More Than a Gravestone
Faith Today’s new history column
introduces us to Canada’s colourful
In Hampton, New Hampshire, not far from the windy beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, there is a worn grave- stone bearing the words “the apostle of Nova Scotia.”
Despite the American location of his grave, the man
described by these words is Henry Alline, one
of Canada’s first evangelical leaders.
Although born in Rhode Island in
1748, Alline moved with his family to
Nova Scotia in 1760 as part of a wave
of settlers invited by the British government. The pioneer life was hard
for Alline and his siblings as they
helped their parents coax a living out
of the fields and forests. It was also a life
of faith. Alline’s parents were devout believers who led the family in prayers and Bible
reading at home, and on Sundays worshipped at a
In these godly surroundings few noticed Alline’s inner
struggles. He grew up hearing about God’s promise of salvation in the gospel. But like Martin Luther hundreds of years
earlier, Alline was deeply conscious of his sin and feared
he would not be saved. How could he know God would
accept him? These soul-wrenching battles with doubt and
despair were so intense at times that he even considered
taking his own life.
One night in March 1776 these struggles came to a head.
Alline was too troubled to pay attention while his father led
the family prayers. Instead he pored over the Psalms looking
for some kind of relief. Alline then retreated to his bedroom
where he cried out to God for help. He later wrote that suddenly, “Redeeming love broke into my soul with repeated
scriptures with such power that my whole soul seemed to
be melted down with love; the burden of guilt and condemnation was gone.” Finally convinced God’s grace had freed
him, Alline spent the rest of the night rejoicing, and the next
morning shared his news with his surprised parents.
As was the case with his contemporary, the English
evangelist John Wesley, Alline’s experience of the assurance of God’s grace was shortly followed by his sense
God was calling him to preach. Though he was young ( 27)
and untrained, Alline almost immediately set off to proclaim the gospel. Between 1776 and 1783 he crisscrossed
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with the message that
salvation was available to anyone who would repent and
believe. Travelling from village to village, Alline preached
to whoever would listen, often attracting large crowds.
Using scripture, emotional language, vivid word pictures
and songs he composed himself, Alline preached at the
heart, imploring his listeners to turn to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
The young preacher’s message and methods some-
times provoked controversy. He severely criticized the
But by the time Alline travelled
to New England in 1784, where he
died of tuberculosis at the young age
of 35, he had kindled a spiritual fire
that burned throughout the region.
Although most of his followers even-
tually became Baptists (the beginning of
the strong Baptist presence in the Maritimes),
The questions Alline’s ministry raised at the time
among serious Christians have remained tough questions
for Canadian Evangelicals in other ages. Does God’s call on
a pastor’s life outweigh the need for formal education? Are
denominations important channels of faith or obstacles
to the gospel? How do we avoid “putting out the Spirit’s
fire” (1 Thessalonians 5: 19) while ensuring everything is
done “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14: 40)?
Alline’s message also stressed themes that have always
united Canadian Evangelicals. Our focus on the cross –
and the forgiveness it makes possible – is a good example,
as is our belief in the need for a personal encounter with
Jesus. A desire to spread the gospel by any means available
– whether the open-air preaching and homespun songs
of Alline’s day, or the radio and internet ministries of later
eras – is also a living part of our heritage.
Two and a half centuries later, the legacy of the “apostle
of Nova Scotia” lives on in more than a gravestone inscription. FT
KeVIn FLa TT is assistant professor of history at
Redeemer University College in Hamilton, Ont.