Beyond the Noise of Solemn Assemblies

The Protestant Ethic and the Quest for Social Justice in Canada

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Richard Allen
McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion
  • Montreal, Quebec: 
    McGill-Queen's University Press
    , January
     2019.
     344 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780773555044.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Richard Allen has, in Beyond the Noise of Solemn Assemblies: The Protestant Ethic for Social Justice in Canada published shortly before his death at age 90, gifted those who are fascinated with the interaction between faith and politics an immensely valuable collection of his thoughts over the years as a social historian, politician, and as a practicing Christian. This book will be of interest to all who find the interaction of faith and politics to be an important area of study, but it will be particularly informative and stimulating for those who want to better understand this interaction and how it transpired in the decades of mainline Protestant theological hegemony both in North America, and internationally. It should also be a must-read for Canadians who wish to know more about how religion—and particularly Protestantism and the "social gospel"—influenced the development of modern Canada.

Beginning with an autobiographical approach, Allen provides great insight in chapters that fall under the general description of "the world we knew": from his childhood as the son of a United Church of Canada Minister in the 1930s to life as a youth in the Student Christian Movement after the Second World War. He does this with a keen eye for the historically interesting, and his narrative affords opportunities for theological reflection.

In chapters under the rubric of "from providence to progress" the reader is treated to an elaboration of Allen's deep and detailed knowledge of the social gospel in Canada, which began with his book The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914-1928 (University of Toronto Press, 1971), along with his more recent biography of Canadian social gospel theologian Salem Bland, The View From Murney Tower: Salem Bland, the Late-Victorian Controversies, and the Search for a New Christianity, Volume 1 (University of Toronto Press, 2008). Allen’s reflections on Bland extend into the third section of the book which focuses, to an unusual but welcome degree, on the City of Winnipeg—home to Wesley College, now the University of Winnipeg. Those who graduated from or taught at the College played a crucial role in the theological and political formation of the Canadian social gospel. 

The 100th Anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 was celebrated this year, and was an occasion for recalling the leadership of, among others, social gospel figures like former Methodist minister and Wesley student J.S. Woodsworth, who went on to become the first leader of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation. The Federation exists today as the New Democratic Party of Canada, a political movement that has been largely responsible for Canada’s stance as a more socially democratic nation than its American neighbor.

Having had the benefit of conversations with Allen about this book—conversations that came to an abrupt end with his sudden death, I can testify that one of the most important chapters for him was the one entitled “Toward a Materialist Christianity,” which focuses on the Canadian social gospel in the 1930's. Allen's task in this part of the book is, in part, to show how the more radicalized Christians who were involved in the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order (FCSO) addressed and transcended the perceived weaknesses of the earlier social gospel. One of these perceptions was that the original social gospel was weak, or inadequate, when it came to its understanding of sin; hence, the theological "realism" of a critic like Reinhard Niebuhr. Yet Allen believed that the book produced by the FCSO in 1936—a "book length manifesto”—was a re-visioning of a social gospel that was "serious, substantial, and despite the editor's modest claims, an intellectually challenging work." Nevertheless, the dominant narrative of the social gospel was, arguably, not broken by the work of the FCSO. 

The concluding chapters of Beyond the Noise of Solemn Assemblies contain insightful reflections on Francis Fukuyama's "end of history," Max Weber's "iron cage of capitalism,” and a substantial postscript on "Myth, Religion, and the Politics of Sacred and Secular.” Allen then sums up the truths that he found in his life as a scholar, and a person of faith, active in thinking about and practicing politics. Looking forward to a time when both the religious and the secular shed their respective arrogances about one another, he hopes for the day when "the sacred and the secular will meet in mutual embrace and together find a fresh understanding of prophetic religion that the secular is where the sacred really happens." Paraphrasing Isaiah, Allen says that the signs of this will surely be "mountains and hills of privilege being brought low, valleys of poverty and despair raised up, all wrong dealing rectified, and the rough places of life made smooth."

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bill Blaikie is Adjunct Professor of Theology and Politics at the United Centre for Theological Studies in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Allen is Adjunct Professor of History at McMaster University, where he was Senior Professor of Canadian History from 1974 to 1988. Elected to the Ontario Legislature in 1982, he served as a cabinet minister from 1990 to 1995. Upon retirement, he became Chair of the Board of Wesley Urban Ministries in Hamilton, Ontario.

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