The emergence of the United Church of Canada

June 10th is a very important date in Canadian and North American Christian history. On June 10th, 1925, the United Church of Canada came into formal existence under the terms of a federal act of parliament.

It was the legal amalgamation of the Methodist, Congregational and (most of) the Presbyterian churches in Canada.

Formal and informal cooperation between Protestant churches had been taking place for a long time in Canada, particularly in western Canada. When a frontier area was initially settled, usually the first public building to be constructed was a school. Religious services of various denominations were often held in those early schoolhouses. Eventually stand-alone churches were built.

However, distances were great and ministers were in very short supply.

Many fledgling communities relied on summer student missionaries, often nick-named ‘sky-pilots’ to conduct the services.

The structure and content of the worship services generally depended upon which denomination provided the student missionary.

As the communities grew, churches of the various denominations were built, particularly in the towns and cities.

However, resources remained scarce. Hence, different churches would often alternate as to which one provided the Sunday services.

Cooperation agreements were often negotiated when establishing mission fields. For example, in Central Alberta, the rural communities of Willowdale, Valley Centre and Edwell built Presbyterian churches, while Springvale and Horn Hill built Methodist churches.

Anglican churches were built at Hillsdown and Pine Lake.

The mainstream Protestant churches were further drawn together by the great social causes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The biggest crusade was the push for Prohibition, which came to fruition across North American in 1915-1916.

Other multi-denominational cooperative organizations included the Lord’s Day Alliance, which successfully lobbied governments to make the Sabbath a universal day of rest.

While many of the early arrangements had been informal or regional, after the turn of the last century, communities began to formally merge their religious services.

In 1916, the local Methodists and Presbyterians created the Ponoka United Church.

By the early 1920s, more than 2,000 similar congregations had been formed across western Canada.

Meanwhile, discussions of nation-wide cooperation moved ahead.

In 1902, Rev. W. Patrick, a Presbyterian, proposed that the consideration be given to the creation of a national ‘United Church’ at the General Conference of the Methodist Church in Winnipeg.

The reaction was immediate.

Some people cheered the proposal as an idea whose time had come. Others were vehemently opposed, or else suggested that some sort of loose ‘federation’ be considered.

By 1908, the national Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist church leaders had drawn up a draft Basis for Union. The Methodists and Congregationalists quickly ratified the proposal. The Presbyterians had a general membership vote on it, and they too approved the document by a margin of more than two-thirds

However, as discussions and debates continued, opposition amongst the Presbyterians grew.

In a second vote, the number Presbyterians voting ‘no’ grew enormously. Among the key dissenters again church union was the eloquent Rev. Walter G. Brown of Knox Presbyterian Church in Red Deer.

Despite the increasingly acrimonious arguments, the enabling legislation, which mainly dealt with the transfer of property rights, had little trouble passing the federal parliament on June 27th, 1924. Any provincial legislation that was required easily passed the various provincial legislatures as well.

Hence, on June 10th, 1925, the United Church of Canada came into legal existence. Because of the strong opposition of Rev. W.G. Brown and others, few Presbyterians in Central Alberta joined the new church.

The most noticeable difference in Red Deer was that Leonard Gaetz Memorial Methodist Church changed its name to Gaetz Memorial United Church.