The first Presbyterian church was set up by Irish settlers in Nova Scotia in 1761. The subsequent history of the Presbyterian Church may properly be said to begin with the cession of much of what became Canada to Britain in 1763. Among the settlers and fur traders to come to this newly available land were many Scots Presb. Scots and Scots-Irish would make up the bulk of most Presbyterian congr until very recent years. The English-speaking settlement of Canada was also hastened by the results of the American Revolution; defeated loyalists crossed into what remained British territory. Missionaries from northern American states followed these settlers and established some of the older congr.
Early Presbyterianism in Canada was shaped to a considerable degree by the quarrels and divisions of the Scottish Church. Most particularly, the disruption of 1843 out of which the Free Kirk of Scotland was formed affected church life in Canada. Canadian Presb churches aligned themselves with mother churches in the homeland. The folly of division over Scottish issues was early apparent, however, and strenuous efforts were made to overcome these divisions. In 1875 all the various strands of Presbyterianism came together to form the Presbyterian Church in Canada. This church body was by 1925 the largest Protestant body in Canada.
In 1902 the idea of a union with the Methodist Church, almost identical in size to the Presbyterian Church, was advanced by certain key Presbyterian leaders. Such a union would facilitate mission work, particularly in the West, and enable the churches more strongly to combat many social evils. Negotiations for union began in earnest in 1904. An early promise was made (and later regretted) that union must “carry the consent of the entire membership.” Opposition, led by lay people and women in particular, grew through the subsequent years, however. When the new United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, all Methodists and all Congregationalists, but only two-thirds of Presbyterians, joined the new church.
The continuing Presb faced an enormous challenge in rebuilding a national structure. Approximately 90% of ministers had joined the United Church, so there was a desperate shortage of educated clergy. Subsequent years would be marked by an ultimately successful struggle to survive and rebuild as a national church. The theological course of the continuing church was also uncertain. In the end a dynamic professor of Knox College (later principal), Walter Bryden, influenced the church in a Barthian and neoorthodox direction.
Through the 1950s the Presbyterian Church profited, as did other churches, from the growth of the nation. Since that time social trends have caused great difficulties for this and all the socalled mainline churches of North America. The rise of secularism, a more permissive culture, the challenge of different views of sexuality, and a host of other difficulties face all North American churches. Like many mainline churches, the PCC has experienced a worrying decline in membership, especially among the young.
To some degree this trend has been counteracted by immigration. The church is no longer Scots and Scots-Irish alone. Infusions of vigor have come from Dutch, Guyanese, Chinese, and Korean immigration, to name but a few. The Presbyterian Church in Canada faces the new millennium as an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural body, searching for a renewed sense of mission in the world and country.