Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

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




Congregationalism. It was in Nova Scotia that Congregationalism in Canada first appeared. About 1750 Mather's Church (now St. Matthew's United Church ) in Halifax was formed, thus becoming the first dissenting congregation in Canada. Following the expulsion of the Acadians, in 1755, the legislature of Nova Scotia promised religious liberty to settlers from what is now New England ; as a result, many of Puritan stock, who had been reared in Congregational churches, settled in various parts of the Maritime provinces and organized churches of their order. In 1770, there were seven Congregational ministers in Nova Scotia, three of them being graduates of Harvard and one of Yale. The American Revolution separated these churches from their associates across the border, and consequently, instead of Congregational ministers from New England, they were under the necessity of accepting Scotch Presbyterian ministers.


The name of Henry Alline is closely associated with the history of the Maritime provinces. A man of limited education, but possessed of evangelistic zeal, he laboured among the settlers with much success. He accepted Congregational ordination in 1779, and sought everywhere to establish centres of evangelism. Some of these churches later became Baptist or Methodist.


Within the next half-century, a few churches were formed in Lower Canada, principally along the shores of Chaleur bay and in the Eastern Townships, in the organization of which the London Missionary Society had an honourable share. In the effort to establish new churches, the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists formed in Montreal, in 1827, the Canadian Educational and Home Missionary Society. The first secretary y was the Rev. Henry Wilkes, who came to be one of the outstanding leaders of the Congregational churches of Canada . The Baptists and Presbyterians soon withdrew, and there was formed the Canadian Congregational Missionary Society, which planted churches here and there and inaugurated work among the French and the Indians. This Canadian society was greatly assisted by the formation, in 1836, of the Colonial Missionary Society, in connection with the Congregational Union of England and Wales. Wilkes was a vital factor in these movements; indeed he has been termed "the father of modern Congregationalism in Canada". In addition to ministering to Zion Church, Montreal, from 1836 onwards, he travelled throughout the province confirming the churches and planting new ones. In Upper Canada Congregationalism moved slowly, but by the middle of the nineteenth century there must have been some 30 churches there. The situation has been summed up in the following words: "There were two streams of Congregational immigration into Canada, one from the New England states into the Maritime provinces , and one from England direct by the St. Lawrence. The first formed the Congregational Union of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the second the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec. These two unions were united in 1906 in the Congregational Union of Canada. With this was united, in 1907, the Ontario Conference of the United Brethren in Christ."


The denomination was greatly handicapped in earlier years through having no theological school for the training of its ministers. A beginning was made when the "Theological Institute" was launched in Toronto under the principalship of the Rev. A. Lillie, D.D.; it was removed to Montreal in 1864; and was designated "The Congregational College of British North America". In 1870 the Rev. Henry Wilkes was pointed principal, and he held this office with much distinction until his death, on November 17, 1886. He began the work without a building and with but a very modest endowment; he left it with a suitable building and a worthy endowment. In 1912 the college became a member of a group of four co-operating colleges of different communions, under a joint board of governors, and passed, in 1925, into the United Church of Canada.

Congregationalism had no creed to which subscription was required on the part of its ministers, but in belief it always leaned towards the Westminster standards. Though each congregation was independent and unions were formed for the purposes of fellowship and conference, there was an increasing sense of the need of a central body which would hold stated meetings and have some measure of authority consistent with the autonomy of each individual church. Thus it came about that some Congregational ministers and churches, convinced that the liberty for which they had stood firmly had been won, gradually found their way into the Presbyterian Church. In consequence, the number entering with the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches into the organic union of 1925 was correspondingly small and the membership only some 12,000.

Source : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 115-116.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College