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The Accidental Modernists: American Fundamentalism and the Canadian Controversy over Church Union

  • Phyllis D. Airhart


This article looks at confessional family resemblances between the fundamentalist controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the church union controversy in Canada. These resemblances have been obscured by focusing on the doctrinal dimensions of the former and the socio-institutional features of the latter. The role of the prominent American fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen in the transformation of Canadian unionists into modernists sheds light on the underlying tensions that sparked the two controversies, as well as the distinctive dynamics of the resistance to church union that shaped the confessional identity of both the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada after 1925.



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1 New Outlook, June 10, 1925, 4.

2 Acts and Proceedings of the Fifty-first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (1925), 128.

3 Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 179 .

4 Clifford, N. K., Resistance to Church Union in Canada, 1904–1939 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1985), 4 .

5 Gauvreau, Michael, The Evangelical Creed: College and Creed in English Canada from the Great Revival to the Great Depression (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995), 11, 269 .

6 Moorhead, James H., “Presbyterian Confessional Identity and Its Dilemmas,” in Holding On to the Faith: Confessional Traditions in American Christianity, ed. Sweeney, Douglas A. and Hambrick-Stowe, Charles (Lanham, Penn.: University Press of America, 2008), 4852 .

7 Longfield, Bradley J., The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 24 .

8 Moorhead, “Presbyterian Confessional Identity and Its Dilemmas,” 61–62.

9 Clifford, N. K., “The United Church of Canada and Doctrinal Confession,” Touchstone: Heritage and Theology in a New Age ,2, no. 2 (May 1984): 78 notes that the order of the first six articles was identical to the American statement of faith, with only minor changes in wording, four others were from the same document, and four from the English articles. Only three of the twenty Canadian articles were original.

10 Chalmers, Randolph Carleton, See the Christ Stand: A Study in Doctrine in the United Church of Canada (Toronto: Ryerson, 1945), 118 .

11 “Church Union,” editorial, Presbyterian Record, April 1909, 147.

12 Fraser, Daniel James, “Recent Church Union Movements in Canada,” Harvard Theological Review 8, no. 3 (1915): 369370 .

13 Ibid., 377.

14 McNeill, John T., The Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1875–1925 (Toronto: Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1925), 252 . Caven's essay on “The Testimony of Christ to the Old Testament” was posthumously included in The Fundamentals.

15 Moorhead, James H., “Presbyterians and the Mystique of Organizational Efficiency, 1870–1936,” in Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays, ed. Mullin, Robert Bruce and Richey, Russell E. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 277 ; Moorhead, “Presbyterian Confessional Identity and Its Dilemmas,” 63.

16 “Report of Home Missions and Social Service,” in The United Church of Canada Year Book (1926), 330.

17 Hart, D. G., Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 6668 .

18 Hart, D. G., “When Is a Fundamentalist a Modernist?Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 3 (August 1997): 606609 .

19 Hart, Defending the Faith, 66–69, 77. Hart notes the similarity of Machen's concerns to those of the non-concurring Presbyterians in Canada (69), but does not explore his influence on the Canadian debate.

20 Machen provides evidence to support Hart's claim in the preface to the book, connecting its genesis to an address on “Liberalism or Christianity” that he delivered at a presbytery meeting in 1921; see Machen, J. Gresham, preface to Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1923).

21 Russell, C. Allyn, “J. Gresham Machen: Scholarly Fundamentalist,” in Voices of American Fundamentalism: Seven Biographical Studies (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 153 .

22 J. Gresham Machen, “The Separateness of the Church” (sermon, Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel, March 8, 1925), 13–14, accessed March 22, 2016,

23 Moorhead, “Presbyterian Confessional Identity and Its Dilemmas,” 62.

24 Ibid., 277.

25 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 162, 165.

26 Ibid., 7–8, 52.

27 Ibid., 179.

28 Ibid., 149.

29 Marsden, George, “Understanding J. Gresham Machen,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 11, no. 1 (1990): 55.

30 Machen, J. Gresham, “The Gospel and the Modern World,” in Nichols, Stephen J., ed., J. Gresham Machen's “The Gospel in the Modern World” and Other Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing), 2005 , referring to Acadia National Park. It must have been particularly galling that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., supporter of the Interchurch World Movement and other “liberal” causes, was the philanthropist who promoted and funded the park's development.

31 Machen, J. Gresham, “Christianity in Conflict,” in Contemporary American Theology: Theological Autobiographies, ed. Ferm, Vergilius (New York: Round Table, 1932), 1:271272 .

32 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 1–2.

33 Ibid., 161–162.

34 Presbyterian Record, July 1922, 202.

35 Clifford, Resistance to Church Union, 122–123.

36 “Convocation of the Presbyterian Church Association by Our Own Reporter,” Presbyterian Witness, October 26, 1922, 20.

37 T. McMillan, “Our Church and the Proposed Substitute,” St. Andrew's Church, Toronto, 1922, pp.1–3, Church Union Collection, Series I, 83.063C, box 19/444, United Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, ON. (hereafter cited as Church Union Collection).

38 E. A. Henry, “A Word of Protest,” Presbyterian Witness, November 9, 1922, 21–22.

39 “Principal Fraser on the Basis of Union,” editorial, Presbyterian Witness, October 18, 1923, 3.

40 “The Creed of the United Church of Canada,” editorial, Presbyterian Witness, August 9, 1923, 2.

41 Ibid.

42 R. E. Welsh, The Things That Matter in Church Union, (n.p., n.d.), 1–2.

43 “Convocation of the Presbyterian Church Association by Our Own Reporter,” 21.

44 Allan L. Farris, “The Fathers of 1925,” in Enkindled by the Word: Essays on Presbyterianism in Canada, ed. Presbyterian Centennial Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (Toronto: Presbyterian Publications, 1966), 77, summing up the writ presented to the Supreme Court of Ontario. Farris's essay astutely observes that not everyone had the same reason for opposing church union in 1925, making it difficult to characterize resistance as either simply “anti-union” or “conservative.”

45 The complex legal arguments to the House of Lords in 1903 and the ruling in 1904 on the Overtoun Appeal are compiled in Orr, Robert, The Free Church of Scotland Appeals, 1903–4 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904). See Corbett, D. J. M., “The Legal Problems of the Canadian Church Union of 1925,” in Papers of the Canadian Society of Presbyterian History (1979), 5367 , for a discussion of how the Presbyterians in Canada appealed to the case.

46 E. Scott to Editor of [blank], “Why Oppose Church Union?” October 17, 1923, Presbyterian Church Association Papers (hereafter cited as PCA Papers), Correspondence, 1973–1003–18–5, Presbyterian Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, ON.

47 J. W. MacNamara to E. L. Morrow, May 15, 1924, PCA Papers, Correspondence, 1973–1003–15–10. The Private Bill was first read in April 1924 and became law in July after passing the House and Senate.

48 Morrow, E. Lloyd, Church Union in Canada: Its History, Motives, Doctrine, and Government (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1923), 8687, 89 . Morrow, like Fraser, was on record for criticizing the Basis of Union for its conservative tone, declaring that “there is scarcely anything in it of the truly modern point of view” (215; cf. 155–156, 292).

49 Ibid., 296.

50 Clifford, Resistance to Church Union, 144.

51 George C. Pidgeon to G. B. McLennan, November 21, 1924, George C. Pidgeon Papers, 86.243C, box 4–91, United Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, ON.

52 See the letter from J. W. S. Milne to Pidgeon, November 21, 1924, George C. Pidgeon Papers, box  4–91.

53 Clifford, Resistance to Church Union in Canada, 224–226.

54 PCA Papers, Pamphlets, Local Congregation Branches, 1982–1003–5–3.

55 J. W. MacNamara to E. Scott, February 18, 1925, PCA Papers, Correspondence, 1973–1003–15–10.

56 “An Open Letter to the Members and Adherents of the Presbyterian Church,” October 24, 1924, PCA Papers, Pamphlets, 1982–1003–5–27. The letter apparently served as a template for pamphlets prepared for other congregations, all of which concluded with a statement that they had been “signed by several elders, managers and members of the congregation.” Cf. PCA Papers, Pamphlets, Toronto Branch, undated, 1982–1003–5–10.

57 Justice James Craig's letter was first published in the Globe on November 14, 1924 and reprinted in other newspapers and in pamphlet form; cf. PCA Papers, Pamphlets, Local Congregation Branches, 1982–1003–5–3.

58 “Presbyterian Duty and Responsibility,” 3–4,  PCA Papers, Pamphlets, Red Deer Branch, 1982–1003–5–32.

59 Convener of the General Assembly's Committee on Church Union, [George Pidgeon], “The Doctrinal Position of the United Church of Canada,” Presbyterian Witness, November 27, 1924, 6.

60 James H. Miers, letter to the editor, Presbyterian Witness, December 4, 1924, 17–18.

61 S. T. Martin, letter to the editor, Presbyterian Witness, December 4, 1924, 17.

62 J. B. Skene, “A Protest,” letter to the editor, Presbyterian Witness, December 18, 1924, 23.

63 T. Albert Moore to D. R. Drummond, February 4, 1925, Methodist Church (Canada) General Conference, Correspondence of the Secretary, 1906–1925, 78.107C, box 10–200, United Church of Canada Archives. Moore pointed out that he was speaking for himself, and that no one knew he was writing. As if to underline that point, the letter was not written on institutional letterhead, and the return address was Moore's residence rather than the Methodist Church headquarters.

64 Ibid.

65 “Church Union ‘Pagan,’ Shields an Outspoken Critic,” Toronto Telegram, January 19, 1925, Church Union Collection, box 39 (Scrapbook).

66 Moorhead, “Presbyterians and the Mystique of Organizational Efficiency,” 278.

67 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 166. Machen's case, as Hart describes it (including his claim that the voting majority at the General Assembly was not entitled to trusts and property), resembles the legal strategy of the Presbyterian Church Association; see Hart, “When Is a Fundamentalist a Modernist?” 611–612, 615–621.

68 Clifford, Resistance to Church Union, 226–235 discusses the negotiations, noting Moore's refusal to resolve the dispute over the name. The legislative process was not completed at the provincial level until after World War II.

69 The three presentations at Knox Church, for instance, were staples of Machen's repertoire of addresses: sermons on “The Mission of the Church” and “Christian Liberty,” along with an afternoon session titled “What Is Christianity?” See A. Donald MacLeod, “Knox College and Knox Church: Going Separate Ways after Church Union,” in Papers of the Canadian Society of Presbyterian History (2012), 35 for details of the visit to Knox Church.

70 J. Gresham Machen, “The Mission of the Church,” Presbyterian Record, May-June 1926, 171.

71 Machen, “The Mission of the Church,” 174.

72 Stonehouse, Ned B., J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1954), 424 .

73 Hart, Defending the Faith, 120.

74 MacLeod, “Knox College and Knox Church,” 35–37.

75 Ibid., 38–39.

76 Ibid., 39–40; see note 29 for the connection of Winchester to Evangelical Theological Seminary. The dispensationalist views advanced by Sperry in The Kingdom in History and Prophecy and other works had a following at Knox Church going back to the ministry of Henry Martyn Parsons. See Airhart, Phyllis D., Serving the Present Age: Revivalism, Progressivism, and the Methodist Tradition in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992), 3947 , 70–71, 133–136 for disagreements among Canadian Methodists and Presbyterians (including Parsons) over key elements of nascent fundamentalism.

77 Grant, John Webster, The Canadian Experience of Church Union (London: Lutterworth, 1967), 75 .

78 McLelland, Joseph C., “Walter Bryden: ‘By Circumstance and God,’” in Called to Witness: Profiles of Canadian Presbyterians, ed. Reid, W. Stanford, vol. 5 ([Toronto]: Presbyterian Church in Canada Committee on History, 1980), 120121 .

79 R. J. Wilson, [unnamed report], n.d., Church Union Collection, box 23–509.

80 Sclater, J. R. P., Modernist Fundamentalism (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1926), 23 .

81 Ibid., v–vi. The foreword notes that the chapters were adapted from a series of sermons that were later published in the New Outlook, an indication that this was considered a timely topic.

82 Ibid., 11–12.

83 Ibid., 80–90; quote on 81.

84 For an analysis of the eclipse of the “liberal evangelical” tradition, see Phyllis D. Airhart, A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014), 169–172, 236–246, 251–254; and Mark Noll, “O Canada,” Books & Culture, September/October, 2015, 22–24.

85 McLelland, 120–121.

86 Bryden, W. W., Why I Am a Presbyterian (Toronto: Presbyterian Publications, 1934), 9 .

87 Ibid., 26.

88 Ibid., 80.

89 Ibid., 102–103.

90 Ibid., 66–67.

91 Ibid., 73.

92 MacLeod, “Knox College and Knox Church,” 41.

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The Accidental Modernists: American Fundamentalism and the Canadian Controversy over Church Union

  • Phyllis D. Airhart


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