Presbyterian Church In Canada

Canadian Presbyterianism began in Nova Scotia just prior to the American Revolution and subsequently followed the patterns of migration from the United States and the United Kingdom. As with other Canadian denominations, American influence did not last long, and it was soon the arrivals from Scotland and Ireland who formed the backbone of the church.

The Secessionist bodies, who had followed the Erskines out of the Church of Scotland in the eighteenth century, and who would be known as the United Presbyterians in the nineteenth, were the first to see the growing population of Canada as a missionary responsibility. The Church of Scotland was much slower, but as the Evangelical or “popular” party gained the ascendancy, the Glasgow Colonial Society was formed in 1825 to encourage and support ministers in coming to Canada. Robert Burns of Paisley, later of Knox Church and Knox College, Toronto, poured his energy and vision into this movement, so that the arrivals of the 1820s and 1830s from Highlands and Lowlands, were often greeted by a congenial Evangelical ministry.

The Disruption* of 1843 in Scotland, with the formation of the Free Church,* was followed by a similar sympathy movement both in the Maritimes and in the province of Canada, today known as Ontario and Quebec. The Free Church Movement in Canada displayed remarkable vitality in the fields of home and overseas missions and theological education. A new country, however, could not long afford division, and in 1861 the “Free Church” and the United Presbyterians joined, and in 1875 the Church of Scotland amalgamated to form a national Presbyterian body of some 88,000 communicants.

The new church was absorbed in the opening of the West, under the dynamic leadership of James Robertson, while overseas missionaries such as Jonathan Goforth* made Canadian Presbyterianism known worldwide. The church continued to grow rapidly and threw itself wholeheartedly into the job of ameliorating the social problems of the day. Preoccupied with wresting a living from the country, and full of turn-of-the- century optimism, many paid little or no attention to the changes in thought that were taking place. Evolution, idealistic philosophy, and biblical criticism were creating a new mood. As the older Calvinism ebbed, the movement for union among Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians flowed. Church union was consummated in 1925, with 40 percent of the 380,000 Presbyterian members outside. Most of the large middle party had entered union while the continuing Presbyterians were an interesting and sometimes irreconcilable combination of traditionalism and evangelicalism.

Soon faced with the challenges of economic depression and war, it was amazing that the reconstruction of the Presbyterian Church proceeded as effectively as it did. The situation was complicated by the fact that there were strongly liberal elements in the two theological colleges. This emphasis was increasingly challenged by the charismatic W.W. Bryden of Knox College, who was virtually a Barthian before Barth. Today there is again an increasing evangelical movement in the denomination of almost 200,000 members, and a census constituency of over 800,000.

See W. Gregg, Short History of the Presbyterian Church in the Dominion of Canada (1892); and N. Smith, A. Farris, and H.K. Markell, A Short History of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (1967).