Christianity is a major world religion, and the religion of around two-thirds of Canadians. Believers hold that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the first century AD, as presented in the Bible and in the Christian tradition, are central to their understanding of who they are and how they should live. As the Messiah, or the Christ (Greek christos, "the anointed one," or "the one chosen by God"), Jesus was to restore God's creation to the condition intended by its creator.
Jesus' first followers included some fishermen, a rich woman, a tax collector and a rabbinical student - a diverse group of enthusiasts who scandalized their fellow Jews and puzzled their Greek neighbours. They claimed that Jesus had accomplished his redemptive mission by submitting himself to execution as a state criminal and later rising from the dead. They argued that he was thus revealed to be both human and divine, and they invited all, not just Jews, to join them in living as members of the Church (Greek kuriakon, "that which belongs to the Lord").
Influence in Secular and Spiritual Worlds
Christianity gradually became interwoven with the histories of numerous nations, especially in Europe, and developed its own history, gaining and losing influence in both secular and spiritual worlds and surviving serious schisms within. Today the major divisions of Christianity, all well represented in Canada, are Roman Catholicism (12.7 million adherents as of 2011), the Orthodox tradition (550,700 adherents) and the United Church (two million adherents). They have similar calendars of the church year, and all celebrate Christmas and Easter as the major feasts.
Sacraments (religious acts regarded as outward signs of spiritual grace) are practised by most groups, although most Protestants view only baptism and communion (Eucharist) as sacramental, whereas the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches include as sacraments baptism, confirmation (chrismation), Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, holy orders (ordination) and matrimony.
Religion is a response to ultimate questions, and it makes ultimate demands. What Christian in Canada can be said to be truly religious? Many Canadians are serious Christians, but although there is certainly a plurality of religious standpoints in modern Canada, there is no general acceptance of pluralism, even within the Christian community itself.
All Christians look to the Bible, but Christians live different lives in the light of the Gospel, and Canadian Christians are far from a consensus that all ways are legitimate and worthy. Nor do all Canadian Christians commit themselves to the same degree.
Until the mid-20th century, public rhetoric and fundamental laws took it for granted that Canada was a Christian country, but since the 1950s there has been a significant shift away from Christian language in public life to more general affirmations that Canada is a country that recognizes "the supremacy of God," as the Constitution Act 1982 puts it. Buddhists and other nontheists chafe at even this mild declaration. But such vague public theism may wither away by the end of the 20th century.
History in Canada
Ville-Marie [Montréal], named in honour of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was founded in 1642 as a mission station by Roman Catholics caught up in the great 17th-century religious revival in France. The island on which the mission stood had been named Montréal for the Italian home of a cardinal who helped sponsor Cartier's explorations of 1535. (The origin of the name was later ascribed to "Mont Réal" - mountain of the king - in honour of the king of France.)
Although one should not romanticize such beginnings, it is true that many early settlers of New France were motivated in part by religious concerns. Marie de L'incarnation, the Ursuline nun who was a source of civil and spiritual strength to Québec 1639–72, understood herself as a founder of a "New Church" rather than of a "New France." Later in the 17th century the colony passed effectively into the hands of the king, officially "His Most Christian Majesty." In practice, royal direction proved less Christian than secular.
During the 18th century, both French and British governments took for granted the European tradition that political stability depends in part on the people's allegiance to one church, carefully established as an arm of the royal government. European kings were known as "vicars of Christ" long before the pope assumed that title, and many colonial administrators saw their own role in a religious light. But the notion of an "established church" was difficult to realize in Canada.
In the first place, the established churches themselves, Roman Catholic and then Church of England (see Anglicanism), lacked the financial and human resources to bind together a scattered pioneer society. Secondly, Catholic and Anglican bishops often had agendas differing from those of the politicians. Thirdly, people often turned for inspiration to religious leaders such as the mystical revivalist Henry Alline, who shunned political involvement. Fourthly, from the common people's personal experience came religious responses and convictions only incidentally related to the rubrics laid down by church leaders; e.g., the Acadians' "white mass" (mass without a priest), the curiously pagan healing practices of Scottish Highland settlers, and the home devotions and supernatural tales of French Canadian peasants.
Finally, the consolidation of Canada under the British Crown, effected by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, created a political entity comprising a highly diverse collection of Christians. To the existing Catholic population of Lower Canada [Québec] were added English-speaking immigrants of all kinds: sundry Protestant dissenters from England, northern Europe and the US; Catholics and Protestants from Ireland; Catholics and Presbyterians from Scotland. Clergy trained in the home country often accompanied the immigrants and, like the priests of Lower Canada, fought to hang on to their flocks and their distinctive traditions.
Early 19th Century
During the early 19th century, independent religious revivals in Lower Canada, the Maritimes and Upper Canada [Ontario] greatly strengthened the hands of those churches that opposed the feeble efforts of the Anglican establishment to reproduce in Canada the hegemony it had enjoyed in Britain.
By the middle of the 19th century, public Christianity was taking shape. Universities, founded by particular churches in order to train indigenous clergy, received public support and began to admit students from all religious backgrounds, even while retaining their peculiar denominational leanings. There developed public school systems officially committed to producing "Christian citizens"; outside Québec they were Protestant for all practical purposes, and English-speaking Catholics struggled to support private schools with little help from government (see Separate Schools).
There arose a public rhetoric that was often biblical (e.g., Canada was called a "Dominion" because the term is found in Psalm 72:8) and laws pertaining to personal morality reflected popular Christian standards. The public calendar was marked by Christian holidays, particularly Christmas and Easter, and Sunday was traditionally a day of rest.
Within Québec the Catholic majority and Protestant minority came gradually to a workable living arrangement, perhaps because Catholic numbers were balanced by Protestant economic power. Elsewhere, mainstream Protestants such as Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists came to an accommodation but frequently had acrimonious disputes with the Catholic minority.
George-Étienne Cartier's dream of a Canada stretching from sea to sea with provinces evenly balanced between Protestant and Catholic, as Upper and Lower Canada had been, foundered in the wave of westward migration from Protestant Ontario and the sad results of the Riel resistances. French Canadian society adopted a defensively nationalist outlook (see French Canadian Nationalism), turning inward to consolidate a Catholic homeland while leaving the rest of Canada to more Protestant imaginings.
By mid-19th century both Protestant and Catholic leaders began to realize that they faced a common adversary: cities were beginning to attract more and more Canadians. Small-town parish and congregational organization failed to sink roots in the modern city with its cosmopolitan morality, its anonymity, separation of home and workplace, specialization of tasks and complex economy.
In response all the churches began to stress the importance of a well-trained, professional clergy and to develop special programs for children — in Québec the clergy gradually replaced lay people teaching in the schools, and elsewhere the Sunday School movement took hold. The local congregation or parish remained the fundamental unit of organization, but church newspapers and lay organizations based on particular occupational groups or age ranges went beyond the parish.
The YMCA, for example, transcended traditional Protestant church boundaries, and the St-Jean-Baptiste Society transcended traditional Catholic diocesan boundaries. Church buildings became imposing, permanent and expensive structures, funded largely by prosperous church members (see Religious building). Working-class Canadians then came to be seen as the object of missionary activity, which was sometimes directed through downtown missions.
Urban Threat to Traditional Christian Ways
The urban threat to traditional Christian ways brought Protestant and Catholic leaders together in support of the Lord's Day Act of 1906 (proclaimed 1907; see Lord's Day Alliance of Canada). Respect for Sunday, the "Lord's Day," was hallowed by custom in rural society, but in urban society it could only be maintained by law.
Many of the furthest-reaching modifications to the Act, permitting more amusement and labour on Sunday, occurred during the two world wars. The changes were justified as necessary to the success of war efforts "to defend Christian civilization." Some responses to urbanization were even more defensive.
For example, the Catholic Church encouraged its people to shun the "Protestant" cities and Protestant New England in order to transform the wilderness of northern Québec into a Catholic, rural civilization. This "colonization movement" was more successful in novels such as Jean Rivard and Maria Chapdelaine than it was in practice.
But there were often positive and unexpected results from such defensive responses — e.g., the efforts of many Christian temperance organizations, Protestant and Catholic, which culminated in Canada-wide prohibition during the First World War. After the war the legislation withered away, but meanwhile the Protestants of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union formed the core of a movement that finally won the vote for women in 1918 ( see women's suffrage).
Protestants often began in the Temperance Movement, then moved on to broader concerns, ultimately forming part of the Social Gospel movement which spawned Protestant social activists ranging from those who stayed firmly within church structures, e.g., Nellie McClung and novelist C.W. Gordon, to others, such as J. S. Woodsworth and T.C. Douglas, who found the left-wing Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation less inhibiting.
By mid-20th century Québec was so highly clericalized that nearly half its Catholic priests were engaged in full-time work outside the traditional parish: teaching, guiding Catholic labour unions (see Confederation of National Trade Unions) and administering social services, etc. Catholic lay people had a great respect for the clergy but they were not puppets of the priesthood, as many Protestants thought.
The vitality of anticlerical jokes and songs, and the largely spontaneous generation of popular devotions such as a pilgrimage to Brother André's shrine, demonstrated considerable independence from the hierarchy. The lay elites that formed in the worlds of politics and journalism included Henri Bourassa, Maurice Duplessis and André Laurendeau — Catholics who could scarcely be described as "priest-ridden."
The Christian communities of the early 20th century suffered many tensions. Among English-speaking Protestants, the disputes that arose over the value of the Bible as history and over church involvement in social action sometimes created new institutional divisions (e.g., the Baptist schisms of the 1920s and the student divisions of the 1930s leading to the Student Christian Movement and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) and sometimes encouraged solutions that buried the disputes, unresolved, in silence. The Catholic consensus was rarely disturbed, but when it was, the results were briefly spectacular (e.g., in the ostracism of Jean-Charles Harvey).
Most Protestant tensions were obscured by a series of movements toward union, starting in the mid-19th century and climaxing in the 1925 foundation of the United Church of Canada. Jesus' call to unity (e.g., in John 17:21), together with the practical advantages gained by pooling scarce resources in a vast land and together with the Canadian tradition that the churches have a public role, have made this trend toward unity a characteristic of Canadian church history.
It is remarkable that, although Canada's population is based on immigration from many different lands and cultures, almost two-thirds of its citizens claim to belong to three churches: Roman Catholic, United and Anglican. Nevertheless, diversity has thrived, largely as a result of the influx of numerous cultural groups and of ideas from outside Canada. Ukrainians, Romanians and others have brought various Orthodox Church traditions with them. Mennonites and others with Anabaptist roots immigrated, as did Lutherans, chiefly from Europe; Mormons came from the US.
Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists are well established, and Holiness Churches, such as the Salvation Army, have a long history in this country. Transdenominational movements are active as well: in the early 20th century, Pentecostal Movements crossed Protestant denominational boundaries, and more recently Charismatic Renewal has attracted both Protestants and Catholics. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), though considered a denomination, is committed to the ultimate unity of all Christians across denominational lines.
Post Second World War
In the wake of the Second World War, church leaders were confident in the strength of the churches: attendance at weekly services was high, and the resources that once went into war could now be devoted to building the peace. But in the 1960s, church attendance and vocations to the ordained ministry fell off sharply, most dramatically in Québec, but elsewhere as well.
In the 1970s it became apparent that conservative Evangelical and Fundamentalist Churches, whose membership made up only a tiny slice of the population as a whole, were attracting as many Sunday worshippers as all the mainstream Protestant giants combined. The reason may lie in the nature of modern society in which, generally speaking, public life is secularized and religious life has become private.
To secularize is to treat something as belonging to the world, rather than to God, and to judge the worth of things according to their usefulness in human activity. For example, the Lord's Day Act is regarded as valuable because it gives workers a weekly rest and therefore increases productivity, not because it honours God; religious education is good because it produces well-behaved citizens, not because it cultivates a person's love of God.
Christians have frequently adopted purely secular values in the course of defending public Christianity. Virtually every contemporary Canadian author who writes about the awe and wonder experienced in human life has only scorn for modern churches — an indication, perhaps, that few Canadians expect to find that which is "holy" in the churches.
People have come to think of themselves as "real" or "themselves" only in private. Elsewhere they take on roles dictated by the institution that sustains them: e.g., the same person will behave in markedly different ways in school, at work, at a political rally or in a sports arena. Only in the privacy of the home does the individual think that the real self emerges. Within this private segment of modern life religion has become lodged.
The movement of religion into the individual's private life helps to explain why religion in Canadian public life has gradually become secular or has simply eroded, why church attendance is seen to be less and less important, and why private religious practices (e.g., watching evangelical TV programs, reading religious paperbacks or magazines) are more widespread than ever in Canadian life.
The few public issues seen to be clearly religious are closely tied to this private world of home and family: abortion, the use of alcoholic beverages, obscenity, marriage and divorce, sex education, etc. People who tell the census taker that they are "Christian" generally want to be married and buried in a church setting, but they often feel no urgent need to take a larger part in the life of the institution with its tradition of public responsibility.
Nevertheless, Christianity remains, its contours constantly changing. The Bible is still the basic reference point for all Christians, though they often differ widely as to how it is to be understood. International Christianity continues to influence what happens in Canada: leaders of the World Council of Churches and the pope have visited Canada, and Canadians follow their doings through the secular media; most religious broadcasting in Canada originates in the US; candidates for the ministry often journey abroad for their theological education.
The local parish or congregation continues as the basic unit of Christian organization in modern Canada, but the variety of views within congregations is often as significant as the divisions between the denominations to which the congregations belong.
The more liberal Christians often find support in the activities of their denominational leaders, particularly those working in central offices, and tend to view the conservatives as too private; the more conservative Christians tend to view the liberals as too secular. Between these groups lies the broad "middle" of church membership, perhaps less intensely involved in the churches' institutional life, but providing stability at the centre.
Co-operation among the churches is channelled through several Canada-wide coalitions devoted to Ecumenical Social Action, but members of local congregations often feel alienated from these coalitions with their relatively progressive stances. In addition, public prayer meetings frequently bring Christians together during urban crusades led by travelling Evangelists, or on special occasions such as Good Friday and Remembrance Day when ceremonies are held with local clerical leadership.
The Eucharist (Communion or Lord's Supper, the ritual sharing of bread and wine that commemorates Jesus' crucifixion) is seldom celebrated at such interdenominational gatherings, since the particular ways of celebrating that central and nearly universal rite remain closely linked with denominational identity. But modern Christians in Canada are much more likely than their ancestors were to take part in another denomination's Eucharist, drawn by friendship or marriage to members of that congregation, and there are few clergy who would deny them access.
Furthermore, these Christians are now much more likely to be favourably aware of the doctrines and practices of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism or the Baha'i Faith, and possibly even of new religious movements, as practised by other Canadians.
Private Nature of Religious Life
To the extent that Canadian Christians have accepted the secularization of public life and the increasingly private nature of religious life, they have made a working accommodation to the peculiar nature of modern society. But the accommodation is inconsistent with a tradition whose favourite prayer says, "Thy kingdom come," and takes for granted that a kingdom is no merely private matter. It is also inconsistent with the fundamental nature of religion itself, which aspires to knit everything together into one ultimately meaningful pattern, and which demands that things be holy as well as useful.
Therefore it seems likely that Christianity will persist as a useful thing proper to the private lives of many Canadians, but challenged from time to time to be open to that which is holy and to be active in that which is public.
Christianity in Canada Today
According to the 2021 census, 19.3 million Canadians, 53.3 per cent of Canadian society, identified as having a Christian faith. This is down from 2011 when 67.3 per cent of Canadians were Christians and 2001 when this number was set at 77.1 per cent.
In 2021, 29.9 per cent of Canadians identified as Catholic, 3.3 per cent were members of the United Church, 3.1 per cent were part of the Anglican Church, 1.7 per cent were Orthodox Christians and 1.2 per cent identified as Baptists. However, 7.6 per cent of Canadians simply identified as “Christians.”