HISTORY OF THE UNITED CHURCH
The United Church of Canada is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. We minister to close to 3 million people in over 3500 congregations across the country. Ours is a rich history closely entwined with the development of Canada itself.
The United Church was inaugurated on June 10, 1925 in Toronto, Ontario, when the Methodist Church, Canada, the Congregational Union of Canada, and 70 per cent of the Presbyterian Churches in Canada entered into an organic union. Joining as well was the small General Council of Union Churches, centred largely in Western Canada. It was the first union of churches in the world to cross historical denominational lines and hence received international acclaim. Impetus for the union arose out of the concerns for serving the vast Canadian northwest and in the desire for better overseas mission. Each of the uniting churches, however, had a long history prior to 1925.
The Presbyterian Stream
French Huguenots, escaping persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, brought the Reformed Faith to Canada. But even in the New World their growth and development were restricted. After the ceding of Nova Scotia to England in 1713, subsequent immigration of Presbyterians from Scotland and Ireland completely overwhelmed the small French contingent. The first ministers from Scotland were Daniel Cook, David Smith, and Hugh Graham who organized the Presbytery of Truro in 1786. In 1795 this presbytery was joined by a second, the Presbytery of Pictou, which represented another faction of Scottish Presbyterianism. In 1817 these two groups, joined by a few ministers from the Established Church of Scotland were able to come together and form the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia.
Concurrent with the events that led to the formation of the Synod of Nova Scotia, Presbyterians were moving into central and western Canada. As in eastern Canada, they brought the many divisions of the Scottish church with them and established several presbyteries and then synods, the first being the Presbytery of the Canadas in 1818. The establishment of new synodical structures continued through the first half of the nineteenth century, in part due to the importing of schisms within the church in Scotland, the arrival of non-English-speaking (Dutch Reformed) immigrants, and the opening of new territories in the West. By mid-century the trend began to reverse, and in 1875 a series of mergers led to the union of most Presbyterians into the Presbyterian Church of Canada.
The Methodist Stream
Methodism in Canada is traced to Lawrence Coughlan, an Irish Methodist preacher who came to Newfoundland in 1765. Upon his return to England, many of the people he organized openly declared themselves Methodists.
Meanwhile, Methodists were migrating from England to Nova Scotia; among them was William Black, Sr. In 1779 a revival among them led to the conversion of William Black, Jr., then but nineteen years old. He began to preach, visiting several nearby settlements, and in 1781 traveled the whole of Nova Scotia to organize Methodist classes. His work expanded greatly two years later as immigrants loyal to Great Britain flowed into Nova Scotia after the American Revolution. In 1784 Black journeyed to Baltimore, Maryland, for the meeting that organized the new Methodist Episcopal Church. The Canadian work which Black had developed was taken under their care. The Canadian work grew and developed as an integral part of the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1828 when it became separate and independent.
Meanwhile, Methodists from Great Britain migrated into Canada, and like the Presbyterians from Scotland, brought with them the several divisions of British Methodism. Mergers in 1874 and 1884 resulted in the Methodist Church, Canada being formed.
The Congregational Stream
Congregationalism in Canada originated with the acceptance of the offer made by the British government which promised free land to New Englanders who would relocate in Nova Scotia. In 1759 several hundred immigrants founded new towns and gathered churches; the first was at Chester, and in 1761 the church at Liverpool was formed. In 1760 a colony began at Maugerville, New Brunswick; the first church was organized six years later. The first church in Newfoundland was organized in 1846. In 1801 the British Congregationalists sent a missionary to organize a church in Quebec. That beginning led to the formation of the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, which merged with the older group in 1906. The newly formed Congregational Union of Canada received the Ontario Conference of American-based United Brethren in Christ in 1907.
The General Council of Union Churches Stream
The final partner in the 1925 merger, the General Council of Union Churches of Western Canada, was the child of the early proposed Plan of Union that led to the founding of The United Church of Canada. A draft proposal of a plan of union was issued in 1908. In November of that year, a new congregation appeared in Saskatchewan which accepted the proposed plan as the basis of its local organization. Others soon followed. In 1912 the several local congregations formed the General Council to handle practical matters (some of them legal) and press forward in implementing the Plan of Union.
The merger in 1925 had one major dissenting voice. Approximately thirty percent of the Presbyterians refused to enter the merger and continued as the Presbyterian Church of Canada.
In fulfillment of its mandate to be a “uniting” Church, the United Church has been enriched by several unions since 1925. The Fourth General Council of The United Church of Canada (1930) approved the union of the Synod of The Wesleyan Methodist Church of Bermuda with The United Church of Canada on the condition that the Synod shall function as a Presbytery of the Maritime Conference without interference with the rights and powers conferred by the Legislature of Bermuda in the Wesleyan Methodist Church Act, 1930. The Twenty-second General Council of The United Church of Canada (1966) approved the Plan of Union whereby the Canada Conference of The Evangelical United Brethren Church became part of The United Church of Canada, effective January 1st, 1968.
In addition, over the years various individual congregations from other Christian communions have joined the United Church. In 1943 a two-decade process of negotiation with the Anglican Church of Canada was initiated. Later the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) joined the negotiations. The general commission representing the three churches adopted the Plan of Union in 1972, but three years later was rejected by the Anglican Church of Canada. Discussions with the Christian Church ended in 1985.
In 2015, the United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ USA both approved a full communion agreement. This agreement declares our openness to cooperation in terms of witness, mission, worship, and the proclamation of a common faith with the United Church of Christ.
The Wikipedia entry on the United Church also offers an overview of the church’s history and background.
For more information, please contact:
General Council Support and Services Unit, Communications Officer, The United Church of Canada 3250 Bloor Street West, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario CANADA M8X 2Y4 Phone: (416) 231-5931, ext. 2016 | Fax: (416) 231-3103