Spreading the Word, Bryan Gilling

Bible and Society: A Sesquicentennial History of the Bible Society in New Zealand
Peter J Lineham
Daphne Brasell Associates/Bible Society in New Zealand, $34.95,
ISBN 0 908896 46 8

The production and distribution of the Bible is perhaps the quintessential protestant activity. A central difference of protestantism from pre-Vatican II catholicism is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, according to which all may equally approach God without the supervention of an ordained priesthood and church hierarchy. The Bible Society is an incarnation of precisely that protestant spirit; every person should be provided with the Bible “without note or comment” and thus with the opportunity to respond to God’s self-revelation in it.

The Bible was the first book published in New Zealand and until the 1850s was sought after by Maori as one of the most prized taonga of the pakeha. Missionaries contended over some 30 years with isolation, linguistic ignorance, incompetent proofreaders and lack of equipment to reduce Maori to a written language and then translate from Hebrew and Greek. Support came from Britain as the Bible was regarded as the most important of evangelistic tools. Local auxiliaries of the society were formed to assist in this endeavour and to distribute scriptures to all New Zealanders. They languished somewhat as most British protestants already possessed “a Bible in the baggage”.

The 1857 Indian mutiny was widely blamed by contemporaries on the failure not just of missionaries but of officials and indeed of the whole British nation, to civilise and educate India. Such civilisation was founded on christianity which imparted morality and order and permitted progress. So, as in New Zealand, missionaries founded schools, teaching a mixture of biblical, academic and practical subjects, rather than simply preaching and this evangelical, educational discourse was at least implicitly predicated on the Bible’s translation and dissemination. What of the situation three years later? Was a failure to impart christian civilisation also attributed to secular and religious authorities here? Soon after, a society newsletter claimed: “As a nation we owe all we have and are to Bible reading.” So the connection was overtly made here, too.

Many mid-nineteenth-century Maori leaders were familiar with christianity and many of those rejected it; perhaps 20% turned to Pai Marire and many others to Ringatu with its heavy Old Testament emphasis and frequent identification of ancient Hebrews with Maori. So, as Binney, Elsmore and Lineham have previously shown, bringing Maori the Bible bore unintended fruit. Subsequently, many christian Maori have come to regard the Paipera Tapu as a taonga in its own right and have adopted much the same attitude towards it as have fundamentalists towards the King James version in English. Not a jot or tittle of text may be altered to update or correct and even as a physical object the book is treated with reverence. This hinders any retranslation into currently-used Maori.

What were the links between Bible and flag, between commerce and christianity? Consideration of this issue has traditionally been restricted to the missionaries but when such colonial worthies as Governors Grey, Gore Browne and Bowen were presidents of the society and leading colonist J C Firth was treasurer for 25 years there is some wider connection. This book does not get around to investigating such links and there is plenty of scope here for a monograph or two.

The Bible Society offered a social function for pakeha, too. From its beginning, the British and Foreign Bible Society and its New Zealand offshoot provided the opportunity for establishment-minded protestants to come together, both “starchy” Anglicans and “somewhat pretentious mahogany-toned” nonconformists. They could help both benighted heathens in Africa and the poor of the local city without compromising their ecclesiastical integrity or offending their sense of propriety by being sucked into undisciplined, unrespectable evangelistic campaigns.

It allowed an expression of devotion without “enthusiasm”, links with other christians without compromising one’s own denominational distinctives and an opportunity to do good works with an eternal payoff, rather than the transient physical benefit of mere relief work. In all of this there was a mixture of British culture and civilisation and assumptions of their superiority with a concomitant responsibility to spread that civilisation and religion to those less fortunate who lacked them. After all, society members were people of their own times, and the society was engendered in an imperialistic environment while christianity is by definition a missionary religion seeking to win the hearts and minds of non-believers.

Up to the present day the society has continued to have its share of socially-prominent supporters, including Sir John Marshall, virtually every non-female Governor-General and leading members of the business and judicial communities. This has probably been because it has remained firmly non-denominational (though with a membership over-representation of Presbyterians and Brethren). Indeed, the very large number of leading members who were of other than Anglican persuasion may indicate the society was a means of gaining social recognition, a speculation strengthened by the numbers who have been Freemasons and/or Rotarians from the mid-nineteenth century until Marshall’s time at least. Many from such backgrounds were also British Israel enthusiasts; I wonder if these were?


The Bible Society’s attitude of self-help in seeking personal enlightenment fitted well with the individualism of frontier society. But the drift to individualism was linked with settlers’ anticlericalism and radicalism. In religion this led to secularism and ecumenism so that by the end of the nineteenth century visitors were commenting on the lack of belief in the Bible’s authenticity and christian enthusiasts were finding their public appeals for obedience to biblical teachings being coralled behind church walls. The 1877 Education Act’s “secular” requirement was a manifestation of this spirit which, aimed at denominational schools, largely removed religion from the education system.

Lineham says little about the uses to which the Bible was put. Does this reflect a certain lack of self-assessment by the society? Nor does he have much to say about the denominational differences in attitudes to the Bible amongst the society’s protestant supporters. Did the many Presbyterians view the work they were doing and their product in the same way as did Anglicans or Baptists?

Roman Catholics from Bishop Pompallier on opposed unrestricted Bible distribution and this attitude, incomprehensible to protestants, fed the sectarianism which remained rife until well after the mid-twentieth century. The Catholic hierarchs’ reluctance was towards permitting individuals to reach their own interpretations which might conflict with the magisterium of the church, as had happened most spectacularly in the Reformation. The society reciprocated by refusing to print the Douai translation or the “Apocrypha”. Openness to personal Bible reading and study was one of the more liberating innovations resulting from Vatican II in 1963.

Lineham has not written a narrow history of the society which commissioned the work. He looks more broadly at the impact on the country. Nevertheless, the book is patently an organisational history — more “The Bible and the society” — with the multitude of factoids such a work spawns (resulting in a 17-page index comprised very largely of names). The researcher’s temptation is always to include every detail that has been unearthed and the organisation’s is to want included everyone and everything associated with it. Though the book is an encyclopedically valuable for the society and church historians, the inattentive general reader will find the plethora of names, places and dates confusing, compounded by the repeated inclusion of thumbnails of seemingly every person named, often containing details extraneous to their Bible Society role.

A parachurch organisation (a single-purpose organisation rather than a denomination or congregation) such as this provided opportunities for women to participate in ways not generally available in church activities or society at large. They could be organisers, not just of tea parties and jumble sales, but of fundraising campaigns and strategies — although not members of regional or national committees, or paid general secretaries. This echoed the practicalities of christian overseas missions in the twentieth century where women were more numerous and assumed roles of teaching, preaching and administration generally forbidden them in western congregations, organisations and committees.

The Bible Society’s story also reveals changes in New Zealanders’ approaches to the Bible and to literature generally. It has had to change its methods of operation to compete as a publisher with other publishing and translation organisations, as a distributor with groups like the Gideons (of hotel dressing-table fame) and as a seller with all manner of christian and “secular” bookshops from Scripture Union to Whitcoulls. Numerous versions of the Bible are now available, from critical Hebrew and Greek texts to limited-vocabulary translations and paraphrases; they come as text-only or with copious self-help annotations targeting specific social and theological groups: women, children, workers, evangelists, dispensationalists, and so on. This reflects the commercialisation of much of modern christianity, commercial in ways different from the pilgrimages and sale of indulgences of old. The increasing production of “portions” rather than whole Bibles reflects a generally less literate target society.

The changes also reveal the modern trend, inherent in both individualistic protestantism and laissez-faire post-modernism, further and further away from the pre-Reformation magisterium of the Catholic church towards personal, private spirituality. Private religion includes of necessity the individual’s ability to interpret the scriptures for himself or herself. This was an historic object of the society in attempting to supply everyone with Bibles but ultimately gives free rein to crazies and inspired alike. And the modern results would have curled the hair of the founding worthies.

Virtually every nineteenth-century New Zealander had an opinion about the Bible and its contents. It was taken for granted as at least laying the moral foundation of western civilisation. In the late twentieth century it appears a matter of supreme indifference to most. Yet in the late 1980s perhaps 85% of homes still had at least one Bible; perhaps 11% of adults read it frequently. This should indicate that the Bible plays a significant role in the spirituality and attitude formation of large numbers but this is hard to reconcile with the widespread apathy, not to say antipathy, towards the Bible and matters christian evident in contemporary society. Is there an underlying private spirituality to which people are loathe to admit in public? Is the Bible being put to less readily identifiable uses than formerly? Are those who still read, reflect on, and try to apply what they read in it actually a hard core of true believers, refined by real commitment now that little social approbation attaches to public religious observance?

I am certain that the Christian Heritage insistence that there was some past golden age of dedication, when pretty nearly all were practising christians, is a mirage. Bible ownership and reading may well be similar to church attendance as expressions of spirituality. It is arguable that, as spiritual entities, leaner christian churches are better off now than they were when people attended merely for form’s sake or as part of a general social acceptance of that intertwining of protestant christianity with British culture. Those who remain when there is no benefit other than spiritual are more likely to be “true” christians with the nominal and merely socially-conscious burned off now. Making such a value-judgment, of course, echoes an argument running back to the conversion of Constantine and the alignment of church with state after three centuries of social stigma and persecution. Not everyone then or since has thought that alignment entirely beneficial.

A major question remaining largely still unanswered is exactly what the society’s work achieved. To what extent did it succeed in bringing the Bible to New Zealanders? This book details the society’s efforts but says little about the Bible’s recipients, whether the unadorned text was read or understood, or applied in readers’ beliefs and practices. The question no doubt exercises the society today.

Bryan Gilling is a Wellington historian. He has written extensively on New Zealand religious history and edited Be Ye Separate on fundamentalism and Godly Schools? on Christian education in this country. 

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