Canadian Denominational Background Presbyterian, Reformed, Society of Friends, Methodist, Evangelical, United Brethren in Christ (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records  by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Presbyterian[edit | edit source]

Presbyterianism is the National Church of Scotland; it derives from a term indicating the governance of the church by pastors and elders in a collegiate fashion. There were also Presbyterian churches in Germany, for instance, but the term in ordinary usage is associated with the Scottish church. It grew out of the teachings of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and was greatly affected by the personality of John Knox in Scotland itself.

Beginning in the late 18th century there were great convulsions within the Church of Scotland which came to a head in the early 1840s when it was rent in twain, the seceders forming the Free Church of Scotland (or Free Kirk). In the decades which followed there were other divisions.

These quarrels were keenly felt in Canada and Scottish settlements usually had both a Church of Scotland Kirk and a Free Church. As other divisions occurred they might have had third or fourth churches also, perhaps bearing allegiance to groups such as the American Presbyterian union, or being independent. The various terms used in the census indicate these differing views, the most common being Church of Scotland, Free Church, Canada Presbyterian, American Presbyterian, United Presbyterian. The term ‘Irish Presbyterian’ indicates someone probably Scots-Irish and from Ulster.

Gradually these groups melded together once more, eventually forming a national church in Canada in 1875, called the Presbyterian Church of Canada. About two-thirds of the Presbyterian churches joined with the Methodists and others in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada; those that remained outside the union are known as the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

For those looking for a denominational history, there are several possibilities:

  • Enduring Witness: a history of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, by John S. Moir (1974)
  • A Short History of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, by Neil G. Smith, Allan L. Farris and H. Keith Markell (1966)
  • Yet Not Consumed: a short account of the history and antecedents of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, by Stuart C. Parker (1946)

For those looking for a pre-union history:

  • Short History of the Presbyterian Church in the Dominion of Canada, from the earliest to the present time, by William Gregg (1892).[1]

Researchers do not need to follow the tangled nature of the theological quarrels of the 1840s unless they wish to, but they should remember that these differences affected all Presbyterians in the country somehow, and many people may have changed their church membership from Church of Scotland to Free Church or an independent body, and back again, throughout this period. Searching for relations in Presbyterian records in mid-19th century should mean looking in all the possible registers.

Registers from churches in the Presbyterian Church in Canada may be at the church or at their denominational archives; the archives is a good place to start as they can advise on where to go.

Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives and Record Office
50 Wynford Drive
Toronto, Ontario M3C 1J7
Telephone: (416) 441-1111 or toll-free at 1-800-619-7301
Their website has a button on the homepage for genealogists.

Churches which became United may have their registers at the church or at a suitable church archives; see below under United Church Archives. Many congregations split in 1925, some members going to the United Church and some remaining Presbyterian. The records for these churches, and Presbyterian records from earlier days, may be at the United Church or Presbyterian archives. If they are not at one, ask at the other.

Reformed[edit | edit source]

‘Reformed’ is a generic term referring to churches who were part of the Reformation movement; however, in our sense here they refer to denominations who were called Reformed. These included German churches and, most significantly, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

The German Reformed churches had close ties with the Lutherans and in many places the church is called the ‘Lutheran and Reformed Church.’ Some early Reformed missionaries in Canada founded Lutheran churches and the differences between them did not affect the Canadian church very much. The Reformed Church in America was founded in the Dutch settlements which became New York, and there were Reformed denominations in the Netherlands itself. They did not have a significant impact in Canada until the immigration of numbers of Dutch in the 20th century.

Quakers (Society of Friends)[edit | edit source]

This group rose in the north of England in the mid-17th century, and marked a departure from usual Christian thought. They had no sacraments or clergy, but looked to each lay person to listen within themselves for the voice of God.

Although they suffered the usual persecution initially, the group was accorded some respect by the British government and, although relatively few in number, they were able to continue the practice of their religion. When one of their number, William Penn, founded a new colony in America, he brought many of their practices there.

Canadian Quakers are relatively well documented, largely because of the Canadian Friends Historical Association. Their archives are at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario.

An out-of-date listing for the college can be found in Edward Phelps’ Inventory of the Archives of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Canada, (1973).

Methodist[edit | edit source]

Methodism was an outgrowth of 18th century Anglicanism. It grew from the teachings and activities of John and Charles Wesley and was a strongly evangelical movement at a time when the Church of England itself was in a somewhat moribund state. It was not the Wesleys’ original intention to form a new denomination but by the 1790s there was no doubt it was one. The Church of England’s attitude continued to be largely hostile to it throughout the nineteenth century, as can be witnessed by one Canadian immigrant’s story that their English landlord had insisted that the family’s children should attend the Church of England Sunday School, not the Methodist one. This was in the 1860s. The parents of the family were strongly Methodist and resisted, and the landlord’s reaction was a contributing factor to their emigration.

The opening of the new land provided the Methodists with opportunities for their evangelism which they grasped eagerly. In the 1830s and 1840s they consciously decided to send as many missionaries as possible to Canada, with the hope of converting the pioneers to their views, and establishing churches in advance of the Church of England. Having won the settlers’ allegiance, they foresaw considerable growth for their movement.

This foresight changed the face of Canadian religion, for there were many Methodist churches to choose from at a time when settlers had to make do with what was available. Many families who had been Church of England in the old country effortlessly changed to Methodist in Canada. The result was that the Methodist church was large and, when the various amalgamations of the 20th century occurred, became the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

In addition, evangelism in the form of camp meetings and revivals was both important and a staple of popular culture. The Methodists were very strong in this area and this also added to their numbers and influence. A useful glimpse of the nature of a camp meeting can be seen in Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings and a scholarly account of evangelism in the chapter “Mass Evangelism before 1860,” in Neil Semple’s The Lord’s Dominion (1996). The nineteenth century was a time of religious controversy, however, and the Methodists suffered their own share of schisms. Various groups broke off from the central stem, which was eventually known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church.

The Bible Christians, Primitive Methodists, New Connexion Methodists and Methodist Episcopal Church all had their adherents, and at times a great many churches, often small and far from financially viable.[2]

As with the Scottish churches, the differences in England were imported to Canada. As an example, the Bible Christians were founded by William O’Bryan, a Wesleyan minister expelled by the Methodists in 1810. His central area of power, in north Devon and Cornwall, provided a great many immigrants who settled in Huron and Durham counties in Ontario. In both these areas the Bible Christians had considerable influence until they began to dwindle after 1870. One difficulty with Bible Christians is that they often appear in the census as ‘Christian’, a term which might lead us to think they are Disciples.

Throughout the third quarter of the century, these various groups began to rejoin the Wesleyans until 1884, when there was once more only one group, the Methodist Church of Canada. A helpful flowchart showing this series of unions has been produced by the United Church and has been published in several places. The most accessible now is in the Guide to family history research in the archival repositories of the United Church of Canada where it forms the central page.

In 1925 the Methodists joined the Congregationalists and most of the Presbyterians to form the United Church of Canada. Later the Evangelical United Brethren would join them also.

The definitive history of Methodism in Canada is Neil Semple’s The Lord’s Dominion (1996), mentioned earlier.

A few Methodist churches did not join the United Church; they are known as The Free Methodist Church in Canada. Website

Evangelical[edit | edit source]

Although many churches were ‘evangelical’ in nature and perhaps also in name, the use of this epithet in the form ‘Evangelical Association’ and ‘Evangelical Union’ as we see in the census, refers to the work of Jacob Albright, an revivalist in Pennsylvania who founded the union in 1807. His work was largely among Pennsylvania Germans and their Methodist ideas and structures led to these groups sometimes being referred to as ‘German Methodists’ (but see under Brethren below). From the 1830s the group held revivals in Canada.

In 1863 the established churches in Ontario withdrew from their American association and formed their own. They continued to evangelize on the frontiers of Canada. In 1946 the association united with the United Brethren in Christ (the US group) to form the Evangelical United Brethren. Most of the Canadian EUB churches joined the United Church of Canada in 1968, at the time when the American part of their group joined the United Methodist Church in the USA.

The history of the group, A Century in Canada: the Canada conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (1964), contains photos and brief histories of all the EUB churches at that time.

Records of these churches should be sought at the church concerned or at the United Church Archives. Records of the Evangelical Association itself, and its mission activities, are said to be at Zion United Church in Kitchener, considered the ‘mother church’ of the Evangelical Association in Canada. However, their records are not well organized and it is difficult to tell exactly what is there.

United Brethren in Christ[edit | edit source]

This American group, founded in 1789 by Philip William Otterbein, had a Canadian counterpart. The congregations were very independent and their record-keeping was often haphazard.

The group joined with the Congregationalists in 1907, and thus with the United Church in 1925. Some independent congregations may still be found.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. His earlier History of the Presbyterian Church in the Dominion of Canada: from the earliest times to 1824 (1885) is extensively available but does not cover the period of the schisms which will be important for most researchers in this area.
  2. As an example, in the 1870s the township of Peel, in Wellington County, Ontario, had more Methodist churches than there were concessions in the township: at least one church for every road. Most of them were very small, little more than one-room log cabins with a tiny congregation and no resident clergyman. Many of them were part of a Primitive Methodist circuit based in Drayton. Almost all of them disappeared within a few years and left few records behind; the only notice of some of them may be in mission reports in the yearbooks of the various associations.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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