RCRM Speakers Series Podcast

Canadian Protestant Rhetoric and the War in South Africa

Episode Summary

After the Battle of Paardeberg (18-27 Feb 1900), a Canadian Methodist preacher said "Not the greed of conquest, but native valour, the struggle for civilization, and the love of Motherland were in the fire in their souls that day." Professor Gordon Heath added this quote to today’s title which also reads "Canadian Protestant Rhetoric and the War in South Africa." Heath will examine how the churches wrote and preached about the imperial cause in South Africa, following the general argument of his book, "A War with a Silver Lining" (published in 2009). This conflict may be forgotten today, but as Professor Heath will reveal, 120 years ago it was making front page in the news. In the following years, up to the 1920s, Paardeberg Day on 27 Feb was the designated day for Canadians to honour Veterans and remember sacrifices.

Episode Notes

On February 21st 2020, The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum opened a new section in the permanent gallery featuring, amongst others, the First Contingent South Africa. This unit sailed overseas in support of the British Empire who had invaded two independent republics of Protestant Dutch origins, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (known as “Boers” hence the designation Anglo-Boer War). There was lively debate in the Canadian parliament, and intense pressure over Wilfried Laurier’s cabinet from Henri Bourassa and other French Canadians, to approve the project which concluded with the decision to raise a force of 1000 men. It was for the first time that the Canadian government deployed a force overseas; and it was for the first time that the Canadian government successfully recruited men to fulfill a military engagement in a foreign country. A legitimate question arises: why is the South African War important for Canada? Why Canadian troops were sent overseas?

One of the reasons is because on February 27, 1900 the Canadian soldiers overturned the conflict in favour of a British final victory by advancing up to 50 yards distance of the Boer laager. The episode is the Battle of Paardeberg, which took place between 18 and 27 February 1900. It was the first significant British victory in the South African War and Canadians received credit for their contribution, which provided a boost not only to the troop’s confidence, but also to Canadian nationalism at home. To expand on the latter, we have invited Professor Gordon Heath.

Professor Heath is teaching the history of Christianity since 1999, at McMaster Divinity College. Besides teaching, he also serves as Director of the Canadian Baptist Archives, the official archives of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. Professor Heath is Centenary Chair in World Christianity. Among his published titles are Doing Church History: A User-friendly Introduction to Researching the History of Christianity (2008), and A War with a Silver Lining: Canadian Protestant Churches and the South African War, 1899-1902 (2009).

After the Battle of Paardeberg, a Methodist preacher said (beginning of quotes) ‘Not the greed of conquest, but native valour, the struggle for civilization, and the love of Motherland were in the fire in their souls that day’ (end of quotes). Professor Gordon Heath added this quote to today’s title which also reads Canadian Protestant Rhetoric and the War in South Africa. Heath will examine how the churches wrote and preached about the imperial cause in South Africa, following the general argument of his book, A War with a Silver Lining. The imperial war in distant South Africa was seen by many in the Canadian churches to be one that would ultimately benefit all involved. Central to the ministry of the churches was the application of justice, the development of the new nation Canada, the unifying and strengthening of the empire, and the spreading of missions. The idea that a British victory would bring tangible blessings sprung: it would be good for Canadians, good for Britons, good for Africans, good for the empire, good for the entire world, and even good for the Boers.