Mark Noll

O Canada

Liberal evangelicalism: a case study.

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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.

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