Our History

History of The Wesleyan Church in Canada

As with all Christian denominations, the Wesleyan church traces its roots to the person and ministry of Jesus Christ and His proclamation He would “build His church”[i], and the Great Commission He gave His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”[ii]. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost[iii]empowered the first century followers of Jesus to effectively begin to see the mission of the church become a reality.

Christians in the earliest days were marginalized and heavily persecuted by the Roman government (including the burning of believers at the stake), but empowered by the Holy Spirit and the loving, passionate, and holy lives of Christians, the church grew explosively in the first three centuries around Mediterranean seacoast, eventually becoming the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.

The church continued to flourish over the next 1500 years, but serious differences in doctrines and ministry practices arose, causing the church to divide into a variety of Christian denominations such as the:  Roman Catholic Church, Eastern/Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, Coptic and Ethiopian Churches, Russian Orthodox church.  The Protestant Reformation took place in the early 1500’s under the influence of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others who believed the established churches of their day had wandered off track.  The Protestant Reformation gave birth to many Christian denominations such as the Lutheran church, Anglican/Church of England, Baptists, Moravian church, and by the 1700’s groups such as the Puritans and Presbyterians also emerged.

The ministry of John Wesley in the 1700’s is of particular interest to the Wesleyan denomination. Wesley was a priest in the Anglican/Church of England.  A pivotal moment in 1738 of a ‘heart-warming’ encounter with God on Aldersgate Street in London, England (which many consider to be his conversion experience) resulted in Wesley becoming known as a passionate evangelist, social reformer, theologian and church planter.  He placed a high emphasis on the belief God can and does radically transform people by the purifying influence of the Holy Spirit, and the transformation of their minds by the influence of Scripture. John was a strong advocate for the importance of worship, biblical discipleship, social reform, and personal accountability in small groups.

Some believe Wesley’s reference in his Journals to an unusual and powerful encounter with the presence of God at a Moravian meeting on Fetter Street in January 1739 provided the spiritual unction which propelled his evangelistic and discipleship ministries forward. Historian Stephen Tomkins notes that after his Fetter Street experience, Wesley’s ministry was marked by “charismatic phenomena” and states, “once it began, this kind of thing (supernatural manifestations) happened almost daily”[iv]. It was in the months immediately after January 1739 that John began his field preaching; proclaimed ‘the world was his parish’ and thousands came to hear him share God’s good news; people were healed; and people set free from bondages and sin.

As a student at Oxford University, Wesley and his friends were noted for being highly disciplined, strategic and methodical in their approach to life and service (thus the name “Methodist” became attached to his ministry).  John’s ministry was characterized by the favour and blessing of God as he travelled and preached throughout Great Britain and portions of Eastern Europe. He opened schools, was a prolific author, fought against slavery, advocated for prison reform, and provided food and medical assistance for the poor. One of his great contributions to the church was his empowering and equipping of lay ministry, and the provision of structure for discipleship and congregational care. His brother, Charles Wesley, is also highly respected for contributing over 6,000 hymns to the church, many of which are still used today. Although John intended the Methodist small groups he established throughout England to be a revival movement within the Anglican church, the “Methodist” church emerged as a separate entity near the end of John’s life in 1791.

The Methodist church movement found its way to North America in the late 1760’s through the ministries of a variety of Church of England priests, such as Philip Embury, Thomas Coke, and Francis Asbury. Due to the blessing of God, the effective and entrepreneurial ministry of circuit riding/saddle-bag preachers, and the passion of new believers, the Methodist movement spread quickly through the United States, quickly establishing hundreds of preaching points, camp meetings, and many schools, etc.  The denomination was formally established in North America in 1784 by Francis Asbury as the “Methodist Episcopal Church” in Baltimore, Maryland, and by 1850 it had become the largest denomination in the United States.

The earliest known activities of the Methodist activities in Canada was the preaching of Laurence Coughlan who began to preach in, what eventually became known as, the Province of Newfoundland in 1766”[v], and more formally the establishing of places of worship around Chignecto, in northern Nova Scotia in the 1770’s. The American Revolution resulted in some of the Loyalists to King George III/British Crown, migrating in the late 1790’s into Upper Canada (Ontario). The activities of the Methodist preachers are known to have taken place in southern portions of Ontario in the late 1790’s (Paul Heck[vi]) and early 1800’s. Methodist mission services and local churches were established in Quebec as early as the later part of the 1760’s.[vii]

The use of ‘circuit preaching’ in Canada is also well documented, such as: “in 1802, the Rev. Nathan Bangs was assigned to the Bay of Quinte Circuit, which covered the area from Kingston in the east, west to York, then north to Lake Simcoe, and back…”[viii]  Through the ministries of various Methodist groups (i.e. Free Methodists, Nazarenes, etc.) the presence of Methodist churches slowly spread westward into the Prairie provinces.

As with many denominations, the Methodist church experienced several splits and mergers in both the United States and Canada. One notable split took place in 1843 when the northern Methodist churches, separated from the Methodist churches in the southern states over the issue of slavery. The Northern churches gave considerable money and assistance to the “Underground Railroad” from Illinois into Canada, aiding the estimated 20,000 “Freedmen” who had escaped slavery.[ix]On May 31, 1843 at Utica New York, the northern church became known as the “Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America.”

 The formal beginnings of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in Canada can be dated in 1894, and the decision to create the first Canadian Conference (district) took place in 1897-8 at meetings in Winchester, Ontario, and ratified in 1899 at the General Conference in Sheridan, Indiana[x]. The name of the denomination changed from a ‘Connection’ of churches, to “The Wesleyan Methodist Church of America” on June 25, 1947, during the General Conference held in Houghton, New York.  

The creation of our sister denominations were thankfully also taking place in the early part of the 18thcentury, such as the founding of the: Salvation Army; Brethren in Christ/Be in Christ; Free Methodist Church; Pentecostal churches; Christian and Missionary Alliance; Evangelical Missionary Church, Church of the Nazarene, and more recently the Vineyard church … all of which share a rich heritage, similar doctrinal positions, comparable church structures, complimentary church ministries, and warm relationships with the Wesleyan Church.

Many of these denominations sprang up as a result of revival movements which had a strong emphasis on holiness of heart and life.  As one example, revival services spread through the Ottawa area between 1895 – 1900 under the ministries of Rev. Ralph C. Horner and others, which resulted in 118 places of worship, and many individuals called into pastoral ministry. Many of these holiness denominations launched global missionary and relief/development efforts (such as in India, Honduras and Sierra Leone, West Africa). These impassioned and creative Canadian pastors and lay people helped to pioneer Christian publishing; participated in the early days of religious radio broadcasts, and purchased or rented campground facilities for children’s, youth, family camps and holiness/revival services and retreat ministries. Many of those campgrounds continue as thriving and important ministries to this day.

The Wesleyan Church of Canada, specifically traces its roots to the northern Methodist church in the United States which stood against slavery, the abuse of alcohol, gambling, and was one of the first denominations in North America to ordain women.  The oldest known Methodist church building in Canada, first constructed in 1792[xi], still survives (Old Hay Bay Methodist church, near Napanee, Ontario). Records indicate Methodist circuit riders preaching in Quebec in 1804 and establishing congregations in the 1830’s. Many of those early Methodist churches in Canada still exist as vibrant, functioning congregations, such as the Wesleyan (Holiness Mission) church in Winchester, Ontario (planted in 1894)[xii]. The formation of the “United Church of Canada” in 1925, saw portions of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational denominations merge into a larger Protestant denomination.  However, a significant number of Methodist churches in Canada did not take part in that merger, including the Methodist church which eventually became known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Canada.

Mergers with the Wesleyan Methodist denomination were taking place all during the 1900’s, such as (to name just a few): the Hephzibah Faith Missionary Society (1948), the Missionary Bands of the World (1958), the Reformed Baptist Alliance of Canada (1888-1966), the Pilgrim Holiness Church (1922-1968) and the Standard Church of America (1918-2004). These denominational mergers, strongly contributed to the health and vitality of the denomination, and helped to broaden its ministry both within Canada, and around the world.  As examples, in the early 1900’s the Pilgrim Holiness church operated a Bible college and orphanage in Ontario, along with camp meetings, and ministry points amongst First Nations; the Reformed Baptist Alliance added a strong presence in Eastern Canada and Maine, along with a highly valued Canadian Bible college (Bethany Bible College/Kingswood University) and missions work in South Africa and Rhodesia.  The Standard Church of America added many wonderful congregations in Central and Western Canada, along with a number of campgrounds, and missions work in Egypt, Ghana and Mexico, etc. 

Together these denominations joined to become known as The Wesleyan Church in 1968. The Wesleyan church of Canada was formally recognized and incorporated by an Act of Parliament, first in 1944, and again in 1984. Most recently in 2015 the International Conference of the Wesleyan Church authorized the creation of The Wesleyan Church of Canada, and the 2016 the North American General Conference of the Wesleyan Church formally recognized The Wesleyan Church of Canada as an Established National Conference.

Wesleyan churches in Canada consider it a wonderful privilege to partner with other Christian denominations and parachurch organizations, especially our sister holiness churches in the great commission given by Jesus to His disciples over 2,000 years ago. We continue to be unwavering in our allegiance to the Bible, our reliance on the Holy Spirit, our commitment to serving our communities, and pursuing lives which are characterized by the power, purity and passion of Christ for the lost and hurting.

 


 

[i]Matthew 16:18
[ii]Matthew 29:19
[iii]Acts 1:8;  2:1-4; 4:31
[iv]Tomkins, Stephen. John Wesley: A Biography. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003 (pg. 65, 71)
[v]https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/methodism  (accessed: Sept. 9, 2018)
[vi]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Methodist_Church_in_Canada  (accessed: Sept. 9, 2018)
[vii]https://genealogyensemble.com/2014/11/25/the-loyalist-churches-of-sorel-three-rivers-saint-johns-chambly-and-surrounding-areas/  (accessed: Sept. 9, 2018)
[viii]https://krassoc.wordpress.com/  (accessed: Sept. 9, 2018)
[ix]Keilty, Henry. The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America in Canada. 1894 – 1968. (pg. 15)
[x]Keilty, Henry. The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America in Canada. 1894 – 1968. (pg. 10, 21)
[xi]http://www.oldhaybaychurch.ca/
[xii]Keilty, Henry. The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America in Canada. 1894 – 1968. (pg. 18)
 

Prepared by Dr. Stephen Elliott (National Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church of Canada)

Sept. 2018;  Updated April 2019

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