A tour-de-force of compression, Rory Sweetman

Christianity in Aotearoa: A History of Church and Society in New Zealand
Allan Davidson
Education for Ministry, Wellington, 1991, $27.20

Originally planned as a course text by the Education for Ministry Board, this book has now deservedly reached a wider audience. In a tour-de-force of compression and comprehension Dr Davidson has charted the entire course of Christianity in this country. The synthesis of much original research, Christianity in Aotearoa is a remarkably easy read. The author has not allowed his awareness that ‘for every generalisation there could be many qualifications’ to intimidate him in his task. His major theme is the interaction of church and society, from the peak of reforming zeal by the various churches (Prohibition, Sabbatarianism, Bible in Schools) to the slow, sad acceptance of their failure to reshape New Zealand society. Along the way he rescues the contribution of women to missionary and colonial Christianity from historical obscurity. It was surprising to learn (for example) that in 1892 some 146 out of 296 full-time commissioned Salvation Army officers were women.

Davidson also investigates the cultural and religious interaction between Maori and the missionary churches. He calls for more attention to the emergence of Maori Christianity, especially the leadership role of Maori as catechists, teachers and evangelists. The use of the ‘Te Tiriti’ draws the reader’s attention to the fact that it was the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi that was read, heard, understood and eventually signed by Maori leaders. Recent initiatives in bi-culturalism within the churches can be seen as a tardy acknowledgment of the failure of early assimilationist policies.

Despite the wide sweep of his study Davidson displays a sensitive touch on the cleavages within Pakeha religious ranks (‘no one group had a monopoly on bigotry’), while demonstrating how the churches’ inability to coalesce against the rising tide of secularism helped to marginalise them. He prefers to highlight harmony rather than discord: ‘In the small rural communities denominational difference has sometimes given way to a pragmatic scheduling of ecumenical services with each church taking their turn on a monthly timetable. Small town churches have been expressions of the richness of religious subcultures and traditions which contribute to the diversity of New Zealand identity. Suburban churches have served as places in which people, often from a similar socio-economic-ethnic background, have come together, made friendships, supported one another and contributed to the well-being of the local community’.

Mistakes are inevitable in such an exercise, but few have slipped through. It is disappointing to read O’Reilly and Elliot (for J J P O’Reily and Howard Elliott) in such a professional publication. It was Henry Cleary’s successor as Tablet editor who claimed that Dr Kelly had made the paper ‘stink in the nostrils’ of decent Protestants (although the bishop would surely have agreed). The author has handled the Catholic chapter in our history very well, despite the few published works available for consultation. When the various Catholic diocesan archives are eventually opened for historical research (if Hell has not frozen over in the meantime) we can look forward to a more definitive treatment. The book is designed to be used with Transplanted Christianity: Documents Illustrating Aspects of New Zealand Church History (Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1989), which the author has co-edited with P J Lineham.


Rory Sweetman is a historian who lives on Waiheke Island, Auckland.



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