Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

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


Church union


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

Church Union. There have been different interpretations of the prayer of Jesus, "that they all may be one . . . that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me" (John, 17:21 ). All agree that this was a prayer for spiritual unity; some contend that it is that and nothing more; an increasing number hold that it is also a prayer for organic unity. Hence there has arisen a world­wide movement looking towards the healing of the divisions within the Christian church, and the bringing of the various communions into a larger measure of outward unity.


Canada may be said to have been the pioneer in the organic church union movement. The inflow of population from the British Isles, from the United States, and from European countries, and the consequent formation of new settlements, created a serious problem for the separate Canadian churches. The frontier was steadily moving westward and northward, and it was an impossible task to provide the newcomers with the religious ordinances essential to national -and personal wellbeing. Then came the challenge of 1867. If the provinces could come together into political unity, why not the churches into ecclesiastical unity and even into organic union? And, in any event, should not those who agree in regard to the essentials of the Christian faith, come together more closely? The story of the various unions, culminating in 1875 in the formation of "the Presbyterian Church in Canada", and that of those which resulted in 1884 in "the Methodist Church", and that of the final formation in 1906 of "the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec" - all these are told in the articles on these respective churches.


But praiseworthy and helpful as these unions were, they were not sufficient to solve fully the problems with which the churches of Canada were faced. People of various communions in old centres and in new districts mingled, and began to ask why they should perpetuate the religious differences of the Old World-why, indeed, they should be separated so widely in religious affairs. In the west communities began to establish their community churches, and everywhere the co-operation of men and women in common philanthropic and benevolent undertakings was destroying the spirit of exclusiveness. It is not surprising that the dream of a far larger union of the churches began to stir men's minds.


The earliest official effort towards union in Canada was made by the Church of England. The provincial synod of Canada, in 1885, appointed a committee on Christian union, and invited conference with the Methodist and Presbyterian courts. In 1886 the General Conference of the Methodist Church appointed a committee to confer with a committee of the provincial synod of the Church of England on the union of the Protestant churches. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church made a similar response in 1888. These committees met in 1889 and seriously canvassed the situation. The Lambeth conference of bishops of the Church of England in 1888 had meantime adopted its "Quadrilateral", covering the Scriptures, the Apostles' and the Nicene creeds, the two sacraments, and the historic episcopate, as fundamental in any basis of church reunion. It was upon the historic episcopate that the Canadian committees could not come to agreement, and the conference ended. The Presbyterian and Methodist churches believed a basis of union possible for them, and negotiations began in 1893, prominent Congregational ministers having meantime desired to share in them. Approach was made later to the Baptists, but it was found that, because of the distinctive principles of their church, they considered it "necessary to maintain a separate organized existence."


During the following years negotiations continued. A federal union was considered. The Methodist General Conference of 1894 proposed the establishment of a federal court, which, without touching matters of creed or discipline, should bring about co-operation in "dependent charges". Co-operation was given a trial, and much overlapping of congregations prevented, but the conviction was growing that only organic union could meet the situation. It was in 1902 that, before the General Conference of the Methodist Church . Principal Patrick, carrying the greetings of the Presbyterian Assembly, spoke, though entirely on his own personal responsibility, of the desirability of organic church union. The Conference declared that "it would regard a movement with this object in view with great gratification." Committees were appointed, which in 1904 reported back to their respective courts that they were "of one mind that organic union is both desirable and practicable." It was in December of that year that church union lost perhaps its most eminent leader in the death of Principal Caven of Knox College, Toronto. But conferences continued; five subcommittees were appointed on doctrine, polity, the ministry, administration, and law. The labours of the joint committee of the three Churches resulted in the virtual completion of the "Basis of Union" in 1908, which, with some slight amendments, was later approved by the courts of the churches. In 1916 the General Assembly, by a vote of 406 to 90, resolved to unite with the Methodist and Congregational churches, and similar action was taken by the latter. Opposition to the action of the Assembly was being fostered by the Presbyterian Church Association, which had been formed and which was working vigorously throughout the church. Agreement was made in 1917 to cease propaganda on both sides, until after the close of the War. In 1921 the debate was resumed, and the Assembly of that year resolved "to consummate organic union" with the Congregational and Methodist churches "as expeditiously as possible". Though in the Presbyterian church there was determined opposition to the proposed union, there was practically unanimous approval in the Methodist and Congregational churches. In 1924 the parliament of Canada passed the "enabling Act" "The United Church of Canada Act" by an overwhelming vote, and the necessary legislation in the various provinces was enacted shortly thereafter. The inaugural service of the United Church of Canada was held in the city of Toronto on June 10, 1925.


The story of the formation and progress of the church formed by the non-concurrent Presbyterians does not come within the scope of this article.


There are several books on the general topic of church union: E. Lloyd Morrow, Church union in Canada (Toronto, 1923), John Thomas McNeill, The Presbyterian Church in Canada (Toronto, 1925), S. D. Chown, The story of church union in Canada (Toronto, 1930), T. B. Kilpatrick, Our common faith (Toronto, 1928), and C. E. Silcox, Church union in Canada (New York, 1933).

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 65-67.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College