This decade marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the rise of militant Fundamentalism and the beginning of the “battle royal for the fundamentals.”[1] Although the struggle continued for a number of decades, these years (particularly between 1920 and 1927) were marked with denominational struggle and eventual splits, an explosion in fundamentalist publications, and the establishment of fundamentalist colleges.  C.H. Spurgeon had already fought the battle in England, in what was termed the Downgrade Controversy, which resulted in Spurgeon’s separation from the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland. The battle against modernism in North American (Canada and United States) and Northern Ireland would be closely linked—both in the manner and in the exchange of personalities and also the formation of a movement.[2] In the end, however, this movement would look very different than the Downgrade Controversy in England.

While fundamentalism in British Columbia (BC), was part of the broader North American movement, it had more in common with the struggle in England. There are a number of key differences between BC and other parts of North American which warrant some discussion. First, modernism came to BC much later than to other parts of North America. Second, fundamentalism in BC was more decisive, and separation came sooner, making the split in BC the first Baptist denominational split in the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy in North America.[3] Third, fundamentalists in BC followed Spurgeon’s model more closely and were moderated by discerning and discriminating separatism.[4]Fourth, there was no looming personality that emerged in BC, as there had in other parts of North America.

Much more work needs to be done on this area of Canadian Church History. In this essay, by way of introduction, I will trace the roots of modernism in Western Canada,[5] and identify the key events and personalities of fundamentalist resistance.

Modernism in Canada, both in the east and the west, is traced to the United States in the mid to late-nineteenth century.[6] Rochester Theological Seminary was well known for its Social Gospel and the teaching of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918). But it was the University of Chicago, a well-established “center for aggressive theological liberalism” that would become the most powerful influence among Canadian churches.[7] Traces of Modernism are found as far back as the early 1880s at the founding of McMaster University in Toronto and before that in its predecessor Toronto Baptist College.[8]  In 1909 Dr. Elmore Harris of Wilmer Street Baptist Church in Toronto brought charges against Dr. Isaac George Matthews, then the professor of systematic Theology at McMaster University.[9] Harris was unsuccessful in removing Matthews from his post at McMaster, although he brought charges over three successive years—1909-1911.

It was not until 1905 that the first signs of modernism were beginning to surface in the West when Brandon College and Okanagan College[10] had formed links with the University of Chicago. In the Western Baptist, there was some discussion of the trend of liberal theology. In May 1907, an article appeared criticizing the “New Theology” of Rev. R.J Campbell of the City Temple in London, England. Another article in November of that same year referenced a G.B. Smith of the University of Chicago, but without criticism. The following year, at the Baptist Convention of Western Canada, held in Vancouver, Rev. A.A. Shaw, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Winnipeg preached three sermons on “The Social Ministry of the Church,” and were recorded in the Baptist Union Year Book.[11]

By the early 1910s then, the seeds of liberal theology had been sown and roots were beginning to form, but there was no public or formal opposition.

James Rowell circa 1915 as a student at Brandon College

Among the Baptists, the first formal protest against modernism in Western Canada was at Brandon College in Manitoba, in late 1915.[12] Brandon had been on the modernist trajectory for a few years and the president, Dr. A.P. McDiarmid, knew that there were exponents of liberal theology on his faculty—particularly Professor Harris (Harry) MacNeill. During the controversy at McMaster in 1910, McDiarmid wrote to Chancellor McKay of McMaster congratulating him on the victory over Elmore Harris and suggested that if Harris had succeeded against McMaster, he would have turned his gun on Brandon College, “but now,” McDiarmid continued, “we can breathe easily.”[13]

On November 15, 1912, Dr. Howard Whidden was inducted as the new president of Brandon College.[14] James Rowell arrived at the college just one month after Whidden’s induction and soon identified Higher Criticism in the junior classes. He was not the only one and concerns were growing among the more conservative older students. At the end of 1915 five senior students—James Rowell, John Linton, Arnold Bennett, Frank Noble, and John Scott—arranged a meeting with the president and appointed John Linton as their spokesman. The purpose of the meeting was to make Dr. Whidden aware of the “detrimental effect” of Professor MacNeill’s teaching on the junior students.[15] Whidden’s response left the students feeling rather patronized with an air of intellectual superiority.[16] The matter was summarily dismissed with the argument that “there is not an institution of learning on the continent where Dr. MacNeill’s viewpoint is not taught.”[17]

It is clear that the whole affair with the five students was not taken seriously. President Whidden promised to meet with Dr. MacNeill and report back to the students, but this did not happen. He communicated with Linton a few months later and assured him that MacNeill would only teach Bible subjects in the senior classes. In the end, nothing came of that protest by the five students. In 1920 however, both Rowell and Bennett were pastoring in BC and their written testimonies against MacNeill would become key in the denominational struggle for orthodoxy. Linton, who was pastoring in Montreal, also submitted a report in 1921.

Despite this clear modernist trend in Brandon College and among some in BC, there was a conspicuous absence of controversy in the pre-WW1 Baptist Convention.[18] First, the population expulsion in the early 1900s had not yet fully integrated. This would change after the war when the West Coast population would not only grow but would do so with greater diversity. Second, the denominational loyalties of the fledgling Convention, formed in 1896, gave pause to doctrinal controversy of any sort during this period.[19] Third, as J. B. Richards points out, the BC Baptists were slow to recognize the full impact of the modernist trends.

As BC emerged from the war the religious landscape had changed considerably. Wartime shipbuilding helped improve the economy, and by 1917 the Baptist Convention of BC was more economically stable than it had been for many years. There was an air of optimism across the Convention. On January 1, 1917, a five-year program for future development was introduced, which coincided with a broader evangelistic interest ongoing in North America at that time.[20] In October of 1917, Rev. Walter Daniel was called as a Missionary Evangelist and superintendent,[21] tasked with the job of finding pastors for churches, that had become vacant during the war. Most of the men that Daniel brought to the province were British. Rev. J. B. Rowell was one of them, coming first to Vernon, then in Prince Rupert, and then in Kamloops. Arnold Bennett was another British man who became the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist in Vancouver.

BC’s pioneer days were over, and a new era had emerged. The old pre-war denominational loyalties had gone and by 1927 it would be this British influence that would form the “conservative forces” within the Baptist Convention.[22]. For now, the first signs of disturbance were seen in two Vancouver Baptist churches between 1917 and 1920. Kitsilano Baptist Church in Vancouver split in 1915, and towards the end of 1921 merged with Central Fairview Church it formed Fairview Baptist Church and became “the centre of Baptist liberalism in the city.”[23]

Dr. French E. Oliver, American evangelist

Post-war fundamentalist resistance, however, focused on two distinct confrontations. The first was an isolated but fractious incident in Vancouver in 1917, when Dr. French E. Oliver, an American evangelist caused “the biggest sensation … in Vancouver religious circles.”[24] The second, within the Baptist Convention of British Columbia, would return to the teaching at Brandon Collage. Two of the students, who had become pastors in BC would be at the forefront of the controversy in 1920. As a denominational issue, it had structure, tangibility, and strategy and would lead to the formation of the Convention of Regular Baptists in July 1927.

Space in this essay forbids a detailed consideration of the 1917 Oliver Campaign, which engaged pulpits, newspapers, and public conversation for weeks.[25] It began in November 1916 when Oliver had written to the Vancouver Ministerial Association (VMA), asking them to arrange an evangelistic campaign for the following year. The VMA had been praying for the Lord’s leading for an evangelistic initiative but, after reviewing Oliver’s ministry, the feeling was that Oliver was not the man for Vancouver at that time.

In March 1917, however, Oliver arrived in Vancouver to conduct meetings for Rev. A. F. Baker in his Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. [26]  During an interview for the press, at the Hotel Dunsmuir, on March 23, he indicated that there was an interest in a broader evangelistic campaign arranged by a newly formed conservative committee—the Vancouver Evangelistic Movement (VEM). The new inter-denominational committee made a “general call to Christians” for “aggressive evangelism in the city,” and sent letters to the local clergy, also inviting the VMA to participate. The only requirement for participation was for those who are “sound in the faith once delivered to the saints, and who want to reach the unconverted on straight gospel lines and teach the whole Bible”—boundaries which clearly irked liberal members of the VMA.[27] It was clear from the beginning then, that Oliver’s 1917 campaign was out of favor with the theology of the liberals. He made this clear on the opening night; first, that he had been invited and also that he intended “not to use a feather duster in defense of the faith.”[28]

On Saturday, May 19, 1917, Dr. French E. Oliver was back in Vancouver for a “two months’ evangelistic campaign.”[29] A temporary wooden “tabernacle,” to seat 5,000 people, had been constructed prior to his arrival, and meetings were to commence on the following day. Forty-two churches and assemblies had responded to the invitation and they were hopeful of raising a 1000 strong choir. The campaign drew large crowds and newspaper coverage was extensive and positive throughout the early part of the campaign.

However, an undercurrent of antagonism was about to burst into open hostility.

The controversy was ignited by a New Westminster woman, Ms. Agnes Wiggin. In a short letter to the editor of the Vancouver Daily World, five weeks after the campaign had started, Ms. Wiggins took issue with Oliver’s doctrine of hell and God’s judgment against sin.[30] With the uneasy silence broken, latent feelings of antagonism against Oliver and the more conservative VEM gushed out into the public square—the time had come for an open discussion on the matter, wrote Rev. O. M. Sanford, of Grandview Methodist Church. Another contributor, Rev. A.E. Cooke, of the First Congregational Church, felt that Oliver’s campaign was a “lengthy and insidious campaign of misrepresentation and opposition directed against the pulpits of this city.”[31] The controversy had begun in earnest; pulpit rhetoric, name-calling, and angry exchanges came from both sides. The most excessive attack however came from Rev. O. M. Sanford, who reacted with a display of extreme aggression—“it is hard,” he said, “to write with moderation upon the issue” as he penned a lengthy and angry tirade in the Vancouver Daily World and set the tone for the rest of the immediate controversy. Sanford claimed that evangelism was a “minor object of the campaign” and that anyone could recognize it as “propaganda of a certain specific brand…widely it is Torreyism,” a reference to Dr. R. A. Torrey, the American fundamentalist. He went on to compare Oliver’s adherence to the fundamentals of the Christian faith with the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witness cult, which he referred to as “Russellism” and listed five areas of similarity between “Oliverism” and “Russellism.”[32]

Attacks like this were common from the pulpits of the liberal churches during the campaign, and the liberal ministers who were a minority were vocal. Oliver had his own supporters, and while liberals attacked his manner of speaking, others defended him. There is no doubt he was forthright in his speech and, as he said, did not use a feather duster. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he was rude or abrasive. The press, it should be noted, had already observed Oliver’s courteous manner and described him as a “charming personality;”[33]

It is not often that one associates charm of manner and engaging conversation with vigorous manhood, but this six-foot-four of muscular masculinity was as charming in his manner as a delicious little bit of womanhood.

With this, rather strange description, (which would embarrass most men) one wonders what it was that angered his opponents—was it really his manner, or was it the content of his message? For Agnes Wiggins, it was clearly the content that she resisted, for she made no reference to his manner or style. Other newspaper contributions continue the same trend and take issue with the content of Oliver’s message. Granted, Oliver had advertised an evangelistic campaign and had turned it into a protest against modernism, but for Oliver, the integrity of the message was threatened by liberal theology and the heart of the Gospel was under attack. Furthermore, Oliver’s attack on liberalism was a broad trans-denominational attack on a system of theological thinking.

It was for this breadth that the whole Oliver campaign lacked the focus and structure needed to have any visible or tangible outcome. In the end, it appeared for many to be a flash in the pan. However, it had forced the issue and gave both sides the opportunity to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room. By the end of 1917 Protestant Christianity in western Canada was clearly divided in two and there was now, recognizable for the first time, a “great gulf” separating them.[34]

The conservative Baptist forces in BC were emboldened. Baker’s Mount Pleasant Baptist Church grew rapidly in the wake of the campaign, Not only with huge numbers of converts from the campaign but also from transfers of fundamentalists from other churches.[35] In the years that followed, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church became “the leading fundamentalist Baptist Church in western Canada.”[36]

Although Oliver was a Presbyterian, and the Vancouver campaign was inter-denomination, yet, it was very much a Baptist affair. It was Methodists (Rev. O.M. Sanford, Rev. J.G. Brown, Dr. Ernest Thomas) and Presbyterians (Dr. John MacKay and Rev. A.E. Cooke) who were most vocal in their opposition. This is not to suggest that it was only supported by Baptists. The Salvation Army supported it from the beginning and the Army band participated regularly. The choir also was comprised of Christians from many different churches. Perhaps the greatest endorsement came from a Methodist minister. Towards the end of the campaign, Dr. W.J. Sipprell of Mount Pleasant Methodist Church took the platform to support Oliver and challenge the skeptics.[37] He stated that his heart was pained at the impending closure, that he rejoiced in the evidence of the Spirit of God, and that his soul had been blessed with the messages. He was not so much worried about “particular theology…but true theology must have the cross of Jesus at the centre.”

Despite this trans-denominational support, it was the Baptists that formed the hub of the campaign. Oliver’s original host was A.F. Baker at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. It was a Baptist also, Dr. J.L. Campbell of First Baptist Church, who led in prayer on the opening night. Another Baptist, D.G. McDonald, of Broadway West Baptist Church, submitted a letter to the editor, answering Methodist minister Rev. Ernest Thomas, who claimed that only the “younger brainy Baptists” were opposed to Oliver. MacDonald pointed out that there were nineteen ordained Baptist ministers, and fifteen of them were in full accord with the Oliver campaign.[38] Furthermore, Oliver would follow up his campaign with further visits to Vancouver, both at Mount Pleasant Baptist in 1921[39] and then First Baptist in 1922.[40]

Three years would pass before open conflict would rage again, this time within the BC Baptist Convention, and Mount Pleasant would be at the center of the controversy. Rev. A.F. Baker’s son, Lorimar, who, as a nineteen-year-old had been so impressed by the Oliver campaign, would also be part of the struggle.[41] In the years that followed, A. F. Baker and his son Lorimar would be part of the conservative group that formed the new fundamentalist Baptist denomination—the Convention of Regular Baptist of British Columbia.


[1] In the July 1, 1920 editorial of his Watchman-Examiner, Curtis Lee Law coined the term “Fundamentalist” to refer to those who were prepared to “do battle royal for the fundamentals.” See Stewart G. Cole, The History of Fundamentalism (1963; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 67.

[2] For a brief summary of this history, linking the United States, Canada, and Northern Ireland see Aaron Dunlop, Confessions of a Fundamentalist (Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, 2016), 17-27. Available on Amazon.

[3] Robert Burkinshaw, Pilgrims in Lotus Land, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University, 1995), 44. 76-77 See also Mark Noll, and George A. Rawlyk, Amazing Grace: Evan