Article

Mark Noll


O Canada

Liberal evangelicalism: a case study.

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The very first page of A Church with the Soul of a Nation indicates Airhart's orientation to her subject. That page dedicates the book to the two leading United Church historians of the previous generation. N. K. Clifford (1930-1990), himself a member of the United Church who taught in the religion department at the University of British Columbia, published in 1985 The Resistance to Church Union in Canada, 1904-1939, one of the best institutional histories ever written for a 20th-century North American church. In this study, Clifford identified several reasons why some Presbyterians opposed the move toward union and then protested the assignment of the Presbyterian name to the United Church—until in 1939 the Canadian Parliament decreed that both the United Church and the continuing Presbyterian Church of Canada enjoyed rights to the name. Clifford's research documented the importance for the continuing Presbyterians of their historical Westminster Confession, a heritage from Scotland, and some disquiet with Methodist practices. But most important was their defense of a historical identity. Continuing Presbyterians, following the lead of earlier Canadian nationalists like the formidable principal of Queen's University, George Monro Grant, opposed neither interdenominational cooperation nor the idea of Christian Canada. Yet because they treasured the name "Presbyterian" and the history associated with that name, they did not want to see it replaced by the optimistic generic Protestantism of the new United Church.

Airhart's dedication to Clifford signals her respect for a scholarly predecessor who energetically collected materials for a general history of the United Church that eventually passed to Airhart. Even more, it signals an awareness that contested questions of self-identity—"Presbyterian" or "Canadian" or "Canadian Presbyterian"—became crucial in the unfolding of the United Church's history.

Greater still is Airhart's debt to a second historian, John Webster Grant (1919-2006), her predecessor as the main church historian at Emmanuel College. Grant had been even more dedicated as a United Church-man than Clifford, with service as a pastor and on many national church committees along with his distinguished career as a historian. Grant's oeuvre ranged widely, with more than a few observers coming to view him as Canada's Sydney Ahlstrom (whose magisterial A Religious History of the American People [1972] set a very high bar for church historians in the United States). Grant's well-received efforts included books on one of the Presbyterian leaders who helped found the United Church, on the history of Christianity in 19th-century Ontario, on Protestant missionary efforts to Canada's First Nations, and on the uniting tradition itself. That last book was particularly relevant because it recorded the success of Canadian Methodists and Presbyterians at bringing together numerous denominational splinters into cohesive national denominations before they embarked together on the road to inter-denominational union.

Yet even more significant for Airhart's project were the two editions of Grant's The Church in the Canadian Era, a comprehensive history from the time of national confederation (1867) to the present. The first edition of this exceedingly well balanced and perceptive book appeared in 1972, with only a few cautious words of uneasiness right at the end about the very recent reversals that seemed to cast a shadow over the boom in church planting, the rise in adherence rates, and the prominence of Christian values in Canada after World War II.

The book's second edition appeared in 1988, this time with a last chapter updated to record what had become obvious as the implosion of the United Church—along with Quebec Catholicism, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the continuing Presbyterian Church—from the 1960s forward. Again marked by superb research and balanced interpretative judgments, this new edition, however, also reflected Grant's profound disquiet concerning the events that had cast adrift Canada's historically most important churches. His deepest distress seems to have been registered at the loss of what for him represented the central achievement of the United Church—its successful commitment to personal evangelism and personal morality alongside a broad social concern for the well-being of the entire Canadian nation. The last chapter of this second edition could have been entitled, "Lament for Liberal Evangelicalism."

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