Manitoba History: “Evangelization, Not Legislation”: Christian Fundamentalism, The Briercrest Bible Institute, and the Politics of the Great Depression

by Nolan Brown
University of Western Ontario

Number 84, Summer 2017

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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During the exceptionally dry and hot summer of 1933, Sinclair Whittaker, the Conservative member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly for Moose Jaw County, called a series of meetings with his constituents. In the grip of the Great Depression, over 90% of the population of Moose Jaw County was on some form of relief. [1] As crop failures and farm foreclosures became the norm, thousands of people abandoned the region for the parkland in the north of the province or better prospects in other areas of Canada. Whittaker, however, claimed that he had found a solution to their problems. The panacea did not include “some social legislation” or a radical shift in economic policy, as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) had recently proposed in its “Regina Manifesto.” Instead, Whittaker told the crowd that he underwent a spiritual experience that “changed his outlook on life.” The solution to their problems was “the salvation offered by Christ in the Bible.” [2]

No record exists as to how Whittaker’s constituents responded to his “solution,” but it speaks to the larger phenomenon of the intersection of religion and politics as a result of the “dirty thirties.” At its base were two diametrically opposed philosophies—the “social gospel” and premillennial fundamentalism. Social gospellers formed the core of a liberalized Christianity which abandoned the 19th-century focus on individual salvation in favour of societal reform. The movement sought to maintain Christianity’s relevance by joining with the state to deal with social problems. [3] The social gospel, Richard Allen explains, “rested on the premise that Christianity was a social religion.” It was a call to “realize the Kingdom of God in the very fabric of society.” [4] Fundamentalists opposed this shift. The ills in modern society were a product of sin, not the disparity inherent within capitalism. Pre-millennialism’s focus on Christ’s imminent return resulted in a worldview wherein the Depression became part of God’s punishment for a modern and decadent society. They believed that the end times were near and society was doomed. [5] With little time left before Christ’s return and the final judgement, fundamentalists spent the Depression focused on saving as many souls as possible. [6]

These Christian theologies are at the centre of our understanding of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s different political responses to the Depression. In Alberta, historians emphasize William Aberhart’s background as a fundamentalist preacher and radio minister as a central element in the rise of Social Credit. John Irving, for example, describes Aberhart’s partisanship as being “continuous with the religious and educational activities” of his fundamentalist ministry. Social Credit was “an extension of an already well-established fundamentalist and prophetic movement.” [7] Aberhart used his popularity as a religious leader to convince the people of Alberta to vote for an unconventional economic system. As Gerald Friesen explains: “Aberhart was ... a respected sincere educator and religious leader. If he saw a way out of the economic morass and could associate this plan with biblical prophecy, then he offered hope to thousands who had little else left.” [8] Aberhart’s conception of the Depression was predicated on his belief that it was a sign of Christ’s imminent return. Clark Banack argues that Aberhart’s decision to enter politics was not the result of a desire to “save the world,” as was the case with many social gospellers, but an evangelical crusade to “save souls.” [9] Aberhart believed that poverty and economic turmoil created a barrier between people and their salvation. Social Credit’s economic and political reforms, therefore, attempted to lift people out of poverty and offer them the freedom necessary to create a personal relationship with God before judgement day. [10] While historians have argued that some of Social Credit’s programs—including employment insurance and universal healthcare—demonstrate the party’s initial left-leaning stance, the ultimate purpose behind these reforms were decidedly conservative. [11]

In Saskatchewan, on the other hand, historians attribute the CCF’s triumph in 1944 as a victory for the social gospel tradition. The CCF, founded in 1932, consisted of rural farmers, urban workers, and intellectuals who believed laissez-faire capitalism was the root of society’s ills. [12] While nominally socialist, the CCF aspired to the social gospel’s belief in the possibility of creating a utopia—a New Jerusalem—which would usher in God’s kingdom on Earth. According to A.W. Johnson, the “pervasive heritage” of the social gospel deeply inspired the “Christian ethic” of CCF members. [13] This was especially the case for the Saskatchewan CCF under Tommy Douglas, an ordained Baptist minister, whose background in the social gospel guided his reform program. Douglas campaigned on a religiously liberal vision for a society “where the strong would bear the burdens of the weak, and the desire for social justice would overshadow the hunger for economic gain.” [14]

Aerial view of Briercrest. BBI would eventually expand into many of the buildings along the main commercial street before
moving to Caronport.
Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A17799

It is clear that the intersection of religion and politics directly influenced political responses to the Depression in Saskatchewan and Alberta. [15] Our understanding of this phenomenon, however, is predicated on the assumption of an intra-regional political division between a conservative Alberta and a socially-democratic Saskatchewan—what Nelson Wiseman termed the “pattern of Prairie politics.” [16] Within this construction, the CCF’s victory in Saskatchewan is direct evidence of the province’s left-leaning slant, and is often used in the creation of a false dichotomy with Aberhart in Alberta. The magnitude of the CCF’s successes have overshadowed the role and influence that Christian fundamentalism played in the politics of the Great Depression.

Saskatchewan was home to an influential fundamentalist community that shared many similarities with its counterparts in Alberta. Sinclair Whittaker and his spiritual mentor, Henry Hildebrand, were at the forefront of Saskatchewan’s fundamentalist movement. In 1935, Whittaker and Hildebrand helped establish the Briercrest Bible Institute (BBI), Saskatchewan’s most influential and longest lasting fundamentalist organization. [17] With the adoption of a weekly radio program in 1937 and the rapid expansion of its bible school, BBI became the primary locus for the development of Saskatchewan fundamentalism. This influence made BBI the medium for conservative Christians’ response to the Depression. It was here where fundamentalists in Alberta and Saskatchewan diverged. Whereas “Bible Bill” Aberhart used his popularity as a fundamentalist preacher to enter politics, Hildebrand and Whittaker remained non-partisan. This stance does not mean that they were apolitical. The non-partisan and anti-modern worldview espoused by BBI’s founders influenced the politics of a significant proportion of Saskatchewan residents at the height of the Great Depression. Through exploring the development of BBI’s religious ministry, it becomes clear that the political cultures of these provinces were not as different as historians have assumed.

Fundamentalism in Saskatchewan developed as part of an early 20th-century neo-orthodox response to the emergent liberalism of mainstream protestant denominations. It represented a desire to return to the “fundamentals of the Christian faith, including belief in salvation through Christ alone, the inerrant bible, and the pre-millennial return of Christ.” [18] Across the Canadian Prairies, fundamentalists shared the same orthodox Christian beliefs and concerns over the “secularization” of Canadian society. The adoption of higher criticism in colleges and seminaries and the formation of the United Church of Canada were leading people away from true salvation. [19] This anti-modernism was fuelled by fundamentalists’ proclivity for premillennial dispensationalism, an eschatological belief that periodized the bible into specific “dispensations” and held that Christ would return prior to the advent of the Millennium. [20] The liberalization of mainstream religion and society, they argued, proved God’s displeasure and signalled the coming Apocalypse. [21]

From these foundations, however, fundamentalists differed with one another in the militancy of their opposition to liberalism and their willingness to engage with the broader secular world. [22] Whittaker and Hildebrand espoused a less militant response than Aberhart and his successor Ernest Manning did. Aberhart intended his ministry to be a militant defence of the faith during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raging across North America in the 1920s. [23] By the 1930s, however, fundamentalists experienced a significant backlash against their militant anti-modernism. Rather than a sign of strength, militant fundamentalism became a source of ridicule and scorn as mainstream society reacted against their “backward” beliefs. [24] Having seen how militancy diminished the influence of fundamentalism elsewhere, Whittaker and Hildebrand were more reluctant than Aberhart to publicly attack the leading signs of modernity.

This is not to say that Saskatchewan fundamentalists did not rage against modernity and secularism. In fact, the perceived liberalism of mainstream religion directly led to BBI’s founding. [25] As one of the founders lamented: “I was astonished as I realized that I had been going step by step, down the road of modernism...I saw for the first time that all my years of Sunday school teaching and work in the church had been wasted.” [26] With the realization that modernism had moved them onto the path of damnation, Whittaker, his wife Isabel, and a handful of other fundamentalists broke with their local United Church and established their own organization in 1934.

Whittaker served as the driving force behind the BBI’s initial growth. After moving to Saskatchewan from Ontario in 1912, Whittaker opened a chain of five general stores located in the south of the province. He capitalized on his success as a business owner to enter political office as a Conservative MLA in 1929, serving one term. It was during his time in office that Whittaker converted and shifted the emphasis of his life from the worldly concerns of business and politics to religion. Although the focus of Whittaker’s life changed, he used his background in the secular world to support BBI’s expansion. Whittaker’s stores, for example, served as the organization’s principal financial support network. As his daughter later recalled, “... he gave his farms, his businesses, his insurance policies, his bank accounts, all his financial resources ... He used to say, ‘We save to give.’” [27]

If Whittaker served as BBI’s founder and chief financial backer, Henry Hildebrand dictated its spiritual direction. Hildebrand migrated to Manitoba as part of the Mennonite Russlander influx during the Russian Revolution. Although Hildebrand came-of-age in a religious household, he was not “born again” until he attended a summer camp sponsored by the Canadian Sunday School Mission (CSSM) in 1929. [28] Following his conversion, Hildebrand studied at the Winnipeg Bible Institute and eventually became a circuit preacher for the CSSM. Hildebrand’s training in what religious historian Bruce Hindmarsh terms the “Winnipeg fundamentalist network” directly influenced his theological outlook. This web of individuals, churches, and schools believed that the main goal of fundamentalism was the conversion of their neighbours before the Apocalypse, not in the defence of “Christian civilization against the onslaught of theological modernism, evolution, and communism” which dominated in Alberta. [29] Unlike Aberhart, who “came of age in the heat” of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and was groomed by a “staunchly fundamentalist preacher,” Hildebrand’s religious outlook was formed in the relatively open and moderate Winnipeg network. [30] Although Hildebrand sympathized with the anti-modern concerns espoused by Aberhart in Alberta, his commitment to home missions and evangelism took precedence.

Sinclair Alexander Whittaker (1888–1974) served as the driving force behind BBI’s creation, taking care of the organization’s
business and financial needs.
Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-A675.

This tension between militancy and evangelism is central to Hildebrand’s Christianity. For Hildebrand, biblical orthodoxy and evangelism were not mutually exclusive. “Sound doctrine and a spiritual life,” he noted, “go hand in hand.” [31] -On the one hand, fundamentalist doctrine fills Hildebrand’s writings and sermons. Hildebrand’s deity was a personal, all-powerful God that ordained the course of human history by actively intervening in the day-to-day lives of professing Christians. The story of BBI, Hildebrand recalled in his memoirs, details “how God overruled infirmities and weakness.” Hildebrand likened the entirety of his life to a process wherein God shaped “a servant to become His instrument in founding a college.” [32] Similarly, Hildebrand was steadfast in his defence of an inerrant bible. The bible was the literal “Word of God,” containing the immutable “facts of history.” [33] Hildebrand was equally clear on the need for personal salvation. The bible, he argued, “declares that there are just two classes—There are those who are lost and there those who are saved.” [34] The need to reconcile contradictions within an inerrant bible also led Hildebrand down the same dispensationalist path as Aberhart. Both ministers, for example, viewed mainstream religion’s embrace of liberalism as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. The dawn of the antichrist’s reign, Hildebrand noted in 1938, would be preceded by this “great apostasy of normal Christians.” [35] Hildebrand and Aberhart interpreted the “decay” of modern society as a warning of the approaching Rapture. [36] Hildebrand often pointed to juvenile delinquency, rising crime rates, a break-down in traditional gender roles, and the increasing secularization of Canadian society as evidence of a “perverse and crooked generation” which was prophesized as ushering in the End Times. [37] “If the clouds are already arising upon the horizon,” he questioned, “how near the Second Coming of Christ be?” [38]

Despite these theological similarities, Hildebrand’s ministry lacked Aberhart’s militancy. Whereas Aberhart challenged the leading sign of modernism such as evolution and female ministers, Hildebrand remained above the fray. [39] Hildebrand simply did not feel that his beliefs needed defending. Fundamentalism was the only true Christianity and, in such a conception, there was no room for debate. Hildebrand held that his role as a minister was simply to tell the unsaved about their errors and hope that they adopted his religious outlook in its entirety, “lest their last opportunity of accepting Christ is gone forever.” [40] At the same time, he firmly believed that militancy alienated more people than it saved. While Hildebrand would not weaken his religious convictions by catering to liberalism, he also would not allow a misguided militancy distract from the ultimate purpose of committing “faithful men to the Word of God.” [41]

Hildebrand’s theological focus made him the perfect fit for the young church in Briercrest. Not only did he have the fundamentalist orthodoxy and anti-modernism that the congregation desired, but his commitment to evangelism and work with the CSSM made him a perfect choice to help spread the reach of the small church. The Briercrest fundamentalist community was struggling without proper spiritual guidance. As the Depression was raging, money was scarce and many people were unable to attend bible school in the larger urban centres. Correspondence courses with fundamentalist groups in the United States initially filled the gap, but the Briercrest “saints” quickly understood that this was not adequate if they intended to show their neighbours the correct path. [42] The solution, therefore, was to create their own bible school where young people from the region could receive a fundamentalist education and spread the gospel. To create this school, however, Briercrest needed a minister, and Whittaker encouraged the 23-year-old Hildebrand to lead them. “We fully realize,” he wrote, “that under the economic conditions prevailing here it will require a great deal of faith to proceed. We have had six crop failures. Ninety percent of the people are on relief. We are, however, blessed with some dozens of praying Christians who are endowed with enough faith to move mountains.” [43] Although reluctant at first, Hildebrand eventually decided that this congregation could serve a valuable position as a bulwark against the religious liberalism that “swept the field of the prairies” and took up Whittaker on his offer. [44]

From the outset, Hildebrand’s theological beliefs dominated BBI. The school’s publications made a point to stress BBI’s fundamentalist identity. An early prospectus, for instance, lamented that the “ever-increasing ignorance of the pure word of God prevails throughout our land today.” [45] Similarly, Hildebrand was adamant that BBI would indoctrinate students in proper beliefs. Students would “weigh and consider” fundamentalist doctrines, not “criticize and refute” them. [46] At the same time, there was a clear sense that this fundamentalist orthodoxy, while important, was only a means to the greater end of spreading the gospel to the Saskatchewan’s unconverted. Hildebrand insisted that BBI would function as a trans-denominational institute, open to anyone who professed an acceptance of theology regardless of church affiliation. As he explained: “To bring man to Jesus—O be this our aim. Not to bring them to baptism, not merely to a meeting house, nor to adopt our form of worship, but to bring them to the dear Saviour ...” [47] This emphasis set BBI apart from many other fundamentalist organizations in Saskatchewan which were established by Christian denominations to develop ministers for individual churches or to arrest the assimilation of immigrant children into mainstream Canada. [48] In contrast, BBI’s explicit goal was to bypass this denominational focus to “meet the need of trained workers of the Prairies.” [49] Hildebrand did not care what his students’ backgrounds were, and entrance requirements were relatively vague. So long as students were “of approved Christian character,” “considerate of others,” and, most importantly, “obedient to those over them in the Lord and willing to submit to the discipline and order of the school,” they could study at BBI. [50]

This dual focus on fundamentalist orthodoxy and evangelism were also present in the school’s curriculum. Students enrolled in a three-year diploma program designed to give the religious foundations to effectively evangelize and adhere to a fundamentalist worldview. Over their three years at BBI, students took courses on child evangelism, public speaking, church history, missions, systematic biblical theology, dispensational truth, and modern cults—“a survey of the doctrines of modernism and the leading false religious cults as contrasted with historic Christianity.” [51] As a part of their training students practised these evangelical skills by holding bible study sessions with local children in the district’s schools. Not only did these excursions give BBI’s students practical experience in evangelism, they also gave an opportunity to spread the gospel and publicize BBI’s programs. [52]

Although central to BBI’s mission, these early attempts at evangelism were unsuccessful. On a practical level, Briercrest’s rural location in south-central Saskatchewan restricted its students’ ability to spread the gospel. Saskatchewan had yet to build an all-weather road system, limiting BBI’s reach in the winter months to a small radius around the school. [53] More importantly, however, BBI’s school visits also drew attention and opposition from the local community who believed BBI was “splitting” the local United Church. [54] Resentment towards the Roman Catholic presence in Saskatchewan’s schools compounded this antagonism. Anti-Catholicism reached a fever pitch in the 1920s as shown by the growth of the Ku Klux Klan and the election of J. T. M. Anderson’s Conservatives in 1929. [55] Once in office, Anderson’s first major legislative activities included a ban on the display of religious emblems and the instruction by religious officials in the province’s public schools. [56] Although BBI was not Catholic, its opposition to the status quo offered by mainstream Protestantism posed a similar threat. [57] In 1937, school trustees used the precedent set by the Anderson Government and voted to ban BBI from local public schools. [58] Not willing to abandon BBI’s emphasis on rural evangelism, Hildebrand and Whittaker had to find a way to overcome both Briercrest’s geographic isolation as well as the local opposition their efforts generated.

Radio offered the solution to both issues. As Hildebrand indicated, radio allowed BBI to “go over the heads of our objectors.” [59] This is not to say that religious broadcasts did not encounter opposition. In 1928, for example, hostility to the featuring of Jehovah’s Witness theology on CHUC in Saskatoon led to the withdrawal of the station’s broadcast licence. [60] It does mean, however, that although the potential for opposition remained if broadcasts became too controversial, radio was much less antagonistic than direct school visits. By shifting the location of BBI’s evangelism from the public sphere to the privacy of people’s homes, radio lessened BBI’s threat to the religious status quo of the province’s schools. [61] Radio also had the potential to expand the reach of BBI’s ministry. Whereas school visits were restricted to a small radius around Briercrest, the major limits to a radio ministry were the number of people that owned a receiver and were willing to tune in. While still a relatively new technology in the 1930s, radio broadcasting was already immensely popular. By 1929 Saskatchewan was home to 11 commercial stations and had sold over 27,000 receiving licences, the third highest in Canada. [62] Even if they reached only a fraction of the households that owned radios in Saskatchewan, the number of potential converts was significant.

In adopting a radio ministry Whittaker and Hildebrand were experimenting with a medium which had already proved its value for evangelization. In the early 1920s, religious broadcasts on the Canadian Prairies were limited to mainline Protestant churches that transmitted regular Sunday services over the air. [63] This changed in 1925 when Aberhart’s Back to the Bible Hour began engaging directly with its radio audience. By designing programs specifically for his radio listeners, Aberhart transformed them from outsiders into active participants in his ministry. His success was not lost on other fundamentalists, and similar radio ministries began to appear across the West. [64] BBI’s radio ministry—The Young People’s Hour—was based on the Aberhart model. The program featured the BBI choir singing gospel songs and students conducting mock classroom lessons, with broadcasts typically ending with a sermon from Hildebrand. [65]

BBI started modestly with a group of eleven students in 1935. The first graduating class in 1937 consisted of three students.
Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-B17799.

Despite these similarities, Hildebrand’s sermons diverged from Aberhart’s in their characteristic lack of militancy. For Aberhart, the adoption of radio was an extension of his militant position in the fundamentalist-modernist debate. As one observer noted, Aberhart “made some very bitter remarks” and was “stirring up all the trouble” he could. [66] Hildebrand avoided this controversy, believing that militancy would detract from BBI’s evangelical mission. Part of this difference can be explained by examination of the different contexts that the two ministries operated. Whereas Aberhart began the Back to the Bible Hour at the height of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the 1920s, fundamentalists had largely withdrawn from the debate by the time that BBI started broadcasting in the late 1930s. Furthermore, new radio broadcasting regulations adopted in Canada in 1929 forbade religious broadcasts from “making an attack upon the leaders or doctrine of another religion”, effectively limiting the militancy that was permissible on the airwaves. [67] Although the different tones in these broadcasts were partially attributable to these different contexts, they were also a central product of the different focus of Hildebrand and Aberhart’s fundamentalism. BBI’s Young People’s Hour was less militant because it was produced in a religious context which privileged evangelism.

The Young People’s Hour’s goal was not to defend fundamentalism, but to explain it and lead non-believers to Christ. Key theological concepts were not up for debate. Fundamentalist positions were introduced as a set of facts which, when accepted, would lead people to salvation. The foundation of Hildebrand’s Christianity remained an inerrant bible, but he did not use this position to attack modernism in the same way Aberhart did. “The Gospel,” he told his listeners, “is ... not a new law. It is not a code of morals and ethics. It is not a creed to be accepted. It is not a system of religion to be adhered to ... It is a divinely given message concerning a divine Person, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.” [68] Similarly, Hildebrand’s fundamentalism led him to believe that the basis of modern society was corrupted by sin:

Sin has blasted and blighted every noble flower that would have bloomed in moral happiness. Homes are broken, families are separated, children are left destitute, characters are degraded, and sorrow or sweat marks every brow. We cannot fathom the crimes committed in this world nor the sorrows that have swept across it since the first advent of sin. Hearts are broken—lives are bleeding. This world has become not only a place of tears, yea, a field of blood! [69]

Rather than rail against the leading signs of modernity, however, Hildebrand presented his listeners with a simple solution to the problems of the modern world. “One way or another,” he cautioned, “you must have God and His Christ, or you must be the servants of Satan. The power of God must hold you or sin will bind you; Heaven must win you and attract you to itself, or hell will mark you for its own, and downward you will descent[sic].” [70] People could either accept they were living in sin and be saved, or deny the fact and be damned.

Despite this different emphasis, Hildebrand’s radio ministry proved to be as popular as Aberhart’s. BBI was inundated with letters and donations from listeners across Saskatchewan who were moved by the program and its offer of salvation from their worldly concerns. [71]

This popularity convinced Hildebrand and Whittaker to dedicate more resources to its expansion over the next decade. In 1938, BBI teamed up with Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta to sponsor a joint evangelistic campaign by the noted American evangelist Oscar Lowry. [72] For six weeks, Lowry held daily revival meetings in Moose Jaw which BBI broadcast across the province. Prairie Bible Institute’s Prairie Pastor reported on the “wonderful soul winning campaign” in Saskatchewan, noting that over 2,500 letters were received and “hundreds of conversions were reported.” [73] Drawing on these successes, the Young People’s Hour expanded in 1945 to become Canada’s first coast-to-coast gospel program, broadcasting on 22 stations from Vancouver, B.C. to Sydney, Nova Scotia. [74]

The popularity of the radio ministry is also seen in BBI’s expanded prestige within Saskatchewan’s fundamentalist community as enrollment at the bible school grew exponentially. From an initial class of 11 students in 1935, BBI grew to over 100 in its first decade, prompting the institute to move to a decommissioned British Commonwealth Air Training Plan base near the village of Caron in 1946. At this new “Caronport” campus, BBI expanded its offerings to include a high school, general store, post office, and an elementary school. [75] Its expansion, however, came at the expense of other more denominationally-based bible schools. Of the more than thirty bible schools that opened in Saskatchewan prior to 1940, only 11 were still in operation by the mid-1950s. [76] While other schools closed, Briercrest experienced unprecedented prosperity, transforming it into the foremost force in Saskatchewan fundamentalism.

This dominant position allowed Whittaker and Hildebrand to shape Saskatchewan’s conservative Christian political response to the Depression. Once again, the focus on evangelism dictated this response and served as a dividing point between Saskatchewan and Alberta. Both Hildebrand and Aberhart believed the Depression was prophesied as the beginning of the Apocalypse, but their theological focus led them to significantly different decisions on the usefulness of a political solution. Although Aberhart successfully used his position as a popular fundamentalist minister to enter politics, he did so at great risk to his religious ministry. According to John Stackhouse, Aberhart’s insistence on the intermingling of Christianity and politics alienated many evangelicals who desired their ministers to maintain a “distance from the ‘worldly’ practice of politics.” As politics was part of the corrupt world, its practice was inherently corrupting.

Hildebrand shared these concerns. In a letter to Aberhart in 1937, he warned that many Christians thought Aberhart took “a step down” when he entered politics. Because Hildebrand believed that sin produced Canada’s economic and social problems, he was “confident that no new ism or political party” could have “any effect on the root cause of the disease.” Aberhart responded to this criticism by noting that he “wouldn’t give much for a Christianity that has no effect upon the environment of a person.” [78] The central divide between fundamentalism in Saskatchewan and Alberta was not over doctrine, it was over partisanship. Aberhart believed that Social Credit reforms were necessary to ensure the individual freedom required for personal salvation. If alienating his “short-sighted” fundamentalist constituency was the cost of entry, so be it. Whittaker and Hildebrand were unwilling to take the risk. Politics, they feared, would distract from BBI’s ultimate goal of evangelism. “There is a tendency for us to get occupied with times and seasons and neglect our main business,” Hildebrand noted. “Legislation has its place but God’s program to-day is not to propagate his word by legislation, but rather by evangelization.” [79] Hildebrand simply did not consider politics a valid evangelistic tool and chose to remain non-partisan in his ministry.

This decision to remain neutral was tested when Social Credit “invaded” Saskatchewan in 1938. Premier Aberhart initially believed that Social Credit would prove its worth to the rest of Canada by virtue of its successes in Alberta. [80] When the federal Liberal government of Mackenzie King disallowed Social Credit legislation in early 1938, however, Aberhart decided that Social Credit needed a regional powerbase to force Ottawa to back down. A strong showing in the upcoming Saskatchewan election would do just that. As he told a rally in Moose Jaw, “if Saskatchewan says so maybe the Dominion government will take heed.” [81] The federal Liberals also considered Saskatchewan a critical bastion and viewed the upcoming election “as the advance line in the war against Social Credit.” [82] It was Social Credit, not the CCF, which became the party to beat. With increasing interventions in the province by leading Liberals such as Jimmy Gardiner, Aberhart realized that he needed to secure the best local candidates available in Saskatchewan. Hildebrand’s fundamentalism and Whittaker’s background in politics made them perfect choices. Both men refused to take part. Whittaker later recalled that, although he believed that Aberhart and Manning were “good Christians,” he was skeptical that political reforms were the answer to the Depression. [83] Whittaker’s fundamentalist beliefs convinced him that modern society could not be saved. After running as an independent candidate and losing in 1934, Whittaker abandoned politics for the remainder of his life. Hildebrand was just as clear in his response to Aberhart’s overtures. “A truly honourable man,” he reminded his listeners, “is never an office-seeker.” [84]

Hildebrand and Whittaker’s refusal to support Aberhart became the tipping point for Social Credit’s fortunes in Saskatchewan. Although Aberhart put a considerable effort into campaigning, he did so without the backing of prominent local figures. The Liberals and CCF capitalized on this absence by characterizing Aberhart as a “despot intent on ruling the Province from Edmonton.” [85] In the end, only two Social Credit candidates were elected. The lack of a key endorsement by either Hildebrand or Whittaker, while not the only reason, factored heavily in Social Credit’s inability to gain a foothold in Saskatchewan. [86]

BBI’s radio ministry expanded its prestige among Saskatchewan’s fundamentalist community. By the early 1940s, the BBI was the
largest bible school in the province.
Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, R-B12491.

Although both Hildebrand and Whittaker were staunchly non-partisan, they were both deeply ideological. Hildebrand disdained socialism and communism. Much of this hostility can be traced to his youth in Russia during the revolution. In his memoirs, Hildebrand recounted various instances of the barbarity of the Red Army. For Hildebrand, these depravities were allowed because the “atheistic” and “anti-Christian” communists had turned the nation away from God. The lesson, therefore, was that a nation without God was a nation based on sin; it was doomed. Such a situation could happen in Canada, he concluded, should the nation turn away from God as well. [87] Hildebrand communicated this anti-socialism in his radio ministry as he subtly reminded his followers of Christianity’s incompatibility with socialism and the CCF. Hildebrand argued, for example, that the collectivization promoted by the socialism and communism was in direct opposition to Christ’s teachings. “Anyone acquainted with Christianity on the one hand,” he noted, “and communism on the other hand does not speak of Christian Communism ... Christianity works on the principle of consecration ...Communism on the principle of coercion ... Christianity is the communion of the saints, Communism is confiscation by the select.” [88] Similarly, Hildebrand challenged the social gospel’s idea that it was possible to legislate a new moral order. These people, he argued, “hold the moral code with its precepts before the sinner and expect him to keep it, but such labour is in vain.” Teaching “men to walk who have no feet is a hopeless task, and just such is an instruction in morals before grace implants in the heart a desire for holiness.” [89] As the ills of modern society were a product of sin, it was folly to believe that a secular law could fix them.

These anti-socialist attacks grew more overt in the early 1940s as the provincial CCF gained support. In November 1943, Hildebrand criticized the CCF’s plans for a guaranteed minimum income. “You may give everybody ‘a living wage’ however extravagant his notions of a living wage may be,” he argued, “and the world will groan still, because you have not dealt with the root of all mischief.” [90] The CCF’s policies repulsed Hildebrand because they provided charity to those who would not help themselves. “Christianity does not only dole out alms to needy humanity,” he reminded his listeners. Rather, it heals humanity from sin so that it “can walk on its feet and earn its own living,” and help others do the same. [91] Hildebrand held special disdain for CCF leaders whose false message of creating a “New Jerusalem” only led people astray at the very moment their personal salvation was paramount. In the months leading to the 1944 election, he warned his followers that, from time to time, “some new luminaries flash across the sky, professing to have the light.” In the end, however, “time has eclipsed them all and they amounted to no more than a meteor flash that burns itself out by its own velocity.” [92] For Hildebrand, the only time-tested and true salvation from the economic ravages of the Depression lay in accepting Christ.

Despite these warnings, Hildebrand could not persuade the people of Saskatchewan to turn away from the CCF. Regardless, he did not view the outcome of the 1944 provincial election as an indication that his efforts and message had failed. On a practical level, Hildebrand could take solace that his closest followers understood the dangers the CCF posed. While the local constituency went overwhelmingly CCF, the polling station at Briercrest voted against the tide. [93] Ironically, it may have been the focus on radio which lessened Hildebrand’s ability to sway the course of the election. Radio greatly expanded Hildebrand’s reach, but it did so at the cost of diffusing his followers across the province. Without a substantial concentration in any single locale outside of Briercrest, Saskatchewan’s fundamentalists fell victim to the province’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Even more importantly, the election served to further solidify Hildebrand’s beliefs about the decay of modern society. In a corrupt world, the victory of a “socialist” party was not surprising. Hildebrand’s conceptualization of modernism equated worldliness with Satan. One had to choose between God and Satan, and modern society had decidedly chosen the latter. All of the “sickness and pain and suffering and warfare that distress mankind” were a product of this choice. [94] While deplorable on its own, the current state of society was even more cursed because most people did not seem to care. “Some treat it lightly” Hildebrand noted, “some call it ‘misfortune,’ or the result, merely, of wrong environment. Many deny its reality, others deny that sin must be punished; but the vast majority of people in Christendom today simply ignore it.” [95] By refusing to acknowledge their sin, people could not hope to find salvation.

For Hildebrand, the CCF victory signalled a victory for its modernist “false gospel.” The proper response to this outcome did not lie in abandoning his non-partisan stance, but revolved around fortifying the morality of his followers, lest they be lost “for eternity.” [96] Non-partisanship and a muted militancy were necessary to build BBI’s ministry, but Hildebrand never intended his followers to separate themselves entirely from the corrupted secular society. Militancy was an ineffective evangelistic technique as it often drove the very people they were trying to save away from Christ. When used correctly, however, it allowed Christians to defend their faith from the onslaught of secular society and, in the case of Saskatchewan, a socialist government. “If there is no conflict in a life,” Hildebrand argued, “we may well become suspicious and ask ourselves whether we are not living in a dishonourable peace, whether we are not being gradually overcome.” [97] To ensure that Christians were not living this “dishonourable peace,” Hildebrand urged his followers to be on guard against the evils of a modern society or a “socialist” government overstepping its bounds. This notion that Christians must engage with secularism had a direct impact on the political life of Saskatchewan’s conservative Christians. If the actions of the government went against the gospel, for example, Christians were expected to make a stand for God. “Christians are loyal subjects of the government,” Hildebrand reminded his listeners, “but when a government or institution denies true Christian freedom then there’s the compulsion that governs each child of God. ‘He must obey God rather than man.’” [98]

Hildebrand chose not to translate this message into direct political action, but BBI still wielded political influence. The fact that Saskatchewan did not respond to the Great Depression with a conservative Christian political response akin to Aberhart and Manning in Alberta is not indicative of a lack of organization. Rather, it is the natural outcome of a fundamentalist tradition that privileged evangelism over all other concerns. Hildebrand and Whitaker believed politics corrupted and distracted from a larger goal of saving souls. This decision had significant ramifications for Saskatchewan’s political trajectory. Neutrality, however, is not synonymous with inactivity. Hildebrand broadcast his anti-modern and anti-socialist message across the province on a weekly basis, instilling in his followers a decidedly conservative worldview. By ignoring the role that these fundamentalists played in Depression-era Saskatchewan, historians have assumed that they did not influence the province’s political development. Our understanding of the trajectory of Prairie politics has rested too long on a false dichotomy between a conservative Alberta and a socially-democratic Saskatchewan. Election results tell only part of the story.


1. Bruce Guenther, “Training for Service: The Bible School Movement in Western Canada, 1909-1960,” PhD dissertation, McGill University, 2001, 334 pp.

2. Quoted in Gerald L. Wright, “In Bigger Business,” Moody Monthly, January 1956, p. 22.

3. Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau, A Full-Orbed Christianity, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, pp. xiii.

4. Richard Allen, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914–28, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973, p. 2.

5. Brian McLean offers a succinct discussion of the historiography surrounding the development of premillennial fundamentalism and its differences with the more liberalized social gospel and mainline evangelical movement. See Brian McLean, “Pentecostalism, Mainline Protestantism, and the A. C. Valdez Jr. Healing Campaign in Winnipeg, 1952,” PhD dissertation, University of Manitoba, 2014, pp. 1–24.

6. David Elliot and Iris Miller, Bible Bill: A Biography of William Aberhart, Edmonton: Reidmore Books, 1987, p. 17.

7. John A. Irving, The Social Credit Movement in Alberta, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959, p. 50.

8. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 412.

9. Clark Banack, “Evangelical Christianity and Political Thought in Alberta,” Journal of Canadian Studies vol. 48, no. 2 (Spring 2014), p. 85.

10. Banack, “Evangelical Christianity and Political Thought in Alberta,” p. 88.

11. For a discussion of the influence the left had on Social Credit’s development, see David Elliot, “William Aberhart: Right or Left?” in The Dirty Thirties in Canada: 11th Western Canadian Studies Conference, D. Francis and H. Ganzvoort, eds., Vancouver: Tantalus Research, 1980, pp. 11-31; and Alvin Finkel, The Social Credit Phenomenon in Alberta, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

12. Walter D. Young, Anatomy of a Party, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, p. 34.

13. A. W. Johnson, Dream No Little Dreams: A Biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan, 1944–1961, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, p. 19.

14. Thomas H. McLeod and Ian McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem, 2nd ed., Calgary: Fifth House, 2004, p. 23.

15. Manitoba, while not directly discussed here, experienced a similar intersection between politics and religion. Examples of the influence of the social gospel include J. S. Woodsworth and Salem Bland, as shown in their activities during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and the use of the Labour Party.

16. Nelson Wiseman, “The Pattern of Prairie Politics,” Queen’s Quarterly vol. 88, no. 2 (Summer 1981), pp. 298–315.

17. The school’s name changed to the Briercrest Bible College and Seminary in 1983 as a reflection of the efforts to gain more academic credibility. As this paper focuses on the earlier history of the school, the name BBI is retained throughout to avoid confusion. Several works detail BBI’s history. See: H. Budd, Wind in the Wheatfields: A Pictorial History of Briercrest Bible College, 1935–1985, Caronport, SK: Briercrest Bible College, 1986; Bernard Palmer and Marjorie Palmer, Beacon on the Prairies: The Men God Uses in Building the Briercrest Bible Institute, Minneapolis: Briercrest Bible Institute, 1970; Bernard Palmer and Marjorie Palmer, Miracle on the Prairies: The Story of Briercrest Bible Institute, Chicago: Moody Press, 1958; and Colleen Taylor, “‘That’s the Way it Was’: Oral Histories of Women from the Early Days of Briercrest College and Seminary,” Master’s Thesis, Briercrest Seminary, 2007.

18. James Opp, “‘Culture of the Soul,’ Fundamentalism and Evangelism in Canada, 1921–1940,” Master’s thesis, University of Calgary, 1994, p. 4.

19. Ben Harder, “The Bible Institute-College Movement in Canada,” Journal of Canadian Church Historical Society 22 (1980), pp. 35–36.

20. Clark Banack offers an excellent discussion of dispensationalism’s origins, belief structure, and relationship with other forms of Protestantism. See Clark Banack, God’s Province: Evangelical Christianity, Political Thought, and Conservatism in Alberta, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016, pp. 47–50, 114–115.

21. Robert K. Burkinshaw, “Conservative Protestantism and the Modernist Challenge in Vancouver, 1917–1927,” BC Studies, 85 (Spring 1990), p. 26; McLean, pp. 14–15.

22. Many religious historians—including John Stackhouse and Bruce Guenther—argue that militancy was the defining characteristic of fundamentalism. Bruce Hindmarsh, however, argues that although BBI was not as militant as Aberhart in Alberta or T. T. Shields in Toronto, it was still fundamentalist. Not only did BBI consider itself to be a part of the fundamentalist movement, but its members also shared many of the central fundamentalist beliefs, including an inerrant bible, a focus on personal salvation, and an affinity for dispensationalism. This paper agrees with Hindmarsh and characterizes BBI as fundamentalist, not evangelical. See: Guenther, “Training for Service,” p. 17; Bruce D. Hindmarsh, “The Winnipeg Fundamentalist Network, 1910–1940,” in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience, ed. G. A. Rawlyk, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997, pp. 303–304; and John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 11–12.

23. Elliot and Miller, pp. 70–72.

24. Historians see the publicity surrounding the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial as a turning point in North American fundamentalism’s history. Militant attacks against modernism diminished precipitately in the trial’s aftermath as many fundamentalist groups withdrew from modern society. See: James Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 176–198; and James Opp, “The New Age of Evangelism: Fundamentalism and the Radio on the Canadian Prairies, 1925-1945,” Historical Papers: Canadian Society of Church History (1994), p. 110.

25. Guenther, “Training for Service,” p. 336.

26. Quoted in Palmer and Palmer, Miracle on the Prairies, p. 17.

27. Quoted in Taylor, p. 52.

28. Henry Hildebrand, In His Loving Service, Caronport, SK: Briercrest Bible College, 1985, pp. 83–84.

29. Hindmarsh, p. 304.

30. Banack, God’s Province, p. 106.

31. Hildebrand, In His Loving Service, p. 184.

32. Hildebrand, In His Loving Service, p. 10.

33. Briercrest College and Seminary Archibald Library (BCS), 92003 A 008, H. Hildebrand Radio Messages, 1 John-Revelation, “God’s Little Children,” 23 October, 1938; BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Matthew-Luke, “The Unchangeable Word,” n.d.

34. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Galatians to Philippians, “Redemption Through His Blood,” n.d.

35. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, 1 John-Revelation, “God’s Little Children,” 23 October, 1938.

36. Banack, God’s Province, p. 120.

37. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, 1 John-Revelation, “The Cleansing Blood,” 9 October 1938.

38. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, 1 John-Revelation, “His Coming Glory,” 8 April 1945.

39. Elliot and Miller, pp. 67–84.

40. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, “The Triumph of Faith,” 28 September, 1942; BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, 1 John-Revelation, “His Coming Glory,” 8 April 1945.

41. Hildebrand, In His Loving Service, p. 253.

42. Hildebrand offers a detailed discussion of the successes and struggles of the early Briercrest fundamentalist community. See Hildebrand, In His Loving Service, pp. 51–63.

43. Quoted in Palmer and Palmer, Miracle on the Prairies, p. 24.

44. Quoted in Guenther, “Training for Service,” pp. 335–336.

45. BCS, 008, BBI Catalogues: 1941–60, “Prospectus, 1940-41,” p. 4.

46. BCS, 008, BBI Catalogues: 1941–60, “Fellowship Flashes, 1940-41,” p. 1.

47. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, John, “A Testimony at Home,” 13 June 1943.

48. Bruce Guenther, “The Origin of the Bible School Movement: Towards and Ethnic Interpretation,” Canadian Society of Church History: Historical Papers (1993), p. 138.

49. BCS, 008, BBI Catalogues: 1941–60, “Prospectus, 1951–42,” p. 4.

50. BCS, 008, BBI Catalogues: 1941–60, “Prospectus, 1940–41,” p. 12.

51. BCS, 008, BBI Catalogues: 1941–60, “Prospectus, 1950–51,” pp. 10–11.

52. Palmer and Palmer, Miracle on the Prairies, p. 80.

53. BCS, 83015 A 035, “Briercrest on the Air, 1958.”

54. Budd, p. 8.

55. Anthony Appleblatt, “The School Question in the 1929 Saskatchewan Provincial Election,” CCHA Study Sessions 43 (1976), pp. 75–90; Patrick Kyba, “Ballots and Burning Crosses,” in Politics in Saskatchewan, ed. Norman Ward and Duff Spafford, Toronto: Longmans of Canada Ltd., 1968, pp. 105–123.

56.Appleblatt, p. 90.

57. In the 1931 census, Roman Catholics formed a quarter of Saskatchewan’s nearly one million residents. Briercrest itself did not have a large Catholic population. However, its proximity to the Catholic settlement of Gravelbourg, one of the province’s largest Catholic settlements and the location of the first hostility towards the use of religious imagery in the province’s public schools, meant residents would have been aware of the potential for religious instruction in public schools to upset the status quo. Appleblatt, p. 82; Katherine McGovern, “Table 1. Religion Census Data, 1901–2001,” The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan (accessed 30 May 2017),

58. BCS, 83015 A 035, “Briercrest on the Air, 1958.”

59. Quoted in Palmer and Palmer, Miracle on the Prairies, p. 139.

60. This case became a rallying cry for many fundamentalists who believed the federal government’s actions set a dangerous precedent of favouring liberal and mainstream Christianity. The Saskatchewan Ku Klux Klan, for instance, railed against the decision as evidence of a “papist” plot against “Christian faith in its initial purity.” Wayne Schmalz, On Air: Radio in Saskatchewan (Regina, SK: Coteau Books, 1990), pp. 40–42; The Western Freedman, 5 April 1928.

61. James Opp discusses how radio allowed fundamentalists to “regain a measure of acceptance” in the broader community following their earlier embarrassment in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s. Opp, “‘Culture of the Soul,’” p. 21.

62. This is the minimum number of radio sets in the province as it only covers households that were willing to pay the $1 yearly fee. The real number of radio sets in the province is much higher. John Aird, Report of the Royal Commission on Radio Broadcasting, Ottawa: F. A. Acland, 1929, p. 27.

63. Schmalz, p. 37.

64. Opp, “‘Culture of the Soul,’” pp. 121–124.

65. For an example of the standard program, see BCS, H. Hildebrand Radio Messages: 1 John-Revelation, “Introduction: Character, Purpose & Message of 1 John,” 14 August, 1938.

66. Quoted in Elliot and Miller, p. 74.

67. Aird, p. 13.

68. CS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “Concerning His Son Jesus Christ,” 4 November, 1945. Emphasis added.

69. BCS, H. Hildebrand Radio Messages: Acts-II Corinthians, “Abounding Grace,” 24 February 1946.

70. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Old Testament, “A Challenge to Decide,” 15 September 1946.

71. BCS, 008, BBI Catalogue: 1941-1960, “Fellowship Flashes: 1940–41,” p. 9.

72. Guenther, “Training for Service,” pp. 317–318, 337.

73. Prairie Pastor, 12:1 (January 1939), p. 2.

74. In 1985 BBI had the distinction of distributing Canada’s oldest continually running radio ministry, broadcasting for over 2,500 consecutive Sundays since its advent in 1937. Hildebrand, In His Loving Service, p. 145; Budd, p. 28.

75. Guenther, “Training for Service,” p. 337.

76. Bruce Guenther, “Table BSC-1. Bible Schools/Colleges in Saskatchewan (Historical), The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan (accessed 5 May 2015),

77. Stackhouse, p. 22.

78. Quoted in Donald Aaron Goertz, “The Development of a Bible-Belt: The Socio-Religious Interaction in Alberta Between 1925 and 1938,” Master’s Thesis, Regent College, 1980, p. 184.

79. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “The Day of Pentecost,” n.d.

80. Ken Andrews, “‘Progressive’ Counterparts of the CCF,” Journal of Canadian Studies 17 no. 3 (Fall 1982), p. 63.

81. Leader Post, 21 May 1938.

82. Robert A. Wardhaugh, Mackenzie King and the Prairie West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000, p. 223.

83. Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-10474B, “R. S. Whittaker Interview.”

84. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Matthew-Luke, “Christ as a Dinner Guest,” n.d.

85. Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan: A New History, Calgary: Fifth House, 2005, p. 324.

86. Despite Hildebrand and Whittaker’s non-partisan stance, there is some evidence that voters in Briercrest were more willing to contemplate a Social Credit government than their neighbours. Briercrest voted in the expanded Milestone Constituency in the 1938 election. Samuel Horton, the Social Credit candidate, received 31 of the 195 votes cast at the Briercrest polling station, equalling the third highest level of support out of sixty polling centres in the constituency. Saskatchewan Chief Electoral Officer, General Election – Vote Summary By Polling Division, 1938.

87. Hildebrand, In his Loving Service, pp. 20–25.

88. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “Apostolic Method,” n.d.

89. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “Salvation From the Power of Sin,” 13 February, 1938.

90. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, John, “The Mission of John the Baptist,” 7 November, 1943.

91. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “In His Name – Make Strong,” n.d.

92. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, John, “The Light of the World,” 20 February 1944.

93. Although the Milestone constituency voted 59.94% in favour of the CCF, Briercrest’s polling centre voted 56% against. Saskatchewan Chief Electoral Officer, General Election—Vote Summary By Polling Division, 1944.

94. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, John, “Wilt Thou be Made Whole?,” 26 December 1946.

95. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “The Righteousness of God,” 16 December 1945.

96. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Galatians to Philippians, “No Other Gospel,” 2 November 1947.

97. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, “The Christian Conflict,” n.d.

98. BCS, 92003 A 008, Radio Messages, Acts-II Corinthians, “We Must Obey God,” n.d

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 26 November 2019