Quebec History Marianopolis College

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


Religious History of Canada


[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


By the religious history of Canada is meant something distinct from the histories of individual churches or religious bodies (which are dealt with separately), or perhaps rather something that has been the sum of all their efforts. The religious life of the country as a whole has had its ups and downs, its periods of prosperity and depression, caused by factors lying out­side the history of individual denominations; and it is this phase of Canadian history which is here briefly traced. To describe it fully would necessitate extended excursions into political, social, and even economic history; but it may be possible, even in a brief article, to indicate some of the most important factors affecting the religious life of Canada in its various stages.


The Religious History of New France .


When French colonization in Canada began, only a few years had elapsed since the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 [see text of the Edict ], which gave to Roman Catholics and Huguenots in France parallel rights. Consequently, in the early period of colonization in Canada both Protestants and Roman Catholics took part. Monts   was a Huguenot, and he took out with him to Acadia in 1604 not only Protestant and Roman Catholic settlers, but also a Protestant minister and a Roman Catholic priest. "I have seen our curb and the minister," wrote Champlain , who was geographer to the expedition, "fall to with their fists on questions of faith." The Caën brothers [ Guillaume and Émery ] were Huguenots; and it is said that Champlain himself, though a good Catholic, came of Huguenot parentage. The Huguenots were, in fact, among the most progressive of the early traders and settlers who came to Canada . But the danger of religious strife in the colony, such as that which had rent the mother country with civil war, was perhaps such that the French government wished to eliminate it; possibly, also, the Huguenots had proved too independent of royal control. In the charter granted in 1627, therefore, to the Company of New France, it was stipulated that no colonists should be sent out to New France who were not Roman Catholics; and this prohibition remained in effect during the whole period of French rule. A very few Protestants appear to have settled in Canada after 1627, but their numbers were negligible; and New France was thus almost exclusively Roman Catholic.


From the economic point of view, the exclusion of the Huguenots had probably a bad effect in Canada , since they would have been a valuable element in the colony; but from the religious point of view, it is possible that their exclusion was fortunate. It gave the Roman Catholic church in New France a dominant position which affected the life of the whole people, and which that church still retains in the province of Quebec . Especially after Laval   [alternatively, consult this biography of Bishop Laval ] came to Canada in 1659 as bishop, the church exerted a profound influence on the government of the colony. The bishop was given a seat on the Sovereign or Superior Council ; and the parish, rather than the seigniory, became the effective unit for local government. The seignior was not, as might have been expected, the most important person in the French-Canadian village; the real leaders of the people were the parish priest and the captain of militia [Many historians would debate the accuracy of this statement]. From an early date, various religious bodies, such as the Jesuits and the Sulpicians , acquired extensive and valuable land grants in Canada ; and these did not diminish the influence of the Church. For a time, indeed, the Church sought to dictate the future of the colony. The early missionaries who came to Canada found in the Indians a wonderful opportunity for saving souls. Among the Algonkian and Huron tribes, and even among the Iroquois , they established missions, which, for sheer and fearless heroism, rank with Christian missions anywhere else. If they had had their way, New France would have been a glorified mission-station. In their zeal, they sometimes preceded the fur-traders in opening up new country; and with the fur-traders they waged a long battle for the welfare of the Indians. They objected to the use of "fire-water" by the fur-traders as an article of barter with the Indians; and the Church nearly succeeded in obtaining its prohibition. Even in the so-called "Brandy Parliament" of 1678, composed of the leading inhabitants engaged in trade, the Church gained a substantial measure of support for its point of view. Eventually, however, its point of view failed to prevail, largely because of the opposition of Frontenac . "Even if our brandy does them [the Indians] harm," argued Frontenac, "it at least brings them into contact with Catholicism. To do away with this trade will only drive them to rum and Protestantism."


The British Conquest .


The conquest of Canada by British arms in 1763 threatened a complete reversal of the religious history of New France . The Royal Proclamation of 1763 promised Canada "the enjoyment of the benefit of the laws of Our realm of England "; and the royal instructions to General Murray , the first civil governor of the province, required him to admit of no "Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the See of Rome." He was also required to give all possible encouragement to the erection of Protestant schools and churches, "to the end that the Church of England may be established both in principles and practice, and that the said inhabitants may by degrees be induced to embrace the Protestant religion." Canada was to become, thus, a newer New England . But, under the influence of Murray and of Carleton , this policy was soon reversed. In 1766 permission was given for the consecration of Briand as bishop of Quebec with the title of superintendent; and in 1774 the Quebec Act gave to the Roman Catholic Church in Canada the right of collecting tithes by process of law, thus making it, if not an established church, at any rate an endowed one. At the same time, little was done to introduce Protestant clergymen into the colony. Two or three French-speaking Anglican clergymen were settled in Quebec , Three Rivers , and Montreal ; but it was not until 1793 that an Anglican bishop of Quebec was appointed, or any serious attempt was made to provide for the religious needs of the growing Protestant element in the colony.


The United Empire Loyalists .


Until the influx of the United Empire Loyalists at the close of the American Revolution , it seemed probable that Canada would, as Sir Guy Carleton   prophesied, "to the end of time be peopled by the Canadian [i.e., French-Canadian] race." But the American Revolution upset this prophecy by giving to British North America a considerable Protestant population. There were among the United Empire Loyalists a number of Roman Catholics; but the overwhelming majority of them were Protestants . Some were Anglicans , some were Presbyterians , some were Lutherans . The problem of providing for their religious welfare was one with which the British government did not attempt to cope. A few chaplains of Loyalist regiments settled in Nova Scotia , New Brunswick , and Upper Canada ; but apart from this the Loyalists were left without religious ministrations. It was only with the passing of the Constitutional Act of 1791 that any real attempt was made to deal with the problem of the religious   welfare of the new Protestant English-speaking element in British North America .


The Constitutional Act .


It has commonly been said that the Constitutional Act "established" the Church of England in Canada . It made provision for setting apart what came to be known as the "Clergy Reserves" ¾ lands "equal in value to the seventh part" of all lands granted. These were to be for the "support and maintenance of the Protestant clergy within the said provinces"; and by "Protestant" was meant apparently "Church of England", for in a subsequent section provision was made for erection of "parsonages or rectories, according to the establishment of the Church of England." Whether this made the Church of England the established church of Upper and Lower Canada , is a nice question. There is no doubt that the Church of England had already been made the established church in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick ; and there is little doubt that the intention of the British government was to make it the established church in the Canadas . For many years, moreover, the champions of the Church of England in Upper Canada , such as John Strachan , stoutly maintained that this church was established in the colony by law. But it is perhaps more accurate to say that it was, if not an established church, at any rate an endowed and privileged church.


These clauses of the Constitutional Act had unhappy results. If the Act had unequivocally established the Church of England in the Canadas , and if the British government had given the Church of England adequate support in the colony, it might have been better for the religious welfare of Upper Canada at least. Unfortunately, the British government confined its efforts to sending out only a few garrison chaplains and a few missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel; and these were located only in the chief centres of population. Little attempt was made to look after the religious needs of the scattered settlers on the land. In these circumstances, Methodist preachers from the United States , and later from England , found a wonderful opportunity for spreading the gospel according to John Wesley. Methodist circuit-riders went through the rural parts of Upper Canada , and provided the scattered settlers with the only religious ministrations they knew. From an early date the Methodists became, consequently, a large and important body in Upper Canada , as well as in other provinces. Scottish immigration brought about the introduction of Presbyterian and Roman Catholic missionaries; and there sprang up also Baptist , Mennonite , and Tunker communities. The result was that Richard Cartwright , though a member of the Church of England, was compelled to confess that "only one-twelfth" of the people of Upper Canada adhered to the Church of England. In these circumstances, the privileged position of the Church of England came in for attack by the other denominations, with the result that for more than half a century sectarian strife ran rife in Upper Canada .


The chief bone of contention was, of course, the Clergy Reserves. The Church of Scotland put in a claim for a share of these, since it was not only a "Protestant" church, but also the established Church of Scotland ; and other denominations followed in its wake. To these claimants the British government threw a few "sops to Cerberus"; but these failed to still the clamour, and it was said by William Lyon Mackenzie   himself that the Clergy Reserves were one of the most important causes of the Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada . It was not until the Clergy Reserves were secularized in 1854 that they ceased to trouble the waters of Canadian politics. There were, however, lesser bones of contention. One was the question of marriage. By the Marriage Act of 1793, only Church of England clergymen and magistrates were empowered to perform marriages, according to the rites of the Church of England. Later, the right of performing marriage was given to Presbyterians and other Calvinists ; but it was not until 1830 that Methodist ministers were able to perform marriage. Another bone of contention was education. The Church of England strove at first to control not only the grammar schools but also higher education; and its attempt was finally defeated only when King's College , Toronto , was secularized, and transformed into the University of Toronto , in 1850.


Religious Progress.


During this period, however, despite the bitterness of sectarian strife, it is clear that religion in Canada made a decided advance. There is abundant evidence that among the pioneer communities of English-speaking Canada, most of which were in the beginning without regular religious ministrations, religious and moral standards were very low. For this evidence, see John T. McNeill, Religious and moral conditions among the Canadian pioneers (American Society of Church History, Papers, vol. viii, 1928). But during the nineteenth century, the various religious denominations in Canada , supported by various missionary organizations in England and Scotland , displayed such energy that there was soon not a village in Canada in which a church had not been established, and in many villages there were several churches established. Of importance, in this religious advance, was the establishment of Sunday schools, and the religious training given in them to the young. The sectarian rivalry of the first half of the nineteenth century had at least this good result that it roused an interest in religion, and gave to the most remote communities the ministrations of the Christian faith. The duplication of religious services in small communities in Canada had by 1867 gone to such an extent that shortly after this date (if not, indeed, before it) there arose a tendency toward the amalgamation of religious denominations, such as the various sects of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. This movement was accelerated by the decline in the importance of doctrinal standards consequent on the promulgation of the theory of evolution and the advent of "higher criticism"; and it culminated in 1925 in the union of the Methodists, the Congregationalists, and a large number of Presbyterians in the United Church of Canada.


Religion and Politics.


Since the exclusive claims of the Church of England to be an established Church in the British North American colonies were defeated, there has been in Canada religious equality ¾ with this exception that, in the province of Quebec , the Roman Catholic church is still in a privileged position. It is still in this province entitled to collect tithes from Roman Catholics by process of law; it has control of the education of Roman Catholics in the province, the Protestant schools being "separate schools"; and there is some doubt as to the extent to which the canon law of the Roman Catholic church governs in Quebec even the marriage of Roman Catholics with Protestants. There has also, at various times, been some question as to the extent to which the Roman Catholic church in Quebec was entitled to go in controlling the political opinions of its communicants. The ultramontane tendencies of some of the French-Canadian Roman Catholic clergy led them, in their struggle with the anti-clerical Institut Canadien , in their opposition to Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1896, and on other occasions, to attempt to dictate to the French-Canadian habitant how he should vote; but on each occasion an appeal to Rome by the more liberal-minded French Canadians has brought about an abatement or moderation of the clerical attitude. It is only fair to add that at other times some clergymen of Protestant denominations have sought to exercise an undue political influence over their flocks; though they have not perhaps enjoyed the exceptional position that the clergy of the Roman Catholic church enjoy in Quebec , or made use of the threat of excommunication.


Home Missions.


Any sketch of the religious history of Canada would be incomplete without reference to the missionary efforts of the Canadian churches in Canada itself. From the time when the Jesuit missionaries established themselves in Huronia in 1639 until the time when Protestant missionaries went into the Yukon with the gold rush in 1897, the churches have followed close on the heels of exploration and colonization, and have sometimes preceded them. Some of the most glorious pages of Canadian history are those which relate to the story of what are called "home missions". The history of the Canadian West would be very different to-day if it were not for the forward-looking policy adopted by the churches of eastern Canada when the West was in the making. The settlement of the West took place under much more favourable auspices, as regards religion, than did the settlement of the East; and the West owes an undischargeable debt of gratitude to the many nameless "sky-pilots" who pre­sided over its spiritual birth.



[The reader should consult the text on the Roman Catholic Church and Quebec found elsewhere at the site]


Though there are many books dealing with the history of indi­vidual churches or religious organiza­tions in Canada , some of which will be found listed under their appropriate headings, there is no general history of religious movements in Canada. There are, however, a number of books deal­ing with special periods or phases of Canadian religious history which deserve mention. Among these are M. Eastman, Church and state in early Canada (Edin­burgh, 1915), J. Croil, Genesis of churches in the United States of America, in New­foundland and the Dominion of Canada (Montreal, 1907), U. M. Sait, Clerical control in Quebec (Toronto, 1911), W. A. Riddell, The rise of ecclesiastical control in Quebec (New York, 1916), and C. E. Silcox, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants: A study of relationships in the United States and Canada (New York, 1934).


Source: W. S. WALLACE, "Religious History", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 186-191.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College