporated institution. To overcome this disability and to establish a "connexion" among the societies, Wesley in 1784, drew up the "Deed of Declaration", which gave to the Conference a legal settlement, and which, having been enrolled in the High Court of Chancery, has been ever since a "firm anchorage to Wesleyan Methodism." It is interesting to note that in Great Britain the ecclesiastical organization of Methodism was not episcopal, though it took that form in America.


It was not long after the death of John Wesley in 1791 that Alexander Kilham wrote pamphlets against the preachers and the Church government, which brought him for trial before the Conference. Dismissed from the Connexion in 1796, he soon began the formation of the "New Connexion" Methodist society, into which he was followed by some 5,000 members. Another secession took place in 1810, because of a desire to adhere more closely to the life and customs of the early Church; the seceders from the main body of Wesleyan Methodists gave themselves the name of "Primitive Methodists". They preached in market places, on the highways and at camp meetings; and allowed women to preach. This new Church spread rapidly, not only in Great Britain, but also into other countries.


The story of the introduction of Methodism into Canada is full of interest. It has been said, that Methodism came into the Maritimes with the conversion of William Black; this young man of Yorkshire descent and of vital Christian experience went throughout the provinces, from 1781 onwards, preaching and organizing Methodist churches. Among the British troops which came to Quebec in 1780, there were a number who belonged to the Connexion in England and Ireland. And in 1778 loyalists from the United States formed a Methodist society along the bay of Quinte, and, in 1791, preachers who had braved many hardships established the first circuit in Upper Canada. From these beginnings, and with an increasing immigration, Canadian Methodism prospered greatly. The labours of the itinerant preachers were excessive, and to their evangelical zeal and unselfish service may be traced the . Christian character of many a community.


The English Conference having sent a number of missionaries to Canada , who were under other jurisdiction than that o#, .the American Methodists, the relative positions in this country of the British and American societies needed action on the part of the superior bodies. The Methodist Episcopal General Conference, which met in Baltimore in 1820, devised a plan, which was submitted to the English Conference of the same year. It was agreed that the preachers of the Wesleyan body (still united with the British Conference), should occupy Lower Canada, and those of the Methodist Episcopal Upper Canada,-the two communions to confirm their old harmony by stated representative intercourse.


Thus far the Methodist Episcopal Conference in Canada had been associated with the General Methodist Episcopal Conference in the United States. Being thus subject to the government of a Church in a foreign nation, its preachers found themselves under legal disabilities, being not even permitted to consecrate the rites of matrimony among their own people. Application was therefore made to the General Conference of 1828 for a mutual separation from that Church, which was granted. The Canada Conference was then organized that same year into an independent Methodist Episcopal Church of Upper Canada, with a General Superintendent, to be known by the name of the "Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada." It was not long, before the relations with the Wesleyans of Eastern Canada demanded attention. It seemed incongruous that two bodies of Methodists should exist side by side, and the spirit of union began to take possession of both. Negotiations were entered into, the union was effected in 1833, and the united body came to be known as "The Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada ."


It soon developed that a considerable body of opinion was definitely opposed to this union of British and Canadian Conferences. It was claimed by those opposed that the Methodist Episcopal Church had no right, to make such a change in its government as dispensing with episcopacy and substituting presidency, nor in its discipline, as virtually to place itself under the authority of the British Conference. They claimed that they were not schismatics, but were indeed the "Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada". This body received support throughout Upper Canada, so that within a quarter of a century it had two Annual Conferences, numbering 171 preachers, with a membership of 15,473, and. maintained its separate existence until 1884.


Another union was effected in 1874, when "The Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada" and some lesser branches came together to constitute "The Methodist Church of Canada", and another still in 1884 when "The Primitive Methodist Church in Canada" (dating from 1829), "The Bible Christian Church" (1832), and the body claiming to be "The Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada", together with the recently constituted "The Methodist Church of Canada", were organically united under the comprehensive title "The Methodist Church". Thus at long last the schisms in the body were healed, sectarian issues forgotten, and Canadian Methodism with renewed purpose and united forces faced its task, until in 1925, with the Congregational Churches and the Presbyterian Church in Canada , it entered with virtual unanimity and much enthusiasm into "The United Church of Canada".


The Methodist movement from the first, especially after its contact with the Moravians, was characterized by a recognition of the immediate fellowship of the soul with God. The hymns of Charles Wesley abundantly testify of this. Its preachers stressed the doctrine of vital and experimental religion. Fortunately, the movement began under the shadow of the Church of England; Charles Wesley was himself a high churchman. The members of the Society did not contemplate setting themselves apart from the Church, they believed its doctrines and sought the benefit of its ordinances, only hoping to lead more godly lives and to induce others to do likewise. Thus through its history Methodism has been preserved from excessive individualism.


The influence of Methodism in Canada cannot be estimated. Its preachers in their zeal went everywhere, until little churches dotted the rural districts of the older provinces. They laboured in crowded centres and in pioneer communities, and among the Indian tribes; and in the middle of the nineteenth century had entered earnestly on their Western mission work. With their farflung efforts in the Canadian West, the names of the McDougalls and James Woodsworth, and the Women's Missionary Society, are honourably associated. And beyond the seas the extensive' and varied work carried on in Japan and in West China is evidence of the missionary enterprise of the Canadian parent church. Methodism has not forgotten the dictum of its founder, "The world is my parish". Side by side with these missionary undertakings at home and abroad, Canadian Methodism has always taken a foremost part in social and moral reform.


It will not be forgotten that Wesley was an Oxford graduate and a fellow of Lincoln College. It followed naturally that Methodism sought always to promote useful knowledge and institutions of learning. Thus during the years it established in various parts of Canada schools and colleges, mostly arts and theological, but some teaching also science, engineering, and medicine,in the Maritimes, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick (with its associated Academy and Ladies' College); in Quebec, Stanstead College, and Wesleyan Theological College, Montreal; in Manitoba, Wesley College, Winnipeg; in Saskatchewan, Regina College; in Alberta, Alberta College, Edmonton, and Mount Royal College, Calgary; in British Columbia, Ryerson College, Vancouver-most of these in affiliation with local universities. But it has been in Ontario , especially, that the cause of education has been promoted by Methodist influence. Albert College, Belleville (for young men), Alma College, St. Thomas (for young women), and Ontario Ladies' College, Whitby, have had an honourable history, whilst Victoria College (removed from Cobourg to Toronto in 1892) occupied a high place in the struggle against the sectarian control of King's College, did much towards the federation of various colleges within the University of Toronto (1890), and has continued to serve with distinction the cause of higher education. It is not invidious to mention in this connection the name of Egerton Ryerson, who has been called the most outstanding Canadian Methodist in public life of his time. A controversialist of no mean order, the editor of the Christian Guardian exercising a wide influence, the champion of equal rights and liberties for all religious denominations in Upper Canada, he will be remembered especially, perhaps, as superintendent of education of Ontario (1844-1877), and the virtual founder of the public school system of education in this province.


The Methodist Church, when in 1925 it passed into the United Church of Canada, presented the following statistics: annual Conferences, 12; ministers, 2,184; congregations, 4,797; members, 418,352.


Bibliography: The chief accounts of the history of Methodism in Canada are A. G. Meacham, The rise and progress of Methodism in Canada (Hallowell [Picton], Upper Canada, 1832) ; G. Playter, The history of Methodism in Canada (Toronto, 1862); J. Carroll, Case and his contemporaries (5 vols., Toronto, 1867-77); Egerton Ryerson, Canadian Methodism (Toronto, 1882) ; A. Sutherland, Methodism in Canada (London, 1903); J. E. Sanderson, The first century of Methodism in Canada (2 vols., Toronto, 1908-10); G. H. Cornish, A handbook of Canadian Methodism (Toronto, 1867), and The cyclopçedia of Methodism (2 vols., Toronto, 1880-1903); and E. H. Oliver, His Dominion of Canada (Toronto, 1932).

Source: W. G. WALLACE, "Methodist Church", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 278-282.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College