My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
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It seems that political leaders who are seeking to leverage the current “War on Covid 19” to advance their radical political goals have taken a play from the playbook of Winston Churchill who quipped during the last world war to “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
To observers of the Canadian government seeking to take advantage of the current crisis to re-imagine and remake the economy into a green utopia, it may come as surprise to realize that this would not be the first time that a Canadian war effort was hijacked to advance a radical agenda.
It previously occurred during the First World War (1914-1918).
For church leaders imbued with the often-radical ideals of the social gospel, the war against Germany and the Central Powers was not only a defense of justice in Europe, but also an opportunity to apply a more radical approach to state control of industry—or morals, in the case of prohibition—for the Christianization of the nation. It was anticipated that the sacrifice of sons and wealth would lead to a renewed and reinvigorated Christianity and nation, and the “war to end all wars” would usher in a new world order of the utopian sort.
The churches hoped that the war would contribute to many of their social reform aims: the elimination of oppression, an increased spirit of sacrifice among citizens, the establishment of a more cooperative and less exploitive way of doing business, a removal of class barriers, and nationwide prohibition. In this way the social gospel agenda and war effort were amalgamated.
That idealism and optimism survived into the immediate post-war years. Sermons pointed out all of the wonderful opportunities for social transformation on the horizon. It was felt that “civilization [was in] a state of flux,” and it was a time of endless challenges but also of wonderful possibilities. Social gospellers, believing that the war would help usher in their dreams, were also caught up in such enthusiasm. Canada’s growing post-war social problems, as well as international concerns would all be solved by a vibrant, united, powerful and socially conscious church.
Those lofty dreams were soon shattered by domestic and international realities.
Domestically, there was not widespread support for radical visions such as prohibition, labour tensions led to division and strife in industry, and the Great Depression put an end to a reimagined economy. Internationally, never-ending wars and the eventual rise of powerful fascist empires shattered utopian dreams of a warless world.
Churchill was right in that a crisis often opens up new opportunities, and that a looming catastrophe can lead to people re-imaging possible futures. Past and present leaders recognize that. But the problem in the midst of leaders dreaming up a new future is that people are often unwitting and voiceless pawns in the plans of those in power.
For instance, past soldiers were not dying in the trenches to advance prohibition, and present-day citizens are not shuttering their businesses in a lockdown for a utopian green economy. The opportunistic leveraging of a war – and the sacrifices and suffering associated with war – in order to bring about a utopian vision (religious or secular) is exploitative and morally wanting.
 Robert A. Wright, “The Canadian Protestant Tradition, 1914–1945,” in The Canadian Protestant Experience, 1760-1990, ed. George A. Rawlyk (Burlington: Welch, 1990), 143–145.
 Richard Allen, The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada, 1914–28 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973).
 C.R. Duncan, “The Challenge of the Present Hour,” Canadian Baptist, 27 February 1919.
 R.J. Colpitts, “The Forward Movement - A Present and Imperative Need,” Maritime Baptist, 7 January 1920.