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Religious History of Newfoundland

(to 1949)


[This text was written in 1949. For the full citation, see the end of the document. Links have been added by Claude Bélanger.]

The first three centuries . Like the development of the country in general, the growth of religious institutions in Newfoundland is definitely related to the unfortunate conditions that obtained there during the early centuries following its discovery. Close to three hundred years elapsed before there was much in the way of organized religion. Roman Catholic and Anglican services of worship were held in some parts of the island, principally in the Avalon peninsula, during this period, but with such infrequency and irregularity that neither of those religious communions could be regarded as officially founded.


Whether Cabot brought a priest with him on his voyage of discovery is not certain. Early voyagers sometimes availed themselves of the services of clergymen, since they were interested in spreading the Christian religion as well as in finding new lands. Christopher Columbus and Jacques Cartier, both famous navigators, were accompanied by priests, and the latter's chaplains once celebrated mass at Catalina while he was making an exploratory visit to Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Bishop Howley, in his Ecclesiastical history, thinks it "not improbable" that Cabot had missionaries with him.


That Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who took possession of the island in 1583 in the name of Queen Elizabeth, declared all public worship to be according to the rites of the Church of England, is certain. The matter of settling a clergyman on the island in those early days was not considered because a permanent popula­tion was not contemplated. Newfoundland was to remain a fishing station, and people engaged in the industry were expected to return home in the ships that brought them. When John Guy attempted to found the first colony in the island in 1610, at Cupids, he brought with him the first Protestant minister, Erasmus Stourton, who was to serve Conception bay and the coast from Cape St. Francis to Ferryland. Stourton's travels a little later brought him in touch with the settlers at Ferry­land where, in 1621, a new colony had been started under Lord Baltimore, a devout Catholic. Two or three priests, who had accompanied the colonists, were celebrating mass regularly at this place. Relations between them and Stourton became so unpleasant that the latter was obliged to leave the island in 1628. The priests followed, and, as J. D. Rogers puts it in his Historical geography of Newfoundland, "there was neither Popish, Puritan, nor any other minister of religion in Newfoundland for the next seventy years."


This last statement, however, does not take account of religious activity under the French, who established a church at Placentia about the middle of the seventeenth century. According to Bishop Howley, several priests mini­stered to this congregation, and one of them always remained there during the winter. Later, when the French captured St. John's in 1708, and held it until the signing of the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the Roman Catholic religion "was publicly professed and practised."


In the meantime, however, settlers along the coast had been petitioning the home government to make ministers available to the "principal harbours". With the permission of the bishop of London, the Rev. John Jackson, a chaplain, was permitted to become resident in Newfoundland in 1697. At first his salary of fifty pounds a year was guaranteed by the inhabitants desiring his services, but later, in 1703, he became a recognized missionary under the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.


Since the population on the coast was slowly increasing, and was without religious direction for so long, it is not difficult to believe those accounts which tell of the moral and social degeneration of considerable numbers of the people.


Moreover, the official policy, which was still directed towards preventing colonization of the country, was calculated to discourage religious organization lest this should become a factor in influencing people to stay in the country. Even as late as the latter part of the eighteenth century Governor Milbanke refused the request of the Catholics for permission to erect a few chapels, on the ground that it was not in the interest of Great Britain "to encourage people to winter in Newfoundland"; and building chapels, with resident priests, offered such ready access to absolution that the poorer Irish, who ought to return home at the close of the season, would thus be encouraged to remain. Some religious intolerance there was, no doubt, in this refusal. It also reflected that unequivocal determination to retard colonization, that short-sighted policy whose "baneful influence", as Bishop Howley puts it, "clung like a leaden clog around the neck of the young colony, strangling all its rising aspirations", and whose harmful effects the country has not even yet outlived.


Despite the official attitude to settlement in Newfoundland , larger numbers of people continued to remain in the country, and it became inevitable that organized religion would soon have to establish itself on a firm and permanent basis with official recognition and support. This is what we find towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the period when church history, strictly speaking, began.


The Church of England. Before 1787 Newfoundland was nominally under the jurisdiction of the bishop of London . In that year, however, the diocese of Nova Scotia was constituted, and Newfoundland was placed under the care of the Rev. Charles Inglis, the first bishop of that first colonial see. Bishop Inglis, because of his vast diocesan territory, was never able to visit this most easterly part of it. His successors, Bishop Stanser and Bishop John Inglis, both visited Newfoundland, the latter constituting the island an archdeaconry in 1829, when the Rev. George Coster became the first archdeacon. He was succeeded by the Rev. Edward Wix, whose book, Six months of a Newfoundland missionary's journal (1836), gives a good description of the social condition of the country at that time.


Clergymen had, with more or less regularity, received appointment to St. John's under the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, following the return to England of the Rev. John Jackson in 1705. There had been a garrison church at Fort William, later a larger wooden structure near the site of the present cathedral, and in 1759 this latter gave-way to a "new and finer edifice" on the same site. Elsewhere in the country, things religious were at a very low ebb, there being only five Protestant clergymen in the whole country.


During the jurisdiction of the bishop of Nova Scotia the number of the clergy increased, churches were built, and there was a serious effort made to arrange for the pastoral oversight of the people. The work of one archdeacon, and an occasional visit from a bishop living at such distance from the colony, could scarcely be adequate. Thus the first bishop of Newfoundland , the Rev. Aubrey George Spencer, was consecrated in 1839, and the country was separated from the diocese of Nova Scotia . Bishop Spencer laid foundations upon which his successors built. He extended the work of the church, established a school for the training of clergymen (afterwards Queen's College), and laid the foundation stone for the building of a cathedral in St. John's . Under the episcopate of his successor, the Right Rev. Edward Feild, the synod of Newfoundland was established, education encouraged, and orphanages founded. Bishop Field's coadjutor, the Right Rev. James B. Kelley, succeeded him, but was forced, through ill-health, to resign. Under Bishop Llewellyn Jones, who followed, the cathedral was completed, and restored after the disastrous fire of 1892. The cathedral was designed by the eminent architect Sir Gilbert Scott, and represents one of the best specimens of Gothic structure in the new world.


Two important changes were made in 1918 when a successor to Bishop Jones was chosen. Bermuda, which up to this time was under the oversight of the bishop of Newfoundland, was separated from the diocese. More significant still was the consecration of a native son, the Rev. William White, as the new bishop. All former bishops were Englishmen, and had been consecrated in England . Bishop White was consecrated in the cathedral at St. John's . Bishop Abraham, his successor, is the present bishop of the Newfoundland diocese, which, in September 1949, became the twenty-eighth diocese of the general synod of the Canadian church.


The Church of England in Newfoundland has played a significant rôle in the field of education. Through the zealous efforts of Samuel Codner, a west-country merchant who had made his fortune in St. John's , the Newfoundland School Society was established in 1823. This society, afterwards the Colonial and Continental Church Society, was instrumental in founding day schools, Sunday schools, and adult schools. Schoolmasters who came from the old country to work under the Society were required to act as lay-readers, and many of them became ordained ministers of the church. Bishop Field founded a collegiate school for boys which later became Bishop Feild College . He also established a diocesan school for girls which became known later as Bishop Spencer College. Reference was made earlier to the founding of Queen's Theological College by Bishop Spencer; this college was enlarged later by the acquisition of a new building during the episcopate of Bishop Field. Under the denominational system of education in Newfoundland , the Anglicans administer their own day schools throughout the country.


The Roman Catholic Church. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Roman Catholic population of Newfoundland numbered close to twenty thousand, mostly Irish, and there were, according to Archbishop Howley, some six or seven priests in the country. Such a constituency, it was felt, deserved to receive official recognition from Rome : Accordingly in 1784, as a result of a petition forwarded to Pope Pius VI by priests and representative laymen, the Rev. James Louis O'Donel, a native of Ireland , was appointed prefect apostolic, and placed in charge of the mission. He was consecrated bishop at Quebec in 1796, and after an episcopate of twenty-two years in Newfoundland , returned to Ireland in 1806. Bishop O'Donel's appointment brought to birth the Catholic Church, and under him the ecclesiastical system took shape. He was followed by Bishops Patrick Lambert and Thomas Scallan, both natives of Ireland .


In 1829 Rev. Michael Anthony Fleming was consecrated as coadjutor and successor to Bishop Scallan, marking the first episcopal consecration in Newfoundland . Bishop Fleming's administration was marked by great zeal and activity in the interests of his church. He divided the Catholic population into regular parishes, increased the number of priests, introduced the order of Presentation Nuns in 1833, and the order of Sisters of Mercy in 1842. He is known particularly for his having begun the building of the cathedral at St. John's; and, though the building was not finished before his death in 1850, he was the first to celebrate mass there.


Bishop John Thomas Mullock, who arrived in Newfoundland in 1848 as coadjutor to Bishop Fleming, became the head of the church following the latter's death. Under Bishop Mullock's rule the cathedral was completed and consecrated, convents were built throughout the country, St. Bonaventure's College was established in St. John's as a centre of education for young men, containing a seminary for the training of priests, and the country was divided into two dioceses, St. John's and Harbour Grace. Bishop Mullock was succeeded by Bishop Power, who in turn was followed by Bishop Michael Francis Howley who became the first archbishop of the Catholic Church when, in 1904, St. John's became an archdiocese with two suffragans, Harbour Grace and the newly formed diocese of St. George's. As already indicated, Howley's Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland is the chief source of information available on the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the country. Since Bishop Howley's episcopate, the history of the Catholic Church has been that of the three dioceses under the archbishop of St. John's . The Rev. Edward P. Roche, who succeeded Archbishop Howley in 1914, is the present archbishop [1949].


In the field of education the Catholic Church has been very active. Under the denominational system of schools the church has found opportunity to fulfill its avowed policy of giving instruction in both secular and Catholic teaching. In addition to the regular day schools, separate schools for boys and girls have been established. During the episcopate of Bishop Power, the Christain Brothers of Ireland were introduced and later assumed the direction of St. Bonaventure's College. The Benevolent Irish Society founded in 1806 by a Protestant merchant, James McBraire, and undenominational in character, has played a considerable role in Catholic affairs in Newfoundland, and has become exclusively a Catholic society: Other important Catholic societies are the Star of the Sea, the Holy Name Society, and the St. Vincent De Paul Society. The Church also operates an up-to-date and efficient hospital in the city of St. John's .


The Methodist (now United) Church.


Newfoundland was one of the first countries outside Great Britain to share the benefits of the great evangelical revival which swept England under the Wesleys during the eighteenth century. Strangely enough Methodism was introduced to the country by the Rev. Laurence Coughlan, a minister sent out by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Coughlan had worked with John Wesley before his coming, and although he had temporarily withdrawn from the service of Methodism, he returned to it shortly after his arrival at Harbour Grace in 1765. Thus was the Wesleyan movement initiated in Britain 's oldest colony.


The services of religion had been so few in Newfoundland up to this time that a very large proportion of the inhabitants were living without its influence altogether, and many had grown to disregard the church. Coughlin and the early Methodists thus met with indifference, opposition, and even persecution. When he returned to England in 1773, two lay-preachers, Arthur Thomey, one of Coughlan's converts, and John Stretton, were left to carry forward the work. They were joined in 1774 by John Hoskins of Bristol, England, who made his headquarters at Old Perlican, and engaged in both teaching and preaching.


In 1785, the Rev. John McGeary arrived in Newfoundland as the first regularly appointed Methodist missionary. He established himself at Carbonear, built a church, and laboured under difficulty and disappointment. His hand was greatly strengthened, and religion revived, by a visit of the Rev. William Black, the well known apostle of Methodism in the eastern British provinces. McGeary returned home in 1792. The next twenty years saw Methodism growing in the Trinity-­Conception area and being extended as far north as Bonavista.


In 1815 the first Methodist district (now presbytery) was formed, consisting of six ministers, St. John's being included in the list for the first time. Twenty years later there were twelve ministers, and a total church membership of 1,747. Visiting missionaries also were appointed to visit the more remote areas of the island. In 1855 the Methodist district of Newfoundland became a part of the conference of eastern British America, a conference which also included Nova Scotia , New Brunswick , Prince Edward Island , and Bermuda . This step severed the connection between Newfoundland and Great Britain . Another important step was taken in 1874 when Newfound­land Methodism was organized as a conference in its own right. The Rev. George S. Milligan, M.A., was elected first president of the conference. At this time there were two districts, St. John's and Carbonear. Bonavista district was reported in 1878, Burin in 1888, and Twillingate in 1896. With the inland industrial development of the twentieth century, a sixth district, that of Grand Falls, has been added.


When the union of the Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist churches was consummated in June 1925, the Methodist conference of Newfoundland became a conference of the United Church of Canada.


The United Church in Newfoundland has always encouraged high standards of excellence both in standards of educa­tion and in the teaching profession. The Rev. Levi Curtis, who held the position of superintendent of educa­tion for this denomination for over a quarter of a century, rendered valuable service as a preacher and administrator. The Rev. Oliver Jackson, superintendent of missions and pioneer in the fields of Christian education and social welfare, was drowned, in 1937, while visiting missions on the south coast. Like the other major denominations, the United Church in Newfoundland administers its own day schools. It has established a fine secondary school in St. John's , where young people are prepared for university matriculation. It also main­tains an orphanage.


The Presbyterian Church.


The first Presbyterian church in St. John's was formally opened on December 3, 1843. The minister, the Rev. Donald Allan Fraser, had been called from Lunenburg , N.S., in 1841, to minister to the Scotsmen who had decided that the time had come to build their own church. Mr. Fraser is described in Prowse'sHistory of Newfoundland (second edition) as "a very able man, a fine speaker, and the best Gaelic scholar in North America ". His labours in St. John's were terminated by death in 1845.


In the meantime Scotland had seen a division of the Presbyterian Church into two bodies, the Free Church and the Established Church. Upon Mr. Fraser's death the Church in St. John's divided, the majority of its members and adherents wishing to erect a Free church, and a church was opened for worship in 1850 with the Rev. A. S. Muir as minister. Three years later he was succeeded by the Rev. Moses Harvey, a distinguished preacher and author well known for his History of Newfoundland . He was minister until 1877, when, after over thirty years of separation, the two congregations were united. Both churches had been de­stroyed by fire, and a new church to house the united congregation was erected. This too was destroyed, during the great fire which swept St. John's in 1892, but in spite of this loss, and the bank crash which followed in 1894, the people succeeded in building the new church property which they now occupy.


Following the union of the churches the work grew, and a second church was built in St. John's West. A church was established in Harbour Grace in 1855, and later, churches were built at Bell island, Corner Brook, Petries, Grand Falls, and the New Bay mining area. Whereas before the union the separate churches were connected with their respective churches in Scotland, in 1877 the church in Newfoundland became a part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada , and under the presbytery of Halifax. It is now a part of the presbytery of Cape Breton and Newfoundland .


In 1925, when the United Church of Canada came into existence, the Kirk in St. John's voted to remain out of union. It was agreed, however, that the best interests of the small number of Presbyterians residing elsewhere in the country would be best served by the United Church. In matters of education a very satisfactory union has been effected in St. John's between the Presbyterians and the United Church of Canada. In 1936 the Congregational Church, St. John 's, applied for admission to the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and was admitted shortly after.


The Congregational Church.


Congregationalism, like Presbyterianism, has never been strong in Newfoundland . There were English Separatists (Independents) in the colony from very early times, but little is known concerning them. According to Prowse's History of Newfoundland there was an Independent Church in the country about the middle of the seventeenth century which probably died out as a separate denomination through lack of organization.


There was no further development until 1775 when a Congregational Church was established in St. John's by a Welshman named John Jones, (afterwards ordained), an artillery sergeant. Jones laboured in this church for over twenty years and died in 1800. This city congregation, organized by the God-fearing soldier, continued until very recently (as noted above) when it became part of the Presbyterian Church of .Canada. For many years the Congregational   Church conducted a mission at Pool's Cove on the south coast of the island which ministered to both the spiritual and medical needs of the people. This mission is now part of the United Church of Canada.


The Salvation Army.


The Salvation Army began in St. John's in 1886, and soon spread into the outports of the country. Its early work was accompanied by much opposition and persecution. Today its adherents number over 20,000, and its organization is fairly wide-spread. In 1892 a rescue home was opened in St. John's, and continues its work today under the name of "The Anchorage". The Army also operates in St. John's a very efficient hospital which includes maternity and children's wards, as well as facilities for all classes of medical and surgical treatment. Like the other major denominations, the Salvation Army directs the administration of its own day schools.


Other and smaller religious bodies.


Seventh-Day Adventism was introduced to Newfoundland in 1895. There are five or six churches in the country, the largest being in St. John's , where the denomination also conducts a school. This religious body is a mission field of the Canadian Union of Seventh-Day Adventism.


During the past twenty-five years, Pentecostal assemblies have sprung up in various parts of the country, and several thousands of the population are now members of that religious group. A Hebrew congregation was founded in 1909 in St. John's , and still continues.


At present, of a population slightly over 300,000, the Church of England and the Roman Catholics claim approximately one hundred thousand each, while the next major denomination, the United Church of Canada, numbers over three quarters of that number. In spite of the long period when the light of religion was very dim, Canada's new province can boast to-day, in the words of a recent writer on Newfoundland affairs, of a people "deeply religious and exceptionally law-abiding."




In addition to various works which deal with particular aspects of religious history of Canada and Newfoundland, such as the works of J. Lantry (1892), C. H. Mockridge (1896), J. Croil (1907), and O. R. Rowley (1928), are such valuable sources as M. F. Howler, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888); appendices to D. W. Prowse, History of Newfoundland (London, 1895); M. Harvey, Textbook of Newfoundland history (Boston, 1885); J. R. Smallwood (ed.), Book of Newfoundland (St. John's, 1937); J. D. Rogers, Newfoundland, v. 5 part 4 of Historical geography of the British colonies (London, 1911); A. H. McLintock, The establishment of constitutional government in Newfoundland (London, 1941); E. Wix, Six months of a Newfoundland missionary's journal (London, 1836); T. W. Smith, History of the Methodist Church . . . of eastern British America (Halifax, 1877); W. Wilson, Newfoundland and its missionaries (Cambridge, 1866); C. Pedley, History of Newfoundland (London, 1863); L. Anspach, A history of the island of Newfoundland (London, 1819).


According to the terms of union with Canada in 1949, all laws in force and courts in existence in Newfoundland, at the date of union, continue as if the union had never been made, subject to be repealed, abolished, or altered by the appropriate authorities.


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Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada. Newfoundland Supplement, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1949, 104p., pp. 43-55, 62-67. Some minor mistakes have been corrected. The text has been reformatted for the web edition.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College