an unending series of meetings in the dreary setting of winter in London, England is probably not most people’s idea of a great vacation. But the representatives of Britain’s North American colonies who gathered
there in 1866-7 had serious business – the unification of
those colonies to form a single Confederation.
As the final negotiations wound down, the delegates
agreed the new country should be called “Canada.” But they
became stuck on what kind of jurisdiction “Canada” would be. Would
it be a kingdom? A viceroyalty?
The answer came from Samuel
Leonard Tilley, a New Brunswick
delegate and former premier, who
suggested a “dominion.” Tilley was
inspired by his morning devotional
readings from Psalm 72:8: “He shall have dominion also from
sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” (KJV).
The phrase “from sea to sea” seemed perfectly suited for
the new country the delegates were hoping to build, and the
name “Dominion of Canada” stuck.
Stories like this one grab our attention as Christians who
are also Canadians. They lead us to ask just what was the
role of our faith in the founding of our country? In what
sense, if any, was Canada founded as a Christian country?
To answer this question, we need to avoid – as C. S. Lewis
said about belief in devils — two equal and opposite errors.
The first error we can make is to retroactively secularize
our past by scrubbing all the Christian influences out of it.
Such an attitude simply shrugs off things like the Psalm
72 reference as irrelevant. This is too often the tendency
of secular professors and teachers in secular universities
and public schools, many of whom would prefer to write
religion out of our collective history.
One popular textbook used widely by university courses
on Canadian history, for example, has only five references to
Protestantism in its 600-plus pages. Conservative Protestantism or Evangelicalism is only mentioned twice – and once
in connection with the Klu Klux Klan!
This marginalization of the role of Christianity in our past
is both insulting and historically irresponsible. At the time
of Confederation, virtually every Canadian identified with a
He Shall Have Dominion
From Sea to Sea
Was Canada founded as a Christian
Christian denomination (whether or not they were faithful
church members). Christian influences suffused both private and public life. And the same has been true for most of
Canadian history since then. To pass over this in silence is
simply bad history. Who would think of writing a textbook on
the history of the Middle East that ignores the role of Islam?
Nevertheless, we can also make the opposite error of
retroactively sanctifying our collective past as Canadians.
The fact that Canada got its title from a Bible verse does
not mean the Fathers of Confederation wrote the British
North America Act with a quill in one hand and an open
Bible in the other.
The specific form of government they adopted – for all
its merits – was the fruit of centuries of British political development, not of sustained reflection on biblical political
principles. Their foremost concern was cutting a deal that
would satisfy their political supporters and get them re-elected.
Likewise, though they professed Christianity, several of the
politicians who met in London
that year were hardly shining examples of Christian leadership.
Some were notorious for their
drunkenness, while others had engaged in serious political
corruption. Nor were all of their ideas the best we could
aspire to as Christians – they were unanimous, for example,
in assuming that women should not be able to vote.
For these and other reasons, we need to be careful not
to set up the late 19th century as a kind of golden age in
which Canada was a thoroughly Christian country. But as
Canadian Christians who care about our country, we can
take heart knowing our faith has indeed played an important and positive role in our past.
Take the example of Tilley himself, who gave up a lucra-
tive career as a pharmacist because his evangelical faith
motivated him to enter the rough-and-tumble of politics to
work for the good of his community. Historian Christopher
Moore judges Tilley to have been “probably the most skilful
finance minister Canada had in the nineteenth century.”
If God’s dominion is going to be manifest in our nation
“from sea to sea,” it will be through men and women like
Tilley whose faith leads them to work for the common good
in our common life. ” FT
KevIn FLa TT is assistant professor of history at
redeemer University College in Hamilton, ont.,
and author of After Evangelicalism: The Sixties
and the United Church of Canada (McGill-
Queens University Press, 2013).
HistoryLesson n By kEVIn FlATT
At the time of Confederation,
virtually every Canadian
identified with a