More Bible schools and colleges have been started in Saskatchewan than in any other province in the country. Although the first Bible school in Canada was launched in 1885, it was not until 1909 that the Holiness Movement Church started the first school in western Canada: Western Holiness Bible School, initially located in Crystal City, Saskatchewan. More than fifty additional schools have had their origins in Saskatchewan (see Table BSC-1), representing almost 20% of all the Bible schools and colleges in Canada. Half of the Bible schools in the province were started during the economically depressed decade of the 1930s, with another 25% during the 1940s. The decade following 1950 marked a significant watershed for the Bible school movement: advances in transportation and communication resulted in the closure and consolidation of 80% of the Bible schools before the end of the 20th century. With the exception of a handful of schools started by several Pentecostal and charismatic groups, relatively few new Bible schools were started in the second half of the 20th century.
The majority of Bible schools and colleges in the province were initiated by a diverse range of more than twenty incoming immigrant groups and new evangelical Protestant denominations, most of which had relatively few members during the first half of the 20th century. Two different Mennonite groups account for fourteen schools alone: the Mennonite Brethren with eight, and Mennonite Church Canada with six. In total, the Mennonites were responsible for starting more than forty Bible schools across Canada. The driving force behind their educational endeavours was a passionate concern for finding new ways to provide both religious instruction and preserve aspects of the Mennonite heritage and identity. Another nineteen schools were started by a cluster of ten different Pentecostal denominations or independent congregations. At least six schools can be categorized as transdenominational, that is, without direct affiliation to any denomination. Influenced by a larger fundamentalist network within North America, these schools emphasized a common understanding of doctrine and mission without necessarily discouraging participation in denominations. Briercrest College, started in 1935, and currently located in Caronport, has become the most prominent transdenominational school in the province; it is also currently the largest Bible college in the country, with a college enrollment of approximately 800 students.
Bible schools typically offered a Bible-centred, intensely practical, lay-oriented program of theological training. As educational institutions, they operated in a zone between the upper years of secondary education and the undergraduate years of post-secondary education. About 70% of Bible schools in Saskatchewan were located in rural communities. During the early years, most schools organized the term of study to accommodate the winter lull in farm work (late October to mid-April). Bible schools intentionally developed an environment for encouraging spiritual formation, for teaching Bible knowledge, and for learning the disciplines and practical skills for a lifetime of Christian discipleship and ministry. For many decades facilities were austere, and students were required to help out in order to keep schools operating. Bible schools offered students the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex—hence the facetious, but occasionally justifiable, title “bridal institute” that has been applied to many schools.
Bible schools can be differentiated from Bible colleges, which confer accredited degrees, offer courses recognized by other colleges and universities, and whose curricula include significantly more liberal arts or general education courses alongside course offerings in theological studies (see Table BSC-2). During the 1960s, Bible school leaders gradually became more interested in obtaining a new level of respectability and recognition for their schools. Four of the Bible schools started in Saskatchewan have managed to become accredited colleges with full membership status with the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges, an organization designed to clarify and establish standards within Bible schools and colleges. In addition, two schools, Canadian Bible College (now located in Calgary) and Briercrest College, started graduate degree programs in 1970 and 1983 respectively. Not all schools pursued accreditation: some were unable to afford the additional costs; others deliberately avoided it, fearing that the addition of liberal arts courses in the curriculum would dilute the traditional emphasis on the study of the Bible.
The influence of Bible schools and colleges has been extensive. By 1950, the cumulative enrollment in all Bible schools in Saskatchewan was over 1,000; this represents a substantial contribution to the overall educational landscape of the province, particularly when one considers the fact that 55% of Bible school students have been women (as a point of comparison, university enrollment in the province in 1950 was less than 2,600, of whom only 20% were women). Bible schools prepared thousands of Protestant men and women as church workers, pastors and missionaries who have been scattered to every corner of the country and beyond. A Bible school training offered many young people an opportunity for improving their social status. Missionary work required international travel, and both missionaries and pastors were (and often still are) given special recognition in many evangelical communities. Still others experienced the influence of these schools by attending annual missionary and Bible conferences, listening to radio broadcasts, and reading the printed material regularly distributed by these schools. Sixteen Bible schools and colleges remain in operation in the province, with a cumulative enrollment exceeding 1,400 students. Today these schools struggle to maintain their “market share” of students by highlighting the unique strengths of small schools, adjusting and diversifying curriculum, and modernizing facilities. They wrestle too with defining their place within Christian higher education as the demand for seminary-trained leaders increases within evangelical denominations and missionary organizations, and as more Bible colleges become liberal arts colleges. Despite the challenges, they remain important centres of influence, having made substantial contributions to many of the evangelical Protestant denominations in Saskatchewan.