Book Review: An Evangelical Mind

This book review was initially prepared for the course History and Theology of the United Church of Canada in Winter 2012.


An Evangelical Mind: Nathanael Burwash and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, 1839-1918 by Marguerite Van Die is a look into the life of the Methodist movement in the years before it became one of the streams in the United Church of Canada union process. Specifically, the book examines the life and impact of one of its key figures:  Nathanael Burwash. Beginning the book, I admittedly knew nothing of the Canadian Methodist tradition other than some very vague ideas of the circuit riders. I had never even encountered the name Nathanael Burwash prior to this book and cannot think of any other Canadian Methodist by name, either. However, of the streams that came together into the United Church of Canada, it was the one that most interested me as I know more about the British roots of Methodism with John Wesley.

The introduction of the book provides a very general framework of the time period and the work of Burwash. Burwash was a central figure in the goal of “the integration of his denomination, Canadian Methodism, into the mainstream of the nation” (page 3). Nathanael was born in 1839 while the new techniques of liberal theology and biblical studies were prominent. Meanwhile, Canada was also going through significant changes – most importantly, Confederation in 1867. His life, then, was a very tumultuous time in Christian history and in Canadian history. It was “a period in western Christianity that historians have generally associated with a decline, or at best a profound re-orientation, of religious belief and practice” (7). In the face of these changes, Burwash maintained many of the emphases of John Wesley which are dealt with in more detail throughout the book. This involvement in the denomination and nation would continue in the early discussions toward union as he was the president of the subcommittee on doctrine. Therefore, he not only influenced the Methodist tradition, but also played a vital and influential role in the establishment of the upcoming United Church of Canada as well.

Following the introduction, the book continues in a semi-biographical tone by examining six key elements of Burwash’s life and work:

(1) childhood religious education, (2) the claims of reason and religion in the college curriculum of the 1850’s and the effect of Darwinian science after 1859, (3) the increased affluence of the laity, (4) theological education and the teaching of the higher criticism, (5) university federation, and (6) church union and the termination of Methodism as a separate denomination [within Canada]. (12)

For the sake of this review, I will deviate slightly from the chapter layout found in the book. In the first chapter emerges the theme of childhood religious education. In the second and fourth chapters, Van Die examines two different aspects of the supposed conflict between reason and Christianity – science and philosophy and higher criticism methods of biblical study – and how Burwash responded to them as a student and as an instructor respectively. Finally, the later stages of Burwash’s life were characterized by two unification efforts: the federation of Victoria College into the University of Toronto and the beginning work toward the organic merging with Presbyterians and Congregationalists into the United Church of Canada.

Childhood Religious Education

In the earlier years of Methodism in Canada, it was primarily an adult movement of converts. Over time as these adults started families, they taught their children the faith. Canadian Methodism was now a family religion. There was a major difference culturally from then to now, however: mothers are the centre of religious life, instilling religious teachings and morality in the lives of their children. This is a foreign concept to us now, since the beginning of the feminist movement, even in the most conservative and education-heavy churches. At this time, it was not the responsibility of the Sunday School – it was the responsibility of the mother. As much as in our contemporary context we are inclined to see this as oppression, and in many ways it undoubtedly is, at this time it is portrayed as being at least as important and respected as the official church leaders: “it was a mother who would continue to make a young Methodist and to provide society with its moral foundations” (37).

At the centre of this education handed down by mothers was an awareness of sin. The conversion experience was central to Methodist theology, and for this to happen, there had to be an awareness of the natural state of sin in which we are all born and are inclined toward. This led to challenges on the position of children. Much of this chapter deals with a major conflict within Methodism. Some opposed the doctrine of Original Sin, and that therefore children did not need the conversion experience which was so central to Methodist thought. They saw this as a progressive position, moving away from the sometimes-fear-driven, conversion-centric doctrine. Burwash was of the traditional Methodist perspective and argued that even children needed a conversion once they were old enough to understand their sin. Like Wesley, however, he also maintained the value of infant baptism as a washing away of sin – it just wasn’t enough in and of itself without the later conversion. Ultimately Canadian Methodism would adapt the position of Burwash and continue to emphasize a need for conversion even if born and raised within the church.

Reason and Religion

The book then turns to Burwash’s college years and the related issue of the connection between reason and religion. Unlike so many others of his time (and still many today), Burwash had confidence in a compatibility and complementarity between science and religion. It was during his college years that the cultural conflict began to really form with the release of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859. Furthermore, in this time since Wesley, Methodism had slowly shifted away from its emphasis on spiritual experience toward an emphasis on “reason, natural theology, and philosophical demonstration” (40). The seemingly-contradictory sources of authority would be a central theme to Christianity throughout Burwash’s life. There was a wrestling with “a profound concern on the part of college educators that a rapidly developing, progressive society stood in danger of losing its religious and moral underpinnings” (42).

Burwash seems to be able to set aside this concern, though. He was fascinated with philosophy and with natural science: electricity, magnetism, electromagnetism, and eventually settling with a particular interest in geology. Despite his interest, he always argued that the sciences and other academic methods were secondary to the ultimate reality of life that could only be found in religious conversion. Many colleges at this time, ever since the Great Awakening(s), were undergoing revivals and those in Canada weren’t an exception. So while affirming the value of reason and science, Burwash embraced the revivalism emphasizing personal religious experience that was sweeping through colleges of North America. In summary of why he believed this way:

There was a simple reason why reason could not replace faith in the charged intellectual environment of the post-1859 era. To Burwash, religion was still the work of the Spirit, and thus true certainty in religion did not rest in reason but in the old Methodist experience of the witness of the Spirit. (58)

Much like the wrestlings with science and reason that Burwash encountered as a student, the challenges of higher biblical criticism would face the church in the time that Burwash was a professor, as discussed in Chapter 4. Between 1890 and 1910, the teaching of this new type of criticism was a major debate among Methodists. Ultimately, “the decision by the Conference of 1910 to accept the higher criticism has been variously hailed as a great victory for academic freedom and as the symbol of the decline of Methodist orthodoxy” (91). Unsurprisingly, Burwash’s answer was essentially the same as with faith and science: faith and this form of criticism are not opposites but are actually complementary, with religious experience more important. As one of the few educated Canadian ministers at this time, Burwash was a key figure in establishing this Canadian Methodist education system.

Christian Education and Spiritual Formation

Chapter 3 looks at Burwash’s brief period as a pastor. In this time, the major emphasis was on the continuing work of the Spirit in the lives of Christians, particularly in the form of education for the growing number of young people growing up within the denomination. Seminaries for Canadian Methodists were just beginning to be established and it was necessary to solidify the conversion-experience-driven faith into a more structured one especially in light of the growing dependence on reason and science.

Faith was to be one of the mind but more importantly also of the behaviour. Burwash, like Wesley before him, was hard on himself and hard on others for not living up to the standard of Christianity that he expected: in Wesley’s words, “to devote ourselves entirely to God; denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily; steadily aiming at one thing, to save our soul and them that hear us” (71). One form this took in Burwash’s time was with respect to money as the Methodist movement was becoming comprised of wealthier members. Christians were to be stewards with their wealth, he insisted, as part of their devoting themselves to God and ridding of the sin of greed.

University and Denominational Union

The final two chapters of the book look at Burwash’s time as the Chancellor of Victoria College and as a Methodist representative in talks of union with other denominations. In this way, then, Nathanael Burwash would be a central figure in two major unification efforts: the federation of Victoria College into the University of Toronto and the creation of the United Church of Canada. In both cases, Burwash was a proponent of a contentious union.

With the federation into the University of Toronto, it is not a surprising position given his understanding of science and higher biblical criticism as being complementary to the moral and religious experience in the Holy Spirit. Initially, many schools were in favour of this federation but over time some, such as Queen’s and McMaster, withdrew. By this point, Burwash had been named the new Chancellor of Victoria College, and with only one minor blip in his resolve for federation, he remained in favour  of this radical administrative shift (at least in public). He argued for the practical benefits of public funding as well as the potential to place their revivalist movement in a position of influence on a secular university. Opposed to Burwash was the argument that Methodism would lose its identity, which could instead be maintained by uniting the Methodist schools into one institution located in one of the larger urban centres. Ultimately, through his leadership, Victoria College would move from Cobourg to Toronto and become part of the University. To this day, you could still argue whether this was ultimately a good move or not as one argument for each side turned out to be true: they did survive as a financially stable denomination, but they have also lost almost all of their Canadian Methodist identity. Contrary to the point of Burwash and the pro-federation argument, it is probably fair to say that the secular university ultimately influenced Methodism more than the reverse, as the distinctive Methodist emphasis on revivalism and experience of the Spirit quickly died out.

In the latter union to become the United Church of Canada, which concluded after Burwash’s death, he would play a key role with the doctrine subcommittee for the Basis of Union. Surprisingly to me, doctrine was not a particularly-important issue in the union process. The union was primarily for practical reasons of creating a national church which could work together effectively. Thus, the doctrine committee came to its final statement surprisingly quickly and with little disagreement. It can be said that the Presbyterian stream of the union most benefited from the final statement, since most of the beliefs which were included were derived from them. The notable exception to this was any statement on predestination, partly because of Burwash’s arguing that such “theories” should not be included. Methodism on the other hand, lost the major piece of its identity which has been recurring throughout the book: the emphasis on the work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, reassuring salvation and bringing forth moral character.

Contemporary Reflections on Burwash and Canadian Methodism

There were many things which struck me as interesting of this period of Methodism. The first is the evangelistic fervour. While this is found in charismatic branches of Christianity today, it is a rarity in the main stream of Protestantism. Yet for one brief stretch mentioned in the book, Canadian Methodism was the largest denomination in Canada. While to some extent this loss of a core theology can be traced to simply changing cultural circumstances such as the rising emphasis on objective (emotionless) reason in general, it must be questioned whether Burwash’s attempts to synthesize religious experience and scientific reason aided in decreasing the significance of the religious experience. As Van Die puts it in the conclusion to the book:

This was the final irony of Burwash’s commitment to the harmony between reason and religion[:] in seeking to express Methodism in terms meaningful to a changing environment, he was the same time quite unintentionally undermining the very religion he was trying to preserve. (186)

This theme of evangelistic fervour ties into a second major theme of Methodism that has largely faded from the United Church of Canada within the past approximately 50 years: Christian Education or Spiritual Formation. It was interesting to see from a predecessor of the United Church such an emphasis on this, both in the home and in the institutional church, even though from the class readings I was aware that this stayed strong up until the 1960’s. Spiritual disciplines and personal piety were both parts of the Methodist understanding of Christianity and were strongly encouraged at this time, yet neither is given much significance in today’s United Church.

Finally, the lack of centrality of doctrine was another very interesting theme throughout the book. It was surprising to me how quickly the doctrine section of the Basis of Union was agreed upon, with the major exception of those Presbyterians who opted not to join the union. The only real theological debate at any point discussed was a generation prior to do with the nature of children and whether they had to undergo a conversion experience or not. The rest of Burwash’s work seemed to have far more to do with administration and coming to effective compromises with society. While heralded as a great theologian, there is little in this book to differentiate him as such.

Overall, I feel like the Canadian Methodism of this time period is very detached from the contemporary United Church of Canada experience. In some ways, this seemed to be the influence of culture in general or of the other members of the Union, such as the Presbyterian emphasis in the doctrine of the Basis of Union. However, my concluding opinion of Nathanael Burwash is that in attempting to maintain the Methodist emphasis of personal interaction with the Holy Spirit, he actually sped up the process of losing this and the rest of the Canadian Methodist identity. Instead, it was largely blended into academics of science and higher criticism methods and somewhat lost in the combination with Presbyterians and Congregationalists.


Van Die, Marguerite. An Evangelical Mind: Nathanael Burwash and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, 1839-1918. Kingston, Montreal, and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.