God’s very own local history, Paul Morris

Building God’s Own Country: Historical Essays on Religions in New Zealand
ed John Stenhouse and Jane Thomson
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276928

In a recent article Otago University’s John Stenhouse forcefully contended that New Zealand historians have largely overlooked the significance of religion. This claim has considerable merit although it is somewhat overstated. In fact, in the last decade researchers have produced a number of major studies, theses and articles focused on religious individuals, churches, movements and broader issues. Stenhouse and I would also, I suspect, disagree over how to best remedy this scholarly lacuna and work towards a history of New Zealand that might fully acknowledge the importance of religious beliefs and behaviours.

We need to begin by asking why our historians have failed to grasp the significance of the religious dimensions of our history. Such an historiographical inquiry would highlight the lack of sympathy or understanding of religion in the work of Sinclair, Oliver or Hamer and the overly material explanations of events by Belich or King. Furthermore, our historians have rarely taken the time to grasp the differences between the Arminianism and other Evangelical Christian perspectives of our Protestant missionaries, or the Augustinianism or Thomism of our Catholic clergy and the impact that this had on their intentions, plans and actions. The beginning of our race relations, our settlement patterns, our civil wars, our immigration profile, our moral laws and regulations and, most importantly, our hopes for the present and future all derive from debates and disputes of an essentially religious nature.

The absence of an established church in New Zealand also makes it harder to assess the impact of religion where it is institutionally fragmented, and this may well have led unwary historians into not recognising the rather different pattern of religious beliefs in public life in this country. A number of good denominational histories and even a credible history of the churches in New Zealand have been published but as yet there has been little attention given to the role of beliefs and practices on the public and communal life of the nation.

Our national addiction to biography rather than integrated histories has also led our researchers to reduce religion to the private rather than the public domain. Sometimes perfectly recognisable moral and religious positions are written off as individual quirks or anomalies. It is not just our secularism, as Stenhouse asserts, but the development of our own very particular discourse of the exclusion of religion from public life that has shaped this neglect.

How might we begin to put this right? We need to articulate our views on the role and nature of religion in New Zealand, based on research into religion in the churches and, as importantly, beyond. Our study of religion needs to bring biography and autobiography together with an awareness of theology and the values subscribed to by communities and individuals. When we do this, we find there is much more religion about than we might have thought and that it has played, and continues to play, an important part in shaping our history. Currently, I am doing research towards a study, provisionally titled An Immoral History of Aotearoa/New Zealand. There are five themes – race, sex, gambling,
alcohol/drugs, and money – all of which have been major national concerns and none of which can be understood without sustained reference to religious beliefs, values and arguments.

Our debates over morals and values continue to be defined by religious and theological positions. This is not simply a matter of reading the church press and sermons (which must, of course, be undertaken). It needs to be set within the context of our very specific religious history – a history which has marginalised public religious discourse and yet has a Christian political party supporting the ruling coalition government, and one or perhaps two new religious political parties in the offing. We continue to debate religion in terms of civil union, prostitution, and the religious rights of minorities. We need to explore this religion in our politics, in our poetry, in our art, on talkback radio and in our popular culture. Our strategies for doing so must reflect our own pattern of the religious and the secular, and must also reflect an awareness of the differences between these and those of the US, Britain and Australia.

Building God’s Own Country: Historical Essays on Religions in New Zealand is the third published collection of essays from history postgraduates at Otago. As such, it forms part of John Stenhouse’s attempt to make the case for the value of historical studies of religion and convince his fellow historians of the significance of research on religions for their work. The 15 essays date from a 26-year period from 1975 to 2001 and evidence a strong research-training programme narrowly focused on the Otago region and the careful use of local primary sources to refine and confirm received historical wisdom.

Stenhouse’s introduction makes a good case for the relevance of religion in the contemporary world by reference to Ayatollah Khomeini, September 11 and the 2004 US presidential campaign, and for its relevance in New Zealand by discussing Winston Peters’ views on immigration and sectarianism, and Lloyd Geering’s gong. (Although it should be noted that none of the essays themselves actually makes mention of any of these elements.) Jane Thomson, Stenhouse’s co-editor, shortened the essays from their usual academic format, and, following her recent death, the book is dedicated to her. For reasons not clear to me – except perhaps time, convenience and/or the format of the existing series – Stenhouse reports that rewriting the essays was “resisted”. The essays do, as he rightly insists, reflect their place and time. This has some obvious disadvantages in that a number of the essays make claims that have been overtaken by new research, and a number are just limited in their scope and depth of analysis. It is hard not to conclude that the authors should have been given the opportunity to revisit their postgraduate writing and update their references and conclusions.

The range of the essays is impressively broad and includes studies of early Otago Presbyterians, Anglicans, Dunedin Jews, Mormons, the Salvation Army and the Chinese community. The chapters are arranged in four sections which deal respectively with southern Presbyterians, other faith communities, missionaries, and religion and gender.

I began with Maureen Kate Cooper’s description of the Dunedin Jewish community in the 19th century. She helpfully distinguishes the three phases of Jewish immigration to the region and portrays some of the best-known names in retailing and commerce who were members of the Dunedin synagogue. Noting the assimilation of the community, she stops short of offering any analysis of the communal dynamics that might explain this. The absolute contrast that she draws between groups which make a “contribution to community life” and closed communities belies the fact that many Jewish communities that made extensive contributions to civic and cultural life retained very strong communal links and maintained strong collective identities. Why this did not happen in Dunedin is fascinating and in need of further explanation. A chance to rewrite might also have allowed for the many errors in terms of religious nomenclature and detail to be corrected.

Rosalind McClean offers a partially successful revisionist appraisal of Thomas Burns and the early leadership of Otago’s Free Church, urging us to view that stern clergyman as a sympathetic supporter of the needs and aspirations of Scottish settlers rather than as Sinclair’s “censorious old bigot”. Margaret Morgan pens a biographical sketch of the Presbyterian minister Reverend D M Stuart (vice-chancellor and then first chancellor of Otago University) and outlines the sad disintegration – due to drink, depression and illness – of the family of this humane and civilised man, who played such a central role in the history of the city. Stuart was the minister at Knox Church, and the musical traditions of that church from 1860 until 1990 are explored by Jennifer Andrewes. Alison Clark examines the fierce debates between the observant and their “secularist” opponents over Sabbath-keeping in Dunedin – still an issue for some.

The second section, in addition to the one on Dunedin Jewry, has essays on the Congregational church, the “Sallies” in Milton and on the editor of the leading Roman Catholic newspaper. Keith Furniss’ piece on the Congregational church from 1862 to 1966 traces the rise and fall of this pious Protestant community with its leaders’ promotion of the prohibition of alcohol and gambling – as major threats to the livelihoods of the poor. B D McLeod gives us another biographical essay, this time on Bishop Patrick Moran, the founder of the Tablet in 1873. The paper gave voice to the bishop’s vehement anti-British Irish nationalism and his often equally vitriolic anti-Protestant views, aimed specifically at the dominant Presbyterians. Moran’s paper created a Catholic consciousness as a discrete minority community with its own mores and traditions. It was opposed to the “fanaticism” of the temperance movement and claimed that it was “heretical” to regard “spiritual liquors” as poisonous, even if it also at times gave space to those who supported prohibition. Michael Hay’s “Onward Christian Soldiers” details a decade in the history of the Milton Salvation Army and the adaptation of this British movement to its new environment, centring on the national cause célèbre court cases on the legality of open-air meetings and the hugely divisive impact the Army had on that small town.

Susan Irvine’s study looks at the Reverend Alexander “Teacher” Don. He was sent out by the Presbyterian Church to convert the Chinese, but over time became “sinicised” and sought spiritual rather than cultural converts to his true Christian faith. There are also two essays on Christian masculinity in Dunedin. Kieran O’Connell describes three Dunedin men – a clergyman, a politician and a journalist – and their views of a moral society based on “brotherly love” and their particular conceptions of manhood. Justine Smith delves into Dunedin Manhood, the Dunedin YMCA newspaper, where Jesus is a “man’s man” and camp was designed to foster “muscles” and “cleaner living”. The deaconess movement in the Presbyterian Church in the first part of the 20th century, the precursor of women’s ordination, is the focus of Karyn-Maree Piercy’s essay, and Angela Matthews takes up the theme of deaconesses in the Anglican Church. There are also essays on the rise and ignoble fall of Church Missionary Society‘s William Colenso by Grant Phillipson, and Jennie Henderson’s study on the Mormons from 1854 to 1940, particularly in relation to Maori.

These essays without exception make for interesting reading. They all display an attention to primary sources examined for the first time or carefully examined again in the light of new insights or information. The majority of the essays focus on Dunedin, and collectively they add to the rich, layered view of mainstream Presbyterianism and the minority religious and ethnic communities in that region. What is conveyed is a more open and inclusive society than is usually recorded, and one that was generally welcoming to newcomers. The links that were forged across denominations, sectarian groups and communities form an integral part of the New Zealand narrative of our religions. These dynamic connections gave rise to new issue-specific alliances and constellations, and the debates over the place of religion were central to the cultural and intellectual life of the community. From Sabbath laws to Lloyd Geering, Dunedin has clearly played its role in our religious history.

In conclusion, this is a volume that I did enjoy reading. Every one of the essays displays a degree of mastery of sources, reports and original information, but equally every essay is primarily descriptive. Where is the analysis? Where is the awareness of New Zealand historiography? Where is any critical appraisal of sources? Where is the recognition of the role of theology in religious history? The essays represent excellent narrative preliminary work which begs for critical analysis and the integration of their findings into the broader view of religion and its role in New Zealand.


Paul Morris teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


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