Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 141 years

Manitoba History: Ambiguous Heritage: Wesley College and the Social Gospel Re-considered

by Ramsay Cook
Department of History, York University

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Wesley College, circa 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

“Maybe he needs counselling,” said Murray. He had taken some sociology courses, because he had hoped at one time to become a United Church minister. Barbara said indifferently, “Maybe he needs to be hanged.” Alice Munro, “Oranges and Apples,” The New Yorker, October 24, 1988, p. 36.


The history of the social gospel in Canada is usually presented as the story of the accommodation, or attempted accommodation, of Protestant Christianity to the new social order that is implied in the term urban—industrial capitalism. It is generally agreed that the transition to urban industrial capitalism, complicated and lengthy as it was, revolutionized most aspects of social life: relations between classes, sexes, ethnic groups and even nations. Moreover it wrought, necessitated or encouraged—and each word implies something slightly different—fundamental changes in beliefs and values and ideologies. State and church, indeed all traditional institutions were forced to re–assess their roles in human society. While not everyone would agree with the Germanic language or the full implications of the statement, the summary provided by Karl Marx in his 1848 Communist Manifesto catches the general theme. The bourgeois era of capitalism, he wrote, would eventually destroy all traditional institutions and beliefs. “All the traditional and established social relations are dissolving, and their train of ancient and venerable notions and ideas; and those that come to take their place grow old before they even have time to ossify. All that was held sacred has become profane; and mankind is finally forced to cast a lucid eye on its conditions and reciprocal relations.” [1]

Nearly everyone who has written about the social gospel—in Canada, the United States and Great Britain—has, at least until recently, adopted a version of the Marxian account: namely that socio-economic change necessitated alterations in the teachings of Protestantism. While a few have seemed to agree with Marx that economic transformation made ideological change inevitable, others have inclined to a less deterministic view of “necessity.” Change was necessary if relevance was to be ensured, but change was a matter of choice rather than inevitability. Some made it, others refused. That the Marxian account was one of the process of secularization, when religious opiates would finally disappear, is worth emphasizing in passing.

The relationship between material change and the evolution of religious thought is well, if unintentionally, illustrated by Richard Allen’s The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada 1914-1928. That pioneering book, published in 1971, is a splendid piece of scholarship, one which set the standard interpretation for its subject, one which has gone practically unquestioned until recently. That interpretation is epitomized by the series of illustrations which greet the reader even before he or she begins the text. Whether this strategy was intentional is impossible to say, though professor Allen doubtless chose the illustrations with his thesis in mind. The pictures fall into essentially two categories. Fourteen present graphic depictions of the evils of urban-industrial capitalism—harsh working conditions, poor living accommodations, poverty, child labour, slums—and one, oddly, presents rural prosperity. Eight are portraits of well-known, dignified male clerics—Salem Bland, J. S. Woodsworth, Ernest Thomas, C. W. Gordon, William Ivens, J. G. Shearer, W. B. Creighton, T. A. Moore. This is a moderately ecumenical group, if Presbyterian plus Methodist adds up to that, but predominantly Methodist and notably western, meaning Wesley College. The final two illustrations, filling three full pages, are drawn from that event by which historians have made Winnipeg famous—the 1919 General Strike. The equation is thus very clearly established: the social injustices of industrial capitalism evoked a Protestant response which has come to be known as the social gospel.

Now there is much more to Professor Allen’s book than illustrations—356 pages of well researched text, to be exact. And that text presents a somewhat more nuanced account of the social gospel than the opening illustrations suggest. His introductory chapter makes reference to some international intellectual currents that contributed to theological revision, and the impact of those new ideas on the several Protestant denominations. But that hastily said, Allen proceeds to a full and sympathetic narrative of what his illustrations suggested: his story is that of the response of one segment of Protestantism to the new urban-industrial order. Here is his description of the movement he intends to analyze: “The Social Gospel rested on the premise that Christianity was a social religion, concerned, when the misunderstandings of the ages was swept away, with the quality of human relations on this earth. Put in more dramatic terms it was a call to men to find the meaning of their lives in seeking to realize the Kingdom of God in the very fabric of society ...” He goes on to observe that although the movement had “theological implications,” social gospellers were not much interested in theology. Some, he might have noted, were positively hostile. And, finally, Allen remarks, the social gospel might even have been charged with having been “partly motivated by a desire to escape from theological perplexities.” [2] This intriguing notion is not explored by Allen or by any of his followers, though I will say something more about it at a later stage.

J. S. Woodsworth as senior stick at Wesley College, 1899.
Source: University of Winnipeg Archives

Having set boundaries, Allen then narrates an important story in a wealth of interesting detail. The story, as Allen and others have recounted it, goes roughly as follows. Wesley College, Winnipeg, founded in 1888, became by the first decade of the new century, if not the only, then the most vigorous source of the social gospel in Canada. This was so, apparently both because of the go-ahead, progressive, atmosphere of the Canadian west which made everyone a bit of a utopian, and because of the increasingly urgent social problems that came as part of rapid, unplanned development. Men like J. S. Woodsworth, who was Senior Stick at Wesley in 1897-98, and Salem Bland, who joined the faculty in 1903, while influenced by con-temporary social criticism, were especially moved by the condition of Winnipeg question—materialism, slums, alcohol and prostitution, the plight of labour and the problem of the ‘foreigner.’ For these men, and other living in what Principal Sparling called “the sociological era of the world,” [3] the traditional teachings of the church—sin, redemption, conversion and salvation, were of declining relevance at best, incomprehensible at worst. Doctrines of individual salvation were for an earlier age, an age of individualism. The new age called for doctrines of social redemption, collective regeneration. Theological Christianity had to give way to “practical Christianity.” As the old doctrines of Protestantism were revised and replaced, so the church itself as an institution had to rethink its role and mission. “Churchianity” had corrupted Christianity, and the church could no longer defend its claim as the only, or even the essential embodiment of God’s will and teachings. In his book My Neighbour, published in 1911, Woodsworth argued that the mission of the church was to promote what he called “the social ideal” but he added that “the Church itself is hardly aware of this situation, much less fitted to meet it. Will the church retain—perhaps we should say regain—her social leadership?” [4] A new reformation was in the offing, one which would produce a new Christianity—that was the thesis, and the title, of Salem Bland’s 1920 book.

Thus Bland, Woodsworth, A. E. Smith, William Ivens and others, moved from the pulpit and the classroom, partially or wholly according to the case, to engage in social settlement work, journalism, labour conciliation, social surveying, suffragist and prohibition advocacy and, eventually, trade union and political activism. What none of these men found wholly satisfying, though all of them did some of it, was the day-to-day pastoral ministry. Further investigation of this aversion might be worthwhile for there, if anywhere, “practical” Christianity was being applied with a minimum of publicity and, at least in some instances, satisfying results. But then the issue of what is ‘practical’ and what is ‘relevant’ is a difficult one. For the social gospel leaders a prominent pulpit and a large audience were evidently necessary. But whatever impelled these men—there were, of course, some women, too. Nellie McClung, Francis Marion Beynon, Beatrice Brigden, to name some Manitobans—their decision to go public with the message that Christianity was a socio-political theory ensured conflict on at least two fronts.

The first area of conflict was within the Methodist Church itself. Here the historians of the social gospel are not in agreement as to the extent of that conflict. Bland, Woodsworth, Ivens and Smith, all Wesleymen in one way or another, are the focus of the differing interpretations of the place of the social gospel with the larger Methodist world. Kenneth McNaught’s fine study of Woodsworth’s career argues that to flower the social gospel had to leave the Methodist greenhouse. He offers the examples of Woodsworth’s 1918 resignation from the church, Bland’s 1917 dismissal from Wesley for what McNaught believes were political reasons, and the departure of Smith and Ivens to found the Labour Churches in Winnipeg and Brandon. These instances of the anti-radicalism of the ruling elites, McNaught suggests, should lead to a revision of the claim of another one time Wesley Methodist, A. R. M. Lower. Where Lower had claimed that Methodism fathered a large percentage of Canadian radicals, McNaught retorted “expelled” not “fathered.” [5]

Board of Controllers, Mission Central Institute, circa 1912. J. S. Woodsworth is second from right, back row.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Not so, Richard Allen has replied. Lower was closer to the mark. The counter argument comes in three parts. First Woodsworth was not expelled, he left and when he did he differed from accepted Methodist attitudes in only one significant detail: he was a pacifist. The radicalism of Methodist social teachings, Allen claims, continued to develop throughout the war years culminating in its quasi-socialist 1918 statements on Social Service and Evangelism and the Church in Relation to the War and Evangelism. Woodsworth was no more advanced than these policy statements. The second point in Allen’s counter argument is that Salem Bland, who was as radical as Woodsworth but did not share his pacifism, found it quite possible to remain inside the church. Indeed Bland expressed his regret at Woodsworth’s decision believing that the “practical Christians” would soon capture the church from the “sentimental and dogmatic Christians and bring about regeneration.” [6] Finally, there is the issue of Bland’s dismissal from Wesley College in 1917. Allen believes that “financial stringency” not political radicalism was the cause of the termination of Bland’s contract. After all, A. E. Smith, another radical, had accepted the decision.

Allen’s case is a convincing one—at least in the short term. By that I mean that Methodists—and other Protestant denominations—were undoubtedly radicalized by the war. Patriotism and progressivism, at least on the home front, seemed to march together and produced a resounding rhetoric. Had he not been a conscientious objector Woodsworth could undoubtedly have stayed in the ministry and would surely have cheered the Church’s 1918 statements on social action. What he would have done when the church was faced with practising what it preached during the strike at the Methodist Book Company in 1919 cannot be predicted, though we know that it didn’t drive Salem Bland out of the Church.

Allen’s interpretation of Bland’s dismissal is especially convincing. Certainly it has independent confirmation in A. G. Bedford’s history, The University of Winnipeg. And Bedford, by the way, adds a detail which adds a previously unnoticed aspect to Bland’s saintly reputation. It seems that Bland, and two others who were also to have their employment terminated, were all party to rumours that Principal Crummy had, in Bedford’s careful phrase, “became a user of alcohol.” [7] This scandalous fact became the centre-piece of an ingenious reform proposal. Crummy would be dismissed. His salary, plus a ten percent reduction of all salaries, could be used to retain those under the dismissal order. The College would not appoint a new principal, but rather be run democratically by committee. It is difficult to discern whether prohibition or unemployment insurance was the priority in this reform platform. In the end it was not adopted, but the proposal does suggest that the creation of heaven on earth did not exclude the use of secular political tactics. Crummy, by the way, did eventually admit to the occasional use of alcohol to control recurring dysentery which he had contracted during a missionary stint in Japan.

What I would conclude from these events is that down to 1919 Wesley College in particular and the Methodist Church more generally, accommodated themselves very fully to theological liberalism and its social gospel offshoot. The departures of Woodsworth, Iven, Smith, and another Wesley graduate, William Irvine, who joined the Unitarians before moving into Farmer—Labour politics, were undoubtedly important. And their itineraries reveal something very significant about the social gospel. But it is obvious that even without them, the Social Gospel made a profound impact on Methodism. By the end of the Great War, Dr. A. R. Carman, a social radical of theologically conservative views, had been replaced as General Superintendent by Dr. Samuel Chown, a full-fledged liberal of the progressive social gospel persuasion. Social policy was under the direction of Rev. Ernest Thomas who was to promote the implementation of a programme stating that “the triumph of democracy, the demand of the educated workers for human conditions of life, the deep condemnation that this war has passed on competitive struggle, the revelation of the superior efficiency of rational organization and co-operation, combine with the undying ethics of Jesus to demand nothing less than a transference of the whole economic life from a basis of competition and profits to one of co-operation and service.” Richard Allen is surely correct in describing this statement as “further to the left than any party of consequence before the emergence of the CCF in 1933.” [8] On the first front, then, within the church, the social gospellers could claim victory, though there had been casualties.

On the social gospel’s second front, the struggle outside the church against the dominant bourgeois values of Canadian society, the outcome was far less decisive. For one thing social and political reforms advocated by social gospellers were often advanced by other groups as well. Consequently improved labour laws, educational reform, sanitation, urban planning, milk pasteurization, prohibition and equal suffrage, as they were adopted in Winnipeg, Manitoba and elsewhere, were the result of pressure from many groups, including some which adopted the social gospel rhetoric. Moreover, those piecemeal reforms added up to something short of the establishment of the Kingdom—though even that appeared to be on its way, to some people, in the spring of 1919.

That prominent social gospellers played a leading part in the Winnipeg General strike, and that some of them became martyrs, is a familiar story. So, too, is the fact that the strike, at bottom, was about union recognition and wages and not about the establishment of a “soviet” system in Winnipeg, as was sometimes claimed by the strike’s opponents. Nevertheless, it is worth observing that for some social gospellers of the more radical inclination—Woodsworth and Ivens, for example—the strike was viewed as something more than a mere labour dispute. Their expectations bordered on the chiliastic: they believed, or at least hoped, that a new society was struggling to be born, one where justice and equality and righteousness would reign forevermore. Social regeneration, something almost comparable to religious conversion, was on its way—a religious revolution. Contemporary political leaders, Woodsworth wrote in late 1918, were blind to the fact that “the workers have received a revelation of a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away.” A. E. Smith claimed that “the sympathetic strike is just as religious a movement as a church revival.” Woodsworth agreed for he had “felt the spirit of a great religious revival.” [9] There were many similar statements, statements which should be taken more fully into account when the strike is analysed. Those statements gave some support to those in Winnipeg and Ottawa who wanted to brand the strike as seditious and revolutionary and to deny that it was a dispute about normal labour demands. Of course, as historians have demonstrated, the authorities wanted to use the “revolutionary” stick to beat the workers into submission. There is, however, an irony that should not be ignored in the fact that the workers’ social gospel allies, by their loose and utopian rhetoric, contributed some small credibility to the claims of the strike’s opponents. Of course what the strike suggested, above all, was that while the social gospellers might win a victory for their views within the church, the social and intellectual conversion of the wider society remained a distant hope.

The revolution that radical social gospellers thought might be aborning in the spring of 1919 in Winnipeg was one that might produce a classless society, but it would not be churchless. Indeed part of the revolution would be the creation of a new church somewhat as Salem Bland forecast in his New Christianity. It would be the Labour Church, the logical successor to the bourgeois churches which Bland’s reading of history led him to believe had emerged after the reformation, coincident with the Industrial Revolution. The new church would be democratic, independent and “creedless.” Those who attended the first meeting of the Winnipeg Labour Church in July 1918, a church inspired by Wesley College alumnus, William Ivens, signed the following declaration: “I am willing to support an independent and creedless church based on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Its aim shall be the establishment of justice and righteousness among men of all nations.” [10]

This new church, Ivens, Woodsworth, Smith, Bland, and others hoped, would achieve what social gospellers from the beginning had argued for: a church that preached a message relevant to the assumed needs of ordinary, working people. Otherwise Canadian working people would turn their backs on the church, leaving it an irrelevant anachronism. “Labour and Christianity,” Bland wrote, “... are bound up together. Together they stand or fall. They come into the Kingdom together or not all.” [11]

The Labour Church, like the post 1918 Methodist Church armed with its new social action proposals, was to be a relevant church. Though he was a Presbyterian, not a Methodist, a graduate of the University of Toronto and Knox not Wesley, that famous western clergyman, Rev. Charles W. Gordon, expressed the same outlook in his guise as Ralph Connor. The Foreigner (1909), was certainly not Connor’s best novel, though it was perhaps the one which revealed his mature social attitudes most directly. In it Brown, the Presbyterian clergyman, explained that his object was to make immigrants “good Christians and good Canadians, which is the same thing.” And he explained this theological view further when he remarked that “I am not sent here to proselytize. My church is not in that business. We are doing business, but we are in the business of making good citizens.” [12]

Relevance then, making good citizens and a good society, was what many Protestant leaders, especially those of the liberal persuasion, had come to believe was the principal goal of the church in the world. But the careers of several notable social gospellers suggest the ambiguous heritage of relevant religion.


James Shaver Woodsworth was probably Wesley College’s best known and most revered graduate. All of his life Woodsworth was a restless individualist of troubled conscience and critical intellect—hardly qualities of a successful politician, or perhaps even clergyman. Having tried the latter profession he turned, after 1921, his restless conscience and critical intellect toward an energetic, democratic crusade to create a Co-operative Commonwealth in Canada. But in the previous quarter of a century, as Woodsworth gradually formulated his social gospel, those same qualities were the source of an inner turmoil about his vocation as a Christian Minister in the Methodist Church. These doubts probably began at Wesley and continued through his years as a student at Victoria College in Toronto while he was studying theology. We know that the new doctrines of the higher criticism, liberal theology, and the call to social action were already influential at Wesley during Woodsworth’s student years. Woodsworth, for example, helped his fellow student, A. E. Smith, who arrived with a faith founded on Biblical literalism, work his way through to an acceptance of the higher criticism. Once out of college, Woodsworth’s own doubts increased and what he called his “rationalistic tendency” grew more troubling. For him, the Bible, the rock of Protestant authority, contained no certain doctrine. Nathanial Burwash, his old Victoria College professor, tried to reassure him, but the problem remained and grew. In 1907, racked by doubt and obviously anxious to find work that would free him from preaching doctrines and beliefs he rejected, he attempted to resign from the Methodist ministry.

This is a familiar story, but perhaps one whose full significance has been ignored or underplayed in the standard accounts of the social gospel and Woodsworth’s life. In his letter of resignation Woodsworth confessed that he rejected most of the items in the Methodist discipline and expressed profound doubt about every central Protestant doctrine: original sin, the divinity of Christ, the atonement, salvation by faith and much else. [13] Yet this catalogue of doubt and dissent which, at most, left Woodsworth a Deist or an Agnostic, was rejected by the Manitoba Conference of the Methodist Church. That body declared that “There is nothing in his doctrinal beliefs and adhesion to warrant his separation from the ministry.” [14] Whatever did this judgment mean? It is, of course, possible that merely being a Woodsworth could be taken to cover a multitude of doubts in the Methodist Church. Imagine the scandal that the defection of the son of the Rev. James Woodsworth, Senior, would have caused. Still, even accepting that Methodists are no different than others in their hope that controversies can be papered over, there is surely something more to be said. Woodsworth himself was puzzled by his good fortune, telling his friend Charlie Sissons that the Conference’s interpretation of church doctrine was wrong, and remarking to his wife that the “church is broad and generous and sympathetic, whatever the standards are.” Evidently, doctrinal standards were no longer greatly significant when there were so many practical tasks to be performed. Six years later in a little noticed—that is, little noticed by writers on Woodsworth—article in Acta Victoriana, Woodsworth went even further than his 1907 statement, for his doubts had certainly not subsided. He now wrote that most young ministers no longer accepted church doctrine and had thus to become hypocrites to attain ordination. When he was challenged to clarify his view on church authority he responded, in effect, by advocating a policy of “to each according to his need.” His own choice was “practical Christianity,” the choice he was now fulfilling at All People’s Mission in north Winnipeg. [15]

All Peoples' Mission, Central Institute, 1909.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The implications of Woodsworth’s loss of faith in traditional Christian doctrine became clear only after he had left the church and associated himself with the labour movement, and especially in the Winnipeg General Strike. Those experiences—including his arrest for sedition—led him to the conclusion that he had become part of “the Glorious Company of martyrs” and that intensified his desire to “preach the good news of a better day.” That, he thought, could best be achieved through the Labour Church where a new, scientific religion would be:

(1) Progressive—dynamic, not static. It will lay no claim to finality but rather ‘going on towards perfection’.

(2) It will be Scientific in its spirit and methods. The universe will be perceived as one and indivisible, each part in relation to the whole. We shall not be afraid of truth, rather welcoming it remembering that only the truth can make us free.

(3) It will be Practical. Our immediate concern is with the present world rather than with some future life. Right relations with our fellow men are more important than speculative orthodoxy or ceremonial conventionality.

(4) It will be essentially Social in character. No man liveth unto himself. The highest individual development only is social organization. The emphasis is on social salvation. This involves fraternity and democracy.

(5) It will be Universal. When we evolve a religion that is big enough and broad enough and loving, it will make a universal appeal. [16]

The language of this doctrine had a certain religious flavour to it but in essence it was an expression of a secular utopianism, what Norman Cohen in his In Pursuit of the Millennium calls “surrogates for the church—salvationist groups led by miracle working ascetics.” [17]

Woodsworth, then, strikes me as an example of some-thing Richard Allen refers to, but does not explore: the suggestion that the social gospel movement might beviewed “as an escape from theological perplexities.” [18] That J. S. Woodsworth was a man of courage, integrity and conscience I would not question. But that he was also a man who rationalized his loss of faith and lack of vocation by creating a “new religion” and eventually a political party, I would also argue, is a fair interpretation. To the extent that the social gospel was a way for Woodsworth to salvage—and in his case only temporarily—his career, so, more generally it might be seen as an attempt made by liberal Christians to save the church’s role in society by defining a new mission for it. That mission, in promising to save society would also, not incidentally, save them in a decidedly worldly sense of the term.

But let me return to the more central issue of doctrine within the Methodist Church. That the Woodsworth case was not unique by any means is illustrated by that of another prominent and, at least for a time notorious, Methodist social gospeller, this time the son of a Wesley College graduate. His name was James G. Endicott, son of the Very Reverend James, a leading Methodist and one of the fathers of the United Church. James Jr. was born in China, educated there, and at the University of Toronto. After a stint in the army, he completed his theological training at Victoria College where he came under the instruction of teachers who were deeply influenced by the higher criticism and liberal theology. Moreover, if James’ biographer—his son—is correct, James completely misunderstood the meaning of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus as a confirmation of theological liberalism. By the time he was ready for ordination in that annus mirabilis, 1925, he had concluded that he could not accept a very significant proportion of the Methodist teaching. After some struggle, and consultation with his father, he concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and, crossing his fingers figuratively, he affirmed his belief in the required fashion. Doctrine was irrelevant anyway—or, as his father put it, “in the end every person makes up his own theology.” Here is the one that James, Jr., made up—the answers he would have preferred to have given, answers very similar to those J. S. Woodsworth had composed nearly twenty years earlier.

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth?” “No. I believe in life as I see it and trust to the good purposes that are evident in it. I want humbly to commit my life to those good purposes. I believe that we can get into communion with life so that there is a sense of personality ...”

“Do you believe in the Divinity of Jesus?”

“No. Because the word implies a scheme of thought in which the fall of Adam, the virgin Birth, the special Incarnation ... are bound up as if they were certainties. I pledge my life to the ‘beauty and honesty and simplicity of Jesus’. I am willing to try His life endeavouring to conform to the right as I know it and keeping my mind open to the discovery of more right as I study Him.”

“Do you believe in the Bible as the Word of God?”

“No. I believe it is an ordinary history, full of mistakes, but extraordinarily well-written and of immense value to all men as a source book to study. True religion and sound learning are in no way dependent on it. The records of the life of Jesus are invaluable, the world’s most precious document.”

What this modernist catechism adds up to is fairly self-evident: a theology that would sustain a social gospeller in a life of missionary work of an unorthodox and controversial kind and whose rewards included the Stalin Peace Prize. For the purposes of my discussion it is not the activity that followed from this set of beliefs, but the intellectual assumptions that lay behind them that are of interest. Endicott prefaced his preferred theology with a sentence that speaks several volumes. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear,” he wrote, “but he must first have heard of Galileo and Darwin and Historical Research. And be willing to receive what seems reasonable.” [19]

Here we have come to the central issue in understanding the social gospel whether as it evolved at Wesley College, or elsewhere. The cases of Woodsworth and Endicott, admittedly extreme cases, yet cases of men whose lives were Methodists purelaine—unadulterated—suggest something very important about the social gospel. First, if the social gospel is to be fully understood, its intellectual origins have to be examined at least as thoroughly as its response to the evils of industrial capitalism. The decline of theology, as much as the rise of capitalism, is a primary source of the social gospel. Secondly, the substitution of sociology for theology, something social gospel thinkers advocated, was its major weakness. Let me deal briefly with each of these points.

Endicott’s reference to “Galileo, Darwin and Historical Research” must be the starting point for any serious discussion of the intellectual life of modern Canadian Protestantism. While these intellectual challenges did not pro-duce the spectacular crises that they evoked in Great Britain and the United States, their impact in Canada, which has only begun to be studied, was enormous. I have said something about this in The Regenerators, and two, as yet unpublished theses, one by Michael Gauvreau and the other by David Marshall, make the case especially about the impact of the higher criticism even more powerfully. Moreover, Brain Fraser’s recent The Social Uplifters, which examines the social gospel in its Presbyterian form, has much that is interesting to say on this topic and, I might add, supports my own conviction that the Presbyterian Church, especially that wing associated with Queen’s University, moved towards that liberalism, which led to the social gospel, before the Methodists. Gauvreau details the story of the adaptation, by Methodist professors, of the Bible and especially the Old Testament, into a source book for moralistic prophets. One can easily imagine Salem Bland—especially the Salem Bland in Lawren Harris’ famous portrait in the Art gallery of Ontario—modelling himself on the Old Testament Prophets as seen by the Higher Critics. [20] But there was another aspect of the story, too. For Methodists, especially men like A. E. Smith and James Endicott Sr., whose educational backgrounds were relatively weak, the Bible had once been the ultimate authority. Once it was gone they were left almost in free fall. Smith, at first, was devastated, but a moralistic liberalism reassured him for a couple of decades until he discovered another faith, this time in Marxism. Indeed the shift from Biblical literalism, to moralism to Marxism required no great intellectual effort for Smith, once he recovered from the shock of the higher criticism. In 1944 he sent Rev. Jesse Arnup, the newly elected moderator of the United Church, a copy of the Communist Manifesto with the accompanying comment that “there are some historical contradictions between this document and Jesus, but there are no spiritual or ethical contradictions.” [21] The case of J. S. Woodsworth is different only in degree and that, perhaps, is largely explained by the fact that Woodsworth had the advantage of a secure, middle-class background in contrast with Smith’s youth of deprivation. Both lived a life of intellectual under-nourishment, one which makes it difficult to disagree with Benjamin Smillie’s conclusion—which could be applied to Smith, Woodsworth and others like them—that “when one examines the issues that caused him [Woodsworth] to lose his faith in the church, one cannot help wondering if he understood the doctrines he was rejecting.” [22]

Much more needs to be established about the arrival of the higher criticism in theological colleges like Wesley, its impact on the students and on their congregation. As a model of the sort of study that needs doing I would recommend Gordon Harland’s recent essay on the Presbyterian divine, John Mark King of Manitoba College. King took the challenge of the higher criticism and liberal theology very seriously and, without retreating into Biblical literalism, recognized that the pull of modernism was in a dangerous direction. As early as 1897 he was moved to warn that “the purely ethical gospel” could readily “degenerate into something little better than a moral cult” leading Protestant churches “to their signal and continuous decline.” [23] This warning was, apparently, lost upon his son-in-law, Charles W. Gordon.

Darwinism, too, needs much more careful inspection in its Canadian context. We know something about the reception of The Origin of the Species—its rejection by the Presbyterian scientist, Principal William Dawson of McGill—and of the gradual acceptance of the Darwinian hypothesis by the scientific community. [24] If the Methodist Christian Guardian is a good indicator, Darwinism—or rather evolution—in a corrupt form was integrated rather quickly into Christian belief giving it a progressive cast that encouraged a sentimental view of man and the prospects of individual moral and collective social progress. If the environment determined survival and progress—though that was certainly not the great Charles Darwin’s view—the reformers of the social gospel outlook could argue that alterations in the environment—slum clearance, prohibition, city parts, co-operative enterprises—would lead to a more perfect man and society. “Religion and God,” a one time Methodist and later Labour Church Minister announced in 1921, “were only an economic issue to him. He saw religion as the solution to economic problems.” [25] Not every social gospel proponent went to that extreme, but the implication that religion and social reform were indistinguishable was implicit in this reform social Darwinism. The immanental God of liberal theology combined with a simple-minded Darwinism combined to support the idea that, as William Ivens put it, “Religion is life and life is religion.” [26]

Though we know something about the broad story of the impact of Darwinism, in both its scientific and adaptations to other modes of thought, the details of its seepage into the popular culture remain obscure. Richard Allen’s enlightening article “The Children of Prophesy: Wesley College Students in the Age of Reform” doesn’t mention Darwinism, but almost every quoted statement by students who, before the turn of the century had become convinced that “Christ was the Greatest of Social Reformers,” [27] exudes if not evolutionary naturalism, certainly evolutionary optimism. That spirit, of course, was completely in keeping with the dominant mood of “the last, best West.” And once again, J. S. Woodsworth provides a ready example. In April 1920 he published his interpretation of the post-war social upheaval. He admitted that the strike had been a failure, but insisted that a new religion had been born, expressing itself through the Labour Church. According to Woodsworth’s account this was a natural evolutionary development, for every new age threw up its distinctive social organizations and religious beliefs.

“Religion,” Woodsworth argued “... is simply the utmost reach of man—his highest thinking about the deepest things in life.” His popularized evolutionary anthropology provided a measure of the “rise” of man from “the Hunting Age” through the “Agricultural Age” to the “Industrial Age.” He continued: “Each of these ages has produced its own ideas and institutions, its own laws and customs and codes of morality and religion.” In the new age of labour there would have to be a new church founded on a belief in “continually developing humanity and religion.” [28] These were the thoughts of a man who had drunk deeply, though without much sophistication, at the waters of evolutionary thought.

Since Wesley College taught very little science—no botany or zoology until 1959—evolutionary ideas must have had some other source either in the curriculum or in the environment. Indeed, if science had been taught perhaps such simplistic “Darwinism” would not have taken hold so easily. The most that can be affirmed at the moment is that a Professor like Salem Bland, who taught Church History, was an evolutionist of the optimistic sort, though at least in The New Christianity, his ideas about the dialectic of progress seem largely derived from some version of Hegelian idealism, probably contracted at John Watson’s Queen’s.

Wesley College Faculty, circa 1905.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In order to understand the social gospel generally, and Wesley College’s particular contribution to it, careful study of what was taught, especially in theological faculties, is absolutely fundamental. Most of what has been written so far has been concerned with the “sociology” of the social gospel—its understanding, critique and proposals for the reconstruction in society. But sociology was the end result of the social gospel, not its beginning. As the Rev. Dwight Chown argued in a lecture entitled “The Relation of Sociology to the Kingdom of Heaven,” the preoccupation of previous centuries with Pauline theology and doctrines which “centre about Christ have to the great multitudes lost their meaning,” but “his personality, his social teachings have acquired an interest never before felt.” [29] Sociology, not theology had become the major preoccupation. But why? That remains unclear because, at least in Canada, largely unstudied. Many years ago, in a splendid essay on the Puritans, the late A. S. P. Woodhouse remarked that while it was possibly the case that Jean Calvin had set out to found a church and ended up starting a bank, it was still worthwhile, and only fair, to begin by examining the plans for the church. Equally, then, to paraphrase Professor Woodhouse, it may be the case that liberal theologians and social gospellers ended up organizing a political party, the CCF, but it is important to recall that that was not really what they had set out to do. They set out to revitalize the Church and Christianity—to make it relevant. What we need to understand these original, theological intentions, is a work about Canada comparable to William R. Hutchinson’s The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism or Part II of Owen Chadwick’s masterpiece The Victorian Church.

My concern to return to origins arises not merely from a natural desire to fill out the picture, important as that is. Rather it comes from the conviction that the failure to understand the intellectual origins of the social gospel has contributed to something of a misassessment of its out-come. Social Gospel historians are a rather Whiggish lot. Despite their differing assessments of the place of Methodism and Wesley College in the history of the social gospel, McNaught and Allen, to mention the major interpreters, generally applaud its outcome—socially focused Christianity which expressed itself, in part, in the Social Democratic movement. Allen’s account is somewhat more complicated than that generalization allows, but the point can be substantiated. Indeed his recent, and as always perceptive, essay on “Salem Bland and the Spirituality of the Social Gospel,” in which Allen implicitly responds to the type of criticisms of the social gospel that I have been advancing, actually further confirms my point. It was never the “spirituality” of Bland or the social gospel that was questioned, but rather its intellectual underpinnings—its theology, or lack of it. And Allen rests his case on a connection between the social gospel and its outcome which obscures rather than clarifies an essential problem of the movement. With Bland, Allen writes “an alternative Protestant ethic was well on its way to becoming the spirit of Canadian socialism.” [30]

But was that the goal of the social gospel? Frankly I think not, though that result would doubtless have pleased many. What they had set out to do, and they said it over and over in many voices and places, was to revitalize Protestant Christianity by making it relevant. They argued that if Protestant Christianity failed to find solutions to the plight many Canadians faced in the emerging industrial capitalist order, then the church would lose the working classes to some form of the secular materialism that seemed so dominant. As for the church, it would become a fossilized institution preaching anachronistic doctrines. Relevance, they insisted, could only be achieved through a formula which was repeated ad infinitum: the distinction between the sacred and the secular had to be eradicated. That led to the further conclusion that the old science of religion, theology, had to be replaced by a new science of society, sociology. William Irvine, a Wesley graduate, was one who really saw the full implications of this view. Dining with one of his church elders one evening he reported that: “After supper the elder led the discussion into the ancient bogs of superstitious doctrine. I was careful to counter every step with another toward a fuller more ethical life for man.” He admitted that “I was preaching sheer humanism. The supernatural had vanished. There were no miracles, no virgin birth, no atonement and no resurrection.” [31]

Once again the case of Woodsworth is instructive—his actions as much as his words. Woodsworth made repeated efforts, beginning not long after the turn of the century, to obtain a university appointment as a professor of sociology—he was even considered at the University of Toronto! That he failed to find such an appointment was probably a loss to Canadian academic life—though it was a gain for Canadian politics. But it was also symbolic of the direction of the social gospel, of the secularizing impulses that were so powerful in it. Once we understand better the intellectual origins of the social gospel and the inability or unwillingness of liberal theologians to meet the intellectual challenges that are summarized in the phrases Darwinism and the Higher Criticism, we will better under-stand the shift from theological Christianity to practical Christianity, and why a Wesley College graduate could view doctrine as “ancient bogs of superstition,” and turn to preaching “sheer humanism.” Whether that was an evasion or, as some would argue, an inevitable consequence of modernity, is for the moment immaterial. What is material is the obvious conclusion that rather than revitalizing Christianity or constructing the Kingdom of God on Earth, the social gospel made its own contribution to the secularizing trends that were becoming increasingly dominant in the twentieth century world, including Canada. Of course this was not the anticipated end. In 1920 William Irvine wrote in Farmers in Politics, a work as typical of the social gospel as The New Christianity, that “the line between the sacred and the secular is being rubbed out. That does not mean that everything is becoming secular; on the contrary, everything is becoming sacred.” Such a contention, which arose naturally from a rationalistic, immanentalist view of God, could of course lead to a quite opposite conclusion, namely, a completely profane world which, as Mircea Eliade and others have observed, “is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.” [32]

By failing to understand and defend the distinction (which does not mean the total separation) between the sacred and the secular, many prominent social gospel advocates were, unwittingly, allowing the church to lapse into irrelevance. In modern society, sociology and other social sciences would soon establish a fairly exclusive claim to the science of society. And having done so, institutions other than the church assumed the role of expounding and applying those sciences—universities, trade unions, the state. The career of Carl Dawson, as portrayed in Marlene Shore’s splendid study, is instructive. [33] Having set out to become a Baptist Minister, Dawson moved through liberalism to the social gospel to a career as Canada’s preeminent sociologist, a practitioner of a “science of social redemption” which gradually shed all connection with Protestantism. Left with the science of religion in intellectual disarray and its hoped for sociological mission largely in the hands of secular agencies, the church and Christianity faced an even more profound crisis. In his brilliant study of the religious origins of secularization James Turner writes that “... the most influential church leaders tried to protect belief by making peace with modernity, by conceiving God and his purposes in terms as nearly compatible as possible with secular understandings and aims ... Having made God more and more like man—intellectually, morally, emotionally—the shapers of religion made it feasible to abandon God, to believe simply in man.” [34] A creedless Christianity led to the preaching of “sheer humanism,” the conflation of the sacred and the profane to secularism. Homo homini Deus est.

When the balance is struck on the social gospel ac-counts the final sum must include not only some admirable social reforms, “the spirit of Canadian socialism,” and other positive achievements, but also a place must be found for “secularization.” Depending on the accountant, of course, that item may be entered in red or black. For those who see modernity with its pervasive secular values as either “progress” or an inevitable social development, the liberal and Marxist accountants, the entry will be on the credit side. But those of a more traditional outlook, those who reject inevitability, or those who are simply sceptics about “progress” will use the other, the debit, side of the ledger.


This paper is a revised version of the Newcombe Lectures delivered at the University of Winnipeg in October, 1988.

1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

2. Richard Allen, The Social Passion, Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914-1928 (Toronto, 1971), p. 4.

3. Richard Allen, “Children of Prophecy,” Red River Valley Historian, Summer 1974, cited 15.

4. J. S. Woodsworth, My Neighbour (Toronto, 1911), p. 33.

5. Kenneth McNaught, A Prophet in Politics. A Biography of J. S. Woodsworth (Toronto, 1959) p. 98.

6. P.A.C., J. S. Woodsworth Papers, Salem Bland to J. S. Woodsworth, 5 July 1918.

7. A. G. Bedford, The University of Winnipeg (Toronto, 1976), p. 130.

8. Allen, Social Passion, p. 74.

9. B.C. Federationist, December 27, 1918; Allen, Social Passion, p. 92; Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators (Toronto, 1985), p. 220.

10. Allen, Social Passion, p. 84.

11. Salem Bland, The New Christianity (1920, second edition Toronto, 1973), p. 93.

12. Ralph Connor, The Foreigner. A Tale of Saskatchewan (Toronto, 1909), pp. 253, 275. On Gordon and other liberal Presbyterians see Brian Fraser, The Social Uplifters. Presbyterian Progressives and the Social Gospel in Canada 1875–1915 (Waterloo, 1988).

13. Woodsworth Papers, “To My Brethren of the Manitoba Conference,” (1907).

14. Woodsworth, Following the Gleam (np., nd.), p. 8.

15. Cook, Regenerators, pp. 216-17.

16. Woodsworth, The First Story of the Labour Church and Some Things for Which it Stands (Winnipeg, 1920), p. 15.

17. Norman Cohen, The Pursuit of the Millenium (New York, 1970), p. 283.

18. Allen, Social Passion, p. 4.

19. Stephen Endicott, James G. Endicott. Rebel Out of China (Toronto, 1980), p. 54.

20. Michael Gauvreau, “The Taming of History: Reflections on the Canadian Methodists’ Encounter with Biblical Criticism,” C.H.R., LXV, 3, 1984, pp. 316–46; David Marshall, The Clerical Response to Secularization: Canadian Methodists and Presbyterians 1860–1930 (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Toronto 1987).

21. United Church Archives, A. E. Smith Papers, Smith to Jesse Arnup, 8 September 1944.

22. Benjamin Smillie, “The Woodsworths: James and J. S.—Father and Son,” in Dennis L. Butcher et al., Prairie Spirit (Winnipeg, 1985), p. 119.

23. Gordon Harland, “John Mark King: the First Principal of Manitoba College,” in Prairie Spirit, p. 182.

24. Carl Berger, Science, God and Nature in Victorian Canada (Toronto, 1983).

25. Allen, Social Passion, p. 163.

26. Cook, Regenerators, p. 223.

27. Richard Allen, “Children of Prophesy. Wesley College Students in an Age of Reform,” Red River Valley Historian, Summer 1974, pp. 15-20.

28. Woodsworth, Labour Church, pp. 229–30.

29. Cook, Regenerators, pp. 229–30.

30. Richard Allen, “Salem Bland and the Spirituality of the Social Gospel: Winnipeg and the West, 1903–13,” in Prairie Spirit, p. 232.

31. Anthony Madiros, William Irvine. The Life of a Prairie Radical (Toronto, 1979), pp. 26, 22.

32. William Irvine, Farmers in Politics (Toronto 1920), p. 53; Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1959), p. 13.

33. Marlene Shore, The Science of Social Redemption (Toronto, 1987).

34. James Turner, Without God, Without Creed (Baltimore, 1985), pp. 260–61; As is so often the case, George Orwell, a very secular man, also understood this point. In a perceptive piece about the decline of religious belief, he wrote in 1940 that Marx’s famous saying that “religion is the opium of the people” is habitually wrenched out of its context and given a meaning subtly but appreciably different from the one he gave it. Marx did not say, at any rate in that place, that religion is merely a dope handed out from above; he said that it is something the people create for themselves to supply a need that he recognized to be a real one. “Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world. Religion is the opium of the people.” What is he saying except that man does not live by bread alone, that hatred is not enough, that a world worth living in cannot be founded on “realism” and machine guns? If he had foreseen how great his intellectual influence would be, perhaps he would have said it more often and more loudly.” Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, II (New York, 1968), p. 18.

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations Policy

© 1998-2020 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.