A Brief History of Law and Religious Institutions in Canada

AuthorM.H. Ogilvie
The history of religious institutions and the law in Canada was, until
the late twentieth centur y, the history of Christianit y in Canada in its
many forms, its relationships with governments (whether foreign, col-
onial, federal, or provincial) and w ith the society in which it found itself
and whose shape it inf‌luenced in fundament al ways. Indeed, the as-
sumption brought to the New World by most of the Christian commun-
ities of post-Reformation Europe was that the all iances of church and
state enjoyed in the originati ng states in Europe would be replicated in
the New World, as would the societies of Western Europe, newly purged
of their undesirable character istics. While the motives for the est ablish-
ment of overseas colonies were primar ily economic, political, and stra-
tegic, it was also widely accepted by contemporar ies not only that the
familiar p atterns of Chr istendom would be continued in the New World
but also that this was necessary to civilize the New World and advance
the kingdom of God throughout the whole world.
Once the major states of early modern Europe had l aid claim to their
overseas colonies, the inevitable inter-colonial riva lries, whet her eco-
nomic, political, or militar y, grew up, ref‌lecting not only local annoy-
ances but also European-based rivalries, including inter-state religious
frictions. In addition, since many overseas colonies comprised settlers
of rival religious denominations w ithin Europe, intra-colonial religious
disputes and manoeuvring for supremacy also inevit ably occurred.
In the New World as in the Old World, the division between Roman
Catholic and Protestant remai ned the major fault-line along which
states would be built, outranking in social and political importance the
divisions of the Protest ant Reformation Anabaptist, Anglican, and
Reformed, whose European rivalr ies also continued in North Amer ica.
Indeed, much of Canadian politica l and social history f rom the found-
ing of New France to the era of the Charter can be written as t he history
of Christian ity in Canada, its religious institutions, and the state, so
profound has the role of the Christian churches been directly on nation-
al life but also indirect ly through the peculiar ways i n which social and
political issues h ave been framed for much of the history of both public
and private life in Canada. While the sectarian disputes of the nine-
teenth century were explicitly framed as denominational r ivalries, the
secular debates of the twent ieth century on major social issues retained
a theological undercurrent about how best to order a moral society in
the northern part of t he Western hemisphere.
It is impossible to write a thorough histor y of religion in Canada
in one chapter suitable as an introduction to th at subject and as back-
ground to a legal text. This chapter will survey superf‌icially the major
events insofar as t hey are related to the legal topics to which this book
is primar ily devoted.1
1 This chapter i s based on several general hi stories of religion in Can ada and not
on any origin al research. General h istories of religion in Ca nada are rare, al-
though the recent rev ival of interest in the subject a mongst Canadian his torians,
as evidenced by t he large number of special topic b ooks published in the past
two decades, sug gests that this h istory will become bett er understood. Reference
to some of these relev ant works will be made in foot notes as appropriate to the
text. The general h istories in chronological or der are as follows: H.H. Walsh, The
Christian Church in Cana da (Toronto: Ryerson, 1956); H.H. Walsh, The Church in
the Fren ch Era (Toronto: Ryerson, 1966); John S. Moir, The Church in the British
Era (Toronto: Ryerson, 1972); John Webster Grant, The Church in the Can adian Era
(Toronto: Ryerson, 1972); updated and ex panded edition by John G. Stackhou se
(Vancouver: Regent College, 1998); Robert T. Handy, A History of the Churches in
the United States and Can ada (Oxford: Oxford University Pre ss, 1976); Mark A.
Noll, A History of Chr istianity in the United States and Cana da (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdman s, 1992); Terrence Murphy & Roberto Peri n, eds., A Concise History of
Christianity in Ca nada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996); John S. Moir,
Christianity in Ca nada: Historical Essays (Yorkton, SK: Redeemer ’s Voice Press,
2002); and Robert Choquette, Cana da’s Religions: An Historical Introductio n (Ot-
tawa: Universit y of Ottawa Press, 200 4). For a legal history of relig ious freedom,
see Janet Epp Bucking ham, Fighting Over God: A Legal and Political History of
Religious Freedom in Canada (Montreal and Ki ngston: McGill-Queens Univer sity
Press, 2014). Three recent collections of ess ays explore specif‌ic topics and c on-
tain exte nsive bibliographies: Marg uerite Van Die, ed., Religion and Public Life in
Canada: Histor ical and Comparative Perspectives (Toronto: University of Toronto

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