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Baptist Union of Western Canada

The history of the Baptist Union of Western Canada (BUWC) has its roots in the missionary efforts of the Baptist Missionary Convention of Ontario, which in 1869 sent two Baptist ministers to what was then called the North-West. Four years later they sent Alexander (Pioneer) MacDonald as a missionary to Winnipeg with the mandate to preach the Gospel and maintain the ordinances. During the ten years that MacDonald remained the primary Baptist figure in the North-West, he helped to establish ten churches, all in Manitoba. The work of pioneering Baptist ministers soon extended into what is now Saskatchewan, resulting in the establishment of a church in Moose Jaw in 1883, Moosomin two years later, and Regina in 1891.

By the time the Baptist churches in western Canada joined to form their own Convention (1907), Saskatchewan churches had been established in Yorkton (1900), Prince Albert (1903), Saskatoon (1904), Asquith (1906) and Weyburn (1906). Others soon followed: Estevan (1908), Droxford (Bingham) (1910), Congress and Kipling (1912), Shaunavon (1913), and Leask (1916). While some of this growth was due to the work of the Home Mission Superintendents who were employed by the newly formed Convention (called the “Union” in 1909), individual churches also established daughter churches in neighbouring towns or other parts of the same city. In the 1920s the rate of growth dropped off considerably, as only four new churches were started in the province during that decade, and no more until the 1950s. The latter half of the 20th century saw the establishment of a few new churches and the re-establishment of what were once active churches. Swift Current, for example, initially began in 1956 but then collapsed, to be reorganized only in 1995. The most prominent Baptist churches in several cities in Saskatchewan were called “First” churches to distinguish them from other Baptist churches in the community and to establish visibility and prominence in the city.

While the large majority of these churches were English, the Baptist churches in the province also included German, Hungarian, Scandinavian, Ukrainian, Czech and Slovak churches. Already in 1889 there were three German Baptist churches, at Edenwold, Lemberg and Ebenezer (north of Yorkton), begun by Rev. F.A. Petereit, a Home missionary of the BUWC, whose task was to minister to German immigrants. At least sixteen more were established between 1890 and 1934, but by then the German Baptist churches had severed their relationship with the BUWC and joined the North American Baptist Conference. Similarly, the Swedish Baptist churches in western Canada, which for many years had had a close working relationship with their American counterparts, joined the Baptist (Swedish) General Conference of America in 1948, severing their long connection to the BUWC. The loss of these two large ethnic groups was significant for the BUWC, and was certainly felt by the Saskatchewan Baptist churches as they were two of the most vigorous in the Union. Other groups such as the Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks continued to remain under the Baptist Union umbrella, and today have either died out or become anglicized. The only remaining “ethnic” church is the Ukrainian Baptist Church in Saskatoon, which still has some of its services in the Ukrainian language.

Among the distinguishing features of the local Baptist Churches that are associated with the BUWC is their emphasis on freedom for the individual, both in terms of human rights and Religion. Growing out of their historical roots in the Puritan-Independent movement in England, they have shied away from any overarching structure that might curtail their freedom. It has also been the conviction among those Baptists who were part of the BUWC that ministers need to be well educated, and thus even in the early 20th century ministers often had a liberal arts as well as a seminary degree. An educational institution designed for the express purpose of training ministers was begun in Brandon in 1898, while McMaster University in Hamilton trained Baptist ministers long before that. In addition, there was the sense that the Baptist Church was a key member of the community. As a result, well-known Baptists include Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, of the Prince Albert Baptist Church, and T.C. Douglas, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn before he entered politics. Members have also engaged in public service and taken part in Canada's war efforts.

The Union Church is somewhat less conservative regarding a variety of social, political, and theological issues. While not immune from the tensions created by the liberalism/fundamentalism debate that took place in the 1920s and 1930s, the Baptist Union churches maintained what might be termed an “open evangelical” position. They, for example, have allowed for the ordination of women since 1959 and have had several women as presidents of the Union; they have also shied away from having new members sign formal statements of faith. As of 2003, there are nineteen BUWC churches in Saskatchewan, the largest being Westhill Park and First Baptist in Regina, Emmanuel in Saskatoon, and the Community Baptist Church in Swift Current. Administratively, the churches in Saskatchewan and Manitoba form the Heartland Area, one of three administrative districts that exist in the BUWC. They are served by an Area Minister and an Area Board which, although having limited authority, oversee two camps in this province (Katepwa Baptist Kamp and Christopher Lake Bible Camp), supervise “mission” churches, facilitate the ordination and licensing of pastors, and provide some resources as well as pastoral support to the churches in the Area.

Henry Friesen

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Further Reading

Harris, J.E. 1976. The Baptist Union of Western Canada: A Centennial History, 1873-1973. Saint John, NB; Renfree, H.A. 1988. Heritage and Horizon: The Baptist Story in Canada. Mississauga.
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