A Short Interview with Professor Phyllis D. Airhart

Phyllis D. Airhart is Professor of the History of Christianity at Emmanuel College. Her interests include North American Christianity, religion and public life, and the history of spirituality. She is a past recipient of Victoria University’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and the United Church of Canada’s Davidson Trust Award for excellence in teaching and scholarship in theological education. Her most recent book, A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada, was the winner of the 2016 book prize from the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion. We thank Professor Airhart for taking the time out of her schedule to discuss her upcoming article in the March issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, “The Accidental Modernists: American Fundamentalism and the Canadian Controversy over Church Union.”

How did you come across the topic of your article?
I suppose it all started with J. Gresham Machen. I first came across his name as the author of a textbook for a New Testament Greek class that I took as an undergraduate more years ago than I care to admit. I had no idea then that he had been such a provocative figure until I learned as a graduate student about his role in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. The Canadian connection came up in a chance conversation with George Marsden at a consultation where I was presenting a paper (again many years ago!). My recollection is that when he learned I had grown up in New Brunswick, he remarked that his father had served as a “missionary” there. Perhaps seeing my puzzlement over somebody being a missionary to Canada, he explained that his father had been a student at Westminster Theological Seminary, and was encouraged to serve in Canada for a few years because of a shortage of Presbyterian ministers after church union. As I worked on A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada, I occasionally noticed Machen’s name in Canadian sources on issues related to the controversy over church union—including mention of his efforts to recruit ministers for the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

What inspired you to write this article?
The research question that intrigued me was how the Canadian Methodists that I had written about my first book, Serving the Present Age: Revivalism, Progressivism, and the Methodist Tradition in Canada, so suddenly became reviled as modernists and worse during the church union controversy. I was surprised to come across the word “apostate” in correspondence and materials published towards the end of debate. A serendipitous research moment came when I was looking through Machen’s book on Christianity and Liberalism for something else connected to the controversy, and noticed that word “apostate”; I realized that the anti-unionists were using the same typology. A Church with the Soul of a Nation wasn’t the place to tease out cross-border connections, which proved to be more extensive that I had expected.

Is there a particular source you came across during the course of your research that you would like to share with us?
One of my favourite sources is Machen’s “The Gospel and the Modern World” (cited in footnote 30). I was stunned to realize that “the region of Maine” that he was referring to is in fact Acadia National Park, where my husband and I have been vacationing for several years. We have fallen in love with its “dreary” trails and carriage roads!

Where did research for this article take you (archives, cities, etc.)?
Alas the article did not take me far beyond Toronto. Most of the material came from the archives of either the Presbyterian Church in Canada or the United Church of Canada and the libraries on the University of Toronto campus. I also “visited” the PCA Historical Archives online.

Is there anything else about this article and the process through which you wrote it that you would like to share?
There is much jocularity at the moment about “alternative facts.” What fascinates me as a historian is “alternative myths” about the past—in this case how there are at least two stories of church union, depending who is doing the telling. I teach at Emmanuel College, a theological school that is related to the United Church of Canada. Every other year I team teach a course called “Calvin, Wesley, and Canada” with Stuart Macdonald, who teaches at Knox College. I am struck by the differences in the assumptions that students from the two colleges bring with them about what happened in 1925. For instance, I still hear Presbyterian students say that the United Church was “created by a Act of Parliament” and that it is a “creedless” church. For their part, the United Church students are grateful for that phrase “essential agreement” when asked about the theological articles in the Basis of Union.

Abstract of “The Accidental Modernists: American Fundamentalism and the Canadian Controversy over Church Union”
This article looks at confessional family resemblances between the fundamentalist controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the church union controversy in Canada. These resemblances have been obscured by focusing on the doctrinal dimensions of the former and the socio-institutional features of the latter. The role of the prominent American fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen in the transformation of Canadian unionists into modernists sheds light on the underlying tensions that sparked the two controversies, as well as the distinctive dynamics of the resistance to church union that shaped the confessional identity of both the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada after 1925.

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