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The Methodist Tradition in Canada


(to appear in HarperCollins’ “Religion in Canada “)

The Methodist Tradition in Canada


The Methodist tradition arose chiefly from the activity of John Wesley (1703-1791), born to Samuel Wesley and Susanna Annesley, Dissenters in the Puritan mould who affiliated with the Church of England in their youth. John was nurtured in Anglicanism, was ordained priest and remained a life-long member of it. At Oxford University he, together with several others, formed a group derisively labelled the “Holy Club.” It met to encourage study of the classics and the Church Fathers, frequent attendance at Holy Communion, and assistance to the poor and imprisoned.

Still groping spiritually after ordination, in 1736 Wesley moved to Georgia hoping that his work among English colonists and aboriginals would imbue him with spiritual vitality. Upon his return to England in the wake of an unsatisfying ministry in the new world he came to the assurance of saving faith and of sins forgiven on May 24, 1738. Thereafter his ministry, formerly a not uncommon 18th century Anglican blend of mysticism and moralism, was grounded in the Reformation understanding of justification by grace through faith on account of Jesus Christ.

John recognized that “Scripture, from beginning to end, is one grand promise”; namely, salvation known and enjoyed as a present reality, as contrasted with the current Anglican understanding of blessedness in the life-to-come. With his theological emphasis on soteriology, John insisted that God had “raised up Methodism to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Whereas his pre-1738 pronouncements (see his sermon, “The Circumcision of the Heart”) had declared that people became holy by means of humility, he now insisted — and never recanted — that holiness was a divine gift, owned in faith, and humanly exercised with unrelenting rigour. While classical Protestantism had stressed justification (pardon, remission of sins, free acceptance), Wesley retained this yet stressed deliverance: God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it; namely, release people not merely from its guilt but especially from its grip or power. In this vein he endorsed “Christian perfection”, maintaining that no limit could be set to the scope of God’s deliverance in this life. Herein he merged the Puritan emphasis on godliness that he found in his predecessors with the similar emphasis on sanctity found in the church catholic. Strenuously disagreeing with Calvinism’s notions of predestination and limited atonement, he maintained that Christ had died for all: all needed to be saved, could be saved, could know they were saved, and could be saved to the uttermost.

Since, Wesley insisted, “the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion”, Methodism characteristically developed the communal dimension of its corporate life. Converts were expected to join in public worship weekly and to receive Holy Communion as often as possible. In addition they were formed into “societies”, “classes”, “bands”, and “select societies” in order to expose themselves to stringent examination from peers and thereby promote self-honesty, mutual correction, encouragement, edification, and service. The “societal” emphasis was marked too by a concern for every aspect of human well-being. To try to mitigate suffering Wesley wrote a textbook of primitive medicine, begged money to establish London’s first free pharmacy, developed schools for the disadvantaged children of coalminers, built houses for widows, gathered funds for start-up loans to Methodist entrepreneurs whom the chartered banks would not consider.

In all these endeavours John’s brother Charles (1701-1788) supported John, matching him in outdoor “field” preaching. Charles’ greatest contribution to Methodism, however, remained his hymn-writing (9,000 poems and hymns), as Scripture-saturated hymns rooted themselves in minds and hearts as often as Methodist people hummed the tunes amidst their daily work.

Following Wesley’s death, Methodism ceased to be “leaven” in the Church of England and became a separate denomination. One of its missioners, Laurence Coughlan, arrived in Newfoundland in 1766 and began working among Protestant English and Irish settlers. Five years later William Black, born in England but raised in Nova Scotia, commenced evangelizing in the Maritimes, his work falling under the supervision of British Wesleyans in 1800. In 1855 this body formed the Wesleyan Methodist Conference of Eastern British America.

Under the leadership of William Losee, meanwhile, the Methodist Episcopal Church (U.S.A.), established on Christmas Day in 1784, began work in 1791 among British immigrants to Upper Canada. By 1828 the Methodist Episcopal work in Canada had formally severed ties with the U.S.A. In 1833 most of it joined with the British Wesleyans to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, adding to itself the Methodist people of Lower Canada in 1854. That part of it which absented itself from the union re-formed into the Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada (1834), eventually growing into the second largest Methodist body in Canada.

In turn the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada and the Wesleyan Methodist Conference of Eastern British America united in 1874, annexing as well the Methodist New Connexion Church in Canada (itself an amalgam of several small groups), thereby forming the Methodist Church of Canada.

In 1884 this body joined with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, together with the Bible Christian Church of Canada and the Primitive Methodist Church in Canada, bringing to birth the Methodist Church (Canada, Newfoundland and Bermuda.) This lattermost union made the Methodist Church the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. It now included all Canadian Methodists with the exception of several very small groups: the British Methodist Episcopal Church (a development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving chiefly people of colour), two German-speaking bodies (the Evangelical Association and the United Brethren in Christ), and the Free Methodist Church (a body that had begun in New York State in 1860 and extended itself into Canada.)

In 1925 the Methodist Church united with 70% of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and 96% of the Congregational Union of Canada to form The United Church of Canada.


Canadian Methodism distinguished itself on several fronts.


Methodists were committed to missions among aboriginals. The “first nations” had been exploited since the days of the fur trade, the exploitation manifesting itself in alcohol-abetted destitution. Eager to avoid paternalism, the Methodists sought to put mission leadership in the hands of aboriginals themselves. Peter Jones, Chief of the Mississaugas, was ordained the first aboriginal itinerant. Egerton Ryerson, soon to be the best-known Methodist minister, represented Canada in the Society for the Protection of Aboriginal Inhabitants of the British Dominions.

Missions overseas paralleled those in Canada. In 1873 the Wesleyans were the first of the Canadian Methodist “family” to begin working in Japan, concentrating on evangelism, medical assistance, post-elementary education and theological training for Japanese ministers. By 1884 Canadian Methodists had established a theological college in Azabu, supported by the Women’s Missionary Society’s efforts in training Japanese women for church work. Canadian Methodist missions commenced in China in 1891 amidst circumstances that were uncommonly dangerous.

In the meantime the social position of Methodists was changing in Canada. Earlier the Church of Scotland and the Church of England had formed social elites inaccessible to Methodists, the latter being poor and frequently despised. Zealous in evangelism and ardent in their pursuit of godliness, however, their sobriety, industry and thrift fuelled their social ascendancy. Some Methodist families became wealthy: the Goodherams from grain and railways, the Masseys from farm implements, and the Flavelles from meatpacking. By mid-18th century they were able to challenge the Anglican monopoly on education and political power.

From this position Methodism was able to make its unparalleled contribution to the public good, a system of high-quality public education. Insisting that education subserved not only the evangelical cause in particular but also the human good in general and the social good more widely still, Methodism’s educational architect, Egerton Ryerson, undid the Anglican Church’s exclusive control over education. Ryerson implemented the system operative in Canada today: high quality education available to all, without a religious or doctrinal means test.

In addition the Methodists built Victoria College, offering instruction in arts and sciences, later expanding it under principal Samuel Nelles to a full-fledged university by adding faculties of law, medicine and theology, eventually moving the institution from Cobourg to Toronto in order to federate it with the University of Toronto.

Aware of John Wesley’s legacy, Canadian Methodists dedicated themselves to the alleviation of human distress on any front, their vision here being no less than social transformation. They exerted themselves on behalf of convicts and ex-convicts, prostitutes and impoverished immigrants, all the while campaigning for better housing, improved public health, unemployment insurance, pensions, compensation for injured workers, the eight-hour work day, humane working conditions and homemaking skills. Salem Bland and James Woodsworth were the most visible exponents of the Social Gospel movement in Methodism, the latter eventually leaving the ministry in order to co-found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The prosecution of social justice, it was thought, would largely eliminate the sources of social disharmony. At the same time leaders such as Samuel Chown continued to uphold the necessity of personal regeneration.

Concern for education and social transformation naturally gave rise to a commitment to publishing. Books, magazines and pamphlets were produced in ever-greater numbers; even by 1884 the circulation of Methodist-backed publications stood at 160,000, excluding the materials produced for overseas missions. Under William Briggs and Lorne Pierce, Methodists became instrumental in promoting a Canadian literary tradition, producing vast quantities of Canadian fiction, poetry, history and textbooks for schools.

Since 1925 much smaller denominations such as the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, the Standard Church, the Church of the Nazarene (extensions of American bodies), and The Salvation Army have endeavoured to maintain the spiritual tradition of Wesley. Collectively, however, these groups do not have the influence in public life that the Methodists exerted prior to church union.

Victor Shepherd June 2001