Faith Today - Archival Site

March/April 2007 Issue

Evangelicals in Canada: A Short History
By Gordon L. Heath

Painting: Evangelist Henry Alline preached in the Maritimes in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Revivalist? Fanatic? Enthusiast? Democratic? Fundamentalist? Right wing? American? At one time or another in Canada all these meanings have been associated with the word “evangelical.”

The English word “evangelical” is a transliteration of the Greek euangelion (the “good news” or the “gospel”). In the 16th century the term became closely associated with the Protestant Reformation (a movement that stressed the gospel). To be an Evangelical on the European continent meant you were Lutheran or Reformed. On the other hand, in Britain or in North America it could also simply mean Protestant, one who emphasized the gospel or even one who was anti-Roman Catholic.

Throughout the middle- and latter-18th century religious revivals swept throughout Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. As a result the term took on new nuances. The fires of religious revival spread to Maritime Canada with the conversion and subsequent itinerant preaching of Henry Alline (1748-1784). 

Alline’s dynamic ministry throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick lasted less than a decade but the impact was far-reaching. As historian George Rawlyk has noted, Alline established “not only a popular theology but also a pattern for religious behaviour and worship” throughout the Maritimes. Most of the settlers (Methodists and Baptists) who arrived in Ontario in the decades that followed also adopted this revivalistic, enthusiastic, gospel-preaching, camp-meeting type of Christianity, much to the chagrin of the more staid and traditional church leaders (Anglicans and Presbyterians).

Opponents of these radical, revivalistic and supposedly uncouth Christians had many names for their enemies – but evangelical was not usually one of them. Considered to be irrational and even dangerous, those we call Evangelicals today were often derisively called enthusiasts, fanatics, ignorant schismatics or even democratic (a bad thing in the minds of those who sought to preserve the established social order). As for those who bore the brunt of these labels, many simply went by the name of their denomination or perhaps identified themselves as New Lights. 

Today we look back at these revivals and label the people involved “Evangelicals” and the movement “evangelicalism.” However, more research is needed on how those we call Evangelicals today used the term themselves. Did they self-identify as Evangelicals and, if they did, did they mean it the same way we mean it today? As for when the term became commonly used, some scholars conjecture that the formation of the Evangelical Alliance in London, England in 1846 led to the term being used more and more in Canada.

What can be stated with a degree of certainty is that the harsh polemics between supporters and opponents of revivalism diminished as the 19th century came to a close. Over the course of that century those churches we call evangelical today changed their methods and became much more respectable and middle class. 

Also, by the end of the 19th century much of the animosity that marked the frosty relationship between the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists had disappeared (these four denominations were the four largest Protestant denominations in Canada – together they claimed more than 80 percent of Protestants).

In fact, at the end of the 19th century there was a remarkable degree of unity in Canada among the Big Four Protestant denominations as they sought to shape a Christian – and, for many, an evangelical – Canada. They were also remarkably successful in their attempts to transform the nation into their own image.

Despite the many successes, however, all was not well. The rising tide of liberal theology at the end of the 19th century led to many Evangelicals expressing concern about the loss of the fundamentals of the faith – and, as a result, fundamentalism was born.

Fundamentalism was (and is) concerned with any modern attempts to erode traditional views of the Bible’s inspiration or to deny historic teaching such as the deity of Christ or a literal six-day creation. The Protestant world was sharply divided by this modernist-fundamentalist split, and some denominations such as the Baptists in Ontario and Quebec even split over the issue. For many at this time the terms evangelical and fundamentalist were synonymous.

It was really in the 1950s and beyond that North American Evangelicals began to be differentiated from Fundamentalists, especially since many Evangelicals consciously tried to differentiate themselves from the harsher and more separatist fundamentalism of the 1920s-1950s. 

Since the 1980s evangelicalism in Canada and the United States has become much more of a household word – due in part to the growing political power and involvement of Evangelicals in the United States. One dynamic the movement in Canada now faces is the often difficult task of differentiating itself from its less popular American counterparts. 

Evangelicalism in Canada is now a self-identified movement that includes a wide variety of disparate Protestant denominations as well as some Roman Catholics. The task for Canadian Evangelicals today is the same as that of their forebears: attempt to be communicators of good news and at the same time defend against claims to the contrary.

Gord Heath is assistant professor of Christian history at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, ON.

Read the companion article Evangelicals: On the Way to Reclaiming a Great Name, by Karen Stiller.

For more on this topic, visit the new Centre for Research on Canadian Evangelicalism, an initiative of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. 

More Samples from This Issue
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Cover Story
Assessing the Charter After 25 Years

The Charter at 25

Featured Articles 
Evangelicals: On the Way to Reclaiming a Great Name

Evangelicals in Canada: A Short History

Are You An Evangelical?

Personal Reflections on the Charter

EFC Intervened Charter Cases

Global Mission Specialist Charles Cook

From the Editor 
Justice and Identity

Kingdom Matters 
Bear "Necessities" for Outreach

Web Videos Teach Charities

North Central Regina Ministries Join Forces

Pastor Now Canada's Family Coach

The Gathering Place 
The Charter: Uncharted Territory?

A Church You Should Know 
Church of the Rock

God At Work in Denominations 
Simplicity in Christ

Ask a Theologian
Do We Emphasize the Resurrection Enough?

Arts and Culture
Review of The Language of God

What Do You Think?
Respond to an article by sending a letter to the editors

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