The Black Church in Canada
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Denise Gillard

In his book, Reconstructing The Black Image, Gordon de la Mothe states, "Religion plays a large part in the life of Black people all over the world."1 His statement is as true of Canada as it is of anywhere else: Blacks consider themselves to be a spiritual people. Where it takes the form of Christian belief, Black religious experience has evolved in an environment dominated by racism and classism (and in the case of the female, sexism). It is my thesis that due to these "isms", for the most part, wherever Christian nurture has taken root among communities of Black people in Canada, the Black Church has found it necessary to separate from the mainstream in order to afford its members the full participation, lay empowerment, leadership development, and spiritual dignity essential to those who unite together as the body of Christ. In order to demonstrate this thesis, I will outline some major periods in Canadian history (The French Regime; The British Regime; The Canadian West), then describe the Black Church experience within these contexts. Following this process, by way of conclusion, I will identify some common themes within the Black church experience, briefly relating them to the current situation of the Black Church in Canada. I have also included a bibliography and collection resource guide as a resource for future studies in this area.

As we begin our discussion, a few words of clarification are needed. First, this paper is a very preliminary survey of the evolution of the Black Church in Canada. Unlike the authors of We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull us Up: Essays in African Canadian History, I don't feel as if I have even scratched the surface. Primary source material is not easily accessed and the struggle to produce and catalogue secondary material is itself a new and challenging venture of Black Canadian scholars. Most notably, there are fundamental differences between the writing and study of Black History in Canada and the United States, respectively. While the United States has long acknowledged Black history as a legitimate field of historical inquiry, the Black historical presence in Canada on several levels has yet to be acknowledged.2 The ramifications of this lack for the student of church history is at times overwhelming.

Second, it is important to note that the historical vision of Canada has generally been disseminated in terms of English and French culture. Today, most Canadians think of Blacks only in terms of new immigrants, forgetting, denying or remaining ignorant of the fact that while Blacks have never exceeded two percent of the population, they have been a recorded part of the Canadian experience at least since the year 1608.3 Yet many Blacks who can trace up to eight or more generations in Canada are constantly asked, "And what Island do you come from?"4

As a result of this ignorance or denial, while most students of American history know that Christopher Columbus arrived on American shores in 1492, and many also know that a free Black man, Pedro Alonso Nino, accompanied him on this journey, very few Canadians by comparison know or even care who the first Black was to arrive in Canada. Why is this so?

In his book, The Blacks in Canada: A History, Robin W. Winks names the relatively small size of the population as the main reason why the realities of Blacks in Canadian history has been ignored.5 While Winks' text is considered as one of the most comprehensive of the 1970's, other scholars refute this reasoning.

For example, when noting Black history as missing from the pages of mainstream Canadian history, the authors of We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us up state, "Black people in Canada have a past that has been hidden or eradicated, just as racism has been deliberately denied as an organizing element in how Canada is constituted."6 They continue:

This misconception continues to the present and means that Black children entering the schools have no sense of Blacks being here for generations and, hence, that there is a 400-year presence and contribution of African Canadians in this country. These children naturally feel invisible and marginalised. Of equal importance to us is that such a distorted sense of history minimizes the claims of African people to a role in the making of Canada. Further, this distortion suggests that racism is a new phenomenon to this country.7

Third, it is also important to note that early interpretations of the Black experience, both secular and religious, have often been depicted in ways which are degrading, presumptuous and/or simply inaccurate.8 Taking these factors into consideration, we concur with Colin A. Thomson that even apart from its intrinsic worth, Black Canadian history is valuable for what it reveals about the dominant society, and as we begin our historical survey, we will proceed accordingly.9

New France

Although not a permanent resident, the first recorded Black person to come to Canada was Mathieu d'Acosta, a member of Canada's oldest club- the Order of Good Cheer, and an interpreter for Sieur de Monts, Governor at Port Royal (1605).10 The first recorded Black resident of our nation in 1628, however, was a Black child from Madagascar, the property of the famous privateer David Kirke, whose sale of the boy ( later baptized as "Oliver LeJeune") in New France was Canada's first recorded slave sale.11 Since the time of Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), slavery was commonplace in New France and by 1760, records tell us that New France had a Black slave population which totalled nearly 1,200.12

At the time of Oliver LeJeune's arrival, the colony was run by the Company of New France. In 1663 however, the company gave up its charter and King Louis XIV appointed a Governor and Intendant to the colony in the hopes of strengthening it. Under this new leadership, the colony began to flourish to the point that many of the colonists began to complain about the shortage of servants and workers. These settlers petitioned the Governor, Jacques-Rene de Brisay and the Intendant, Jean Bochart de Champigny, for permission to purchase Black slaves.13 Daniel G. Hill documents the King's response in The Freedom Seekers:

His majesty finds it good that the inhabitants of Canada import negroes there to take care of their agriculture, but remarks that there is a risk that these negroes, coming from a very different climate, will perish in Canada; the project would then become useless.14

With the go-ahead given, slaves were imported and, along with 'Panis' (Pawnee aboriginals), used as slave labor. As was the experience of their American counterparts, the Canadian settlers soon had difficulty keeping track of the Native slaves, who found it easy to disappear into the wilderness, or (at least in the view of the slave masters) could not withstand the hard labour with the same profitable stamina accredited to the Black slaves. Thus, Black slaves became the norm.

Christensen and Weinfeld assert that, in order to keep control over these slaves in frontier Canada, racism was institutionalized through the Code Noire of New France, a measure originally promulgated for use in the West Indies.15 Although never officially instituted in the colony, the original Code of 1685, as well as the revised one of 1728 (which merely added a statement forbidding intermarriage), were originally issued by France to protect colonistsw from slave actions such as theft, revolt and escape.16 Since the slaves of New France for the most part worked indoors as isolated free labourers (as opposed to the popular gang-labour/plantation-style economy of other colonies), the protective statutes of these Codes were only enforced when the need arose.17 Furthermore, Winks reports that in New France, no steps were taken to prevent intermarriage: "If a white man married a Negro slave, she was freed by the act of marriage."18 What the Code did strongly assert in New France, however, was the understanding of Blacks as mere chattel, a sub-human species with no attachment to the land.

Blacks and the Church in New France.

The colony of New France was Roman Catholic. In New France, the Catholic Church did not oppose or speak out against slavery. Secular priests, religious communities (including the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans), the Ursulines in Louisiana (which was within the diocese of Quebec), the Brothers of Charity at Louisburg, and the benevolent Mother Marie d'Youville (who ran the Hospital-General), all owned slaves.19 Yet Winks points to the somewhat "humane and familial" aspects of Roman Catholic slave-holding of New France which, as in other Roman Catholic colonies and in contrast to that of the English colonies, seemed to "soften" the brutality of the institution in several ways.20 For example, the Roman Catholic Church allowed slaves to participate in some sacraments. Baptism, communion and burial were regular ministries afforded them. Baptisms were often celebrated as special social occasions for the slaves, and in French society the owner often claimed the honour of being godfather to his slave. Upon baptism, the slave was given his/her Master's family name, with given-names most often coming from the family tradition.21 When a slave died, it was normal for the owner to witness the act of burial. Marriage was only permitted with the owner's permission, since with the sacrament of marriage the slaves were granted their freedom. Winks asserts that this typical outlook must have encouraged Roman Catholic slave-owners to think of their property in more humane terms than those of colonies in which slaves were given no more intrinsic value than that of horses.22

Lest we idealize the slave experience in New France, however, it is important to note that all children born of slave marriages belonged to the mother's master. If a Black (or Panis) slave married with the partner remaining ignorant of their enslaved condition, this was deemed sufficient grounds for immediate annulment. Most notably, Bishop St. Vallier, in his Catechisme of 1702, excluded slaves from taking Holy Orders or becoming Priests. Winks states, "If slavery in New France was among the most benevolent expressions of the institution in North America, nonetheless it was slavery with accompanying potentialities toward the dominance of one man, and of one race, over another."23 In effect, the Christian endorsement of this brand of slavery, while it may have offered the slaves some comfort in their suffering, effectively smothered any real self-directed expression of Christian faith in the Black slave community of New France.

The British Regime

In 1713 the French territory of Acadia was handed over to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht. Settlers from New England poured into Acadia, re-naming the new acquisition "Nova Scotia." Since it is recorded that slaves helped build Nova Scotia when it was founded in 1749, historians conclude that settlers brought slaves with them.24 With the conquest of New France, the Articles of Capitulation ensured that the existing French slave system remained intact and fitted neatly into the new British regime. Once again the leading colonists increased their demand for slave labour.25 British General James Murray, Governor of Quebec and a slave-owner himself, felt that more slaves would help the colony's economy.26 The slave trade was brisk among Church of England Ministers, government officials, and merchants, most notably in Quebec and Detroit (the British having taken Detroit from the French in 1760).27

The Loyalists

At the end of the Seven Years' War, the British government found itself weighed down by debt and began a program of tax reforms which rapidly led to the rebellion of its thirteen American colonies. With the Stamp Act of 1765 - 1756, the British tried for the first time to tax the colonists directly. But upon meeting swift American objections in the form of an economic boycott, the Act was repealed. Tempers flared on both sides and the final crisis began with protest against the Tea Act of 1773. While the majority of Americans opposed the British reform measures, there were those who, despite their opposition, remained loyal to King George and wanted to find a way between dependance and independence.28 These people are commonly referred to as Loyalists.

Who were the Loyalists? In Victorious Defeat, Brown and Senior demonstrate that they represented the whole range of society, although the rich, the urban, the official, the conservative, and the recent immigrant all contributed proportionally more than other segments of the population.29 One wonders if the Christian faith was a motivating factor in their allegiance to Britain: Brown and Senior state, "Religion was not usually the key, although loyalty had an Anglican tinge in New Jersey, New York and especially New England, where Anglicans were a beleaguered minority. (Everywhere, the Loyalist elite was largely Anglican.)"30 Churches, marriages, partnerships, families and friendships split over the issue; people were also motivated for personal, political, financial and sometimes irrational reasons.31 In 1775 the American colonies rebelled against Britain's King George III, the War of Independence began, and United Empire Loyalists moved northward out of American territory. Encouraged by British government promises of military commissions, administrative positions, generous grants of land and permission to bring their slaves, Loyalists left with their families to start a new lives in the Maritimes and Quebec.32

As the war began, the British developed a divide-and-conquer strategy against the Americans by offering freedom to any rebel-owned slaves who would join their ranks. Hill describes the results of this offer:

Both the slaves and their owners responded quickly. Many owners sent their slaves to places far behind the British lines. Some of the colonies passed new laws to banish, sell or execute slaves who were caught escaping. Slave patrols were even stricter than usual. In spite of all these measures, thousands of slaves tried to escape. Some of these managed to make their way to Canada, or were taken there in British ships when the war ended.33

Ironically, British offers of freedom did not include the slaves of Loyalists. However, rebel slaves and Free-Blacks who fought for the British were promised the same reward as White Loyalists. While most slaves were transported to the Caribbean, the Free-Blacks were given their choice of destination for economic reasons. Wanting to avoid areas dominated by large scale slavery, most Free-Blacks chose to go Nova Scotia.34

In 1783, peace was declared and Britain recognized the birth of the United States. Hill reports that at this period Quebec west of Montreal (soon to become Upper Canada, then Canada West, and finally Ontario), was for the most part still wilderness, with fringes of settlement along the Upper St. Lawrence and lower Great Lakes. Approximately 10,000 Loyalist were resettled there by the British.35 As previously stated in the discussion of New France, slavery on a small scale was already in place in British North America. It was most prominent in New France, although there are no clear statistics on the number of new slaves brought into Quebec by the Loyalists.

Nova Scotia

The rest of the Loyalists (approximately 30,000), were transported to Nova Scotia by ships carrying both Free Blacks, and White Loyalists with their slaves, commonly referred to as "servants for life."36 James Walker estimates that including free and enslaved Blacks, there were about 3,550 men, women and children. According to Brown and Senior, the slaves who were brought to Nova Scotia found themselves distributed widely throughout the Maritimes, especially to Saint John, New Brunswick and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, with a few going to Prince Edward Island. The most important of the Free-Black settlements in Nova Scotia was Birchtown, named after Colonel Samuel Birch, the official who had issued the certificate allowing them to leave New York.37 Birchtown was located near the boom town of Shelburne, where over 40 per cent of the White Loyalists had settled.38 The other two all-Black communities established by Black Loyalists were Brindley Town, with over 200 settlers (near Digby), and Little Tracadie (on St. George's Bay), with approximately 170 settlers. There were also important settlements of Blacks segregated within White communities, including Halifax and its surrounding area (400 Blacks in Halifax, 300 in Preston near Dartmouth), Chedabucto (350), Shelburne (200), Annapolis (100), Liverpool (50), and St. John, New Brunswick (180).39

The British promises to Loyalists - of all races - had included land, supplies and citizenship, land being the most important for survival. When many of these promises were broken, the disappointment of many of the Whites was significant; the disappointment for the majority of the Blacks was enormous. Brown and Senior sum up the Black situation in Nova Scotia as follows:

The majority got no land; the minority who did, received smaller, poorer, less accessible grants than whites. By November, 1786, when grants to whites had been completed in Shelburne, none of the Birchtown Blacks had received farms, although a few town lots had been issued. Two years later when the Birchtown grants were completed only about a third of the settlers had been awarded farms.40

Obviously this predicament contributed to the physical and economic decline of Blacks in Nova Scotia. Furthermore, while they were required to fulfill their duties as citizens (such as paying taxes), the slave-holding mentality of their White counterparts which denied them their fair share of the land, relegated them to positions of sharecropping, day labourers and indentured servants, all of whom were often exploited and cheated.41

With the denial of land, the physical and economic decline of Blacks in Nova Scotia became alarming. Added to the overall suffering, in 1787 when the government stopped issuing rations, several owners freed their slaves so they would not have to provide for them.42 But perhaps a most telling event which illustrates their experience is the ten-day race riot which erupted between Blacks and Whites at Shelburne and Birchtown in July 1784, when a group of frustrated disbanded soldiers rose up against Free-Blacks to drive them out of town because the Blacks could be employed for cheaper wages than they could. In order to restore the peace, Governor Parr had to send in military forces. Concerning this violence, Brown and Senior state, "The riot was unique, but the violence, plus the fact that some white Shelburners had tried to engross their land, left the Blacks feeling insecure." The Black loyalists had come to Nova Scotia, looking for a home, a place to be equal and free--looking for the "Promised Land." Instead the overall experience of these settlers was laced with grim stories of neo-slavery, violence and oppression.

Blacks and the Church in Nova Scotia

In Victorious Defeat, Brown and Senior state, "The Blacks' greatest success was religious organization, by which they developed as a distinct and separate community."43 When the Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783, the Church of England, the established church, was immediately fortified with the arrival of White Anglican Loyalists. As with their secular experience, the Loyal Black settlers (who were predominantly Anglican, Methodist and Baptist) found themselves relegated to a distinctly second-class status in the church.

For example, most Blacks believed that baptism in the Anglican Church would make them "one and equal with whites."44 However, even when Dr. John Breynton, Rector of St. Paul's, baptized many hundreds of them, Blacks found that while they could attend services and receive communion, they were segregated from White parishioners and forced into galleries set apart for Blacks, the poor, and soldiers. By 1815, Black worshippers were kept behind a partition.45 Ultimately, Blacks were excluded when White parishioners grew in numbers. Furthermore, they were advised to gather in their own private homes.46 This displacement left Black lay leaders with little supervision or instruction. To add insult to injury, in 1784 the Anglican-related Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had some Blacks displaced because after years of waiting for the property promised to them, they had settled on an area of land reserved for church and school.47

Since it was obvious that they were not welcome and could not be nurtured in the Church of England, the Nova Scotian Blacks found their spiritual needs best met by their own lay preachers and teachers, in their segregated communities, and in independent churches only nominally affiliated with the White-dominated parent churches.48 Their religious meetings became important spiritual and social outlets. Without them they would have been swallowed up by their broken dreams of protection and security. The autonomous development of the Black Church in Nova Scotia coincided with the Nova Scotian counterpart to the revivalism of the Great Awakening, which Ellen Gibson Wilson describes as, "a revival which undermined the fashionable and formal churches and created a democratic and hot-blooded frontier religion."49

The Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, British Wesleyan Methodists, and the Baptists-all of whom were strongly affected by the New Light trend sparked by Henry Alline-gained many Black converts whose needs had not been met by the dominant church. Characterized by opponents as "a wild, emotional, Bible thumping madman, dashing around the country shouting the gospel from horseback and ignorantly condemning those who were more intellectually oriented and committed to an orderly, formal type of worship," Henry Alline preached a message of freedom to all who would listen.50 His direct, emotional, extemporaneous preaching in colloquial language stressed the idea that preaching did not depend on one's education or training since the aim was to uncover the spiritual rather than the literal meaning of the text.51 In this message, all frontier Nova Scotians saw the release of what D. G.. Bell calls, "long gathering religious energies," and while the lack of education on the part of many who either taught or preached was an affront to most traditionalists, the liberating power of the gospel broke through the harsh realities of frontier life.52
The revivalist zeal had huge ramifications for the Black Loyalists, particularly with regard to dissenter and nonconformist popularity among them. As Gibson states, "The teaching that everyone was capable of imbibing and interpreting the Christian Gospel was ideal for a community thrown upon is own resources of leadership."53 Such leadership came, for instance, from the Reverend John Marrant, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist missionary to Nova Scotia and Black Loyalist, converted by George Whitefield in colonial Charleston. Marrant, who had served in the British army during the Revolutionary War, was persuaded by his brother (who lived in Birchtown) to come over from England in 1785. Assisted by William Furmage, another Black Loyalist, Marrant converted over forty families and ordained Black settler Cato Perkins.54 As another example, Catherine Abernathy was a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist teacher placed in charge of the Black settlement school at Preston under direction of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. She was suspended in 1789 for "embracing some Strange religious tenets."55 In matters of religion and education, the Black church became the one institution where such Loyalists could develop dignity, pride and leadership skills.

Of the Black preachers who began to arrive in the 1780's, the most important was the Baptist reformer David George (1743-1810). George, born a slave in Virginia, went on to become a Baptist preacher there, escaped with his family to Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolution, and led a group of Nova Scotians in their attempt to resettle in Sierra Leone.56 While still illiterate and uneducated due to his status as a slave, George was gripped by what can only be described as an experiential faith in God. Soon after his conversion, George began to pray and exhort among other Blacks. Since he could not read at first, other Black preachers encouraged him in the Word. When reading his story in Grant Gordon's From Slavery To Freedom, one cannot help but note that for George, the Scriptures were first validated by his experience as a runaway in search of freedom.57 According to Gordon, George, who had already established the first continuing Black Baptist Congregation in Silver Bluff, South Carolina, "came into this volatile and primitive situation, hopeful of finding a new home and ministry."58

George's story provides us with great insight into the role, experience and significance of the Black church in the lives of frontier Nova Scotians. He organized his first congregations at Shelbourne and later in St. John, Fredericton and Preston.59 When he arrived in Shelbourne (1784), his ministry had immediate success with Blacks and Whites alike. But as Gordon states, "In every setting, his life and ministry were disrupted by racial prejudice, religious opposition, or political upheaval."60 George recalls an event which illustrates the challenges he faced:

Many had been baptized by Mr. Chipman of Annapolis...It was a mixed communion church. I preached there. We then returned with Mr. Holmes, when he and his wife sent me to Shelburne, and gave their experiences to the church on Thursday, and were baptized the next Lord's Day. Their relations, who lived in the town, were very angry, raised a mob, and endeavoured to hinder their being baptized [especially Mrs. Holmes' sister]. She laid hold of her hair to keep her from going down into the water, but the justices commanded peace, and said that she should be baptized, as she desired it. Then they were all quiet. Soon after that the persecution increased and became so great it did not seem possible to preach, and I thought I must leave Shelbourne.61

Soon after this incident, his chapel attacked by disbanded soldiers in the riot of 1784. George fled to Birchtown, where he continued his ministry, but encountered more opposition at the hands of both Black and White Anglicans. George expanded his mission to New Brunswick and had great success among the Blacks of Fredericton and Saint John. When telling of his experience there he recalled, "Some of the people...where so full of joy they ran out from waiting at tables on their Masters, with the knives and forks in their hand, to meet me at the water side."62 Of George's preaching, Brown and Senior state, George was a classic, rousing revivalist, the most influential Black preacher, offering a message that went beyond 'salvation from sin' to 'salvation from White domination.' His revivalist energy and the success he had with a few whites led to white opposition, which left him as a strictly Black spokesman.63

With the continuing decline of hope for viable, safe, respected, and prosperous communities, the frustration amongst Blacks and their leaders began to increase. Thomas Peters of Birchtown, formerly a sergeant in the regiment of "Black Pioneers," sought justice by delivering to the British government in London a petition of complaint that articulated the disgusting condition of life in Nova Scotia. While in England, Peters met with representatives of the Sierra Leone Company who in 1787 had founded a colony on the peninsula of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

Originally, the British had founded the Sierra Leone colony for the purpose of establishing a homeland for freed slaves repatriated to Africa from Britain and the New World. Originally called the "Province of Freedom," the colony of Sierra Leone was Britain's answer to the impending abolition of the slave trade and its inevitable clash with White concepts of race and economy. With large numbers of free, yet impoverished Blacks seeking refuge in Britain and certain parts of the New World, the British government was on several fronts challenged to find a solution to the "Black problem."64 Thus, the climate was right for the British government to agree with Henry Smeathman's proposal to settle the poor London Blacks in Sierra Leone.

The colony was to be first of all a capitalist venture, in that its supporters hoped to develop trade in African products to supposedly replace the slave trade.65 Secondly, philanthropists such as Granville Sharp hoped for a kind of eighteenth century utopian venture and "experiment in 'freedom' for the Blacks of the diaspora who were the casualty of European enslavement."66 To suit their complementary vision of things, both groups expected the London Blacks to somehow transmit their concepts of Western civilization to Africa. This, however, was not to be, as many of the London Blacks and White settlers who accompanied them died from sicknesses such as malaria and yellow fever, deserted, or were frustrated by the indigenous Africans' repeated burning of the Freetown settlement.

As Headly Tulloch states: "The new colony needed fresh settlers if it was to survive."67 Enter Pete's with his mission to have the plight of Nova Scotian Black Loyalists heard and remedied. Who better for the Sierra Leone company to recruit so that they could reestablish their capitalist-philanthropist vision? To that end, Peters returned to Nova Scotia, joined by John Clarkson, agent of the Sierra Leone Company. Upon hearing of the venture, significant numbers of Blacks were extremely open to Clarke's promises of freedom of religion, free passage, free land, and racial equality for all.

Of the 3550 Black Loyalists who had come to Nova Scotia, 1196 joined the exodus to Sierra Leone, which set sail on January 15, 1792. This third included all the preachers and teachers, plus many more who were not forced to stay because of outstanding debts or slave obligation.68 It is ironic that there was strong opposition to their leaving, since they had continuously been treated like second class outsiders, even-and perhaps most painfully-by the mainstream church. It seems that the colonists protested their departure mainly because of the impending loss of cheap labour. However, as Robin W. Winks states, "None could counter the influence of the [Black's] own religious leaders, all of whom had fallen into line behind Clarkson and his assistants."69

Included on board the ship to Sierra Leone were Thomas Peters, David George (Baptist), Moses Wilkinson (Methodist), John Ball (Methodist), Cato Perkins (Welsh Calvinistic Methodist), Joseph Leonard (Anglican), Boston King (Methodist), and Adam and Catherine Abernathy (Anglican). Bridglal Pachai characterizes them as, "The very people who provided hope and relief to the Black immigrants through the church institutions of the Anglican, Methodist and Baptist denominations."70 In Towards Freedom, Alexander and Glaze state, "Unfortunately, their departure left a leadership vacuum in the fledging Black community which remained. It also fuelled the notion that Blacks were ill-suited to the Canadian climate and the tough realities of frontier life."71 Along with Gordon one cannot help but wonder what might have happened if the Black Loyalists had been treated more fairly in Nova Scotia: "Certainly fewer would have gone to Sierra Leone and the Nova Scotian Black community would not have been weakened. And the Baptist church in the Maritimes, particularly the Black Baptist church, would have become much stronger."72 Instead, faced with the gap between what Nova Scotia promised and what Nova Scotia delivered, they left in hope of finding freedom, equality, and a promised land elsewhere.

Canada West

In 1791, the reformer William Wilberforce introduced a bill to stop the importation of slaves into British colonies. This was the same year that one of his supporters, Colonel John Graves Simcoe, became the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.73 After becoming acquainted with the brutality of slavery still present in Upper Canada, Simcoe began to work ardently for its abolition. Only two years later, in 1793, Simcoe and the slave-holding Chief Justice Osgoode reached a compromise and passed The Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Enforced Servitude, a bill which freed children of slaves after they reached the age of 25, and prevented new settlers from bringing slaves into the province.74 At the turn of the eighteenth century, the Abolitionist movement picked up great momentum and several bills to abolish slavery were introduced but subsequently defeated. Then in 1803, Osgoode, by that time Chief Justice of Lower Canada, ruled that slavery was incompatible with British law. This historic judgment, while it did not abolish slavery, set free 300 slaves and marked the rapid decline of the enslavement of Blacks in Lower Canada.

The decline in slavery was also inevitable in Upper Canada. Hill explains that slaves were not a necessary prop for the economy of eighteenth century Upper Canada: "The Canadian climate with its short agricultural season ruled out crops such as cotton, which required cheap, plentiful labour. Besides it was expensive to keep slaves fed, clothed and housed through a long, unproductive winter."75 While the rights of slave-holding citizens remained intact, many of them began to set their slaves free and join the Abolitionist cause; others simply set their slaves free for economic reasons. While slavery was not completely outlawed in the British Empire until 1833, Canada was now a more secure haven for American refugee slaves seeking freedom.

Prior to the Act of 1793, there was no significant movement of Blacks into Upper Canada, but from that moment on, Black immigration began to increase.76 After the War of 1812, Upper Canada's Attorney General, John Beverly Robinson, declared that residence in Canada made Blacks free and that Canadian courts would therefore uphold that freedom. This gave American soldiers stationed at Fort Malden during the war great incentive and they quickly brought news home of a country that welcomed Blacks.77 By the 1820's, fugitive slaves were trickling into Canada, the first major wave of them coming between 1817 and 1822. Hill relates the results of this first wave:

Before the Middle of the19th century small Black communities were firmly rooted in six areas of Canada West: along the Detroit frontier, that is Windsor, Sandwich, Amerstburg and their environs; in Chatham and its surrounding area, where the all-Black settlements of Dawn and Elgin were established,; in what was then the central section of the province, particularly London, Queen's Bush, Brantford and the Black settlement of Wilberforce (now Lucan) and Fort Erie; in the larger urban centres on Lake Ontario, that is Hamilton and Toronto; at the northern perimeter of Simcoe and Grey counties, especially in Oro, Collingwood and Owen Sound. Besides these centers of Black population, small clusters of Blacks, as well as individual Black families, were settled throughout Canada West.78

The second wave of Black immigration came when the American Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, making escape more dangerous and expensive. This Act brought a dramatic increase to the Black population of Upper Canada: Conservative estimates suggest that 30,000 fugitives may have reached Canada between 1800 and 1860. By the 1860's Blacks were engrossed in the difficult task of setting up and developing new communities throughout Canada West.79

Until the late 1840's, Whites did not find the Black presence in Upper Canada to be a cause of concern: there was lots of work, civil rights were afforded them and they were able to live in peace as law-abiding citizens. However, as their numbers increased-as was the case in Colchester County, where by 1849 they comprised about one-third of the population-Whites became increasing alarmed.80 In her examination of the situation, Dorothy Shadd Shreve shows that a number of Blacks and Whites of that era understood socio-economic concerns to be at least one cause for the growing hostility. Racist policies, such as low wages and denial of access to education (later legislated segregation), quickly developed to keep Blacks 'in their place.'81

The Church

Coincident with these events was the fact that the circumstances of the British North American churches had changed dramatically in the second decade of the nineteenth century. In A Concise History of Christianity in Canada, Murphy and Perlin state, "The War of 1812, combined with a sharp increase in immigration from the British Isles after 1815, resulted in fundamental changes both to the demography and the ideological climate of the colonies."82 The first of these was the growing wedge between the British colonies and the United states, coupled with a growing sense of identity in British North America. The second was the development of a more decisively British character, imported into Canada with the swelling numbers of Scots, Irish, English and Welsh immigrants.83 For the Church, these factors contributed to a strengthened Evangelical movement, which continued to gather momentum through the 1840's, and blossomed in the form of full-scale Evangelical coalitions. Thus the White Protestant Church experienced a surge in growth, cooperation and vitality at the same time more Blacks were coming into the country via the Underground Railroad.

In their discussion of the early response to this influx of destitute refugees, Murphy and Perlin state, "Evangelical Protestants responded to their arrival in typically philanthropic fashion, providing material aid and launching projects to facilitate resettlement."84 The most noteworthy of these ventures was organized by William King near Chatham in 1849. Supported by the Free Church and managed by the Elgin Association (a stock company formed especially for this purpose), the Buxton Mission provided the escaped slaves with land, education and Christian nurture. It was an evangelical venture with religious and educational aspect supported by the Presbyterian church. A very successful brick factory and an excellent gristmill are attributed to the Mission's endeavours.85

Hill states, "As more and more Black refugees entered Canada, British and American missionary organizations saw in the growing fugitive settlements a great opportunity for their work."86 They funded and encouraged the development of Black congregations and while most of these were Methodist or Baptist, the evangelical spirit of cooperation flourished and other denominations such as Presbyterians and Congregationalists, supported the work among them.

But with the establishment of Black congregations, several layers of problems arose. On one hand, the philanthropists rationalized the establishment of White-supervised, all-Black congregations by appealing to "the preference of Blacks for passionate sermons, hymn-singing and other expressions of spiritual religion."87 By using this as an excuse, Shreve observes, "It could be maintained, with a clear conscience, that Blacks were unfavorably disposed towards regular services and should be encouraged to form their own churches."88

By way of example, we may take the case of Elder Browning and William Wilkes. Wilkes, a fugitive slave who came to Amherstburg in 1818 via the Underground Railroad, started preaching and exhorting almost the moment he landed. Wilkes was later able to purchase forty acres of land and build a log meeting house on one corner of the property, where he could share the Gospel with other Blacks who had settled in the area. Hearing of his religious endeavor, a White Baptist deacon from Detroit, Francis F. Browning, decided that Wilkes should be ordained. In 1821, he and two Regular Baptist ministers formed themselves into an Ecclesiastical council and ordained Elder Wilkes to the Gospel Ministry. It was then necessary to re-baptize the entire congregation in order to meet their Regular Baptist requirements; after all was organized, said and done, the congregation became the First Africa Baptist Church.89 This type of relationship seemed helpful for the evangelical cause.

On the other hand, Shreve states, "Before 1840, individual Blacks mingled with Whites at church services. As previously stated, with the large influx of fugitive slaves in the 1840's and 1850's, however, it was obvious that White tolerance of social intercourse with their coloured neighbours, even in the presence of God, was being strained to the limit."90 One should consider that in the early years White Protestants did not find slavery inconsistent with Christianity: The first Church of England minister, the Reverend John Stuart of Kingston, was himself a slave-holder, and in 1793 the baptisms of many slave children were recorded at St. Mark's Anglican Church, Niagara.91 As Murphy and Perlin state, "Increased numbers [of Blacks] combined with the persistence of racist attitudes in white churches, reinforced the trend towards the formation of independent Black congregations."92

As soon as fugitive slaves reached freedom, they immediately assembled for worship.93 Hill asserts, "The earliest and most important institutions in all Black Upper Canadian communities were the churches."94 Since Blacks were only accepted into White churches on very unequal terms and many philanthropic ventures failed due to poor management, corruption or tight reigned paternalism, the trend towards the establishment of separate African Christian denominations and churches continued to develop.95

In Upper Canada, the history of the African Churches began with the formation of Salem chapel in St. Catherines in 1820.96 In 1838, the African Methodist Episcopal Church arrived from the United States. In the late 1830's or early 1840's, Jesse Coleman, a fugitive slave from Baltimore, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and by 1854, had five sister churches in other areas of Upper and Lower Canada.97 Baptist and Methodist churches were predominant. At first, Black-initiated churches in Upper Canada were interracial (Colchester after 1830; Niagara in 1831, and Toronto until 1829 ), but few remained inter-racial past the 1840's.98 In describing the Black churches that sprang up in the settlements, Shreve states:

The cornerstones of their communities were the religious institutions, which ministered to their spiritual needs, performed social and educational functions and supplied most of the administrators. Religion, indeed, was fundamental to the Black experience: in slavery, it was the only consolation; in freedom, it inspired exultation and gratitude. When they were denied full participation in the regular churches, they were prepared to follow a separate path to Christian salvation.99

An excellent example of this 'separate path' is the Amherstburg Regular Baptist Association, founded in October of 1841. Originally, Canadian Baptist transcongregational polity found its expression in an associational pattern which was derived from a model established by their British and American counterparts. By the 1820's, all of the Baptist churches in Upper and Canada West were associated for practical rather than theological reasons, the general purpose being the edification and comfort of associated Baptist churches.100 According to Dr. Eugene M. Thompson, early associations, while non-legislative, were called upon to give guidance and definite settlement over a variety of topics, including church polity, discipline, and political as well as social concerns.101 Black churches, while included in association, felt marginalized by association policies and decisions that seemed to ignore rather than edify or comfort the needs and concerns of the Black church. The first paragraph of the summons issued by Second Baptist Church of Detroit to the coloured Baptist churches of Canada West is helpful for understanding their perceptions:

Believing that the time is now come that we should form ourselves into an Association because we cannot enjoy the privileges we wish as Christians with the white churches in Canada: centuries having rolled along since our fathers were organized as a church; and believing that many of our fathers have gone down to the grave not enjoying their privileges and rights in the Christian churches among the whites, we invite all the Christian churches of the same faith and order to unite with us in the great Celestial cause.102

Hill states that the goals of the Association were "to promote unity among Black Baptists, to exchange ideas and to meet the religious needs of Blacks that had been neglected by the white churches of the area."103 Over the next years this Association drew up their Constitution, Rules of Order, Articles of Faith, and Covenant; elected a moderator and a treasurer; established travelling missionaries to support smaller Baptist churches and scattered settlements; advised their churches on matters such as the institution of temperance meetings, Sundays Schools and Bible classes; raised funds, and passed Bylaws.104 By 1861 the Association had grown from the original 47 members to 1,060.

The Association, however, also experienced much difficulty. Just as the Nova Scotians were opposed when they sought to leave the hardships of life in Canada, despite not having been embraced by White congregations, so likewise paternalistic White Church leaders were offended by the seeming haughtiness of the refugees who ventured out on their own. Accordingly, states Shreve, the formation of an independent association at Amherstburg in 1841 was a matter of grave offense to the Long Point Baptist Association of Canada West, which passed a resolution in 1843 to the effect that 'an Association lately formed in the Western District composed of African churches, is not recognized as being in fellowship."105

After much hostility and maneuvering around the issues, the two Associations resolved their differences, although the Amherstberg group was shaken by much internal division in the process.

In order to be faithful to the ethos of the Black Church, I want to interpret the Black Church experience in Canadian history from an Afrocentric perspective. Accordingly, the Biblical themes and motifs of Egypt, of Exodus and Diaspora, and of the Promised Land, prove particularly relevant.


What does Egypt mean from an Afrocentric perspective? In the context of this historical survey it means enslavement and captivity. As the only group of people who were kidnapped to North America and other European Colonies in order to be used for menial labour, most of the first Blacks in Canada experienced a status far below that of indentured laborer or servant, (the lot of other immigrants such as Chinese and the Irish). The Black experience in New France is particularly relevant to this theme. It is ironic that historians describe Roman Catholic influenced slavery as the most 'humane', yet clearly no significant Black Church movement in Canada rose out of the "humane and familial" traits of that slave-holding system. The Black Catholic Churches I know of are fairly new to Canadian society (Haitian; African and West Indian), and are a direct result of immigration in the twentieth Century. It would be a valid and useful pursuit to investigate the experience of the people in these congregations, to discover if their reasons for homogeneity are based on experiences of racism and classism (and sexism ), or whether other factors are at work. Another area of enquiry springs from the fact that African-derived syncretic religions such as the 'Voodoo' of Haiti, are found in almost every Black country in which Roman Catholicism was the colonizing European religion.106 It is fairly common knowledge in the Black Church that Haitian-derived Voodoo is practiced by some "Catholics" in Montreal. Frances Henry states, "It is only a matter of time until these religious movements are initiated with the migrant community in Toronto."107 In developing this body of historical and social understanding as we approach the next century, the Black Christian historian must continue to explore the motif of "Egypt" in order to call to account, empower and facilitate the mission of the Church as a whole.

Exodus and Diaspora

In Canadian Black Church Experience, these two themes are closely related. The sense of leaving to go somewhere else, and yet never truly being at home, weaves in and out of the historical experience of Blacks in Canada. Because the conditions in which we live are structured within powerful relationships and institutions, no people-group is solely responsible for the conditions in which they live: The racism and classism which polluted the experience of the Black Loyalist in Nova Scotia were deep-seated and directly connected to the dissatisfaction of the White Loyalists. In pulling away from "parent-churches" in order to meet the needs of their own people, the Nova Scotian Blacks sought to disentangle themselves from such structural oppression and thereby find the power to live out their call as God's people. Yet the Canadian Church as a whole lost a valuable, God-given resource when most of the great Christian leaders left for Sierra Leone. Indeed the Sierra Leone exodus of Blacks is only one of many: after the abolition of slavery in America, a number of Blacks returned "home" to the United States, having experienced life in Canada and concluded that they could achieve more in the United States. In their 1993 study, "The Black Family in Canada: A Preliminary Exploration of Family Patterns and Inequality," Christensen and Weinfeld state, "It is important to note that despite the high percentage of foreign born Blacks, slavery and its accompanying racist mythologies have also played important roles in the unfolding condition of Canadian Blacks."108

Taking these factors into consideration, a quick overview of the current growth of all-Black churches in Canada (as well as those of many other ethnic groups), should force us to ask some difficult questions. Are people of colour once again experiencing the exclusionary attitudes and practices encountered when Blacks first attempted to join mainstream Churches in the early days of our common history? Or are other factors at work? Do people of colour truly feel welcomed and embraced, or are they simply passing time in our Churches, waiting for a real home? As we seek to live out God's will in this nation, the Black Church historian must point out the signpost from the past along the way.

The Promised Land

There are three main groups of Blacks in Canada: those who are indigenous to Canada, having lived here for several generations; those who have immigrated from the Caribbean; and those who have immigrated from Africa. At one time or another, historically, all three of these groups have understood Canada as the "promised land." The role of the Black Christian historian will be to document both, the realization and failure of this motif in order to expose its potential as gift and/or idolatry. Ultimately, since the history of the Black Church shows that it had to separate from the mainstream in order to afford its members the full participation, lay empowerment, leadership development and spiritual dignity essential to those who unite together as the body of Christ, it should lead the way from within itself , first battling its own "isms", so it can help lead all churches to the true "Promised Land" which is found only in union with Christ.

Up Footnotes Responses Denise Gillard