Maybe it’s the colourful and chaotic world of the hippie movement, with its tie-dye shirts, long hair and music festivals.
Maybe it’s the sense of hope that accompanied Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967 or the grainy TV images of the first moon landing in 1969.
Or maybe it’s darker themes of social unrest, drug use
and political assassinations. Depending on your age, you
may simply think back to what was happening in your own
life during those years – a first kiss, a first car, a first child.
For most of us the 1960s conjures up images of change,
and for good reason.
The baby boom generation, born in the years after World
War II, came of age then with more of them attending high
school and university than in any previous generation. Televisions became a standard feature of Canadian living rooms.
New hairstyles, clothing and music appeared on the scene, all
driven by a burgeoning youth market with disposable income.
More controversially, people began to abandon the
Christian sexual ethic as popular culture and the birth control pill made premarital sex a more socially acceptable and
(apparently) risk-free option.
This “sexual revolution” had political repercussions,
such as a widening of the grounds for divorce and the legalization of abortion under certain circumstances. A rising
political star, justice minister – and soon prime minister –
Pierre Trudeau ushered in both legislative changes.
Such developments were not limited to Canada, of
course. Similar changes took place in the United States,
Britain and other Western countries.
Historian Arthur Marwick has rightly argued that these
upheavals constituted a “cultural revolution” throughout
the Western world. But the 1960s were not just about sex,
drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. They were also a time of religious
crisis as mainstream religion faltered in Western societies,
Before 1960 two pillars dominated Canadian religion –
the mainline Protestant churches (primarily Anglican and
United) and the Roman Catholic Church. After 1960 both
of these pillars began to crack.
The Catholic stronghold of Quebec experienced a “Quiet
Revolution” when a new provincial government severed
the close relationship between the Catholic Church and the
sex, Drugs, and . . .
what comes to mind when you think
of the 1960s?
State by rapidly taking over the administration of schooling
and health care, both of which had been run by the Church
in previous decades.
These changes coincided with a momentous gathering
of Catholic bishops in Rome for the Second Vatican Council,
which shook up the Church by replacing the Latin mass
with services in vernacular languages, adopting a more positive attitude toward Protestants, and generally displaying
openness to the modern world.
While historians are still debating the “how” and “why,”
the net effect of these rapid changes was a sharp drop in
Church commitment and participation among Canadian
Catholics. This drop was especially pronounced in Quebec,
which went from being the most religious jurisdiction in North
America to the least, at least in terms of church attendance.
Meanwhile, mainline Protestants went through their
own period of upheaval.
Prominent journalist Pierre Berton published a scathing
book The Comfortable Pew (J.B. Lippincott, 1965), which condemned the churches for always lagging a step behind social
change. Berton argued that unless the churches got with the
times by dropping traditional dogmas and promoting progressive social causes, they were doomed to extinction.
Hardly a facet of church life escaped unchanged as mainline Protestant leaders implemented new Sunday school cur-ricula, revised their positions on moral issues, took up the
flag of progressive politics and flirted with radical theological
movements such as the so-called “death of God” theology.
But to their disappointment these churches soon found
Berton’s medicine didn’t work. Many conservative members departed for other churches, while radicals found the
pace of change too slow and simply left the faith altogether.
Many in the middle scratched their heads and decided it
would be less confusing just to sleep in on Sunday morning. The result was a catastrophic loss of members and
participants that left Canadian mainline Protestantism, like
Quebec Catholicism, a shadow of its former self.
However, not all was doom and gloom for Canadian
Christianity in the 1960s.
On the fringes there were signs of hope in Canada’s smaller evangelical churches. In a future column we’ll explore
how these Evangelicals successfully navigated the turbulent
waters of the 1960s with their faith and churches intact. Ft
KEvIn FlAtt is assistant professor of history at
redeemer university College in Hamilton, ont. His
book After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the
United Church of Canada (mcGill-Queens university
Press, 2013) reaches bookstores this summer.
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