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by Mark Noll


Chosen People

The Canadians, of course.

It is fitting that Preston Jones' book on the public use of the Bible in Canada comes in an unassuming package. The volume is slim and marketed with the standard-issue cover that the University Press of America puts on most of its publications. It thus embodies the characteristic Canadian disinclination against gaudiness, pretension, and hype, which citizens to the North tend to see as characterizing their neighbors to the South. Jones, who teaches at John Brown University and who has published discerning works on subjects as diverse as Alaskan history and the East Asian sex trade, is not a Canadian himself, but long-time residence in Canada has allowed its culture to seep in.

The book is, therefore, surprising for reaching much the same conclusion about the Bible in Canadian public life that others have reached for the United States. The Scriptures, that is, were ubiquitous at almost all levels of public discourse in the second half of the 19th century. But that very ubiquity revealed more about the Canadians' skill at using the Bible for their own purposes than letting the Bible exert a discernible sway on their actions. In Jones' words, "Canadian nationalists wrenched Bible verses out of context and arrived at implausible parallels between biblical history and their own and they waged rhetorical war against others with the words of the Bible." As in the United States, especially before and during the Civil War, Canadians used Scripture to "promote opposing visions of the Canadian nation." The result was that "the Bible's status as something to be revered was diminished."

This conclusion leads Jones to challenge historians (including myself) who have argued that Canada in the late 19th century came closer to the ideals of genuinely Christian civilization than did the United States. To the claim I once made that Canada had not thrown its weight around internationally as much as the United States, Jones' reply is preemptory: "If the language of Canada's … English-speaking ...

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