The middle decades of the nineteenth century were, in many respects, a time of social and cultural change for the young and robust province of Canada West. Economic growth had created a strong middle class who were willing to wrestle with complex issues of social and personal mores. In economic and political endeavours, the province was reaching towards a more ordered and controlled society. Railroads, canals and an industrial base had been encouraged along transportation routes and a modern industrial economy now enhanced the agricultural wealth which was its traditional base. In political affairs, plans for the confederation of British North America was a probable reality by the mid-1860s. As citizens of the British Empire, British North America wanted a federal political system which would bring "Peace, Order and Good Government" to all its provinces. Social concerns, and religious practices, in particular, mirrored some of the changes that had taken place in the larger society.
As the secular world expanded and ordered itself, so did many of the traditional religious institutions. The mid-Victorian concern for propriety and social acceptance had penetrated even the dissenting or evangelical religious groups of the province. The camp meetings and the emotional religious appeals of the first half of the century were giving way to more sedate forms of worship. This is not to suggest that revivals and large tent gatherings did not continue. They did, but fewer conversions were reported and a greater emphasis on regular church life was described. By the 1860s, the waning of religious revivalism was changing the look of religious worship. The desire for reverence in the holy edifice, suitably Gothic in architecture, new systems of church government and the construction of expensive temples of worship were but a few concerns now being addressed. Order, decency and reverence were being promoted by the church leaders, who were increasingly aware of their own denominational sense of uniqueness.
The denominational distinctions, therefore, became much more pronounced. In the early colonial period, religious resources had been either non-existent or very scarce. For many early pioneers, any church, sect or clergyman was often better than nothing at all. By 1860, however, this had changed. The economic and social development of the province gave financial and personal resources to each of the denominations, many of whom were unashamedly focused on furthering their own cause. Union churches and union Sunday schools, which were common in the earlier period, disappeared even from sparsely populated rural areas.
Denominationalism produced a competitive desire to increase membership within each particular religious group. The Anglican Bishop of Ontario, John Travers Lewis, feared (and rightly so) that, without a strong parish system, the Anglicans in the back townships of his diocese would languish and fall prey to the dissenting preachers. Churches, therefore, utilized their efforts to sustain and enlarge their number of adherents. Ministers and priests, whether missionaries or parish incumbents, toured the countryside enthusiastically, gathering lost sheep and looking for new members. The visitation of the sick and poor were not merely social calls. The souls of the sufferers were at stake, and, by bringing them to the truths of Christianity, a great work would be accomplished. Moreover, even if the sick perished, the good example shown by the pastor might cause the backsliding Christians to find his way back to the cross. Funerals were an appropriate occasion to warn the living about the dangers of facing eternity unprepared.
The Sunday School, although first developed in the late eighteenth century, blossomed in the mid-nineteenth century. In the Methodist rhetoric of the time, "young inexperienced sinners wandering down the path of life in ignorance, sin and despair", were often considered saved by this benevolent institution. Sunday Schools recorded the number of converted or attending children just as an industry would account for the production of any commodity. These children, after being taught by the Sabbath Day School as it was called, were turned into adult members of their particular church and were probably there for life, as few people changed religious affiliation in the 19th century, unless one did so at marriage.
Few individuals by the 1860s had escaped the evangelical appeals being orchestrated by the major Christian churches. All denominations, even the staid traditional groups participated in the search for new members. Even the very few who remained defiantly without any religious affiliation, were affected by groups such as those who, advocating a strict observance of Sundays, or promoting an abstinence from all alcoholic drinks, attempted to regulate all of society.
What did the all-pervasive religious atmosphere mean to the average Canadian? By the 1860s, most believers would be associated, through family or personal connection, with a particular denomination. Those wanting to be socially acceptable would probably adhere to one of the established churches and the route to political or social power was traditionally the Anglican church. Nevertheless, the Methodists, by mid-century, had become, statistically, the largest Protestant group in Canada West. Almost 25% of the population called themselves Methodists and their many congregations built large Gothic edifices which signaled to the province that they had indeed arrived on the threshold of respectability. Other non-Anglican groups, including the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Lutherans, along with the smaller sects, made up the dominant (80%) Protestant community of Canada West. The Roman Catholics, although statistically a minority, were also strongly represented in the western part of the province, especially after the Irish migrations of the 1840s. Most Protestants, however, speaking about the Christian church, often did not even include the Catholics. For many of them, Catholicism was considered corrupt and superstitious and there was probably an equal amount of ignorance and prejudice on both sides of the great divide.
Most Christians in the province would be aware of their own denomination's special characteristics and have a peripheral knowledge of the particular distinctions of other religious denominations. Besides important theological considerations, the church also provided a social centre for the community. Sunday School attendance, Sunday School picnics and concerts, choir practices, church vestry and council meetings, bazaars, and sewing societies, all provided an important social outlet. Women, most confined to the home, often eagerly took advantage of these "outings", even if their attraction was more social than religious.
Religion was a very important part of life for the population of Canada West. Religious belief defined a person in his or her relationship not only to God and eternal meaning, but also in relationship to others in the community. It was ultimately a way of defining oneself and gave meaning and purpose to the events of life.