From Seminary to University
An Institutional History of the Study of Religion in Canada
- ISBN: 9781487504977
- Published By: University of Toronto Press
- Published: May 2020
Aaron W. Hughes’ From Seminary to University: An Institutional History of the Study of Religion in Canada is a superb and much-needed contribution to the history of the study of religion in the Canadian context.
In the introduction, Hughes recounts briefly the genesis of the academic study of religion from 19th-century Germany to the legal rulings that made the secular study of religion possible in the American context. He also surveys the broader social, economic, political, and legal contexts for the creation of religious studies in Canada. The volume seeks to provide an overarching historical account of how the field grew from the broadly theological approach to a more rigorous and secular undertaking throughout various and complex historical moments in Canada.
Chapter 1 sets out to examine the beginnings of the first postsecondary institutions in Canada devoted to the study and teaching of religion in the new colony. Religion, understood in that context as specifically Christianity, was viewed as important to teach in seminaries and universities to provide and maintain good Christian morals. Unsurprisingly, sectarianism, exclusions, and elitism were the order of the day, with each denomination claiming a monopoly on truth and superiority over others.
Chapter 2 analyzes the unique set of circumstances that gave birth to the University of Toronto, especially in its relationship to Anglicanism. John Strachan, elected bishop of Toronto in 1826, envisioned King’s College (the precursor to the foundation of the University of Toronto, in 1850) as a bastion of Anglicanism and as controlled by the local Anglican establishment. However, the political climate and the debates regarding the place and mission of a research university caused the agendas of the University of Toronto not to be dictated by various theological fancies and limitations but by free rational enquiry.
Chapter 3 focuses on three clear aspects of how, in the late Victorian period in Canada, methods and interests that were broadly theological were slowly giving room to more of a religious studies concern in the Canadian academy. First, most of the scholars were interested in theological reflections and Christological musings. Second, a select few saw the necessity of exploring other religious traditions in the world, although still within an evolutionary standpoint in considering Christianity (mostly Protestant) as the pinnacle of God’s revelation. Third was the need to reflect on the very category of religion. Hughes highlights the significance of “the reception these methods received in Canadian institutions and how they contributed to what would become the academic study of religion in the country” (67).
Chapter 4 follows the strategies adopted in the western region of Canada as far as the study of religion was concerned. Not willing to duplicate the sectarian divides that plagues the universities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario, western Canada envisioned institutions of higher learning as avoiding religion tests and affiliations. The chapter also focuses on two social and political actors who emerged on the prairies: William Aberhart and Tommy Douglas. The former was a Bible literalist, while the latter was a preacher of the social gospel and a key figure in advocating for the publicly funded health care many Canadians today take for granted. The purpose for Hughes in highlighting these two figures is to show how religion was used in determining various social and political courses in the Canadian context.
Chapter 5 charts some of the events and debates that gave rise to the academic study of religion in Canada. Hughes notes, “The academic study of religion arose on account of certain material conditions relevant to each region and indeed often to each institution” (94). The formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925 is mentioned as central to the development of the academic study of religion in Canada, especially as it opened the possibility of more dialogue and cooperation among Christian denominations and the further acceptance of higher criticism.
Chapter 6 surveys key Canadian journals devoted to the study of religion in the first three-quarters of the 20th century to analyze major changes that took place in the study of religion in Canada. Themes, authors, and their concerns are examined as important factors in the understanding of what was happening during that period.
Chapter 7 traces how the study of religion shifted from seminary to university in Canada in the 1960s. Major societal changes, including those that were demographic and political along with the adaptation of a federal policy of multiculturalism, influenced the ways in which universities developed secular programs of religious studies across the country. The creation of a number of societies, organizations, and journals devoted to the academic study of religion in the 1960s and ’70s played a significant role in the shift.
Chapter 8 examines how specific departments of religious studies arose. It also contextualizes the complexities associated with the secular study of religion in Canada, as opposed to theological and denominational interests. The picture that emerges is varied, complex, and multifaceted.
The conclusion to the volume reiterates some of the salient points covered in understanding the study of religion in Canada from seminary to university. It also presents a brief reflection on some of the current challenges facing departments of religious studies in Canada.
This is an important volume that fills a real gap. There are a few points of criticism, however. A better editorial hand for the French would have been very beneficial. Also, the date given for the formation of the United Church of Canada is confusing: Should it be 1924 (15, 94) or 1925 (96, 100? A rather unfortunate slippage is found on page 39, where a particular Christian denomination, that is, Anglicanism, seems to be equated to religion: “The desire, then, was to create an Anglican institution with the aim of establishing that religion in the new province of Upper Canada.”
The author also seems to conceive a weakened position of Christianity in the Canadian cultural, social, and political landscape in the context of more religious traditions that landed and developed in Canada to mean that Canadians are becoming less religious. He states: “As Canadians became less religious, as immigration patterns changed, and as the government determined what could and could not be funded by federal dollars, it was perhaps inevitable that how, where, and by who religion was studied would change” (155). Religious diversity does not translate into religious attrition.
Aside from these few critical remarks, this is a wonderful volume worthy of celebrating for its clarity and achievements.
Ronald Charles is associate professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.Ronald CharlesDate Of Review:February 1, 2022