Unitarian Universalist Ministers of Canada
The Canadian chapter of the
Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association
UNITARIANISM . . . a religion that has had a hard time
defining itself, but whose basic premise is that the final authority for belief lies in
the individual, not in the writings of any bible or the utterances of any leader.
religion that has often been full of controversy . . . in the beginning days of our
national Unitarian history the verbal battle raged between those who wished to return to
the "pure" teachings of Jesus and those who looked for inspiration in the
teachings of science.
A religion which has endured persecution, more in word but sometimes
in deed. A religion which has inspired men and women to dare to be in the forefront in the
cause of a more humane world.
UNIVERSALISM . . . a religion which came to find definition
more difficult as time and influence achieved its initial purpose but whose basic premise
that all human beings are worthy of love remains.
A religion that has had its share of
controversy . . . in its early days the great question was, "Is salvation immediately
achieved at death or does the soul have to go through a period of punishment before being
restored to God?"
A religion which has endured persecution, more in word but
sometimes in deed.
A religion which has inspired men and women to make love more active in
the cause of a more humane world. UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM, the religion we espouse today .
. . still hard to define, but whose basic premise remains that human beings, each worthy
of love, are each the final authority in matters of belief.
Still full of controversy . .
. "Is lay leadership or professional leadership best?", "Is intellectualism
or feeling most important in a Sunday morning service?"
A religion still occasionally
persecuted in word if not in deed. And still inspiring us to make this a more humane world
for ourselves and others.
How did these two religious denominations come to Canada?
the story of Universalism. Universalism in Canada was mainly a rural religion, preached by
itinerant ministers and lay preachers travelling from small town to small town on
horseback. It reached as far west as Olinda, Ontario. It was mainly the product of
American Universalism, itself influenced by British Rellyan Universalism, although a small
group of Scottish Universalists did settle in southern Ontario.
As American Universalists
crossed the border they brought their religion with them. Christopher Huntington, moving
from New England to Compton, Quebec in 1804, is presumed to have preached the first
Universalist sermon in this country. Other Canadians were influenced by the Universalist
message and worked for the establishment of societies in their own communities.
Eban Allen from Halifax visited Boston where she heard the great Universalist preacher
Hosea Ballou with his message that the God of love promised universal salvation, a message
of ringing hope to a people weighted down with the fears and personal uncertainty of a
Calvinistic theology of salvation for the elect and eternal damnation for all others. On
her return she told her experience to a woodcutter friend. And in the exciting way
Universalism spread by word of mouth in the early 1800s a meeting was held - broken up by
disapproving townspeople - but later reconvened, to form the Universalist Church of
Halifax in 1843. Universalism had a firm hold in Halifax and other parts of the Maritimes,
even though its adherents were often called "children of the devil" as they
walked down the street. "If there is NO HELL, what will stop those Universalists from
committing the direst of deeds?", was in the minds of their detractors.
Universalist North American Almanac of 1850 lists 4 preachers, 10 societies and 3 meeting
houses in Canada East; 4 preachers, 4 societies and 12 preaching stations in Canada West;
plus 1 preacher and 2 societies each in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The first woman
preacher in Canada of any denomination was probably Universalist Mary Ann Church of
Merrickville, Ontario; the first ordained woman minister in Canada probably Fidelia
Gilette, who came to Bloomfield, Ontario in 1888.
Canadian Universalism produced few well
known personages but its theology of "salvation through good works" assured that
in any community where a Universalist society existed many charitable and helpful acts
were performed, for this was the heritage and call of Universalism. The denomination grew
smaller in numbers over the years, partly because the message of universal salvation was
heard and adopted by others and partly because of the lack of large, influential city
At the time of the merger of the two denominations in 1961 only four societies
were left, Halifax, Nova Scotia, North Hatley, Quebec, Olinda, Ontario, and one in New
And so to the Unitarians, smaller in number than the Universalists during our
beginnings in the 1800s, considerably larger at merger in 1961; the reason for our
national denominational organization being called the Canadian Unitarian Council and not
the Canadian Unitarian Universalist Council.
Montreal 1842 . . . the first organized
Unitarian church in Canada, its emergence influenced by the Americans, the British, and
the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians from Ireland. The actual beginnings in Montreal occurred
before that official date.
The first Unitarian service in Montreal, indeed in Canada, was
held in the Union School Room on July 29, 1832 in the middle of the cholera epidemic. The
preacher was forty seven year old David Hughes from Somerset, England. On August 9 David
Hughes was dead of cholera. His obituary named him a Christian called from the service of
his Lord and Master to a higher presence. It brought forth a storm of protest. "He
could not be called a Christian; Unitarians were not Christian. They reduced sin and its
moral effects to mere unimportant circumstances. All Christians were to be warned against
their soul killing tenets." His death, and public criticism, did not deter his
congregation from forming a Sunday School and raising funds for a building. The building
fund failed, perhaps due to the stresses of the Papineau Rebellion, perhaps to the
overzealousness of the promoters. Nevertheless Unitarianism remained alive in Montreal.
1843, John Cordner, ordained as minister by the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster of the
Non-Subscribing Presbyterians of Northern Ireland (the Irish "Unitarians")
became the minister of the Christian Unitarian Society of Montreal which had been formed
in 1842, realizing the dream of Benjamin Workman, Elizabeth Cushing and others.
was minister for thirty five years, taking that stand mentioned earlier of a Unitarianism
heavily based on Jesus and the Bible. He was attacked as blasphemous from outside the
church and too Christian centered from within, but he stuck to his convictions. At the end
of his ministry, the Montreal church broke its ties with the Irish Synod and became part
of the American Unitarian Association.
Many of the Montrealers were businessmen. A statue
of Unitarian John Young stands near the place where the Montreal wharves used to be. With
Cordner, Young crusaded on humanitarian grounds for free trade. Cordner himself witnessed
a continual concern for the poor. When plans were being made for the visit of the future
Prince of Wales to Montreal Cordner advocated that money to be spent on an elaborate
dinner be used instead for a farm on which vagrant boys could be taught trades and the old
sheltered. His proposal was defeated by the city fathers in favor of the dinner!
Workman family, prominent in the Montreal church, moved to Toronto and were instrumental
in establishing a church there. In comparatively recent times branch churches of the
Toronto church were formed and, now independent societies, cooperate to constitute the
Unitarian Council of Metropolitan Toronto.
The Toronto church became the religious home of
Emily Stowe, Canada's first woman physician and an early advocate of women's right to
vote. Luigi von Kunits, founder of the Toronto Symphony, was also a member of the first
Unitarian church in Toronto and often played his violin there.
Following sporadic attempts
from 1867 on, including an effort by Cordner, Ottawa finally achieved organization in
1898. Its first minister was Albert Walkley. He campaigned for street cars to run on
Sundays, his argument that all days were holy and if the wealthy could ride in their
carriages on Sundays why couldn't the ordinary people be allowed the convenience of the
street car. The more conservative religious groups in the city were not pleased but in the
early 1900s the street cars did begin to run on Sundays.
It was with the help of people
from the Ottawa church that Lotta Hitschmanova began the Unitarian Service Committee in
1945, and she remains a member of the congregation. In the late 1800s another stream
enters the picture.
Winnipeg, Christmas Day, 1892 . . . the first service in the newly
built Icelandic Unitarian Church. Icelandic Unitarians were the inheritors of a spirit of
freedom and inquiry that they brought with them to Canada from their native land. When the
cornerstone of this first church was removed in 1962 it was found to contain a small
volume of poems by Bjorn Gunnlaugsson, poems which refuted the doctrine of a God of
vengeance. Gunnlaugsson was just one of the influences that lead many of the Icelandic
immigrants in Canada to reject the strict Lutheranism they found here for the Unitarianism
of Channing, Priestly, Emerson, and Thoreau. There had been Magnus Stephensen, Chief
Justice of Iceland, also a writer and publisher who had written a hymn book deleting all
references to the devil. Magnus Erickson, a great teacher and theologian, taught that
personal religion and social responsibility were indissolubly related, and that the Bible
should be tested by experience as well as taught by tradition. The person most responsible
for organizing this rich tradition into a free religious movement was Bjorn Petursson, the
minister at the Christmas Day service. His tenure was short; he died barely a year later.
His wife, Jennie McCaine Petursson, a New Englander who had been a charter member of the
Unitarian church in St. Paul, Minnesota, conducted the services (in English) for nearly a
year and then returned to her home in Francestown, New Hampshire. She was much loved and
long remembered by the congregation. The Icelandic poet and statesman, Jon Olafsson, then
conducted the services until the arrival of the Reverend Magnus Skeptason, a man whose
ideas were similar to the poet's and whose verse was also found in the cornerstone. Other
Unitarian churches as well as preaching stations sprang up in Manitoba. Like the earlier
Universalists, Icelandic Unitarians on the prairies were served by circuit riders, and
indeed much of their doctrine was as Universalist as it was Unitarian though they were not
familiar with it. Icelandic Unitarianism prospered.
In 1912, Horace Westwood arrived from
the United States to establish an English speaking Unitarian church, All Souls. In the
1930s the minister of All Souls, Philip Petursson, was sent to Iceland to study the
Icelandic language so that he could conduct services at both churches. After his return
the two congregations shared a building but maintained separate identities.
In 1945 they
merged into one and soon afterwards the practice of conducting services in Icelandic was
dropped. The Manitoba churches are still attended by descendants of the early Icelandic
Unitarians. Vilhaljmur Stefansson, the great Canadian arctic explorer, was a product of
Icelandic liberal religious thought and studied for the Unitarian ministry at Harvard
before deciding upon a career in anthropology. Margret Benedictsson, editor of the
Icelandic paper "Freya", was not only a proponent of women's voting rights but
women's equality in all ways, a woman much ahead of her time.
Unitarian groups farther
west had many ups and downs before becoming established.
As the Canadian west grew in
population other denominations grew westward as well, encouraged and financially supported
by their denominational organizations back east. This was not true of the Unitarians. For
many years sporadic efforts were made by both the BFUA (British and Foreign Unitarian
Association) and the AUA (American Unitarian Association) to establish groups, but these
were poorly funded and the societies often floundered.
In 1907 the two organizations got
together to the extent that each agreed to pay half the salary for an extension minister
the British called a missionary and the Americans a field secretary. The term field
secretary was decided upon and Frank Wright Pratt, formerly minister in Hopedale,
Massachusetts, was chosen to fill the role. His job was to travel to various western
cities where interest in Unitarianism was shown, helping groups to organize, find
ministers, and build churches.
Although progress was slow and financial help still slight,
Unitarianism did begin to take hold and both British and American ministers came to speak
from pulpits and build congregations.
The times during and between the two world wars were
low points - some congregations becoming dormant for awhile - but the seed was there and
today Unitarianism grows strong in the west with a cluster of churches around Vancouver,
three societies in Edmonton, as well as other churches and fellowships in the rest of
British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
William Irvine, who became minister of the
Calgary church in 1916, was elected to Parliament from Calgary East in 1926 and, with the
exception of one year, served until 1935. Among his positions was the abolishment of
Ada Tonkin, who served the Victoria church in 1926 and 1927 and was
the first woman Unitarian minister in Canada, was the pioneering force in the
establishment of the Women's Protective Bureau of the Vancouver Police Force. She was its
first director, strongly advocating rehabilitation and preventive work.
Unitarianism has become strongly linked with American Unitarian Universalism and has been
part of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) since the merger of the two
denominations in 1951, it retains its own identity, furthered by the formation of its
churches into the CUC (Canadian Unitarian Council) in the same year. Mainly Unitarian in
its roots, many of its members consider themselves Unitarian Universalists while others
prefer to be called Unitarian only.
Indeed, harkening back to the earlier phrase
"often fraught with controversy", what to call ourselves is one of the
controversies of our time. Ours not to conform to an edict from a hierarchal authority but
to enjoy the freedom of individual expression; working towards consensus and corporate
action but not excluding those with other opinions.
We value our Irish and British
non-conformist roots and the Icelandic heritage as well as what has come to us from the
Our ministers cross the borders with relative ease, barring immigration red
tape! We have American and British ministers serving in Canada and Canadian ministers
serving in the United States. Some come from the Unitarian heritage, some from the
Universalist. We value this evidence of the Canadian mosaic in our religious development
and make it our own.
The Rev. Dr. MK Gooding 1983.