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The Methodist Church on the Prairies, 1896-1914 by George Emery


(University of Toronto Quarterly,  Vol.72:1, Winter 2002-03)


George Emery. The Methodist Church on the Prairies, 1896-1914 McGill-Queen’s UP xxi, 260

Emery, professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, supplies a scholarly monograph discussing prairie church history in the era of the Laurier settlement boom. Its approach differs from that of John Webster Grant’s The Church in the Canadian Era (1967) and Neil Semple’s The Lord’s Dominion (1992.) Grant’s overview does not feature the magnification of prairie developments in the decade-and-a-half that Emery deems crucial, while Semple’s assessment of Methodist history from the standpoint of the socio-economic privilege and power of central Canada is considered inaccurate. The book focuses on the history of a particular Christian institution (The Methodist Church in Canada, arising from the union of several Methodist bodies in 1874 and 1884), rather than on non-institutional religious history. It prosecutes social history informed through rigorous deployment of quantitative evidence. It traces the shift from an earlier Methodist preoccupation in the west with aboriginal peoples to the concern for Caucasians as the lure of “grain gold” (wheat) saw vast migrations into the prairie provinces from the Maritimes, central Canada, Britain, continental Europe, and the U.S.A.

While owning the Wesleyan root in Canadian Methodism, Emery maintains nonetheless that the Canadian expression, especially on the prairies, evolved as novel and therefore unforeseeable developments required extraordinary flexibility and adaptability. The missioners faced formidable challenges. Prairie hardship, for instance, required men mobile and young enough to be bachelors (bachelors were five times as numerous proportionately in the adult population over twenty as they were in Ontario) when bachelors in east or west were utterly uninterested in the church. The non-Anglo-Saxon people, the “tired and poor” of eastern Europe, lacked the sophistication of North Americans. (Ninety per cent of Alberta’s Ukrainians, for instance, were illiterate, and often regarded schooling as a frill.) Prairie cities, the largest by far of which was Winnipeg, discovered that urban existence chilled concern for the Creator even as it spawned wretched slums. Such challenges, however, merely fanned the enthusiasm of spokespersons such as the principal of Alberta College (Methodist) who predicted a population of fifty million for the North Saskatchewan Valley.

Emery acquaints the reader with the tensions inherent in a denomination when clergy had to be male while women were found disproportionately in church services, when educational standards for ordination were not relaxed even as the west was desperate for clergy, when Methodism was the single largest Protestant denomination in Canada while the majority of Ontarians who claimed Methodist affiliation were never found at worship, when prairie church leaders were divided over whether it was in their interests to have power-wielding boards located in Toronto.

Emery’s macro-investigation of the Church on the prairies is balanced by his micro-approach to Methodism’s two major undertakings: the All Peoples Mission in Winnipeg and the Star Colony of Ukrainians northeast of Edmonton. The Winnipeg mission began with Slavic people but developed quickly into a multi-ethnic outreach. Its first superintendent, James S. Woodsworth, scorned the faith of the church catholic even as scores of workers under him did not. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, preferring the subsistence farming of the old country to incipient agribusiness, forsook prairie grasslands for the forested park-belt northeast of Edmonton. Missioners here laboured indefatigably, not least in providing medical services and schooling for children. Most of the women Methodists were graduates of Victoria College, University of Toronto; Edith Weekes, who pioneered a Ukrainian-English dictionary, had been awarded the gold medal in modern languages at Victoria.
Throughout his treatment Emery recognizes that human beings are endlessly complex. His social history is commensurately nuanced and unfailingly sensitive to wounds and wonders that may puzzle yet perdure. Eschewing both sycophantic hagiography and contemptuous superiority concerning those whose work he assesses, he recognizes Methodist missioners to have done their best with the equipment they had, and all of this amidst hardships so severe, for instance, that the clergy drop-out rate was three times higher in the west than in central Canada.

Emery’s social history includes, perforce, discussions of Methodist popular religious expression. He does not attempt an exploration of the academic Methodist theology ascendant at this point in Canada’s history. That work would complement his book and fill a lacuna in Canadian intellectual history.