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Methodism on the Canadian Prairies, 1896 to 1914 : the dynamics of an institution in a new environment Emery, George Neil

Abstract

From 1896 to 1914, the Canadian prairies experienced a great immigration and expansion of settlement. A study of prairie Methodism in this period reveals the dynamics of an institution in the process of transference to a new environment. This thesis examines the character of Canadian Methodism at this time, the manner in which it penetrated the prairies, the origin of its resources and the changes which it experienced in coping with new conditions. The membership and polity of the Methodist Church were more Ontario-centred than was the case with any other major religious denomination. Ontario Methodists dominated the General Conference which determined policy for the entire Church, and officials in Toronto closely controlled church expansion. Stimulated by their evangelical traditions and by an aggressive nationalism, Methodist leaders wished to perpetuate on the prairies the Protestant culture of the eastern conferences. Conversely, they opposed the penetration of the west by rival cultures from French Canada and Europe. To a large extent, the prairie conferences of the Church became vehicles for the Protestant culture of eastern Canada. Most of the laymen were from Ontario, and prominent Ontario natives worked closely with officials in Toronto to raise missionary finances and to promote missionary education. The prairie clergy were less decisively the outreach of the eastern conferences since more than a third of those who can be identified were British-born. Nevertheless, a clear majority were from eastern Canada, including a great majority of the experienced clergy. The religious culture of prairie Methodism was derived from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism in general as well as from the eastern conferences. However, the Ontario conferences in particular provided the most immediate influences: the General Conference pronouncements, Methodist journals from Toronto and a continuing supply of clergy and laymen. The essence of the prairie Methodist religious inheritance was a weakening of commitment to traditional forms of evangelism and a growing worldliness. The tradition of saving souls for the life to come had been eclipsed by the desire to Christianize earthly life—a trend hastened by Biblical criticism and other intellectual currents which were undermining the intellectual foundations of the "old time religion." Manifestations of the new orientation were missions among the heathen in China, attempts to legislate Christian asceticism and efforts to grapple with emerging social ills in the cities. With warm support from the Ontario conferences, prairie Methodists also fought for English-language public schools in order to assimilate French Canadians and European immigrants. To Protestantize the Europeans, missions were established as well. Prairie Methodism only partially recreated the social environment of Methodism in Ontario. Despite its three-fold increase in membership by 1914, Methodism on the prairies was proportionately weaker than in Ontario, as was Protestantism in general. Moreover, Methodist missions made little impact upon the European population. Methodist growth was limited partly by the patterns of immigration which favoured rival denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church. Methodist objectives were also hampered by inadequate resources; the eastern conferences gave too little to missions, and Asia remained their chief missionary interest. Finally, the Church's appeal in isolated, rural communities was reduced by its loss of the "old time religion." Conversely, Methodist success was largely confined to the Anglo-Saxon, urban middle class and to well-to-do farmers. Spurred by disappointment with Methodist growth, the disgruntled prairie conferences won considerable autonomy in the administration of missions at the General Conference of 1910. From a desire to use Protestant resources more efficiently, movements for co-operation and church union with the Presbyterian Church also emerged. Thus, Canadian Methodism was greatly modified by the encounter with the prairie environment.

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