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The Canadian Social Gospel: 1880-1960

What is the social gospel?

What is the social gospel? It is an attempt to apply Christianity to the collective ills of an industrializing society, and was a major force in Canadian religious, social and political life from the 1880s to the 1960s. The social gospel played a specific and important role in two great periods of Canadian history: what I have called in Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a short history of adult education (2013) the periods of the “great transformation” (1880-1929) and the “crisis of democracy” (1929-1960).

The recent focus on the “Christian Right” in the US and Canada has obscured the close relationship between church members and left-wing political parties in Canadian history. Christians on the left were the driving force behind the creation of the Canadian Co-operative Federation (CCF) in 1933, the first viable social democratic party in Canada. Christian socialists played active and innovative roles in the League for Social Reconstruction and the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order (both primarily Protestant organizations) in the 1930s and 1940s.

A minority of Canadian Anglicans took strong left-wing stands through the organization called The Anglican Fellowship for Social Action, active in the 1940s, and animated by an incarnational and sacramental theology. Both Anglicans and Roman Catholics were deeply committed to a society viewed as a corporate unity within which all parts have a responsibility for the welfare of the other. This understanding of society as an organic unity set many conservative Anglo-Catholics against Liberal individualism and evangelical pietism.

The most exciting and interesting example of the Catholic social gospel is that of the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia, which arose in the 1920s and reached its apex in the late 1930s, though it maintained its dynamism into the early 1950s. The names of Frs. Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady are indelibly inscribed into the history of the Canadian social gospel. These two men were forerunners of the liberation theology of the 1960s, and helped to create a dynamic co-operative movement among oppressed fishers, farmers and coal miners. Coady dreamed of men and women becoming “masters of their own destiny”—a mighty dream indeed in feudalistic Nova Scotia.

The “great awakening” of Canadian Christianity

This “great awakening” in Canadian Christianity in the late nineteenth century cannot be understood without grasping the great economic unrest, and political and cultural upheavals in this period. All churches faced the triple threat of industrialization (the rise of “corporate capitalism” and Taylorist work organization), scientific materialism and socialism and suffrage movements. How would the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches respond to the troubling new conditions? In Europe and Canada, the working class was abandoning the church.

It faced a “crisis of plausibility”, which in turn provoked a “crisis of identity”—bewilderment before the onslaught of secularizing forces. Leading Protestant ministers and activists like early 20th century activists J.S. Woodsworth, William Ivens, William Irvine, Salem Bland, Nellie McClung, Beatrice Brigden and AE Smith were pressed to either re-imagine their faith or leave it. And Father Jimmy Tompkins knew well that the RC Diocese of Antigonish had fallen into a deep slumber and had not yet lowered the drawbridge to the suffering world.

The social gospel shifted the Christian horizon to the horizontal plane. The social gospel elevated “social involvement” to “religious significance.” Indeed, the great Swiss German socialist theologian Karl Barth declared in 1911 that “Jesus is the social movement.” Religious socialists (“Cup of water” leftists) believed ardently that God was at work in social change and transformation, creating moral order and social justice. The kingdom of God could be created on earth, or at least signposts to its full coming could be erected along the road. Before the muddy and gas-filled trenches of WW I shattered optimistic hopes, the early 20th century proponents of the social gospel entertained very high hopes for social reform. Indeed, the social order could be Christianized!

What would Jesus do?

What would Jesus do? That question had been posed by Charles Sheldon in his memorable book, In His Steps, written at the turn of the 20th century. Christians certainly give many different answers, but social gospel Christians gave answers such as that of Rev. J.J. McCaskell of St. John, Newfoundland in 1909. “If the Saviour returned today, he would come in the name of the unemployed, the factory children…” For some leftist Christians, Jesus was perceived as a lay socialist agitator. He chased money-lenders from the temple; today he would work to overthrow the capitalist order. Clearly, the old dogmas of Christianity—atonement, sin, salvation and the kingdom of God were being re-shaped (or I would say “translated” into publicly accessible and secular language).

In the early 20th century the churches expanded their role. Between 1894 and 1910 all of the Protestant churches created Board structures to handle the new social issues. Churches also created settlement houses, inner city missions, and re-invigorated the old moral themes of temperance and sabbatical observance and anti-prostitution in a more socially and politically comprehensive vision.

Women active in suffrage and temperance movements found the social gospel a congenial animating vision for their actions. Thus, sin was now understood largely as social in origin; and the notion of redemption now included the idea of the redemption of an oppressive economic and political order. But the social gospellers did not restrict themselves to refurbished charitable actions. Some participated in the agitation and struggles culminating in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. One highpoint of social gospel struggles was the creation of labour churches from 1918-24.

The labour churches

The labour church had been created to appeal to those with whom the church had lost touch, and had a tendency to become captive to a variety of forms of contemporary heterodoxy. But some men and women really did think that through the labour churches the meaning of primitive Christianity had been recovered, a world of justice and brotherhood for which Jesus lived and died was in the making. Thus, the labour churches (in Brandon, Edmonton, and Winnipeg) expressed the religious impulses playing out in the Winnipeg General Strike.

They tried to distinguish “true” form “false” Christianity. True Christianity identified itself with the oppressed. This utopian longing was taken to rapturous heights by Dr. WJ Curry of Vancouver who imagined that a “spiritual earthquake” paralleling the Protestant Reformation was about to break out—that would “shatter the tomb of theology and result in the real resurrection of Him who had been crucified by the ruling class priesthood for fifteen long centuries.”

In the period that I have called the “crisis of democracy”—from 1929-1960—the two central components of the social gospel theology, namely, the Christian requirement to work for social justice in the name of God, and the focus on the needs of the wider community of Christians rather than on individual salvation, made it natural for representatives of the new current to become linked with political movements that were trying to resolve the social problems of the early 20th century.

The social gospel and democratic socialism

The fervour of the social gospel in the Depression and War years was most intense in Western Canada, where discontent with exploitation by Central Canadian economic policies was acute. Younger, more radical Protestant ministers had been sent out West and had started talking about creating the Christian kingdom on earth working hand in hand and sharing wealth. This discourse tied in directly with the Fabian socialist utopia of the period, which consisted in building what was called the Co-operative Commonwealth, a new society in which the exploitation inherent in the capitalist system would be replaced by the ideal of Christian brotherhood.

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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