Canadian Baptists and Labour: A Possible New Avenue of Inquiry

By Paul R. Wilson

The recent 100th Anniversary of the Winnipeg Strike, that took place from 15 May to 25 June 1919, prompts many questions for those interested in Canadian Baptist history. How did Canadian Baptists respond to this event? Did they support or oppose the workers or employers? Or were there a range of responses among Baptists? At this point, we have little knowledge about Canadian Baptist perspectives on this event or any other in Canada’s labour history.

Toronto World, 30 May 1919

The members of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society are often engaged in lively and stimulating conversations about possible new directions for Canadian Baptist historical studies. One potential line of inquiry is the involvement and interaction of Canadian Baptists with labour. While Baptists, such as Tommy Douglas, Pastor John Gilmore, and editor of the Canadian Baptist, James Edward Wells, have garnered some attention from historians, no comprehensive study of Canadian working class Baptists or their responses to labour issues and events exists.1

This significant knowledge gap is somewhat surprising for three reasons. First of all, from a scholarly perspective, there is burgeoning number of North American historical studies that have examined the relationship between Christianity and labour. In the U.S. the work of historian Heath W. Carter is particularly noteworthy. In his Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (2015) and in The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (2016), edited by Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano, for example, we are taken “under the surface of religious practices and sermons” and into the space, occupied by many Americans, between the pews and the picket lines.2

Although it can be arguedthat Canadian historians have been somewhat slower to pursue this avenue of inquiry, there are a few such historians who in recent years have ventured down this road. For example, the articles “‘The World of the Common Man is Filled with Religious Fervour’: The Labouring People of Winnipeg and the Persistence of Revivalism, 1914–1925,” by Michael Gauvreau and Nancy Christie; “Constructing a Labour Gospel: Labour and Religion in Early 20th Century Ontario,” by Melissa Turkstra; and “In the Service of the Lowly Nazarene Carpenter: The English Canadian Labour Press and the Case for Radical Christianity, 1926–1939,” by Christo Aivalis, should be at the top of the list as a starting point for any historical research about Canadian Baptists and labour.3 Richard Allen’s classic and enduring study of the social gospel entitled, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914–28 remains required reading for any scholar who delves into this area. A recently published collection of Allen’s articles entitled, Beyond the Noise of Solemn Assemblies: The Protestant Ethic and the Quest for Social Justice in Canada should also be on one’s reading list.4

There are, of course, many other Canadian labour history sources that should be consulted. The work of Michael Piva, Greg Kealey, and Bryan Palmer, are three of many labour historians whose work has become staple fare in the field of labour studies.5

Second, given that there are a few tantalizing preliminary historical insights and a significant probability that “working class” parishioners occupied a significant proportion of the pews in Baptist churches in many places and at many times in our history, the lack of study in this area begs for attention.6

At this point, we know little about the lived religion, thought, or experience of these working-class Baptists and their coreligionists in other classes who interacted with workers.7 Wherever possible, we need to explore and analyse working-class Baptists from every angle, including their theological, intellectual, social, cultural, and economic beliefs, practices, perspectives, connections, activities, and actions. There is certainly a lot of research and writing to be done.

Labour Day postcard, Winnipeg 1908

Finally, historians are always concerned about the availability of primary sources. I will not claim that I have an extensive knowledge of the source material in this area. But even with my limited understanding it appears that there are a number of primary source depositories that on the surface have the potential to yield valuable source material. For example, the Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College and the Atlantic Baptist Archives and Baptist Historical Collection at Acadia University should be mined for relevant information. The Labour History and Archives collections at the University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba, McMaster University, Brandon University, Dalhousie University, Laurentian University, York University and provincial and national archives all contain collections and information that are potentially useful. Labour and religious publications also provide insight into Baptist thought and participation in labour activities.

While I would be the first to admit that this area of study has many risks and challenges, in my view, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. Comprehensive studies of Canadian Baptists and labour would go a long way to deepening our knowledge of the Canadian Baptist worker experience specifically, and more broadly would add much deeper layers to our understanding of the wider Canadian Baptist experience. At the moment working-class Baptists and their interactions with their fellow Baptists and others are largely unknown and invisible to us. One hopes that someday soon historians will make these invisible Baptists visible and begin to explore a hitherto under-appreciated and fascinating aspect of Canadian Baptist history.

Paul R. Wilson, PhD, is the President of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and a former academic and Baptist pastor. His involvement with the Canadian Baptist Historical Society dates back to 1992.

Endnotes

  1. For a study that examines the relationship between Douglas’ public life, socialist ideology, and his Baptist identity see Sandra Beardsall, “One Here Will Constant Be”: The Christian Witness of T. C. ‘Tommy’ Douglas” in Gordon L. Heath and Paul R. Wilson, eds., Baptists and Public Life in Canada (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 143–66. One interaction between working men and Pastor John Gilmore of James Street Baptist Church in Hamilton is covered by Melissa Turkstra, “Constructing a Labour Gospel: Labour and Religion in Early 20th Century Ontario,” Labour 57 (Spring 2006), 93. A brief discussion of James Edward Wells as labour advocate see Ann Devries, “Wells, James Edward,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 12. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wells_james_edward_12F.html.
  2. The quotation is found in Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano, editors, The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), vii. See also, Heath W. Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  3. See Michael Gauvreau and Nancy Christie, “‘The World of the Common Man is Filled with Religious Fervour’: The Labouring People of Winnipeg and the Persistence of Revivalism, 1914–1925,” in G. A. Rawlyk, ed., Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997), 337–50. Melissa Turkstra, “Constructing a Labour Gospel: Labour and Religion in Early 20th Century Ontario,” Labour 57 (Spring 2006), 93–130. Christo Aivalis, “In the Service of the Lowly Nazarene Carpenter: The English Canadian Labour Press and the Case for Radical Christianity, 1926–1939,” Labour 73 (Spring 2014), 97–126.
  4. See Richard Allen, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914–28 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990). See also, Richard Allen, Beyond the Noise of Solemn Assemblies: The Protestant Ethic and the Quest for Social Justice in Canada (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).
  5. Since the list of studies by these and other notable labour scholars is extensive, I have chosen not to provide such a list in this brief blog. The studies by these scholars are readily accessible in many university libraries.
  6. Studies by Walter Ellis offer some helpful insights about working class Baptists and a social profile of these Baptists by occupation and assessment in a few Ontario Baptist churches. See, for example, Walter Ellis, “Gilboa To Ichabod, Social and Religious Factors In The Fundamentalist-Modernist Schisms Among Canadian Baptists, 1895–1934,” 32–34. This article can be accessed here: https://historicalpapers.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/historicalpapers/article/viewFile/39645/35950.
  7. There is some indication that Baptist businessmen who accepted aspects of the social gospel took an interest in their workers and developed profit-sharing, hardship, and pension plans. For a brief analysis of the efforts of Baptist clothing manufacturer John Northway see Alan Wilson, John Northway: A Blue Serge Canadian (Toronto: Burns and MacEachern, 1965), 174–77. See my own brief analysis of John Northway, Baptist meat packer William Davies and box manufacturer John Firstbrook in Paul R. Wilson, “Baptists and Business: Central Canadian Baptist and the Secularization of the Businessman at Toronto’s Jarvis Street Baptist Church, 1848–1921,” Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Western Ontario, 1996, 232–40. This source is available here: https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/digitizedtheses/2604/. A recently published biography of Baptist entrepreneur and philanthropist S. J. Moore notes his creation of a pension plan and profit sharing for his employees. See Brian D. Moore, The Printer’s Devil: The Life of Samuel J. Moore (Saint John, New Brunswick: Windsway Ventures Ltd., 2017), 165–67, 173.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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