Skip to main content Accessibility help

“What Must I Do to Be Saved?” Two Paths to Evangelical Conversion in Late Victorian Canada

  • Phyllis D. Airhart (a1)


G. K. Chesterton once remarked that all conservatism is based on the idea that if things are left alone, they will stay unchanged. Challenging this notion, he observed that a white post left alone soon becomes a black post; to maintain a white post one must always be painting it again—and, hence, always be having a revolution. Within evangelical Protestantism in late Victorian Canada a “revolution” of sorts took place in evangelical Protestantism's approach to conversion, the nature and consequences of which have been overlooked because the language of the parties involved has on the surface appeared to differ little from the revivalism which preceded it.



Hide All

1. Sandeen's, Ernest R. influential study, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago, 1970; Grand Rapids, 1978) is an example of this interpretation of fundamentalism; see also Marty, Martin E., Modern American Religion, vol. 1, The Irony of It All, 1893–1919 (Chicago, 1986), pp. 208247, and Marsden, George M., Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (New York, 1980), pp. 5471.

2. See, for example, Ahlstrom, Sydney, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, 1972), p. 811;Sandeen, , Roots of Fundamentalism, p. 106.

3. Sandeen, , Roots of Fundamentalism, p. 163.

4. Between the census of 1861 and 1871 Methodism became the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. According to the 1871 census, over 80 percent of Canadian Methodists lived in Ontario, where with a following of 28.5 percent of the population they were the largest denomination in the province. The Plymouth Brethren, by comparison, were no numerical threat as a denomination; it was their influence within other Protestant denominations that made them a force to be reckoned with.

5. Smith, Timothy L., Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Nashville, 1957; Gloucester, 1976), p. 92;McLoughiin, William G., Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago, 1978), pp. 113140.

6. For a discussion of Darby's activities in both Canada and the United States, see Sandeen, Roots of Fundamentalism, chapter 3. On Europe, with particular reference to encounters with Methodism, see McDonald's, W. introduction to Steele, Daniel, Antinomianism Revived; or, The Theology of the So-Called Plymouth Brethren Examined and Refuted (Boston, 1887), pp. 514.

7. Sandeen, , Roots of Fundamentalism, p. 75.

8. Marsden, , Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 46.

9. Sandeen, Ernest R., “Towards a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism,” Church History 36 (1967): 68.

10. See Brauer, Jerald C., “Conversion: From Puritanism to Revivalism,” Journal of Religion 58 (1978): 227243. Brauer's approach, with its emphasis on understanding revivalism as a way of becoming, being, and remaining religious, has been seminal in the research presented here.

11. Dewart, E. H., Broken Reeds; or, The Heresies of the Plymouth Brethren Shown to Be Contrary to Scripture and Reason (Toronto, 1869). See also pamphlet, Dewart'sMisleading Lights: A Review of Current Antinomian Theories of the Atonement and Justification (Toronto, [ca. 18811884]). Dewart was by no means alone in objecting to the Plymouth Brethren on these theological grounds. For a similar response to the Brethren, see Strachan, R., Wandering Lights: A Stricture on the Doctrines and Methods of Brethrenism (Toronto, [18831885]).

12. Dewart, , Broken Reeds, p. 4. His identification of these “evangelists” as Brethren, despite their denials, is likely accurate; on F. W. Grant, see Sandeen, , Roots of Fundamentalism, pp. 80, 238. Dewart refers to others by last name only; “Needham” may be George C. Needham, a leading exponent of Darby's ideas.

13. Dewart, , Broken Reeds, pp. 4, 6, 911.

14. Ibid., pp. 20, 12.

15. Ibid., pp. 24–25.

16. Ibid., pp. 26. The attraction of the biblical inerrancy of Princeton Theology for those who proposed this approach to conversion is not surprising. Sandeen notes that Charles Hodge substituted the doctrine of verbal inspiration of Scripture for the witness of the Spirit referred to in the Westminster Confession; see Roots of Fundamentalism, pp. 118119.

17. Dewart, , Broken Reeds, p. 31.

18. For examples of his editorials on the subject, see “Unjust Condemnation,” Christian Guardian (hereafter cited as CG), 18 02. 1885, p. 104;“Prevalent Plymouth Errors,” CG, 8 04. 1885, p. 216“Questionable Theology,” CG, 17 02. 1886, p. 104;“What Must I Do to Be Saved?” CG, 3 03. 1886, p. 136; and “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” CG, 3 02. 1892, p. 72.

19. Letter to the editor, signed “Watchman,” “The Wiles of Plymouthism,” CG, 2 05 1888, p. 276.

20. “Pride and Presumptions of Antinomians,” CG, 1 09. 1880, p. 279.

21. Burwash, Nathanael, The History of Victoria College (Toronto, 1927), p. 466467.

22. Burwash, Nathanael, Wesley's Doctrinal Standards: The Sermons, with Introductions, Analysis, and Notes (Toronto, 1881), introductory notes to Wesley's sermon XVI, “The Means of Grace,” p. 150; see also p. xvii.

23. Burwash's introduction to the Canadian edition of Antinomianism Revived, pp. 34. Steele's book is also concerned primarily with the difficulties with Plymouthism's views of salvation. The last chapter connects dispensationalism to erroneous thinking about personal regeneration.

24. The Sarnia Observer's coverage of local church reaction has been collected in Lindsay Reynold, “The Great ‘Plymouth Brethren’ Controversy in South-Western Ontario, 1872–73,” United Church of Canada Archives, Toronto, Ontario.

25. See, for example, letters to the editor, Sarnia Observer, 7 02. 1873, p. 2.

26. The series was published between March and May 1873. Duncan's explication of doctrinal errors echoes Methodist concerns and gives an interesting preview of the later divisions within and across evangelical denominations during the fundamentalist controversy. There are interesting references in the final article to Plymouthism's disdain for ordered ministry and theological training. These evangelists also encouraged the laity to administer the Lord's Supper and baptize in the name of the Lord Jesus rather than in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; see Sarnia Observer, 9 05 1873, p. 2.

27. Editorial, “Objections to Methodist Evangelistic Methods,” CG, 15 02. 1888, p. 104. Restrictions on the participation of women is a feature of Plymouthism that deserves closer examination because of its continuing influence in some fundamentalist teaching. Janette Hassey has examined changes in fundamentalism's attitudes towards women in public ministry in No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry around the Turn of the Century (Grand Rapids, 1986).

28. Editorial, , “Antinomianism Revived,” CG, 1 02. 1888, p. 72.

29. Letter to the editor, Aylesworth, R., “Plymouthism,” CG, 15 02. 1888, p. 99.

30. Editorial, “The Office and Work of Ministry,” CG, 26 03. 1884, p. 100. During the 1880s it attracted some promising young Methodist clergymen such as Salem Bland, who for a few years corresponded with Lord Cecil, a peer from a prominent British family who devoted his life to Brethren evangelism. See Allen, Richard, “Salem Bland: The Young Preacher,” The Bulletin (Committee on Archives of The United Church of Canada) 26 (1977): 86.

31. Dewart and Burwash were strong proponents of the doctrine of Christian perfection in Canada, as was Daniel Steele in the United States.

32. Sandeen, , Roots of Fundamentalism, pp. 7778, 101, esp. 177–181.

33. Steele, , Antinomianism Revived, pp. 2288, 148161.

34. On the interest in holiness, see Wacker, Grant, “The Holy Spirit and the Spirit of the Age in American Protestantism, 1880–1910,” Journal of American History 72 (1985): 4562, and Bebbington, D. W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London, 1989), pp. 151180. The connection between the Brethren and the Keswick movement merits exploration given their influence on Hannah Whitall Smith; see her autobiography The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It (New York, 1903), esp. pp. 179180, 190195, 220, 234237. Fundamentalism found in Keswick teaching an appealing approach to holiness; on the “Victorious Life,” see Marsden, , Fundamentalism and American Culture, pp. 7280. Canadian Methodist reaction was more mixed. For positive assessments of Keswick, see the editorial “Visit of the Keswick Brethren,” CG 19 04. 1893, p. 244, and Sherlock, B., “The Keswick Brethren,” CG, 24 05 1893, p. 323. For reservations, see the editorials, “Keswick Teaching on Holiness,” CG, 24 01. 1894, p. 5, and “Christian Perfection—The Keswick Dispute,” CG, 19 Feb. 1896, p. 118.

35. Editorial, “The Christian Conscience,” CG, 27 02. 1889, p. 136.

36. Editorial, “The Niagara Bible Conference,” CG, 9 08. 1893, p. 504. Dewart was an outspoken critic of George Workman's teaching of higher criticism. Workman resigned in 1892 after his opponents succeeded in prohibiting him from teaching theological subjects at Victoria.

37. Editorial, “A Complex Theological Question,” CG, 29 03. 1893, p. 200.

38. Editorial, “The New Version and Our Theology,” CG, 29 06 1881, p. 204; see also Die, Marguerite Van, An Evangelical Mind: Nathanael Burwash and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, 1839–1918 (Kingston, 1989), p. 101. Steele also noted that particular wordings of some texts used by the Brethren to support their doctrines had been shown by the RSV to be spurious; see Antinomianism Revived, p. 72.

39. Editorials, “Is the World Getting Worse?” CG, 11 02. 1880, p. 44;“Pre-millennial Views,” CG, 28 10. 1885, p. 680;“Pre-millennialism,” CG, 28 03. 1888, p. 194;Laing, John, “The Premillenarian Theory,” Canadian Methodist Magazine 23, 3 (03. 1886): 274277;Cleveland, G. A., “The Millennium,” Canadian Methodist Magazine 26, 4 (10. 1887): 363373. The latter is an abridgment of an article by William Rainey Harper.

40. Some Methodists wondered if dispensationalists were more interested in getting the believer properly instructed about the millennium than in converting the unbeliever; see the editorial, “Is It True?” CG, 30 09. 1896, p. 625. A. C. Courtice, Dewart's successor as Christian Guardian editor, feared the loss of confidence in the adequacy of existing agencies to evangelize the world to which Moody's new educational ventures contributed; see “The Second Coming of Christ,” CG 23 02. 1898, p. 120. The paper also urged that the work of evangelism not fall into the hands of those “whose doctrinal teaching is gloomy, who do not count this a genuine, glorious and successful dispensation of the Holy Spirit, but an interim period between the first and second advents which will not see the salvation of the world” see “Strong Evangelism,” CG, 13 02. 1901, p. 97.

41. For Moody's “conversion” to dispensationalism, see Sandeen, , Roots of Fundamentalism, pp. 7576. Steele also made this point and noted the impact of the Brethren on his approach to the Bible; see Antinomianism Revived, pp. 5556.

42. See CG, 16 06 1886, p. 369, for General Superintendent Albert Carman's attack on the “namby-pamby style of conversion” in the same address where he recounts the importance of his own conversion, which had taken place in a revival service.

43. Unsigned column, “News from Manitoba,” CG, 17 09. 1924, p. 12.

44. Those seeking the “old paths” may have had a greater affinity with the worldview of the progressives, whose message of social transformation offered possibilities for progress denied by the fundamentalists. For an interesting discussion of premillennialism which notes the congruity between approaches to conversion and proposals for social transformation, see the six-part series of pamphlets, The Christian Hope, published by the Methodist Department of Evangelism and Social Service in 1922–1923, especially “Redemption by Revolution.”


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed