“The Apostle of Nova Scotia”, was the nickname coined for Canada’s greatest revivalist, Henry Alline. Alline was born in Newport, Rhode Island to a family whose roots went back to The Mayflower. Around 1759 his father dove at the opportunity to claim free fertile land in Nova Scotia. Despite not having a farming background, he moved the family to what would later become the town of Falmouth, Nova Scotia. Although Henry had little formal education, he was a natural academic who read widely and understood much more than was expected of a farm boy in rural Nova Scotia.
As an adolescent, Henry dabbled in what he described as “worldly” things – drinking, girls, partying, etc. All the while, he had spiritual visions in his twenties that eventually led to him surrendering his life to Christ on March 26, 1775. He felt a strong call to preach the gospel, but his lack of formal education and the pressure to continue the family farm left him agonizing over what to do.
At this point in history, the British had centralized political control of Nova Scotia to Halifax and there wasn’t much leadership opportunity for an ambitious young man who wanted to make his mark on the world. Add to this the intense calling Henry Alline felt and you have the perfect set up for what would become the greatest revival Canada (technically, pre-Canada) has ever seen.
After a year of consideration, Henry heeded the call to ministry and set out on a mission of itinerant ministry in the tradition of John and Charles Wesley. Henry traveled all around rural Nova Scotia, holding revival meetings and calling people into what he dubbed the “New Light” movement. He fashioned himself as a Baptist, but he rejected the mainstream clerical theology of Calvinism that was prominent in many of the established churches. Instead, he preached a freewill theology based on God’s love for all of humanity. Henry Alline did not care for secondary theological issues (for example, “mode of baptism”, ) and preached primarily on God’s love and the importance of responding to God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. For this reason, he was clearly evangelical in the broadest sense and laid a foundation for future evangelicals who would focus on the primary work of Christ’s death on the cross, over and above secondary divisive issues.
Many people in Nova Scotia responded to Alline’s revival meetings by joining the New Light movement. Because Alline encouraged congregants to participate in the services by praying, sharing, and singing; he gave a voice to women, children, and youth who did not have a say in the male-led mainstream churches. He encouraged lay church leadership to be spiritual leaders by preaching, praying, and singing outside of official church meeting times. All of this put him at odds with the “professional” church leadership of the day. Henry was the people’s favourite, and he regularly won their support when mainstream ministers opposed him. As people in rural Nova Scotia became more spiritually attuned, many social programs also sprouted up and served the humanitarian needs of folks living in those communities.
Although Henry Alline wrote down his theology, his greatest legacy was his focus on the evangelical essential of Christ’s death on the cross and the gift of salvation offered through it. His followers were called Allinites, but many of the churches they came from (or founded) followed any variety of theological frameworks. The Freewill Baptist Denomination was not started by Henry Alline, but they do trace their movement back to him, and hold to a similar theology.
Henry traveled relentlessly, in sickness and health, for eight years between 1776 and 1784. Finally, while on a ministry tour in New England, he succumbed to tuberculosis and passed away at the young age of 36. Ironically, a mainstream Calvinist minister, Reverend David McClure, tended to Alline on his death bed and ensured a proper service and burial.
The legacy Henry Alline left for today’s Canadian evangelicals are threefold. First, his ministry is a reminder for Christians to focus on the primary theological importance of bringing the gospel to Canadians. Second, his life demonstrates how powerfully God can use a person who is completely committed to Him. In eight years he brought about a spiritual revival unlike any seen in Canada since. Finally, his life serves as a reminder that God can use anyone, from any background, to boldly proclaim the gospel, see hearts changed, and bring about a positive social change.
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