Hot gospels and wowserism, Paul Morris

The Spirit of the Past: Essays on Christianity in New Zealand History 
Geoffrey Troughton and Hugh Morrison (eds) 
Victoria University Press, $50.00, 
ISBN 9780864736543

Theology no longer forms part of a university education in the social sciences or humanities, where a functional secularism prevails. Commentators and academics have religious ideas derived from distant denominational instruction, or lunchtime bible sessions in junior school, or indistinct resonances from Sunday schools long ago. The contemporary generation has largely been denied even these remnants. The debate between Augustinians and Pelagians or the Arminian dimensions of New Zealand Methodism are simply absent from the national, or any other, curriculum. Has religion been overlooked as a factor in New Zealand history? Have our most widely read historians ‒ Sinclair, Oliver, King, Belich et al – been guilty of minimising, misrepresenting and misunderstanding religion’s historical role under the weight of their grand narratives of our progressive liberation from the past, a past that, of course, included religion? Simply put, are they right, and is it a zero sum game, and so more progress necessarily means less religion?

The 13 essays in this readable new collection address this issue, both as historiography, and in terms of a number of case studies, and collectively contend that a serious consideration of the faith of leading figures and more broadly of sectors of the populace does indeed help us to interpret the past and to appreciate the ways in which religious thinking and practices have significantly shaped individual and social lives.

The first two chapters ‒ a debate between two of the country’s best-known religious historians, Peter Lineham and John Stenhouse ‒ provide a fine setting for the volume. The former carefully delineates the latter’s claims that the modernist historians, such as Sinclair and Olsen, excised religion, particularly in their largely unresearched assumption of the secularity of the New Zealand working man. Acknowledging that recent remedial attempts by historians have been mainly in reply to Stenhouse’s own provocations, Lineham recognises that this in turn raises other questions, such as the need to explain anew the evident decline of religious affiliation and practice. Stenhouse’s response is that while Christianity has indeed been in decline since the 1960s, this has been mostly at the institutional level, and that “traditions of Christian behaving and believing, well rooted in popular culture, proved more tenacious than Christian belonging”. This view is consistent with recent studies of Britain and elsewhere where there is a gap between religious identity and belief, and church attendance and formal affiliation. Both historians agree that there is much research still to be undertaken here to test this proposition.

The materialist dimensions of Pākehā popular religion, as opposed to the official, ecclesiastical view, are explored by Alison Clarke in a fascinating essay on the complex theological and social factors behind the choice to take, or not take, communion. There are two chapters on New Zealand revivalism in the 1880s, one by Janet Crawford, focusing on the woman evangelist, Mrs Hampson and her “hot gospel”, and the second, by Geoffrey Troughton, on the link between revivalism and temperance, examining the ways in which religious revivals were in themselves revived by becoming “gospel temperance” campaigns. Taken together, these discussions emphasise how all over the country thousands came out to listen to these (largely visiting) celebrity preachers, and how their support proved to be essential to the fostering of wide-scale support for prohibition on religious grounds, which itself became part of a new phase and form of activist revivalism. Mrs Hampson was married to a preacher, as most of the women preachers were, and these couples often engaged in double acts, generating a lasting tradition that stretches to Bishop and Mrs Tamaki today.

The influential role of the church in courtship and marriage between the world wars is tackled by Charlotte Greenhalgh in an exploration of “the church as site of romance”, and by Chris van der Krogt on the “evils of mixed marriages” according to Catholicism. Greenhalgh writes of the churches as important places of “sociability, frivolity and fun” where intending couples met, love blossomed, and relationships developed. The affective nature of these relationships was formed in the context of the churches and the sage advice, followed or subverted, that was proffered by priests and ministers. Catholic authorities were vitriolic about the dangers of Catholic out-marriage and went out of their way to make things uncomfortable for such young couples, but, as Van der Krogt shows, the gap between theology and reality led to the exercise of lay rather than ecclesiastical power, forcing the church to become more accommodating as the numbers reached epidemic proportions. And this in turn had a determining impact on the post-war Catholic Church. There are a number of other essays on Catholicism, including Nicholas Reid’s study of the decline and fall of the Catholic Youth Movement as part of the decline of youth movements more generally, and Diane Stevens on the methodological concerns raised by the study of New Zealand nuns. Other topics include Adrienne Puckey’s essay on the mutually beneficial, pragmatic and changing relationships between Maori and the missionary churches that courted them, Stephen Donald on the history of the Uawa Mission Station at Mangarara Pa in Tolaga Bay, and Stuart Lange on the half century of the Westminster Fellowship Evangelicals and its role within the New Zealand Presbyterian Church.

Due to the unit chaplain system, military chaplaincies in WWII became Catholic, or broadly ecumenically Protestant. Chaplains had an acutely busy time during the war, and many servicemen were drawn to services and the comforts of religion. Geoffrey Haworth, researching the life and work of Anglican military chaplains, argues that, once servicemen returned home, this enhanced religiosity didn’t however translate into post-war Sunday worship but into time at the Returned Servicemen’s Association and participation in ANZAC Day parades. His most plausible explanation is that the relationship between soldiers and religion was based on one-on-one relationships with particular chaplains rather than with denominational churches as such. We await further research on the RSA and its “religious” rituals and beliefs, and the religious role that it played in the aftermath of the two world wars.

The essays, all embodying new historical research, offer rich narratives of religion in our history, especially in the diversity of theologies and religious forms. They also demonstrate just how limiting is the umbrella designation of religion as Puritan or wowserish. But to return to the question raised at the beginning of this review – are these examples simply superstructural, peripheral to our real history, at least as constructed by our watery Marxist national historians? Are our historians correct in a sort of untimely fashion? That is, even if they got the details muddled and prematurely killed off religion in New Zealand, have they not been proven right by the increasing numbers of those who generationally have no religion? Does all this religion matter now at all? And, if so, how? These essays, at their best, are broader than those typical of denominational histories, raising religious and theological issues as part of more general social historical concerns.

Have the editors achieved their stated aim of showing the value of research on religion for understanding our national history? Yes. What this volume so powerfully conveys is the ways in which the manifold religious frameworks shape, and have shaped, our consciousness and self-understanding and that of our communities. Our internal space, as it were, was, and still is, in part theologically structured and makes little sense without reference to this context. We have mentalities, predispositions to particular ways of thinking, feeling and acting formed by our cultural and religious histories, or to use the title of this collection, “the spirit of the past”, and it should not surprise us that these have persisted beyond their formal religious organisational lives. This collection asks that we consider these mentalities and their contemporary afterlives. The annual gatherings of the Working Group of the Religious History Association of Aotearoa New Zealand were the original context for these papers, and the editors perhaps do not need to be quite so modest in recording the achievements of this historical subgroup as the volume clearly points to its contribution to our country’s broader social, not just religious, history. The highly readable essays in  The Spirit of the Past successfully put religion back into our history in all its complex and nuanced forms, and strongly call on us to challenge the still dominant “secular nationalist” version of our history.


Paul Morris is professor in the Religious Studies Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.


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