Canadians often contrast their secular ways with the strange religious enthusiasms that haunt public life in the United States. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the shoe was on the other foot. Statesmen here routinely contrasted our God-fearing culture and schools with America’s separation of church and state, which had let unbelief and immorality run riot. They were right to consider the open profession of atheism or even free thought rare in Canada. The 1,157 Quebecers who declared themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, or people of no religion in the 1921 census could have fit onto a single train or ocean liner. Yet the historian Elliot Hanowski argues that the struggle of tiny bands of the faithless to gain a hearing or just toleration for their opinions in the interwar years should instruct and perhaps inspire us today. Towards a Godless Dominion, his diligent and heartfelt study of freethinking activists from Vancouver to Nova Scotia, relates how they bravely maintained a critique of religion that has since become conventional.
Organized free thought was long a marginal and idiosyncratic enterprise. It depended on charismatic or at least dedicated individuals who attracted personal followings with regular lectures. By the 1920s, trooping to a drafty hall to hear a middle-aged man preach — whether for or against God — was already becoming a fusty pursuit. The members of rationalist societies skewed old as a result. The records of the Winnipeg Rationalist Society show that they tended to be the same type of people who made good Baptists or Methodists: modestly well off artisans or small shopkeepers who liked to think for themselves because they worked for themselves.
Their champions had feet of clay. Ernest Sterry, the leader of the Rationalist Society of Canada, was a restless Englishman who had failed as a Protestant missionary to the Maori before pitching up in Toronto. By the time he was tried for blasphemous libel, Sterry had already been imprisoned for embezzlement, and his supporters had to raise money with the sheepish cry “We Are Defending the Principle — not the Man.” The leaders of free thought in Quebec were no less erratic. After being jailed for blasphemy, Gaston Pilon sensationally converted to Roman Catholicism. Once freed, he embarrassed his new friends with his vehement denunciations of the Church’s enemies.
The case these odd birds advanced against God was thoroughly derivative. The freethinking cause had long relied on importing books and speakers from Britain and especially the United States, including those by the celebrated Robert G. Ingersoll. That only boosted the charge that enmity to religion was a foreign menace. When Canadian freethinkers spoke and wrote in their own right, they often recycled well-trod arguments. They certainly capitalized on the publicity generated by the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial to invoke the evidence of the natural sciences against the existence of God. But the freethinker Thomas Paine, who died in 1809, would also have recognized their irreverent yet fervent sallies against the inconsistencies of the Scriptures and the evils of priestcraft. In the pamphlet that got him jailed, Sterry called the God of the Jews an “irate Old Party” who hankered after “roast cutlets.” In Montreal, Pilon regaled his listeners with the salacious tale of Pope Joan.
The punishment such rhetoric attracted had less to do with what was said than how it was said and to whom. The law on blasphemous libel did not penalize unbelief as such — only its offensive utterance or publication. Sterry was doomed by the perception that he had published a “propagandist sheet” for working people. It was the dread of mass popular alienation from religion that made it plausible to term his jocose scribblings a “death blow” aimed at the Canadian state. Doubters with better credentials did not need to fear the law. In 1928, for example, a professor at the University of Toronto got away with pointedly calling the God of the Old Testament an “unscrupulous liar” in the Star. Although there was a brief panic in these years about atheism on campus, the open discussion of unbelief among the wealthy and educated was almost by definition never a police matter. “What is merely choleric in the Colonel,” wrote one journalist of Sterry’s trial, “is blasphemous in the private.”
Freethinking was therefore a social spectre rather than a theological problem, though it was less politically progressive than we might think. The relationship between rationalist groupuscules and the radical left was close but complicated. For most of Hanowski’s agitators, the war against God was just one campaign in the larger crusade against social injustice. In Quebec, the Association humanitaire gave a radical edge to its denunciations by combatting the Catholic Church’s monopoly over the provision of welfare. Some of Hanowski’s speakers graduated from the lecture halls to become professional politicians for a range of socialist parties. Yet religious conservatives were wrong to allege that militant atheism and Communism were mutually reinforcing. Canada’s Communists tended to regard freethinkers as nuisances who got in the way of the more pressing task of organizing workers for revolution. Their activities were not just distracting but counterproductive in a province like Quebec, where Catholicism remained integral to ethnic identities.
Some freethinkers reciprocated the radical left’s suspicions. In Manitoba, Marshall Gauvin’s enthusiasm for liberal economics quickly soured his relationship with the One Big Union, which had initially supported the Winnipeg Rationalist Society. In 1939, his denunciation of the Soviet Union, for signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, completed the estrangement. Gauvin’s audience was largely limited to white British immigrants; his humanism did not attract Black or Asian audiences. That’s hardly surprising, given that he was prone to praising the Ku Klux Klan’s role in damping down the “black menace” in the American South.
Free thought could trigger a reaction out of proportion to the danger it posed. Hanowski’s discussion of this phenomenon illustrates the harsh grip that godly elites retained on Canadian society even after the shock of the First World War. In Toronto, the Canadian Christian Crusade assembled in 1928 to take on “Bolshevism, communism and atheism.” Its members were old Tory fossils: its treasurer, Henry O’Brien, was ninety-four and had taken part in beating back the Fenian raids, for instance. But they had connections. One member was the judge who presided over Sterry’s trial and had appointed Dennis Draper as chief constable of the Toronto police. A “small-town Mussolini,” Draper shut down the gatherings of unbelievers that offended respectables on grounds of public order. Christian Crusaders also enlisted William Gladstone Jaffray, the publisher of the Globe, which added unbelief to the evils threatening the city (along with drink, horse racing, and “movie gossip”).
Police harassment in Toronto the Good was one thing; the harsh vigilantism of Catholic Quebec was quite another. Initially, Catholic students harried rationalist meetings, but by the early ’30s, far-right groups had taken up this task. Albert Saint-Martin, the leader of the anti clerical Université ouvrière, was set upon in the streets of Montreal and hospitalized before he could stand trial on a blasphemy charge. Only in the settler societies of Western Canada, where congregations had never clustered as thickly and whiteness often seemed a more important social signifier than Christianity, could freethinkers operate more or less as they liked. Clerics there were still hostile to overt atheism — one Vancouver minister said the non-believer was “lower in the social scale than the bootlegger, the dope peddler, or the white slaver”— but they could do little to stop it. Intellectual unbelief did not seem much of an issue when “practical” unbelief was already so widespread in a relatively unchurched population.
Hanowski understands unbelief is not a timeless thing, a smouldering torch passed on from generation to generation until it can finally flare into bright life. Interwar free thought was both generated and curbed by the inequities and frustrations of Canadian life at that time. He is nonetheless tempted to praise his agitating subjects for preserving “skeptical ideas.” But the secularization of Canada since the ’60s, especially of clerical Quebec, and the spread of religious indifference owe more to later social and political transformations than to the warmed-over Victorian rationalism for which these men and women fought.
Towards a Godless Dominion reminds us that repression works. The enemies of free thought did not need to engage in a battle of ideas. If they sometimes condescended to debate their adversaries in public, they generally found it easier to lambaste them in a tame press, to set the police or the law on them, or even to cow them with violence. In this sense, Sterry’s martyrdom retains its warning potential. In 2018, blasphemy finally disappeared from the Canadian Criminal Code. But the decriminalization of free thought is hardly the same as freedom of thought. Elites remain as ready and able as ever to stifle the kinds of speech that they find threatening. It takes courage or at least eccentricity to resist them.
Michael Ledger-Lomas is a historian of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a visiting fellow at King’s College, London.