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Zuidema, Jason, Editor. French-Speaking Protestants in Canada. Historical Essays

Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2011.Part of the Religion in the Americas Series. 318 pp.

Thirty-three years ago when I was taking a course in French at Glendon College, York University, Toronto, on the history of Quebec I chose as my research project an essay on Father Chiniquy. My instructor, very much a product of the new Quebec, had never encountered this unique individual, a Roman Catholic priest who turned to Presbyterianism, was subsequently immersed, and caused a riot in Montréal with his best-selling (and lurid) exposés of his former religious affiliation. With titles such as Fifty Years in The Church of Romeand The Priest, The Woman and The Confessional, and claims he knew Abraham Lincoln personally and that the American Civil War was a Vatican conspiracy, who could take the man and the movement he identified himself with seriously? She marked down the paper and stated Chinquy was a curiosity who had little relevance to modern Francophone identity or history, a best forgotten development in nineteenth century Quebec.

How attitudes among academics have changed in the meantime. Not that, aside from various abstruse papers read at academic gatherings, there have been many further contributions to the study of French Canadian Protestantism. Now, at last, we have such a volume, featuring thirteen contributions from knowledgeable scholars on the subject, tracing Protestantism in Francophone Quebec from earliest French colonizers to the second sovereignty referendum of 1995. Editor Jason Zuidema, presently of Institut Farel, Faculté de théologie réformée, Montréal and at the time of publication teaching at Concordia University, is to be commended on his success in enlisting fifteen other contributors and collaborators, assembling all the material in a single volume, and doing the organizing and proofing as a labour of love. For anyone who is interested in the extension of the kingdom of God in Canada this is essential reading.

The story starts with an essay, translated by Zuidema, on the early Huguenot immigration to New France. Robert Larin in this chapter provides solid evidence of such activity. I have always found earlier treatments of the subject as unconvincing. The story moves to the nineteenth century and the unique figure of Henriette Feller, told by well-known chronicler of fundamentalism Randall Balmer and his wife Catharine, interspersed with quotes from Feller which I found made the chapter a bit disjointed. Feller is the reason why nineteenth century Québécois converts to Protestantism were dismissed as “les suisses” and their faith regarded as an affront to French Canadian identity.

John Vaudry of King’s College Edmonton brings an Anglican perspective with the conversion in 1846 of another significant figure in outreach to the Québécois under the Colonial Church and School Society. Glen Scorgie, whose departure to  southern California was such a loss to Canadian evangelicalism, includes an update of an earlier article on the French Canadian Missionary Society which he describes as “one of the most extensive Protestant efforts ever made to evangelize the French-speaking inhabitants of North America.” (79) It gives a welcome correction to some erroneous impressions widely disseminated. Richard Lougheed analyses three stages in the progress of nineteenth century French Canadian outreach and concludes that the virtual disappearance of earlier commitment to evangelistic witness (and its absorption into less challenging educational activity, which was happening at the time all over the world in denominational Protestant missions) was due to the rise of liberal theology at the turn of the twentieth century. A second factor explaining the eclipse of earlier progress was the assimilation of Francophone Protestants into Anglophone society, faced as these converts were with obstruction and opposition of every kind. Roderock MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen chronicle the educational dilemmas of converts.

Other little-known names surface: Joly de Lotbinière is introduced as a part of a wider study by the eminent scholar J. I. Little of Simon Fraser University. Zuidema unravels the Chiniquy mythology. Jean-Louis Lalonde, secretary of  la Société d’histoire du protestantisme franco-québécois, provides an overview of a century of missionary activity in Quebec, translated by Richard Lougheed who contributes a fascinating analysis of the brief 1960s and 1970s evangelical revival as La Révolution Tranquille was transforming Quebec society. Further denominational perspectives from Denis Fortin on Adventism in Quebec and Sébastien Fortin on Baptist ministry over two centuries round out the studies, along with a concluding demographic analysis of French speaking Protestants given by the well-known Glen Smith of Christian Direction Montréal.

French-Speaking Protestants in Canada is a substantial and thorough analysis of Protestant advance, decline, revival and retrenchment among Québécois evangelicals. As national director of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in the heady days of the seventies in Quebec our Francophone ministry, now known as Groupes Bibliques Universitaires et Collégiaux du Canada, was an integral part of our Canadian student and camping ministry. A few years after I left in 1980 the movements separated to the loss of both. It is hoped that this volume will alert English-speaking Canadians to their responsibility for the evangelization of the whole country and our solidarity with Francophone brothers and sisters in their long and often discouraging attempt to reach Quebec with the gospel.