It was the spring of 1917. Canada had been at war against Ger- many for nearly three years. Like everyone Canadians had
expected a short war, but the end
was nowhere in sight.
With voluntary recruitment efforts drying up, the government
proposed turning to conscription,
provoking fierce divisions that
lasted for decades.
The year also featured another
controversy that does not get nearly as much attention, but had more
spiritual importance in the long
run – a debate about the future of
On one side were those who believed Christianity needed to
change its beliefs and priorities to
keep up with the times. Often called
liberals or modernists, they believed
modern scholarship had disproved
the reliability of the Bible and were
skeptical of traditional doctrines.
Instead, they argued the Church’s
priority should be “social regeneration” through support for political
causes like the prohibition of alcohol, women’s suffrage and urban
On the other side were more
conservative Protestants, later
often called Evangelicals, who
continued to defend the reliability
of the Bible and traditional doctrines. Some were called “
fundamentalists” for their outspoken
defence of the fundamentals of the
faith. Although many of them also
supported social reform, they saw
the Church’s primary task as “soul
winning” – preaching the gospel.
In Canada at the time of the First
World War, this tension was largely
hidden below the surface. In most
of the large Protestant denomina-
tions, liberalism was gradually
winning over the theological col-
leges, head offices, and eventually
most of the pulpits, but few made a
public issue of this.
Vancouver was one of the big
exceptions. As historian Bob Burkinshaw explains, the tension burst
out into the open. The catalyst was
Dr. French E. Oliver, a Presbyterian
preacher from the Bible Institute of
Los Angeles. A group of Vancouver’s
evangelical professionals, businessmen and ministers from a range of
denominations – Anglican, Baptist,
Methodist, Plymouth Brethren and
Presbyterian – invited him to come
lead a six-week evangelistic campaign in May and June 1917.
Oliver preached to crowds of
thousands in a purpose-built “
tabernacle” near the downtown. Mostly
he preached a straightforward
message of sin and salvation, and
nearly 2,000 people gave their lives
to Christ during the campaign.
But he also preached directly
against the influence of liberalism,
which he identified as a major
threat to the gospel and the Church.
He told the crowds he would not
“use a feather duster” when it came
to something as important as “the
defence of the faith.”
The more liberal ministers in the
city responded from their pulpits
and in the press that Oliver was
closed minded and stuck in the
past. Some even accused him of
being in the pocket of business in-
terests who wanted to prevent social
reforms (Burkinshaw concludes
there is no evidence of this).
Perhaps their most effective
charge was that Oliver was creating
unnecessary controversy and driv-
ing a wedge between the churches
of the city.
The Christians in Vancouver were
indeed split over Oliver’s visit. In
fact, the controversy served to convince many Evangelicals the mainline denominations were indeed too
liberal. Afterward they began to
build independent evangelical institutions outside mainline control.
So were the critics right? Did
Oliver cause division in a time
when unity was needed?
There is no question he was a
divisive force, and controversies can
be ugly. This one had ugliness on
both sides, especially when they
accused each other of being
pro-German, an inflammatory
charge in 1917.
Oliver exposed the deep divide
that already existed – between
Protestants who believed in the full
trustworthiness and authority of
the Bible and those who did not,
and between those who saw the
Church’s primary purpose as soul
winning and those who saw it as
It took decades, but those fault
lines also eventually surfaced in the
rest of the country. In the meantime, the voices calling for unity
also ensured liberalism established
a firm hold on the big denominations. By the time the divisions
became painfully obvious in the
1960s, most Evangelicals had few
options besides walking out.
Yes, controversy can be ugly, and
division is not something to strive for.
Yet sometimes controversies reveal
hidden truths, and sometimes the
price of unity is too high to pay. /FT
SEATING CAPACI T Y
OF THE TABERNACLE
BUILT IN VANCOUVER
CAMPAIGN IN 1917.
PILGRIMS IN LOTUS
A Protestant crossroads
Vancouver 1917: How controversy births new things
Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history
and director of research at Redeemer
University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more at