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The social influence of the United Church of Canada in British Columbia 1930-1948 Harrison, Marilyn Joan

Abstract

Throughout Canadian history the major Christian churches have played an important role in the political, economic and social life of the nation. British Columbia, however, has stood apart as more secular than the rest of the country and the influence of the church, though present, has been far less obvious. With the rest of Canada now entering a secular period, the past experiences of the church in British Columbia becomes an important trailblazer for the rest of the country. The United Church of Canada was chosen for this study because of its national strength geographically and numerically, its class structure which is predominately Anglo-Saxon middle-class but also includes some upper and lower-class members as well as some ethnic minorities, and its propensity for social action inherited from its predecessors. Shortly after the union of 1925 three unusual circumstances developed which had a profound effect on British Columbia and the United Church—the depression, the Second World War and the evacuation of the Japanese from the west coast. These three crises form the setting for a close examination of the United Church's influence within the province. Of key importance for this examination were the record and minute books of the United Church congregations and institutions, the minutes and papers of the higher courts of the church, and the papers of individual church leaders. The popular press was used extensively to supplement the official records, providing additional information covering church activity in the community and giving colour and interpretation to church issues and debate. Interviews with some people active during the years under scrutiny rounded out the research by filling in gaps of information and adding personal opinion and reflection. The sources were allowed to speak for themselves and indicate certain patterns which were then examined by more selective research. However, since opinion and action are based on so many variables, it was impossible to separate the influence of the church from other influences in society. Therefore the conclusions are based less on hard fact than on general impression and deduction. The United Church definitely had an influence in British Columbia, not only on its own membership but also on the general public. The extent, however, is impossible to measure precisely. Through briefs, petitions, reports, study groups, sermons and public announcements it fulfilled an educational role by advocating economic and social change which prepared the people for a social welfare state. The church, in its defence of the Japanese Canadians, awakened many consciences and led the way for racial justice after the war. Throughout the depression and the war church members responded generously with time, leadership and materials to ease the hunger, the cold and the loneliness of unemployed men, drought-stricken prairie families and soldiers at home and overseas. While most church members could whole-heartedly support the traditional charity of the church, fewer supported the briefs and reports demanding change in society. Fewer still, and these were led by a handful of radical clergy, supported socialism, the demands of the unemployed transients and labour, pacifism, and the rights of the Japanese Canadians during the war. By working with other institutions, the United Church in British Columbia showed that it is possible for a church to influence society in a secular age. The clergy, on the whole more liberal than the laity, could only lead the church body in the same direction as society generally was moving, but the church was able to hasten that movement. And through the work of a few radicals in the church, it could prod society and keep alive the Christian ideals of Canadian liberalism at a time when it would have been very easy to ignore principles of human dignity.

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