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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 ($).
Denominations in Canada
The following concentrates on the denominations in nineteenth century Canada, which is currently the period of greatest genealogical interest and also the time of greatest denominational diversity. In the twentieth century, a number of the prominent nineteenth century denominations either banded together or dwindled in size. While there has been growth in other denominations (for example, the Pentecostals, which scarcely existed in the previous century), twentieth century genealogy is different in regard to church records, both in their general importance (or necessity) in research and in the difficulty of finding and determining which records to use.
To give some idea of the scope of denominations in the nineteenth century, let’s examine the list of named religions from the 1871 census of Ontario. This is a good choice because the 1871 census for Ontario has been indexed, Ontario provides a populous and varied example, and the denominations in the census have been codified at the time of indexing.
The Ontario Genealogical Society and the Library and Archives Canada, who jointly produced the 1871 index, provided the following groups with religion codes for the index (i.e., indicating them to be sufficiently numerous to notice) but also provided catch-all codes for ‘other Baptist’, ‘other Methodist’, ‘other Presbyterian’ and, tantalisingly, ‘strange references.’
- African Association Baptist
- American Presbyterian
- Bible Believer
- Bible Christian
- British Episcopal Methodist
- Christian Brethren
- Christian Conference Baptist
- Church of England (Anglican)
- Church of Ireland
- Calvinistic Methodist
- Canada Presbyterian
- Church of Scotland/Kirk/Scotch Presbyterian
- Church of Christ
- Disciple of Christ
- Evangelical Association
- Episcopal Methodist/Methodist Episcopal
- Evangelical Union
- Free Kirk/Free Presbyterian
- Free Thinker (of England)
- Free Will Baptist/Free Christian
- Regular Baptist
- I. Meth. E.
- Irish Presbyterian
- Irvingite/Catholic Apostolic
- J. Meth. E.
- Close Communion Baptist
- Latter-day Saints
- Lutheran/Evangelical Lutheran
- I. Meth. C.
- Meth. I.
- New Connexion Methodist
- N. Presbyterian
- Plymouth Brethren
- Est. Presb.
- Primitive Methodist
- Quaker/Society of Friends
- Reformed Baptist
- Roman Catholic
- Reformed Presbyterian
- Seventh Day Adventist
- Swedenborgian/New Jerusalem
- United Brethren
- Union Baptist
- United Presbyterian/United Kirk Presbyterian
- Evangelical Methodist
- Wesleyan Methodist
- W. Presbyterian
- C. C. Baptist
At first glance, this seems like a very long list of varied religions, but in fact it can be quickly reduced to an assortment of groups:
African Association Baptists, Baptist, Christian Conference Baptist, Free Will Baptist, Regular Baptist, Close Communion Baptist, Reformed Baptist, Union Baptist, C.C. Baptist. This last designation may have been created by the indexers because it is impossible to tell whether the census taker meant Christian Conference or Close Communion.
Bible Christian, British Episcopal Methodist, Calvinistic Methodist, Christian (this may also mean Church of Christ Disciples), Episcopal Methodist, I. Meth. E., J. Meth. E., I. Meth. C., Methodist, Meth. I., New Connexion Methodist, Primitive Methodist, R. Methodist, Evangelical Methodist, Wesleyan Methodist.
American Presbyterian, Canada Presbyterian, Irish Presbyterian, Irvingites, N. Presbyterian, Est. Presb., Presbyterian, Reformed Presbyterian, United Presbyterian, W. Presbyterian, Free Kirk, Church of Scotland.
Church of England, Church of Ireland, Episcopalian, English Church.
Church of Christ, Christian, Disciples.
Evangelical Association, Evangelical Union, Evangelical (this last may refer to some other theological idea).
Atheist, Deist, Infidel, Jew, Mahometan, Pagan, Spiritualist, Unitarian, Universalist.
Meaningless indications of adherence to Christianity without denominational loyalty: Independent, Bible Believer, Puritan. As if to put the lie to a statement made in Module 1, some people have in fact called themselves ‘Protestant’; this small minority really do have no religion beyond the merely nominal and will almost certainly be found in no church record.
It is worth repeating that many people who have called themselves Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans may not be regular church attenders but still adhered to the beliefs of those groups, and more importantly, to their practices. They may well be found in church records of that group. Some others have two entries under their synonymous names (Latter-day Saints, Mormons). Taken all together, we can reduce the 75 names on the list to 25 or so general religious groupings.
Locations of Some Groups
Many of the smaller groups may be found concentrated in certain areas, as for example, the Moravians in southwestern Ontario. In other cases, some of the larger denominations will predominate in certain provinces or parts of Canada. Thus, of course, we find that Québec is almost overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and there are many more Baptists in early New Brunswick and Nova Scotia than in Ontario. This is a reflection of the missionary activity of certain churches in some areas, or the settlement patterns of certain ethnic groups. This will be discussed in greater detail in the denominational sections below.
Record Keeping Standards
Perhaps at this point we can digress for a moment with some observations about the standards of record keeping in various denominations. In North American religions, the more episcopal the denomination, the better the records, and the more evangelical, the worse the records from a genealogical point of view. This means you will find more Roman Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran records and less in the case of Baptists and Methodists. This is probably because, in the evangelical churches, each congregation runs itself, while the episcopal churches are answerable to a higher authority, the Bishop. The Bishop will expect certain records to be kept, may inspect them or require copies to be made. Also, the episcopal churches have longtime ties with European churches where record keeping is centuries old. The American churches with strong English ties, such as the New England Congregationalists, who had such an effect in Atlantic Canada, have better records, as they brought the habit with them from the old country.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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