Canadian Bible School Movement (1)

Much has been written about the Canadian and the American Bible School Movement of the 20th Century, because this movement has had a massive impact on the Christian church, not only in Canada, but also in the foreign mission field. Indeed, a considerable number of people have attended these colleges across Canada.

I too have taken several classes at one of these Bible colleges: Vanguard College (Northwest Bible College). Burkinshaw writes that “A conservative estimate indicates that at least 200,000 people have spent at least one academic term at a Canadian Bible school or college”[1] of which some 60,000 have graduated.[2]  (Just so you know, that number was taken in 1997, so I was not part of that 200,000). An example of a Canadian Bible College would be the Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta. It has trained and sent several thousand missionaries onto the foreign field.[3]

However, the influence of the Bible School Movement extends even farther than these figures for they do not include “the thousands of other individuals who were influenced through the auxiliary ministries of these schools such as week-end conferences, polemical literature, and radio broadcasts.”[4] The Bible College Movement has had an undeniable influence on Canadian Protestantism.

In this and the subsequent blog post, I will be focusing on the Bible School Movement in Canada. In this first post, I will be talking about the origins of the Bible School Movement. You’ll have to wait till next week to find out what the next post will cover.

Origins of the Movement

The origins of the Bible School Movement are quite complex and varied. This variation is due to the wide variety of schools and traditions of Protestantism. However, a common thread which ran through the Bible School Movement (both in the United States and in Canada) is a strong evangelical/revivalist attitude towards Christianity. Harder argues that this attitude focused on topics such as the importance of conversion, holy living, the infallibility and inspiration of the Bible, and the necessity of proclaiming the gospel to the unconverted.[5] In a certain sense, these points can be summarized by the confessional statement of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada: they had an emphasis on the fact that there is “salvation of lost and sinful man through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ by faith apart from works, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit.”[6]

Origin No. 1: Need for Conservative Theology

Many of the Bible Schools in the United States sprang from a growing liberal perspective on the Christian faith and the Bible. This modern perspective emphasized the importance of a “rational” understanding of Christianity. Thus, they repudiated miracles, the infallibility and divine inspiration of the Scriptures, and questioned the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Many Canadian churches (especially on the Prairies) took issue with this modern and (this seemingly) rationally respectable Christianity. Indeed, evangelical Canadian churches saw the mainline denominations (United Church, Presbyterian, and Anglican) moving towards downright heresy and the destruction of the Christian faith as they accepted liberal theology, destructive biblical criticism, and, in turn, neglected evangelism.[7]

In contrast, conservative Canadian churches overall “regarded secular educational systems as inadequate or a mis-emphasis on what was truly important in life, namely, a person’s relationship to God and to other people.”[8] Thus, the greatest factor prompting the formation of Bible schools was a response to the growth of liberal theology in mainline denominational church colleges.

Origin No. 2: Denominational Needs and Clergy Training

While conservative theology was an important motivator in some of the Bible Schools in Canada, it is certainly not the whole story. Indeed, Stackhouse argues that numerous colleges were

not simply reactionary alternatives . . . [but] instead, they offered a different sort of education aimed at different goals: to produce pastors, missionaries, and trained lay people for denominations and independent churches that did not have seminaries or other means of higher education for such vocations.[11]

McKinney expands further upon this idea stating that “many denominational schools were started to serve a very defined constituency and to provide a very specific type of religious instruction.”[12] This was especially the case with the Mennonite colleges which were a significant majority of the Bible Schools (they consisted of at least a quarter of the eighty-five schools on the prairies established by 1952[13]). Quite interestingly, a lot of these Mennonite colleges were established due to a lack of religious and educational freedom on the part of provincial governments. The provincial governments would refuse Mennonites the right to establish their private elementary and secondary schools, so in response, they began establishing their own Bible colleges.[14] This allowed them to train up pastors, lay people, and missionaries in their own doctrinal beliefs and practices.

Origin No. 3: Preservation of Ethnicity

Speaking of the Mennonites also brings up the important connection that the Bible School Movement had to immigration and ethnicity. The schools that the Mennonites established were not only religious, but they were also deeply connected to the ethnic background of the Mennonite people.[15] This is powerfully illustrated by the fact that the Mennonite Brethren (the most active group of some three strands of Mennonites in establishing Bible Colleges) instructed their students in German and not English.[16] Thus, as McKinney writes, “They were nurturing a linguistic and cultural tradition as well as a theological one.”[17]

Origin No. 4: Dispensational Premillennialism

Another aspect that the Canadian Bible College movement shares with its American counterpart is a type of fundamentalism with a heavy emphasis on dispensational premillennialism (a specific belief regarding the second coming of Jesus Christ). This is especially true of the Winnipeg Bible Institute under the leadership of Simon Forsberg. It was particularly Forsberg and J. Lloyd Hunter (through his circuit preaching and the establishment of the Canadian Sunday School Mission[18]) who would spread dispensational premillennialism to both Saskatchewan and Winnipeg.[19] Indeed, the surprising thing (and possible contrast with the United States) was that the fundamentalist movement in Canada seemed to be primarily spring from urban roots. In fact, it was lead by “highly successful urban elites [e.g. Sidney Smith and John Bellingham].”[20] Winnipeg itself was considered the urban center of Western Canada during the 1900s.[21] The fact that this booming city was the hallmark and center of a movement to spread dispensational premillennialism to the prairies, speaks not only to that urban character of fundamentalism, but also the importance of the Bible College Movement in the spreading of theological ideas.

To be continued….

Footnotes (feel free to use them to study this topic in greater depth!)
[1] Robert Burkinshaw, “Evangelical Bible Colleges in Twentieth-Century Canada” in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience. Ed. by G.A. Rawlyk. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 370
[2] Larry McKinney, “The Growth of the Bible College Movement in Canada” Didaskalia (Otterburne, Man.) 10, no. 1 (September 1998): 31
[3] Burkinshaw, “Evangelical Bible Colleges”, 370
[4] McKinney, “The Growth of the Bible College Movement”, 31
[5] Ben Harder, “The Bible Institute College Movement in Canada” in the Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society (April 1980), 33
[6] John Stackhouse, “More than a Hyphen: Twentieth-Century Canadian Evangelicalism in Anglo-American Context” in Amazing Grace: Evangelicalism in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States. Ed. by George Rawlyk and Mark Noll (Michigan: Baker BOOKS, 1993), 379
[7] Ibid, 385
[8] Harder, “The Bible Institute College Movement, 30
[11] John Stackhouse, “’Who Whom?’: Evangelicalism and Canadian Society” in in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience. Edited by G.A. Rawlyk. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 57
[12] McKinney, “The Growth of the Bible College Movement”, 33
[13] Burkinshaw, “Evangelical Bible Colleges in Twentieth-Century Canada”, 369
[14] Stackhouse, “Evangelicalism and Canadian Society”, 57
[15] McKinney, “The Growth of the Bible College Movement”, 38
[16] Ibid
[17] Ibid, 33
[18] Bruce Hindmarsh, “The Winnipeg Fundamentalist Network, 1910 – 1940: The Roots of Transdenominational Evangelicalism in Manitoba and Saskatchewan” in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience. Ed. by G.A. Rawlyk. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 309
[19] Ibid, 311
[20] Ibid, 317
[21] Ibid, 305