Tokens of Grace: Cape Breton's Open-Air Communion Tradition.


160 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-1-897009-18-5
DDC 285'.271695




Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.


Tokens of Grace is an impressive work of scholarship, despite its all too brief 108 pages. For proof, look at the footnotes: 32 for the opening chapter of just seven pages; a whopping 333 to supplement the second and most extensive chapter, which takes up 53 pages; and 124 for the final 31 pages outlining the steady decline in what the author calls “Communion Season in Retreat.”


Historian Laurie Stanley-Blackwell admits in the first sentence of her introduction, “Little did I anticipate when I first started studying the history of Cape Breton Presbyterianism for my MA thesis in 1978, I would find it such an engrossing subject that [it] would continue to command my attention for almost thirty years.” I must confess that the erudition and research evident in the first two chapters left me both bewildered and confused as she described in great detail how rural Cape Bretoners, mostly recent arrivals or direct descendents of their Scottish forbearers, kept alive the open-air communal tradition with their semi-annual (and often more frequent) visits, often by foot, to devout religious gatherings that could last several days. My confusion was caused mainly by the absence of a chronology, a problem (for me at least) posed by reference notes, especially in the lengthy second chapter entitled “The Days of Sweet Gospel,” that often included several events over years, even decades, and in different locales. That qualification aside, I got the main drift: these rural, intensely conservative, and pious Cape Bretoners, especially their male preachers (it was a very male-oriented society), were extremely devout followers of what we would consider today an extreme band of Christianity—so extreme that the rapid decline of these open-air gatherings by the early 20th century came as no surprise.

            The third and final chapter describes how the younger generation rapidly succumbed to modern ways which left little sympathy or understanding of how their immediate ancestors, mostly Gaelic speakers, could and did take their religious beliefs so seriously. This brief but scholarly study provides a new perspective on 19th-century Nova Scotia, and especially Cape Breton, society. The research involved is almost mind-boggling.


Stanley-Blackwell, Laurie., “Tokens of Grace: Cape Breton's Open-Air Communion Tradition.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,