Point-counterpoint: Towards a study of the Bible in Canadian public life

Point-counterpoint: Towards a study of the Bible in Canadian public life

Preston Jones

If the claim that the Bible is in some way “America’s book” is, as one Canadian scholar puts it, “extravagant,” the idea should come as no surprise to Canadians (Gunn 1; Jeffrey People of the Book 319). Prominent Americans call thankfully upon God for sundry blessings and assistance in times of distress and White House occupants of whichever political party fling biblical texts to the media and Rotary Clubs across the land. Former president and perennial Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter, for example, recently published his spiritual autobiography, complete with longish revelations of his appreciation for the Bible. As numerous scholars have made clear, the Bible has exerted a great influence on public life in the United States (see, e.g., Gunn; Hatch and Noll).

Scholarly attention to the influence of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures in Canadian history has been informative but slight. Tom Sinclair-Faulkner and Michael Gauvreau have discussed the impact of scholarly biblical criticism on nineteenth-century Canadian universities and Christian academics and John Moir has authored a history of biblical studies in the Canadian university. E.C. Woodley and Paul-Aime Martin have written brief, general accounts of organizations devoted to the study and propagation of the Bible in Canada while Neil Semple, with other historians of religion, has noted the importance of Bible-based Sunday schools. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. and Robert K. Burkinshaw have written on Bible colleges and institutes; S.F. Wise and Richard Allen have shown the important role general biblical themes played in nineteenth-century Canadian intellectual history; Norman F. Cornett and Thomas Flanagan have pointed to the centrality of biblical themes in the thought of, respectively, Lionel Groulx and Louis Riel.

Canadian professors of English – most notably the late Northrop Frye and the University of Ottawa’s David Lyle Jeffrey – have expended a considerable amount of energy writing on the Bible and English literature in general and, in Jeffrey’s case, on biblical themes in Canadian fiction. Significantly, over one quarter of the scholars who contributed to the monumental and widely praised Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature – edited by Jeffrey – teach at Canadian institutions. In 1996 Dave Little, a teacher of English in Saskatchewan, produced a work on the “religious vision” of Robertson Davies in which 40 pages are devoted to the use of biblical texts.

Canadian historians, however, have not yet produced a study of the Bible’s place in Canada’s public life, though even a casual perusal of many historical sources suggests that the Bible has figured prominently in Canadian history. Consider several of the texts provided in Ramsay Cook’s anthology of French Canadian nationalist thought. It has long been observed that prominent nineteenth-century French Canadian clerics like Monsignor L.ER. Lafleche interpreted Quebec’s history in explicitly biblical terms. While Lafleche’s biographer has noted his close familiarity with the Bible (see Voisin 507) there is no focussed study of what biblical texts Lafleche most frequently employed, and how.

When Lafleche declared in his series of articles collectively titled “The Providential Mission of the French Canadians” (in Cook) that Jacques Cartier’s voyage to the New World was providentially ordered in a way similar to Abraham’s journey into Canaan (Genesis 12:1-9) was he expressing something he deeply believed to be true or merely employing a familiar and authoritative text for the sake of rhetorical flourish? Even the rouge Gonzalve Doutre claimed that in the modem era progressive peoples of all languages were engaged in a “new crossing of the Red Sea” (Exodus 14) and were building a “Tower of Granite,” which, unlike the failed ancient Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), would reach to a humanly perfected metaphorical heaven. (Cook 117) Henri Bourassa maintained in “The French Language and the Future of Our Race” that French Canadians should not content themselves with linguistic and religious secondclass citizenship “like the Hebrews in the land of Egypt” (Exodus chaps. 1-12); that they should shun America’s materialistic “cult of the golden calf” (Exodus 32:1-6) and not mindlessly ‘swap their birthright for a mess of pottage,’ that is, “materialism” (see Genesis 27). Bourassa maintained that, unlike English Canadians and Americans who had not yet learned that “man cannot live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4), FrenchCanadian culture was immersed in spiritual truth (Cook 139-45). The biblical citations and allusions listed here appear in Mgr. L-A. Paquet’s famous “Sermon on the Vocation of the French Race in America”: “the lamb of God” (John 1:29,36); “the desert … come to life” (Isaiah 35:1); “the four comers of the province” (cf. Isaiah 11:12); “Moses’ rod” (Exodus 4:20). And then there is Paquet’s hope that the French Canadians’ mission would be “be attached to the forehead of our race as a Heavenly sign!” (cf. Revelation 7:3 and 22:4; contrast with Revelation 13:16, 14:910, 17:5 and Exodus 28:38). As one might expect of a sermon, Paquet’s message opens with a citation from scripture, Isaiah 43:21: “This people have I formed for myself; they shall skew forth my praise,” and it closes with the first clause of Psalm 46:10: “And ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Cook 153-60). Clearly biblical language informs French-Canadian intellectual history, rouge and bleu. Even Rene Levesque’s memoir, Attendez que je me rappelle, is peppered with biblical allusions, reminders of a not particularly pious man’s classical education.

Much the same can be said of Canadian intellectual history and historiography in general. The title of J.S. Woodsworth’s Strangers Within Our Gates is a reference to Deuteronomy 5:14, and, in addition to his argument that the Bible should be put into the hands of every immigrant and French-Canadian Catholic, Woodsworth’s prose (in this book) relies in great measure on Hebrew and Christian scripture. “Unless the pure and undefiled religion (James 1:27) of our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, is presented to the people of Quebec, we shall see them follow the [atheistic] example of the people of France,” he wrote (Woodsworth 246).’ Then he has this to say of Asian immigrants: “Shall we regard them as barbarians … to be mobbed, boycotted, driven out of the country? Surely there is a more excellent way (I Corinthians 12:31; 248). Little wonder that Kenneth McNaught calls Woodsworth a “prophet in politics,” likening him to Hebrew prophets such as Jeremiah, Hosea and Michaiah who spoke the usually uncomfortable and unwelcome word of Yahweh to political authorities and religious apostates. And little wonder that, alluding to a passage in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, Allen Mills calls Woodsworth a “fool for Christ” (3:12-16).

Far from being tucked away in obscure religious works, the artful and conscious employment of biblical allusion and metaphor seems to have been common in Canadian historiography until recent decades. Thus Frank Underhill on Mackenzie King: “It has often been made an occasion for sneering against Mr King that he could not hold a seat in his own province, and this has been said to prove his weakness as a public man. On the contrary, the fact that he had to seek election in Prince Albert was a symbolical expression of the most important factor in his strength. He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (In Search 121-22; John 1:11). And, citing Stephen Leacock, here is Underhill criticizing Canada’s political culture: “The mud-bespattered politicians … the party men and party managers, give us in place of patriotic statecraft the sordid traffic of a tolerated jobbery. For bread, a stone”(Image 43; Luke 11:11).

In his The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, Richard Allen writes of early twentieth-century conservative Protestants who believed that the watering down of Christian orthodoxy in modern times would eventually render the churches irrelevant – why listen to a preacher when he sounds just like a psychologist or political lobbyist? – nevertheless failed to take up “the whip cords against the defilement of the temple” (cf. Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46). That is, they failed to fight the good fight for orthodox belief and retreated into conservative enclaves. Meanwhile, Allen writes, disillusioned reform-minded Protestants “hoped that in spite of the churches’ weakened position in the face of modernity there would come another day when again `an angel would trouble the waters”‘ (John 5:4).2

Donald Creighton’s The Forked Road: Canada, 1939-1957 is generously flavoured with religious and biblical metaphor and allusion – in spite of this Methodist son’s attack on mid-twentieth-century Protestantism in the book’s first chapter (27-28). Of Canada’s relationship with the Commonwealth in the post-war years we read that Mackenzie King’s view comprised “a simple evangelical message … [in which] The Commonwealth … was a community of like-minded nations, held together, not by the symbolism of the Crown, but by the substance of kindred ideas and similar institutions” (190). Thus in a single sentence Creighton alludes to the Christian evangel (Greek euaggelion: reward for bringing good news) and to the quite different Calvinist and Roman Catholic doctrines concerning the Lord’s Supper.

On the following page, Creighton writes that though, after the Second World War, King wanted to sever most political ties with Britain, “some link to the Crown” (what Creighton calls “an equivocal phrase”) was still necessary. “A new and revolutionary concept of the Commonwealth was implied in those five small words,” Creighton writes. “They meant that the Crown would cease to be the central and common institution of all monarchies which made up the Commonwealth, and would become merely the artificial and tenuous ‘link’ between basically antithetical systems of government” (191). Like David, who with “five smooth stones” in hand slew Goliath (I Samuel 17:40), in Creighton’s view, Mackenzie King with his “five small words” did much to bring down the Commonwealth and change Canadian identity. One need not agree with Creighton’s view to appreciate his deft use of biblical allusion. Many of Creighton’s current readers may not recognize the allusion though his later reference to a “huge and domineering Liberal Goliath” and an “agile and intrepid Tory David” would probably not pass them by (273).

One more example from Canadian historiography will suffice. In The Canadian Identity, W.L. Morton, ever worried for the fate of Canada, referred soberly to North America’s “Gadarene rush of technology” (131) thereby revealing in one phrase his concern over the modern enthrallment with technology. To get Morton’s point one needs to know the story of the Gadarene swine:

And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes. And when he [Jesus] was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshiped him, and cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?” 1 adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, my name is Legion: for we are many. And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.

Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and Were choked in the sea. (Mark 5:1-13; cf. Matthew 8:28-32 and Luke 8:26-33)3

The powerful story of the Gadarene demoniac is alluded to in work by Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce (see Jeffrey, Dictionary 299 and 443); Canadian editorialists have also drawn upon it, if in a more mundane fashion. In early 1862, for instance, one writer in the abolitionist Canada Christian Advocate hoped that the Confederate army would be “driven into the sea, as were the devils driven from the hogs into the sea of Galilee” (23 April 1862, 1). Two decades later, and in a very different context, the nationalist and not usually very theological Nation scorned a Roman Catholic bishop who opined in a sermon that the source of all demon possession was Satan himself. Such a notion, the Nation asserted, was “hardly Scriptural unless we credit Satan with ubiquity and the power of subdividing his personality so as to be able to answer, on a notable occasion, that his name was `Legion, for we are many”‘ (8 January 1875, 10).

Of course, spiritual evil, devils, daemonic possession, the person of Satan and the like, have both fascinated and weighed heavily on the human mind for millennia (see, for example, Russell). Just as Jesus’s opponents accused him of being possessed by Satan (see Matthew 12:24-29) those engaged in rhetorical or martial combat often demonize their adversaries. Thus, on 29 May 1861, Toronto’s fiercely anti-slavery Christian Guardian asserted that the Confederacy’s “spirit of Slavery is the spirit of Appolyon, and it has been, is, and will be a Destroyer” (Revelation 9:11; John 10:10), while in the Christian Journal’s view, Southern slavery was an “abomination that maketh desolate” (19 September 1862, 4; Daniel 11:31 and 12:11).

As for the future of the United States, the Presbyterian Witness was hopeful, for “If God [would have] saved Sodom for ten righteous men [Genesis 18:32], will he not save the great Republic for the ten thousands of good men who daily plead with him for mercy?” It is true, the Witness declared, that “waxing fat,” the Americans began “kicking against the law” and social order, and indulged in “the sins which brought God’s judgment on Israel of old” (see Deuteronomy 32:15); but if British North America did not keep its own spiritual house in order, if it “in like manner transgress[ed]” against God’s law, it too could expect divine wrath to fall upon it (11 September 1861, 1).

As far as Halifax’s Provincial Wesleyan was concerned, God was using the American Civil Wax not only to punish the sinful United States but Canada and Britain as well. “Stripped of her colonies [in the American War of Independence], spoiled of her commerce, humbled in the dust by her unrelenting offspring, [England] will mourn the day she let her quarrelsome sons alone to settle their own affairs.” In a clever conflation of scripture and popular international nomenclature, the Wesleyan continued, “Is Jonathan also among the prophets?”4 (4 September 1861, 2; I Samuel 10:11).

In his memoirs (1910), and in a somewhat lighter vein than the examples just cited, Goldwin Smith charges protectionist American and Canadian politicians with devilish deeds, skilfully drawing together disparate biblical texts concerned with struggles between spiritual light and darkness. “For free trade against protectionism as the cause,” he writes,

not of a party, but of the whole community and of humanity at large, I felt free as a citizen of the world … to do my best. My best I did … and if the Evil One was then too strong for us, discussion enlightens and helps the cause. There is the same battle to be fought on both sides of the line [the CanadaUnited States border], and with the same disadvantage, the forces of protectionism being concentrated in a compact party with a wily leader, while those of free trade are scattered. A Canadian plunderer of the people, a man himself living in a fine house, said the other day that he would like to see a wall as high as Haman’s gallows between the two parts of a continent which nature has most manifestly decreed to be commercially one. (445-46; see, respectively, Matthew 13:19; cf., Daniel 10:12-13; cf., Ephesians 6:11; Matthew 9:36 and 26:31, Mark 14:27 and Zechariah 13:7; cf., John 10:10; and, for the final two allusions, Esther chapters 5-7)

Smith’s reference to Haman’s gallows is echoed in Creighton’s Forked Roads, where one reads that after the Second World War the United States looked with contempt on British and Commonwealth protectionism, even as it ignored its own tariffs “which for half a century had towered as high as Haman’s gallows” (125).

In the original biblical tale, the gallows built by the conniving Medo-Persian bureaucrat Haman were meant for the execution of a kind and loyal Jew named Mordecai. But through the designs of an unacknowledged Providence – a direct reference to a deity appears nowhere in the book of Esther – Haman was himself hanged from them. The tale, a testimony of Yahweh’s care for the Jewish people even when in the depths of pagan captivity, is a remarkable one that has delighted untold millions.

Among the Book of Esther’s many virtues is the fact that it has contributed some colour to Canadian political debate. One of Edward Blake’s speeches clearly shows not only the high level of biblical knowledge that existed in Canadian public life in the late nineteenth century but the facility with which the biblically literate could extemporaneously illustrate their points: “Now, we have all heard of somebody quoting Scripture; and I do not object,” Blake said in 1886, but he did object to how John A. Macdonald had recently used the Bible to put him (Blake) in an unfavourable light. Blake was “a very able man,” Macdonald is quoted as saying, but he, like Haman, was “consumed with ambition”; so long as Mordecai, to whom Macdonald likened himself, sat at the king’s gate, so long would Haman (i.e. Blake) envy him. Perhaps with the controversial hanging of Louis Riel (to which Blake was opposed) in mind, Macdonald said he “hoped Mr. Blake would never meet Haman’s fate and hang on a gallows forty feet high,” and he believed that the people would stand by him and the Conservatives, and “keep Mordecai sitting at the King’s gate, notwithstanding all the calumnies, all the unfounded charges made (by the Liberals] against him.” This is Blake’s response:

So … [Macdonald] makes me Haman; and is kind enough to hope I may not hang, or at any rate not go to so tall towers. (Laughter.) … But whoever is his Haman, his Mordecai is always the same. (Laughter.) There is always one Mordecai, the virtuous, humble, modest adapter of the story. (Laughter.) The version does not seem to me accurate; it should be a revised version.5

Mordecai, as I read the story, was, when he sat in the king’s gate, which was not at all the place Sir John fancies, only a poor honest fellow, in opposition, without power, place, or patronage, but doing the best he could for king and country, and able to render conspicuous, though, for a long time, forgotten and unrewarded service. (Cheers.) Mordecai was an independent fellow, too, and refused to bow the knee and pay extraordinary deference to Haman, as his camp-followers did; in fact, he opposed Haman, and this roused Haman’s wrath. Such was Mordecai.

Haman, on the other hand, was the First Minister of the Crown. (Laughter.) He was probably President of the Council – (laughter) – and as the kingdom stretched from India to Ethiopia [Esther 1:1], he was doubtless Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs. (Loud Laughter.) He was the ruler of the State; he was trusted with the power of the Crown; he had the ear of the court; he went about in all pomp and trappings of a great lord. There were no railways; else, no doubt, he would have had his own private special palace car “Assyria” – (laughter) – with its proper attendants, and fittings for repose, and collations, and pleasures…as marks of the attention of the highly subsidized, and deeply grateful, and earnestly expectant Indo-Ethiopian Railway Company, at a cost of many thousands of shekels, practically supplied out of the Treasury.6 (Loud Laughter.)

… But Haman was not satisfied with place and power … pomp and grandeur, wives and concubines; he wanted to destroy poor Mordecai, who was out in the cold as it was. (Laughter.) And Haman was guilty of treason to his trust … he procured false pretences, authority to destroy a large number of industrious subjects in the King’s name, and he had gone far towards the accomplishment of his plot, when the people at last found it out. (Cheers.) Just then Mordecai’s long services were also remembered and recognized. (LoudCheers.) AND SO IT HAPPENED THAT HAMAN WAS TURNED OUT OF HIS OFFICE, STRIPPED OF HIS POWER, AND ACCORDING TO THE STERN FASHION OF THAT DAY, HANGED. (Laughter.) And Haman thus disposed of, Mordecai was promoted to his vacant place and office. (Cheers.) He became Prime Minister in his room, and showed a delightful contrast to Haman, earnestly advancing peace and welfare of the people whom Haman had sought to destroy. (296-98)

Blake’s hopes were of course not realized. The Conservative Party held power until 1896 and, just one year after this speech, Blake, no long-suffering Mordecai, passed the leadership of the Liberal Party to another. He had fought a good fight, he had finished his course, he had kept the faith but he was tired. Sir Wilfrid Laurier became Liberal leader in 1887.

Like Blake, Laurier used biblical texts infrequently but with skill. “I am a Canadian,” he declared in 1911. “Canada has been the inspiration of my life. I have had before me as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day a policy of true Canadianism, of moderation, of conciliation” (Bliss 46; Exodus 13: 21-22). And in what has now become a very public diary entry penned by Laurier’s successor, Mackenzie King confessed that he led “a very double life.” “I strive to do right,” he sighed, quoting St Paul, “and continually do wrong” (Bliss 132; Romans 7:15-24).

As the above examples have shown, studies could be written on the place of the Bible in Canada’s public life. Interested historians might consider, for example, Canadian temperance warriors and westward expansionists who, like the ancient Israelites, proclaimed, “Let us go up and possess the land, for we are able” (Numbers 13:30). Or a study might be made of how ebullient Canadian immigration promoters and settlers used the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to cash in on what Doug Owram calls “the promise of Eden.” George Munro Grant, evoking the majestic 55th chapter of Isaiah, maintained in 1873 that Canada’s call to potential immigrants should be “Ho, every one that wants a farm, come and take one” (89). And perhaps something might be written about how the Bible was used in Canadian newspapers until the 1960s. The Ottawa Citizen, for instance, published excerpts from the Bible each day on its editorial page through the 1950s.

To carry out such studies, of course, a scholar would need familiarity with the Bible, the one literary source most Canadians have shared through most of Canada’s history. But whether there are people familiar with this basic text in university departments of history is unclear.7 Consider that in the third edition of one of Canada’s widely used history texts is a solitary reference to the Bible’s place in Canada’s history – and the reference gets things wrong. The word dominion (as in Dominion of Canada), students read, was inspired by a verse from the biblical book of Lamentations (Granatstein 339), though in fact it was taken from Psalm 72. This error in itself is of course minor. Yet the fact that it persisted through a textbook’s third edition may well say something about biblical illiteracy.

To maintain that Canadian historians should be biblically literate is not to proselytize for religious revival. It is simply to suggest that biblical illiteracy diminishes one’s ability to comprehend the intellectual world of past generations, often severely.

Copyright Trent University Spring 1999

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