‘Rather Absurd’: Christian Nationalism and the Dominion of Canada

Reproduced from J.W. Bengough, A Caricature History of Canadian Politics (Toronto: Grip, 1886), 2:225; originally published in Grip (8 August 1881). This cartoon depicts Conservative politicians Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley attempting to counteract the politicking of prominent Liberal Edward Blake, alluding to their past professions: Tupper as a medical doctor and Tilley as a pharmacist.

Daniel R. Meister

In July 2023, former adherents of a religious movement went public with concerns that Christian conservatives in New Brunswick were “more radical than they seem.” The specific context was a political controversy surrounding Policy 713 on LGBTQ+ students in public schools.

In its coverage of Policy 713 and the conservative Christian reaction to it, the CBC reported that some of the primary figures had been involved in an earlier incident in Charlottetown. As a historian, my interest was piqued. In 2019, the Canadian Prophetic Council recreated the iconic image of the “Fathers of Confederation” on the steps of Government House in Charlottetown. According to former members of the broader religious movement with which this group is affiliated, the staged photograph was more than a “cheeky homage” but rather was a “prophetic act”: the group was announcing its intention to “reestablish the Dominion of Canada as something that honours God.”[1]

That Canada was originally called a “dominion” is particularly significant for adherents of this movement who have played with history in order to suggest a different destiny for the country.

Originally, politicians in British North America, including John A. Macdonald, favoured the term “Kingdom,” and the first four drafts of the British North America Act included it. However, the British then raised concerns that the term would offend the Americans. According to his son, Leonard Tilley, the representative from New Brunswick, provided the solution to the impasse.

The next morning, as was Sir Leonard’s custom, he read a chapter from the Bible, and that     particular morning he read Psalm 72, verse 8, ‘He shall have Dominion also from sea to sea.’ When reading verse 8 of the said Psalm, the thought occurred to him, what a splendid name to give Canada, the word ‘Dominion’ of Canada. When he went back to the sitting of the convention that morning he suggested the word ‘Dominion,’ which was agreed to, and Canada was called the ‘Dominion of Canada.’[2]

For the leader of the Canadian Prophetic Council, this was but the most notable proof that Canada “had been covenanted to God at the foundation,” that the country was intentionally established as a self-consciously Christian nation.[3]

Or was it? Professional historians have provided a different interpretation of these events. Perhaps the best such account is offered by Ged Martin, who writes:

As late as 2 February [1867], the draft bill spoke of ‘the Kingdom of Canada,’ but the [British] foreign secretary, Stanley, objected that a monarchical style ‘would wound the sensibilities of the Yankees.’ The delegates then pressed for ‘Viceroyalty,’ which [Secretary of State for the Colonies] Carnavon thought was ‘open to grave objection,’ before retreating to Dominion which was ‘somewhat in opposition to the institutions on the other side of the border,’ but not offensively so. [Lord] Derby [Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs] thought the term ‘rather absurd,’ perhaps thinking of Psalm 72, which spoke of ‘dominion also from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth.’ Not even British Columbia was that far away.[4]

For her part, the queen “rather nonchalantly said she had ‘no objection … if you think ‘The Dominion of Canada’ a better title for the new Confederation than Canada plain & simple.”[5] In other words, “dominion” was a suitable compromise that hinted at Canada being a British realm, while not overly offending a growing economic and military power on the continent.[6]

Tilley is notably absent in Martin’s account, and careful readers will note that anytime the story of Tilley’s intervention is mentioned in scholarly publications, particularly in reference works, it is with caution. Tilley’s entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia, for instance, notes that “he is believed to have suggested the name ‘Dominion of Canada,’” while the entry for “Dominion of Canada” accepts that Tilley suggested the term, adding that he was “reportedly inspired in the passage in the Bible.” The relevant section of Tilley’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography reads: “During one of his daily Bible readings Tilley is said to have been struck by Psalm 72:8,” adding that he subsequently suggested the term.[7]

This caution is wise: the only primary account of the story that I have been able to locate is in the letter from Tilley’s son, quoted above, which was written a half-century after Confederation; the absence of any historical evidence from the period to corroborate the story makes it suspect. The account it presents is also suspiciously serendipitous – especially considering the term “dominion” had been used to describe territories within the British Empire as early as the 16th century.[8] But even assuming the Tilley origin story is correct, the point remains the term was accepted not because of any religious fervour among the framers but rather due to British concerns about international relations. (While acknowledging these concerns were well-founded, historian W.L. Morton wryly noted, “The desires and even the rank of the new confederation were for the first, but not for the last, time to be sacrificed to the needs of Anglo-American harmony.”)[9]

The “dominion” lasted for not quite a century, as the federal government began moving away from the term in the 1940s and ‘50s. For most Canadians it no longer resonates, and laments for the old title are few and far between.[10] But for the Christian conservatives discussed in the CBC article, the term holds a place of central importance due to an ideology known as Christian nationalism. Although there is no scholarly consensus as to how the term ought to be defined, it generally refers to the belief that not only should there be no separation between church and state and that Christians should dominate all seven major aspects of society, a list that varies but generally includes business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family, and religion.[11]

This theology is sometimes referred to as “dominionist,” after another usage of the term in the Bible, this time in Genesis 1:26-28. In this passage, God first announces his intention to allow Adam and Eve to “have dominion … over all the earth” and then, after creating them, commands the pair to “replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Although this passage is frequently interpreted as instructions to be good stewards of the earth, Christian nationalists take this as a command to dominate it. In both its Canadian and American iterations, this imperative for control is most often accompanied by a specific historical claim: an assertion that there never has been a separation of church and state; that the nation has been, since its inception, Christian.[12]

For this reason, Christian nationalists in America have for decades been presenting their own (mis)interpretations of national history. In Canada, there are fewer such works, although the head of the Canadian Prophetic Council has previously compiled one such an account.[13] In it, the fathers and mothers of Confederation were “devoted lovers of Jesus Christ,” and they and others like them came to Canada with a desire to convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity, “to make Canada a model for global evangelism, and to help establish this nation on righteous foundations.” In their pursuit of this vision, these early Christian settlers paid a high price as they “sacrificed their comfort, finances, and time; some sacrificed their reputations, and some lost their lives because of the harsh climate or through brutal martyrdom.” But few Canadians were aware of this history: “It was a hidden covenant, a buried inheritance, seemingly dormant in the history books, museums, and graveyards of our land.”[14]

Even otherwise sympathetic conservative Christian commentators have found this interpretation of Canadian history troubling (such as the praising of Nellie McClung’s preaching without taking stock of her support for eugenics), somewhat incoherent (New France was a “Christian colony” yet it was conquered by the British, which was somehow still part of the divine plan to establish a Christian nation), and downright erroneous (even if Tilley was inspired by the Bible, confederation was not a religious project).[15] This interpretation is also clearly offensive to those concerned about the treatment of Indigenous peoples, or the history of slavery in British North America, or the history of the Chinese workers on the CPR, or a host of other peoples who truly suffered from the nation-building project. And it would certainly come as a shock to the “Fathers of Confederation” – not the least of them Macdonald, who did not have an evangelical conversion experience until 1888 – to learn that their boozy time aboard the Queen Victoria was not about crafting union for economic or strategic reasons but rather to establish a bulkhead for global evangelism. (P.B. Waite, the renown historian of confederation, remarked that Macdonald and Cartier “relied on good fellowship and alcohol” more than noble oratory, adding that the ship had “cases of champagne in her hold, and there was no stint in their use.”)[16]

To be sure, many pro-confederate voices wrapped their arguments in religious rhetoric, but historians have shown that anti-confederates did the same. For John George Marshall, a judge in New Brunswick, “it seemed clear … that God would have preferred for the Maritime Provinces to remain independent.” In Marshall’s mind, confederation and secularity were closely related, for all the arguments he had heard in favour of confederation seemed crassly material or political, which was unbefitting Christians. Similarly, the Canadian Baptist in Toronto explicitly argued against the term “dominion,” suggesting it put undo importance on an earthly, temporary kingdom, instead of the eternal heavenly kingdom to which Christians’ highest allegiance was owed. Perhaps tired of seeing the Bible used to promote more worldly concerns, one preacher “warned his hearers against those who would build political arguments from ‘some prostituted scriptural formula,’” while another argued it was best “to ‘stand still and see the salvation of the Lord,’ than to enter into the noisy corrupting stream of the world’s politics and be swallowed up in hell.”[17]

But for Christian nationalists, it is more important to return the country to some imagined past than it is to get the details right.[18] And while I have tried to remind us that the story of Tilley’s divine inspiration is “probably invented” (as one historian, writing in 1916, deemed it to be),[19] I also bear in mind historian Paul Harvey’s point, made a decade ago, that when it comes to Christian nationalists’ misrepresentations of history, “while these kind of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That’s because [their] project is not fundamentally an historical one” – it is an ideological one.[20]

Still, we should be aware that if Christian nationalists succeed in gaining ground politically in Canada, as they have in the United States, history will be distorted more frequently and in increasingly egregious ways.[21] That the head of the Canadian Prophetic Council chose Quispamsis, just outside Saint John, as the place to launch her first (unsuccessful) bid for public office suggests a continued belief in the spiritual significance of Tilley’s old stomping grounds.[22] The term dominion may have passed away, but dominionism is with us still.

Daniel R. Meister is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick. He is the author of The Racial Mosaic (MQUP 2021).


[1] Jacques Poitras, “Breakaway Believers Warn PC Party of ‘Dominionist’ Religious Movement,” CBC News (25 July 2023); and Poitras, “Christian Conservative Group Recruiting Thousands to Back Higgs,” CBC News (14 July 2023).

[2] Leonard Percy de Wolfe Tilley, letter to George Smith Holmested, 28 June 1917, R5908-0-0-E, MG27-IIH6, Vol. 1, Library and Archives Canada.

[3] Faytene Kryskow, Marked: A Generation of Dread Champions Rising to Shift Nations (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, 2009), 162.

[4] Ged Martin, Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-67 (London: Macmillan, 1995), 282.

[5] Quoted in Ben Gilding, “The Silent Framers of British North American Union: The Colonial Office and Canadian Confederation, 1851-67,” Canadian Historical Review 99, no. 3 (September 2018): 349-93, at 389. Tilley is also absent in Gilding’s account.

[6] It was, however, nearly impossible to suitably translate into French and eventually led to it being a loan-word. Jean Delisle, “Translating dominion as puissance: A Case of Absurd Self-Flattery?Language Update 8, no. 2 (2012): 18, which stands by the Tilley account. I am grateful to Ian McKay for drawing my attention to this article.

[7] P.B. Waite and Carolyn Harris, “Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (23 April 2015); Eugene Forsey and Matthew Hayday, “Dominion of Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (7 November 2019); and C.M. Wallace, “Tilley, Sir Samuel Leonard,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography 12 (1990); my emphasis added to each.

[8] Lloyd Bowen, Early Modern Wales c. 1536 – c. 1689 (University of Wales Press, 2022). In fairness, at least one participant thought it was “a new title.” Earl of Carnarvon, letter to General Gray, 7 February 1867, reproduced in George Earle Buckle, ed., The Letters of Queen Victoria (London: J. Murray, 1926), 1:394.

[9] W.L. Morton, The Critical Years: The Union of British North America, 1857-1873 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964), 213.

[10] For one exception, see James W.J. Bowden, “‘Dominion’: A Lament,” Dorchester Review (August/Winter 2015), 58-64.

[11] Kyle Mantyla, “Dominionism and the Religious Right: The Merger is Complete,” Right Wing Watch (6 July 2010). Perhaps the only book on Christian nationalism in Canada, albeit one focused on the Harper years, remains Marci McDonald, The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011), which should be read in conjunction with John G. Stackhouse, Jr.’s threepart review.

[12] This Christianity is always assumed to be a conservative one; I am unaware of any liberal strains of Christian nationalism.

[13] Faytene Kryskow, Stand on Guard: A Prophetic Call and Research on the Righteous Foundations of Canada (Vancouver: Credo Publishing, 2005). According to Marci McDonald, this work reproduces large sections of Michael D. Clarke, Canada: Portraits of Faith (Chilliwack, BC: Reel to Real, 1998). McDonald, The Armageddon Factor, 163.

[14] Kryskow, Marked, 162-63.

[15] As one master’s thesis put it: “Even considering Christianity’s significant influence on Confederation, however, it cannot be said that Canada was a ‘Christian nation,’” adding that even though some of the founders “explicitly declared the Canadas to be a Christian ‘nation’ or ‘community’ … these vague generalizations break down when the divides between Protestant and Catholic conceptions are examined even a little.” Ian Alexander Robert Mackay, “Church and State in the Confederation Debates of 1865” (MA thesis, University of Manitoba, 2017), 113. Mackay does not address the Christian nationalist literature of Kryskow and Clarke, though he does wade into the dominion debate, unquestioningly accepting Tilley’s son’s account and unconvincingly arguing it had broader support and significance (105-9). For a more balanced assessment, see Preston Jones, A Highly Favored Nation: The Bible and Canadian Meaning, 1860-1900 (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2008), chap. 1. Thanks to Don Wright for directing me to this source.

[16] P.B. Waite, The Charlottetown Conference, CHA Historical Booklet No. 15 (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1970), 15-16 and 17; and Jones, Highly Favored Nation, xiii-xiv. See also James H. Marsh, “The Charlottetown Conference of 1864 and the Persuasive Power of Champagne,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia (13 January 2020); and David Berry, “Drunk History: Canada’s Booze-Soaked Beginnings,” Hazlitt (9 September 2014), https://hazlitt.net/blog/drunk-history-canadas-booze-soaked-beginnings.

[17] Jones, A Highly Favored Nation, 12-13 and 14.

[18]MY Canada’s National Siege Sought to Confront Today’s Culture,” The Interim (8 December 2007).

[19] A.H.U. Colquhoun, The Fathers of Confederation, Part VIII (The Growth of Nationality) of the Chronicles of Canada, ed. George M. Wrong and H.H. Langton (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook, and Co., 1916), 128.

[20] Paul Harvey, “Selling the Idea of A Christian Nation: David Barton’s Alternative Intellectual Universe,” Religion Dispatches (11 May 2011).

[21] See for instance Antonio Planas, “New Florida Standards Teach Students That Some Black People Benefitted From Slavery Because it Taught Useful Skills,” NBC News (20 July 2023). On DeSantis’ play to Christian nationalists, see Ana Ceballos, “What Message is DeSantis Sending with Religious ‘Full Armor of God’ Rhetoric?Tampa Bay Times (12 September 2022).

[22] In 2007, she had previously chosen Saint John as the place to launch a “national siege” due to the believed Tilley-dominion connection. See MY Canada’s National Siege”; and Poitras, “Breakaway Believers.”

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