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Mark Noll

O Canada

Liberal evangelicalism: a case study.

This past spring, new surveys of religious life in the United States and Canada revealed a reversal of trends dating back to the 1960s. In Canada, things were up; in the US, down. The survey of Canadians by the Angus Reid Institute still showed that country to be far more secular than the US in measures of church membership, attitudes toward religion, and numbers affirming "no faith." But the steep declines of the last fifty years seemed to have reversed slightly, primarily because of stronger religious commitments among Canada's large immigrant population.[1] The comparable American survey by the Pew Research Center revealed a recent significant increase in self-reported "no religious affiliation," a growing number who have switched religions (including switching in or out altogether), and an increasing representation of ethnic minorities among evangelicals.[2]

Yet if the two surveys highlighted some things new, one aspect of what they both reported sounded quite familiar. A central finding in the two reports was the continued decline in adherence to the traditional Protestant denominations that had once done so much to define, reflect, represent, and guide the main cultural currents of both countries.

Many important books have addressed the American side of this particular story, with more than a few of them featured in Books & Culture during its first twenty years.[3] Similarly, for Canada a minor academic industry has arisen to chart and then explain the dramatic retreat of that country's once dominant churches that has taken place in only the last half-century. Americans, who rarely pay attention to anything north of the border—excepting perhaps petroleum, blizzards, cheap pharmaceuticals, and hockey—would do well to look more carefully at that recent history. A recent flurry of first-rate publications on the United Church of Canada, which since its formation in 1925 has been that country's largest Protestant denomination, provides a welcome opportunity not only to put the "North" back into "America" but also to explore questions of great significance for Christian believers on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Pride of place goes to Phyllis Airhart's A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada. From its title, cleverly reversing what G. K. Chesterton once wrote about the US, to the more than 100 pages of end notes detailing Airhart's thorough research and airing her judicious assessments of scholarship, the book excels with a combination of sympathetic narration and realistic interpretation.

Airhart, long a fixture at the University of Toronto's Emmanuel College, which originated as a United Church institution in 1928, begins her story with the Presbyterian and Methodist leaders who at the start of the 20th century proposed an organic union of their two churches. (Along with the Anglicans, Canada's Methodists and Presbyterians represented a far higher proportion of the nation's Protestants than any comparable combination of American denominations, several of which in 1900 were still divided North and South as well as riven by many other divisions.) She unfolds her story carefully from the composition of a generically orthodox "Basis of Union," which was substantially complete before World War I, through complicated attempts at overcoming resistance to the idea of Union among considerable numbers of Presbyterians, and then to June 10, 1925, when at the Mutual Arena in Toronto the United Church came into existence. The new church's nearly 9,000 local congregations included all Canadian Methodists (about 5,000 congregations), more than two-thirds of the Presbyterians (about 3,700 congregations), almost all of the nation's Congregationalists (160 congregations), and around 100 "Local Union" churches that in the Canadian West were already functioning as deliberately ecumenical congregations. Airhart's narrative underscores the heady sense of national mission that drove the Union project from its beginnings; it was stated like this in the second paragraph of the final draft of the "Basis of Union": "It shall be the policy of the United Church to foster the spirit of unity in the hope that this sentiment of unity may in due time, so far as Canada is concerned, take shape in a Church which may fittingly be described as national."

She goes on to describe the administrative shaking out of the church's early years, its endurance through trials during the Depression, its support for the expansion of federal government social services (which undercut some of its own raison d'être), its numerical growth after World War II, and then the devastating shocks that in the 1960s sent the church into a spiraling loss of adherents that has never been reversed. The book ends with developments in the early 1970s, when a reduced, self-consciously shaken church struggled to define its own identity in a materially different nation than had existed half a century before.

Figures for church adherence highlight the realities that forced the "making and remaking" of Airhart's subtitle. In the decennial federal censuses from 1931 to 1961, roughly twenty percent of all Canadians identified themselves as members of the United Church.[4] The church's own record of those "under pastoral care" reported lower numbers, but still a substantial 14 to 15 percent of the national population. In a country with a Catholic population of more than 40 percent, and where adherents to the Anglican church and the continuing Presbyterian church totaled close to 25 percent, the United Church enjoyed the support of proportionally more adherents than any other Protestant denomination in the United States or Canada. But after the crises of the 1960s, the downward trend began: 17 percent of the population in the census of 1971, 11 percent in 1991, and six percent in 2011, with the number "under pastoral care" sliding from about 80 percent of the census figure in 1931 to under 60 percent in recent years. For another comparison, where Canada's national population increased almost three and one-half times from 1931 to 2011, the most recent national census in 2011 tallied almost exactly the same number reporting United Church membership as in 1931. While numerical rise and decline frames the contours of Airhart's narrative, its great merit is the skill with which she exegetes the church's internal dynamics, rather than simply diagnoses apparent health in early decades and then obvious distress more recently.

In carrying out this effort, Airhart's book differs from other fine studies that have recently appeared. The United Church of Canada: A History, edited by Don Schweitzer of St. Andrew's College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, an institution founded by Presbyterians in 1912 but then grafted into the United Church, contains a great deal of useful material. The book's authors, mostly United Church pastors or professors, provide eight chapters constituting a chronological survey with six others examining themes like worship practices, outreach to First Nations, and the church's self-image. The tone throughout ranges from dispassionately objective to cautiously defensive. Editor Schweitzer, for example, records the vacuum that developed when in the 1960s the United Church gave up its aspirations to serve as the national church, but specifies other developments that he considers positive, including an end to "assimilationist policies toward First Nations peoples, the repudiation of supersessionist understandings of Judaism, a new openness to other religions, … an increased recognition of the agency and autonomy of women, and the decision that in and of itself, sexual orientation was not a barrier to ordination."

By contrast, Kevin Flatt's After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada, which focuses on controversies of that decade as a key for the church's entire history, offers a definite "decline and fall." To Flatt, a historian at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, the United Church from its origin in 1925 sustained a fragile coalition of leaders committed to modernist theology and church members sustaining the evangelical commitments of those who drafted the original "Basis of Union." For Flatt, this coalition came unglued in the 1960s for a number of reasons, but especially because of consternation that greeted the roll-out of new manuals for the church's educational ministries. This "New Curriculum" mostly reflected standard liberal Protestant positions: a description of biblical supernaturalism as myth, rejection of the Virgin Birth of Christ, waffling on the Resurrection, and reinterpretation of "decisions for Christ" in social or communal terms.

In Flatt's account, the New Curriculum finally brought into the open what church bureaucrats and seminary professors had believed all along. When upset local members responded with anguished outcries and when Sunday school attendance experienced the steepest decline in the denomination's history, the internal contradictions of the original modernist-plus-evangelical amalgamation stood out for all to see. With credibility contested, leadership exposed, and congregants at sea, the United Church in this account declined because it could no longer paper over the fissures built into the jerry-rigged arrangement of the founding generation. Flatt's research for events in the 1960s is through and his account of controversies prompted by the New Curriculum perceptive. Yet whether his focus on the ruptures of the 1960s provides the right context for understanding the entire history of the United Church is an issue about which Phyllis Airhart's book has a lot to say.

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."

Writing self-consciously in the train of Clifford and Grant, Phyllis Airhart pushes well beyond either defensiveness or indictment. Her research leads, instead, to a deeply sympathetic account of the liberal evangelicalism and the national aspirations of early United Church history, but also an account that is realistically candid about the ultimate dissolution of the former and eventual disappointment of the latter. Because of how well she describes the life and death of these two phenomena—the particular Protestant type and the particular national agenda—her book raises questions with implications far beyond Canada.

Americans are not in the best position to assess the merits of "liberal evangelicalism" since we inhabit a religious landscape that has been dominated by strong binaries. In our religious history, "evangelical" and "liberal" have been construed as polar opposites, and our bookshelves bulge with studies riffing on the poles: fundamentalist vs. modernist, liberal vs. conservative, evangelical vs. ecumenical, traditional values vs. individualistic values, evangelism vs. social gospel, single-issue politics vs. Kingdom politics, and so on. In other parts of the English-speaking world, it has been more obvious that the institutionalized evangelical Protestantism that became so important in so many places for so many purposes during the 19th century always defined a spectrum of practices and beliefs. Broadly considered, all evangelicals embrace the four characteristics specified in David Bebbington's well-known definition: conversion, the Bible, the cross, and activism. But those who can be grouped together as sharing these characteristics have promoted an almost limitless array of specific variations. Even in the United States' own history, a broad range of evangelicals have always combined features from both ends of the spectrum. Against the stereotyping, many "fundamentalists" as fully deserve the evangelical label as do at least some whom right-side-of-the-spectrum folk call "liberals." So, for example, recent research by Heath Carter of Valparaiso University has shown how many evangelical traits—like trust in Scripture and stress on Christ as redeemer as well as model—informed early "liberal" agitation for labor and industrial reform toward the end of the nineteenth century.[5]

Phyllis Airhart's careful documentation suggests that the United Church of Canada may have been the most significant example of liberal evangelicalism in the Protestant world from its founding in 1925 until the late 1950s. Almost all of its early leaders held firmly to traditional evangelical commitments like the need for personal conversion, the imperatives of personal morality (especially temperance), a clearly supernatural understanding of Christ's life, and an undifferentiated denunciation of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, these leaders were also liberal: comfortable with moderate biblical criticism, deeply committed to broad ecumenicity among Protestants, and, above all, firmly believing that Canada needed the Christian faith applied to every aspect of its life. The United Church that they founded and then guided into the 1950s, practiced what can only be called "social gospel evangelicalism" or an "evangelical social gospel."

One example must suffice. J. R. Mutchmor (1892-1980) functioned as the key figure in the United Church's Board of Evangelism and Social Service (BESS) from 1936 to 1962. To him, it never seemed strange to combine these two ministries under one director. Raised a Presbyterian in northern Ontario, Mutchmor was wounded as a Canadian soldier in World War I, studied theology and economics at Union Seminary/Columbia University in New York City, and served as a pastor in Winnipeg while also overseeing several welfare programs before moving to Toronto and the BESS. In that office Mutchmor promoted a great number of causes with what Airhart calls "a wry sense of humour." He campaigned hard against the liquor trade, he attacked big business for callousness to workers, he lamented the rising tide of divorce, he criticized local congregations for favoring wealthy local elites instead of ordinary working people, he thought Christian women should mostly tend to domestic duties, and he remained extremely critical of Catholic power in Quebec. In the 1940s he also organized national evangelistic programs and in following years supported Billy Graham's Canadian campaigns even after other United Church leaders had turned away from crusade evangelism. Whatever judgments might be rendered about any one of these commitments, Mutchmor as the church's most visible national leader steadily maintained the liberal evangelical vision of the United Church's founders.

Airhart does not dispute Kevin Flatt's account of what happened in the 1960s. She does, however, show that the unambiguously Protestant modernism that came to characterize the United Church from the 1970s represented only one part of the church's heritage even as it abandoned the essentially evangelical part. Her account is persuasive. The United Church once embodied liberal evangelicalism; in the 1960s and early 1970s it became simply liberal.

For contemporary evangelicals, and well beyond Canada, Airhart's narrative should be instructive. The evangelical world today includes growing numbers who, while remaining committed to what they consider the best aspects of evangelical tradition, also believe (in a partial list) that some parts of Scripture must be interpreted with a non-literal hermeneutic, that social involvement is not optional, that believers should be active against global warming and for some form of universal health care, and that recent ecclesiastical changes like the ordination of women are not only allowed by Scripture but have substantially strengthened the church. Instead of "liberal evangelicals," such ones today are more likely to be called "John Stott evangelicals" or "N. T. Wright evangelicals" or "Ron Sider evangelicals." An important general contribution of Airhart's book is to raise a series of genuine, rather than rhetorical questions: Is "liberal evangelicalism" always fated to evolve into theological modernism? Might "liberal evangelicalism," in fact, be the most genuinely biblical form of evangelical Christianity? What are the different results when different so-called liberal elements are incorporated into evangelical convictions?

A similar range of open-ended questions arise from Airhart's treatment of the nationalistic aspirations of the early United Church. Its leaders greatly desired Canada to fulfill the potential of Christendom, or the intermingling between the church and the public sphere of values, personnel, ideals, and motivating forces. These leaders recognized that Canada's Christendom had to be informal when compared to Europe, where tax-supported state churches still prevailed. But they also had experienced a fusion of the religious and the public that was considerably less informal than the United States' constitutional separation of church and state.

The vision behind the United Church foresaw Christianity increasing its corporate influence on society. One motive behind that vision was the felt need to compete with the institutional power of Catholicism coming out of Quebec, but other motives were more simply altruistic. Presbyterians and Methodists had always been more willing to support or criticize economic aspects of Canadian life than was the case with similar bodies in the US. In an earlier book, Airhart has shown how Canadian Methodists decisively rejected separatist principles of conservative evangelicals from the US and Britain.[6] For their part, Canadian Presbyterians had never entertained notions about "the spirituality of the church" that pushed many Americans Presbyterians away from public involvement. The United Church, with Wesleyan zeal for service to the present age and Reformed commitment to the Lordship of Christ over all creation, hoped to energize, ennoble, and expand what the two denominations had undertaken separately.

In the end the United Church could not realize these hopes. Attentive readers of Airhart's study are pushed, however, to ask why it failed.

If the correct answer is that the United Church made a mistake by seeking the kind of broad public influence its leaders envisioned in 1925, then a sobering conclusion is at hand for American culture warriors going to the wall to preserve vestiges of what once was the US's even more informal Christendom. The same caution would apply to any others who wanted broad Christian values to shape the societies in which they lived.

Airhart's book raises an alternative possibility for why the united Church failed to become the church with the soul of Canada. She has shown that by the early 20th century, Canadian Methodists and Presbyterians had succeeded reasonably well in achieving unified and purposeful national denominations marked by conscientious evangelical belief, socially responsible constituencies, and ambitious public outreach. In retrospect, it is clear that these Canadians were far from perfect: they could be callous toward immigrants, unthinkingly patronizing to the First Nations, and mindlessly conformist to British standards of Victorian propriety. Yet compared to contemporary alternatives—a class-ridden England, a United States morally enervated by civil war and the acceptance of terrorism against its black population, an industrial Western world creating as much urban pauperism as unprecedented middle-class comfort—Presbyterians and Methodists had brought Protestant Canada at least reasonably close to what might legitimately be called a Christian civilization.

In these terms, the failure of the United Church could be described as essentially cultural rather than primarily theological. It advocated a form of Protestantism well adapted to Canada's historical development. But then the great cultural shifts of ca. 1960-1975 arrived: multicultural ideals replaced British self-consciousness; academic and media elites repudiated the ideals of Christendom; Quebec became a French-language threat to national unity rather than a Catholic threat to Protestant Canada. In these new circumstances, the United Church found itself unwilling or incapable of presenting a vital Christian vision for the nation.

If this answer to the United Church's failure makes sense, the conclusion must be that the problem had less to do with its liberal evangelical character or its attempt to Christianize Canada, but lay rather with how that attempt at Christianization was carried out. It was too much commitment to Canada ca. 1925 for what Canada had become by 1970.

The recent survey released by the Pew Research Center offers much to ponder for Christian believers in the United States, as does the recent Angus Reid survey for believers in Canada. The interpretive riches found in Phyllis Airhart's book, along with substantial contributions from the books by Kevin Flatt and Don Schweitzer, provide insightful historical perspective for the Canadian story lying behind the Angus Reid results. For Americans, these same books offer a welcome opportunity to learn about our neighbors to the north. Yet because of how Canadian Christian experience both runs with, and differs from, American Christian experience, they can also instruct Protestants south of the border who hope to see the Christian faith exert the right kind of influence in the particularities of our cultural setting.


Phyllis D. Airhart, A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada (McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 2014).

Kevin N. Flatt, After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada (McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 2013).

Don Schweitzer, ed., The United Church of Canada: A History (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012).

Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is the author most recently of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible and American Public Life, 1492-1783, coming this fall from Oxford University Press.

1. Aaron Hutchins, "What Canadians really believe: A surprising poll," Maclean's, March 26, 2015.

2. Emma Green, "American Religion: Complicated, Not Dead," The Atlantic, May 12, 2015.

3. For example, James Bratt on James Wind and James Lewis's American Congregations, Nov/Dec 1995; Elesha Coffman on 100 years of the Christian Century, Nov/Dec 2008; George Marsden on David Hollinger's After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, Jan/Feb 2014.

4. Through 2001 the national census asked Canadians about their religious membership; in 2011 it did not, but a comparable figure for adherence was obtained through a nationwide household sampling.

5. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford Univ. Press, 2015).

6. Airhart, Serving the Present Age: Revivalism, Progressivism, and the Methodist Tradition in Canada (McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1992).

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