The Rise and Fall of

Canada’s Labor Churches

Tara Ingrid Ludmer

March 21, 2000

Industrial Relations in Canada


Allen describes the social gospel in Canada as a "complex of ideas and hopes which lay at the heart of reform," whether it was acknowledged or not (1). This reform came in many forms, even, or especially, within the religious world. This paper will examine a frontier where a conscious merging of the social gospel and the political was attempted: the labor church.

By 1918, Canada’s Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches had responded to the call of the social Gospel, not only through public works, but also explicitly through the creation of boards and committees and the like. Nevertheless, among a certain group of religious leaders, the response of the institutionalized churches was not adequate. A small group of reformers would be primarily responsible for the birth of the labor churches in Canada.

J.S. Woodsworth was a Methodist minister. Before the war he had been involved in the settlement movement, especially in North Winnipeg. He was a pacifist who spoke openly against Canada’s involvement in World War I. When he made a public protest against the government’s labor registration plan, it proceeded to abolish the Canadian Welfare League, of which he had been secretary. He spoke for reforms such as minimum wage, and advocated public ownership. Eventually he felt he could no longer remain part of the Methodist Church. He felt that the church’s support of the government’s registration plan was a "rejection and repudiation of… the way of Jesus." In addition he felt that within the "institutional and increasingly commercialized " church, he lacked the freedom to promote the goals near to his heart, "a radical programme of social reform (49)." He resigned from the ministry, for the second time, in 1918, but resolved to continue "the work of bringing in the Kingdom" (49).

The same year that J.S. Woodsworth resigned for the final time, William Ivens’ church in Winnipeg requested that he not be returned as their pastor. He was committed to the goals of the social gospel, and had come to the McDougall Methodist church "in hopes of exercising a specialized ministry to working people"(50). If the church did not lead in the battle against American capitalism, she "will have lost the opportunity of the century" (51). Like Woodsworth, he was a pacifist, and in response to the government’s registration plan, his views and his connection with organized labor became more radical. As a conscientious objector, he was outside the law, and some members of his congregation desired that he not return. The Methodist board offered to reassign Ivens, but he refused and requested a year without station in order to establish a labor church, which was granted him.

J.S. Woodsworth, William Ivens, and A.E. Smith were all part of the Methodist church, the most progressive of all the denominations. Smith was even the president of the Manitoba Conference. In fact, according to Allen, "Methodism became one of the prime providers of leadership for progressive and radical reform (16)." Perhaps one of the risks of being on the cutting edge is that some may fall over it, at least from the point of view of the institution.

Ivens founded his Labor church in Winnipeg in June of 1918. The next few years would be the hey-day of the Canadian Labor church, which were founded in the light of the Labor churches of England in 1890. According to Allen, Iven’s church "symbolized best what the radicals believed themselves to be about" (81).

The Labor church meant to confront the problem of alienation between the church and the working classes. Charles Stetzle maintained that in order for her to "permanently retain its hold upon the working men," the Church (institutionalized Christianity in general) must face several challenges. When the workingman sees "the very men who have betrayed him in political and economic life… [being] prominent in the work of the Church," it is another betrayal. "The workingman must find in the Church an absolute sincerity." Secondly, "the Church must preach a clearer social message." Simply preaching "hell-fire" to people for whom every day life approaches hell is useless – "what they want to know is how to get out of the hell which they know most about" (Social 38). Labor churches, with the conviction that they "had a peculiar insight into the implications of primitive Christianity," and their strong identification with the labor movement, felt up to this task (82).

Several other conditions prepared the soil for the creation of Iven’s labor church. Already in 1910, Woodsworth had established people’s forums, which featured a "blend of education, religion, and entertainment" (83). The Reverend Westwood, minister of Winnipeg’s First Unitarian Church, had for many years been a strong supporter of labor’s role in religion. Many members of his congregation would join Iven’s Labor church. In 1916, a socialist Sunday School had been created in Winnipeg, "to impart the idealistic and religious conception of our noble cause… that the kingdom of love and happiness must be set up here on this earth, based on just social and economic conditions" (83).

Iven’s last sermon at McDougall church also served in a way as a proclamation for his new ministry. He argued that the Church could not be Christian without the working people (84). That Christianity had outgrown the institutionalized church was in spirit with Jesus Christ, who was essentially heterodox – "always putting aside old ways and thoughts" (84). In this spirit, the first members of the Church signed statements declaring their support of the "independent and creedless [sic] Church based on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Its aim shall be the establishment of justice and righteousness among men of all nations" (84).

By October the popularity of Iven’s church necessitated its move to a new and larger space. Marks of its distinction included the practice of donating much of its collections to labor causes. In addition, the church had an open pulpit. Although Ivens preached most often, it was an open forum for any member, and also entertained guest preachers such as Salem Bland and William Irvine. The open pulpit was an essential part of the democracy of the Church that Ivens cherished. The church must be flexible and open in order to maintain the heterodoxy that Ivens identified in Jesus Christ. The symbol of the church was an open bible. The most common themes for sermons were social in nature. For example: the "League of Nations, the Immorality of the Profit System and the Resurrection of Democracy.

The pitfalls in Iven’s program were already clear. The principle of the open pulpit lends itself to abuse and makes a church vulnerable to the public eye. The commitment to continual heterodoxy is also a commitment to no continuity, which is the bedrock of social institutions. To be without a creed is indeed democratic, but if members cannot unite around common traditions or a common belief, there is little to be united about. As on option, adversity comes to mind – and fate would provide.

In April of 1919, the church planned its near future, but it didn’t plan for the Winnipeg General Strike. Ivens himself wore many hats; he was editor of the Western Labor News, including the daily Special Strike Edition, as well as a member of the Winnipeg Strike Committee. He was arrested on June 17. Woodsworth took his place as editor, and himself was later arrested. Iven’s labor church became a center for the strikers, hosting meetings of up to 10,000 people. A.E. Smith openly supported the strikers, declaring "The sympathetic strike was just as religious a movement as a Church revival" (93). By the time the strike was over, the Labor church had eight different congregations in Winnipeg alone.

The Winnipeg General Strike led to the arrest of both Woodsworth and Ivens, as well as their vilification in much of the mainstream press. Nevertheless for the labor church it was a fruitful event – "the Labor church now had not only a general religious attitude to propagate, but an epic event and martyred leaders to celebrate" (97).

For a time, the socialist and labor movements had "found a common means of expression" (98) in the Strike. The Winnipeg experience became, according to Allen, central to the Labor church. Woodsworth and Ivens described it in terms of a religious experience, "which the augmented church now existed to perpetuate and interpret" (98). Unity lends considerable strength, and Allen suggests that "it was probably in considerable measure due to the existence of such an agency as the Labor church in Winnipeg that the parties were able to co-operate to the degree that they did in the provincial election of late spring 1920" (99). In that election, Ivens was elected to the provincial legislature – while serving his prison term.

Here is another weakness of the Labor church: its leaders wore several hats. Ivens was a social activist, a preacher, an organizer, and now, an MP. He waxed enthusiastic about the future of the Church, which he said "must be a Beacon that flashes the glad message from city to city until the whole earth is aflame" (99), but the bulk of the work of the church now fell to Woodsworth.

In 1919 the Labor church had branches in St. James, West Kildonan, Weston, Fort Rouge, Norwood, Elmwood, Morse Place, and Transcona. These branches ran leadership courses, study groups, and women’s guilds, and were composed of members from all Protestant traditions (including none), and many socialist and labor traditions. To satisfy the demands of the Sunday school, "Woodsworth had to devise a programme of study ingeniously combining problems in economic relationships with Christian ethics" (100).

Woodsworth took a more philosophical approach to the Labor church. The new worship would be a "spiritual communion both experienced and expressed in the co-operation of the common life" (101). He outlined the religion of the future, to which the labor church would aspire. It would be progressive, scientific, practical, social, and universal. Yet this "religion of labor," Woodsworth acknowledged, "was more a reflection of the culture of a Canadian intellectual than of the Canadian worker" (102). This "People’s Church" was perhaps not so close to the people as it would have hoped. Fundamentally, it was a program of a Canadian intellectual elite – it was still only the most privileged of the actual working classes that had the leisure of a day of rest to devote to any church, People’s or otherwise. In any case in 1920 the program was doing quite well – Iven’s claimed sixteen churches in four different provinces (103).

The Winnipeg Strike was an integral part of the identity of the Labor church, but Canada’s other churches responded in mixed ways. Of eight major Protestant publications, two came down for the strikers, one opposed the strike but proposed social reform, and two stood in extreme positions. The Presbyterian Witness decried the strike and its leaders, referring to Bolshevism and aliens, and fully accepting the report of the Citizens Committee of 1000 – the anti-strike faction in Winnipeg. The Western Methodist Recorder in Victoria, BC, suggested that "the strike in Winnipeg was a carefully planned attempt to establish Soviet government in Canada." The official response of the denominations came through their conferences in May and June of 1919. The Manitoba Conference, in particular, was significant for these radical leaders. Allen argues that the Methodist response was deceptively negative. Although it denied Smith his request for another year without station, the motion won by only four votes, only three days after Smith "had been quoted in the Western Labor News as telling a crowd of eight thousand at the Labor church that it was now next to impossible to preach the genuine gospel of Christ in the churches" (116). Although the decision was appealed, Smith immediately resigned from the church. As for Ivens, the Conference prohibited him from acting as a minister. Thus, the "Labor churches were cut adrift from the church and the breach between the radical and progressive social gospel yawned ominously wider" (115). The other conferences faced issues in a more abstract way, but reacted generally positively and to the social gospel and moderately to the Winnipeg Strike.

Lukewarm response or no, the next few years were years of great expansion for the Labor churches. Allen estimates that in 1921 Labor church attendance was probably about 6600 in nineteen churches across Canada. Many of these were founded by Smith (159). In a two-month tour of Western Canada in 1920, he reported founding three churches, in Victoria, Vancouver, and Calgary.

Neither the Victoria nor the Vancouver church lasted very long. Vancouver had an infusion of life when Woodsworth spent nearly a year there, but it "seems not to have survived Woodsworth departure in late April 1921 (164). The church in Victoria, however, was more successful. Like Winnipeg, Calgary had the experience of a People’s Forum for some years before the establishment of the church, and also benefited from the active support of William Irvine. Irvine had been a Presbyterian minister until controversy in his Presbytery led to his resignation, as well as a pastor of the Unitarian church in Calgary, until he was ‘relieved of the position,’ in the midst of the controversy about government conscription.

The active personal involvement of a strong leader seems to have been a large factor in the success of any labor church. Therefore it is not surprising that Smith’s own People’s Church in Brandon was "by far the best organized" (165). The church had a strong central committee, and Smith was a regular preacher. Its structure was more church-like than many other labor churches. Its morning and evening services included hymns and prayers, and there were organized groups for "men, women, older and younger girls, and boys" (166). By 1921, it was financially stable enough to move into a permanent location. In 1923, however, Smith moved to Toronto to establish a similar church, and what became of the People’s church in his absence is not known (167).

This pattern of growth and dissipation is typical. Many of the churches were unable to survive the departure of their leader. This was a major problem because the leaders were departing. By and large, their radicalism led them first out of the denomination churches, and finally out of the Labor churches as well. Woodsworth, Irvine, Ivens, and Smith all went into politics. In 1925, Smith was sworn into the Communist party. Ivens returned to the provincial legislature in 1924, and stayed until 1936. After serving for less than a year as the secretary of the Winnipeg Labor churches, Woodsworth won the federal seat of Center Winnipeg. The Calgary church supported by Irvine lost him when he was elected to the federal house.

The ultimate destination of the Labor churches foremost leaders is telling. Since its inception the Labor church had faced the accusation of being nothing more than a front for political, especially socialist, assembly. Now the pitfalls potential from the beginning would lead to the ultimate demise of every single Labor or People’s church.

Despite initial denominational support, especially from the Methodist Church, the established churches eventually turned against the Labor churches. This was partially due to what was essentially a smear campaign on the part of a Lt-Col Hamilton of the Royal Canadian Mounted Belief. Taking advantage of the open pulpit he was able to forward to the Methodist leadership truly alarming excerpts of sermons at the Labor church that little or nothing to do with its leaders or the mainstream of the Church (170). Nevertheless, the church had many more legitimate causes to disapprove of the Labor church.

To begin with, it is fair to ask to what extent the Labor church was actually fulfilling its mission of bringing together religion and the working man. As Woodsworth said, its theology and culture was not a reflection of the religious needs or beliefs of the workingman. It seems the church was more dedicated to the social needs of the workingman. According to the theology of the social gospel, the dedication to fulfilling social needs is religious, but I wonder to what extent a mass of working people would find political discussions a working substitute for religious rituals and traditions. Yet this was the aspect that was becoming more and more the heart of the Labor church, perhaps because the denominational churches had become more progressive and more pro-active with social programs in addition to the religious component. As a forum for political discussion, the structure of the Labor church was perhaps effective, but as a vehicle for action, it was not, perhaps because it was in the position of preaching to the choir. People did not become members of the Labor church because they agreed with the religious creed – there was none. Neither because it was a tradition that they held dear – the Labor church explicitly denied the importance and role of tradition. Thus the leaders and speakers were somewhat in the position of preaching to the converted. If one did not already agree with the thrust of the church, one would not be there.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Labor church movement was its dedication to creating a communal structure dedicated to social action from a personal religious experience. However inspiring or true the personal religion of Jesus Christ may be, it is a personal religion that is evidently not easily translated into a communal one. The very structures, creeds, rituals, and communal codes that the radical social gospellers decried in the denominational churches were necessary to establish a community religion. The heart of the belief of Woodsworth, Ivens, Irvine, and Smith was the commitment to the application of religious values to social and political life, not to communal religious life, thus it is not surprising that their Labor churches could not sustain one. Ultimately, Allen confirms, "less and less religion was to be found in Labor church programmes" (169). Finally the Labor church was not truly a church, but it was neither the most effective means of working towards social reform. Political activity is necessary to achieve political change, and ultimately this realization must have propelled the Labor church’s very leaders away from it. It seems to me that there really was no reason for the Labor church to survive as long as it fulfilled neither the religious needs of the people nor the social and political objectives of the social gospel.

The Labor church had noble goals and was a gallant attempt by religion to address the social needs of the people in its day. From it we can learn that having religious inspiration does not make a social organization a church. Even apart from all the social and political challenges to the ideals of the Labor church, perhaps its greatest enemies were, in fact, theological. In the modern era, religion has become increasingly personal, and communal religion has become increasingly compartmentalized, that is, associated with certain holy days, foods, or rituals and apart from the rest of life. The attempt to extend personal religion to every aspect of people’s lives was, in this light, truly a Herculean task. It might have been possible, it may still be possible, but not for the Labor church, whose leaders were ultimately more committed to fulfilling their own personal religious beliefs through communal work than to building an actively social religious community.


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Bland, Salem. The New Christianity. Ed. Michael Bliss. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.

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Social Service Congress. Toronto: The Ontario Press Limited, 1914.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1919.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. Christianizing the Social Order. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915.

Ward, Harry. The Gospel for a Working World. New York: Missionary Education Movement of the United States and Canada, 1918.