This post is of a more scholarly note and is a republication of a paper Pastor Stephen wrote for a course in his Master's degree program.
In its early years, Canadian Pentecostalism was not known for its depth of theology, nor for providing strong theological training. In fact, the vast majority of early Pentecostals were anti-creed and anti-education.(1) While this attitude was not immediately detrimental to the movement, it became clear to a small number within the ranks of the newly-formed Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (the PAOC) that it was important for future ministers within the movement to receive training and an education grounded in good theology if they were to steer clear of unbiblical excesses and doctrinal heresies.(2) In response to this realization, James Eustace Purdie was called to found and lead the first full-time Pentecostal Bible College in Canada.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the way in which J. Eustace Purdie championed strong, theological education within the PAOC and how that drive toward education has changed and benefitted the denomination over its ninety-eight-year history. To do so, it will first be necessary to briefly explain early Canadian Pentecostalism’s views toward education and creeds, the problems those views caused, and its need to develop an openness to theological creeds and training schools. The author will then explore J.E. Purdie’s role in the establishment of education and doctrine within the PAOC along with some of the challenges that he faced in doing so. In the process, it will become clear that James Eustace Purdie overcame the prejudices of the majority of early Canadian Pentecostals toward theological education and creeds to establish a legacy through his work in the first full-time Pentecostal Bible College in Canada, and as a result, played an important role in securing the theological vitality of Canada’s largest Pentecostal denomination, the PAOC by progressively changing members’ attitudes toward education.
Early Canadian Pentecostalism’s Views on Education and Creeds
Canadian Pentecostalism has long been affected by strong anti-creedal and anti-educational sentiments. This attitude can be seen in such places as the constitution the PAOC first adopted in 1919 which stated: “Be it further resolved that we disapprove of making a doctrinal statement a basis of fellowship and cooperation but that we accept the Word of God in its entirety…”(3) and in a resolution passed at the first General Conference, held that same year:
Whereas much contention and confusion has been caused over the issue of one God and Trinitarian views, also the Baptismal Formula, be it resolved, that we as a body go on record as disapproving not only the above issues, but of all other issues, that divide and confuse God’s people to no profit, and that aggressive evangelism be our motto.(4)
Clearly, the PAOC felt that it had higher priorities than dealing with such things as theology. This evangelistic zeal was a great strength, but it came at the expense of the pursuit of strong doctrine.
One factor involved in the negative views held by many Pentecostals was their experience in the established churches of their time. It was not uncommon for those experiencing the Indwelling of the Spirit to be rejected by the churches they attended.(5) Furthermore, their charismatic experience sometimes caused them to criticize “the deadness and formalism” of these churches and reject anything that reminded them of those organizations.(6) This rejection of their former church experience resulted in much of early Canadian Pentecostalism’s negative feelings toward systematized theology and training.
Unfortunately, the early Pentecostal Church in Canada “failed to distinguish between the ecclesiastical restrictions which they considered a form of bondage, and an organization such as was outlined in principle in the New Testament,”(7) an organization that was necessary if they were to fend off issues such as the “Finished Work,” “Jesus Only,” and “Initial Evidence” controversies.(8) As these problems arose, so did a marginally more sympathetic view of forming and teaching creeds;(9) though, as will be seen in the following section, Purdie was still forced to fight hard for creeds and for education to be taken seriously within Pentecostal circles. Even so, some of the “Pentecostal pioneers in Canada discovered the importance of theology and formal training…if Pentecostal truth was to be perpetuated beyond the lifetime of those who had been present in the Pentecostal revival of 1906.”(10)
J.E. Purdie and Education in the PAOC
In 1925, it was determined that a place to educate Pentecostals preparing for ministry should be established. Dr. James Eustace Purdie, a Spirit-filled Anglican minister who had graduated from Wycliffe Theological College in Toronto, was selected and appointed as principal of the new college without his prior knowledge.(11) After some deliberation, Purdie accepted the post and founded the first Pentecostal Bible College in Canada.(12)
As Purdie worked to create the curriculum for this new school, eventually to be called Western Bible College, he took much of the material he had learned at Wycliffe College and modified it for his own use.(13) Interestingly, Purdie claims to have not had any of the actual notes from his time at Wycliffe and thus had to rely on his memory and other research to create his material. Always striving to keep the Bible at the centre of all that was taught(14) and being heavily influenced by the “Keswick atmosphere”(15) at Wycliffe, “[w]hat emerged was a modified Reformed and Keswick theology that was augmented with Pentecostal experience,”(16) focusing on such areas of study as the Doctrine of God, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology.(17)
As Dr. Purdie taught at his new Bible college he desired to ground his students in a theology that could take on the various theories of his day. In his mind, the Pentecostalism of that time suffered from great subjectivity(18) and needed a firm foundation if it was to survive for years to come. At the same time, Purdie did not want to remove all of the subjectivity present within the practice of the PAOC: after all, a certain amount of subjectivity was at the centre of the Pentecostal experience. However, he also recognized that this subjectivity could not go unchecked. In his words:
The overemphasis on Subjectivity led to…a rationalistic conception of religion. …The Rationalist makes his reason the highest court of appeal. Consequently in rationalism each man also becomes his own Bible. The rationalist supersedes the Authority of Holy Writ by his own reason. …If we turn away from Holy Scripture as the exclusive and highest seat of authority in the Christian Church, we find only two alternatives left. Those alternatives are, either an infallible Church or an infallible reason. History has long proven that there does not exist an infallible, visible historic church. Neither does there exist an infallible reason.(19)
As a result of these views, Purdie sought to instil a strong theological foundation within the future ministers of the PAOC with whom he had been entrusted.
The college grew quickly. In its first term, thirty-one students arrived to take classes. There were sixty-four students by the second term, and by the third term, the college boasted a complement of ninety-two students. The “first Graduation took place in spring, 1928,” and “[b]y 1930 the student body had increased to 130.”(20) From the growth of the college in a short five years, it was clear that there were some in this movement who understood the benefit of theological education and the boon it would be to have such from an institution from within the Canadian Pentecostal sphere.
Unfortunately, while many students flocked to this new Pentecostal Bible school, their enthusiasm toward education was not the norm within the fellowship. Purdie himself noted that a mere “5% of the Pentecostal constituency of Canada was in favour of a Bible college”(21) and that over the time that he ran the college, whenever he would take on a new staff person he would write to the executive of the PAOC for support yet never received any from either the national office nor from any of the district offices.(22) In fact, the only real support he was given from the national office was his own salary, which was originally supposed to be $200 a month but was reduced to $150 and was never raised.(23) Instead of letters of support from those within the Pentecostal movement, he received letters about how fervently people were praying against his ministry at the college, and one traveling evangelist took to nicknaming him “D.D.” or “Devil Doctor.”(24) These people were not malicious; they were afraid of what they believed education would do to the future generation of pastors, their churches, and the movement as a whole. As a result, they tried their best to dissuade Purdie from continuing in his efforts.
In 1930, the decision was made by PAOC Head Office that the Bible school would be moved to Toronto. However, it only lasted for two years before being shut down. Officially, the school in Toronto was closed because “the cost of establishing a boarding school in Toronto in the midst of the depression was too great.”(25) Practically speaking, it seems that there was more to the case. Firstly, with the relocation of the college, one must wonder why it was assumed that the existing student body and those from Western Canada would all make the trip to the new campus established in Toronto. For many, this would not have been a feasible option.(26) Secondly, bearing in mind Purdie’s ability to establish a successful college in Winnipeg, is it reasonable to believe he was unable to do so in the more highly populated city of Toronto?(27) When one takes into consideration the well-documented fact that many in denominational leadership did not approve of theological schooling it seems strange that they would choose to move the college for any reason than to kill it. Indeed, it seems that was Purdie’s opinion. In an interview with Gordon Franklin, Purdie said of the Toronto college:
Yes, [they] just closed it, passed a resolution in General Conference up here the year before was that the General Executive had full control of the college. …It was all over, they didn’t believe in the theological course, didn’t believe in degrees, didn’t believe in education.(28)
Thus, the college started by Purdie was closed. Yet, that moment was not even close to the end for Purdie’s efforts to bring strong, theological education to Canada’s Pentecostal movement.
Shortly after the close of the Toronto school, J. Eustace Purdie was invited to resume his role as principal and to re-establish his school in Winnipeg. For the next eighteen years, Purdie ran his college with a small staff. He also provided his curriculum for use in other Pentecostal schools in Canada and abroad.(29) When he retired in 1950, Western Bible College closed for good, having “shaped the theology of the 600 students who passed through his classes between 1925 and 1950”(30) and not before several other colleges had been established throughout the districts of the PAOC.(31)
The Legacy Purdie Left Canadian Pentecostals
Having come to some understanding of early Canadian Pentecostalism’s views on theological education and having learned about the efforts of J.E. Purdie in bringing that education to the movement, it is now appropriate to ask oneself whether or not Purdie is deserving of the titles he has been given such as “Father of Canadian Pentecostal Bible Colleges,”(32) “dean of Canadian Pentecostal theologians,”(33) and “[t]he one who made the greatest individual theological contribution to the PAOC.”(34) It is generally accepted, at least within the modern Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, that Purdie’s work and the legacy that he has left makes him uniquely deserving of these accolades. However, not everyone would agree that Purdie has truly managed to create a lasting legacy of theological education and strong doctrine within the PAOC. Among such critics are Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse, editors of the book Winds from the North, which manages to give Purdie his due for his efforts but ultimately asserts that they were not enough.(35)
At a glance, it seems obvious that Purdie’s impact on education within the PAOC was one of great and lasting significance. Not only did six-hundred students receive theological training under Purdie, but many of them “went on to pastor the churches and shape the mentalité of institutional Pentecostalism.”(36) Additionally, several of Western Bible College’s graduates ended up in key leadership and educational roles within the fellowship.(37) As well, Western Bible College, whose structure and curriculum were developed almost single-handedly by Purdie,(38) “provided a model for the PAOC Bible colleges that would follow. By 1947 there were at least six Pentecostal colleges in Canada.”(39) These things taken together leave a strong impression that the man did indeed have the impact so many people have claimed he had.
Yet, some insist that his influence has been exaggerated. While even those skeptical of Purdie’s true influence remark that he did have some impact, they view it as being largely limited to his own region and claim that any effect he had nationally came only as a result of those who graduated from Western.(40) According to Wilkinson and Althouse, Purdie “was never really capable of overcoming the Pentecostal suspicion of intellectualism, which continues to question the necessity of formal education,”(41) and his “vision for Canadian Pentecostal theological education is probably in the same place he found his efforts—purgatory, a holding place….”(42) Instead, they assert that Pentecostalism has held Purdie in high esteem in order to create “a sense of security that Canadian Pentecostalism escaped the hyper-emotionalism and whims associated with any deprivation theory.”(43) Thus, in their minds, Purdie has impacted the PAOC, but not in such a way as to overcome Pentecostal feelings of anti-educationalism or to preserve an orthodox theology for its future.
It is difficult to accept an approach to Purdie’s impact such as Wilkinson and Althouse have proposed. After all, the weight of the evidence seems not to support their claims. Yes, it is true that many within Canadian Pentecostalism continue to be suspicious of education and to be afraid of becoming overly intellectual: for instance, the author had to face some such concerns when he chose to pursue his Master’s degree; however, he has also found denominational support for this endeavour to be strong. In fact, within the fellowship “attendance at universities has now been widely accepted and academic honours are received with some degree of pride….”(44) Furthermore, when one considers how many Pentecostal Bible schools have been birthed in Canada and continue to this day, and the denominational support they receive, it is clear that Purdie’s work at Western, and the work he inspired at other colleges, changed opinions enough to make a difference.
Purdie’s peers, alumni from his college, and most Pentecostal historians agree that he had a significant, positive impact on Pentecostal education and theology and that his influence helped ensure the stability and theological vitality of the movement as it continued to grow. Tom Johnston, the former General Superintendent of the PAOC, stated, “There isn’t a man in all of Canada who has contributed more of a lasting nature to the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada than J. Eustace Purdie.”(45) In 1950, one writer for Western’s magazine, The Gleaner, remarked, “The young movement was most fortunate in securing…this consecrated minister, teacher and theologian…. He contributed to the…Assemblies a solidity and strength which has left an indelible mark on…hundreds of its ministers and missionaries.”(46) Founder of North West Bible Institute in Edmonton, Alberta, D.N. Buntain, commented: “The College has made it possible for God-called young men and women to go forward with a knowledge of men and how best to approach them.”(47) Rev. Ratz, Dean of Education at Eastern Pentecostal Bible College wrote: “[Western’s] students have been influential, to a great extent, in the stability and development of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.”(48) Even the Dictionary of Christianity in America, writing about the PAOC, notes: “This dynamic renewal movement was fortunate in its first educational venture, for its principal was J.E. Purdie…who laid excellent theological foundations under much of the denomination.”(49) Finally, Guenther remarks: “Without the leadership personnel supplied by WBC and the regional Bible schools, the denomination would not have been able to sustain its remarkable rate of growth in Canada, nor its missionary activity around the globe.”(50) It is difficult, indeed, to find many who disagree with these sentiments.
In conclusion, through his position as principal of Western Bible College, J.E. Purdie played a significant role in shifting the overarching view of Canadian Pentecostals away from the anti-educationalism and anti-creedalism that was rampant at its beginning toward a more mature outlook that understood the importance of good theological training based on historical, biblical doctrines, helping to create a stronger denomination better able to handle its rapid growth over the long-run. Purdie, being full of the Spirit, persisted against much opposition and is now widely regarded as one of the most important men in Canadian Pentecostalism. Did Purdie’s efforts result in an immediate change in the thinking of Canada’s Pentecostals? That is unlikely, as there remain today vestiges of the fear of education and of creeds and theologies that were once prevalent within the movement. Yet, with perseverance and over time, what Purdie began has made a difference in the fellowship and has helped to form the denomination into one that continues to maintain strong, theological vitality through its balance of both charismatic experience and Bible-based education and training for ministers and leaders.