Page 1: Biography
Presbyterian church leader, philanthropist
This biography, written by Dorothy Page, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 1, 1990
Jane Burns was baptised in the parish of Monkton, in Ayr, Scotland, on 24 February 1835, the second daughter of the Reverend Thomas Burns, early religious leader of the Free Church settlement in Otago, and his wife, Clementina Grant. Her future husband, William Bannerman, was also of Scots descent. He was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, on 8 September 1822, the son of George Bannerman and his wife, Ann Gray.
It was Jane who reached New Zealand first, arriving with her family on the Philip Laing at Port Chalmers on 15 April 1848. She has left a delightful account of the voyage and early days in the colony. She had an unquenchable zest for the great adventure, loved and admired her parents and revelled in 'as sweet and lovely a home as heart could desire'. But in 1855 she was persuaded to 'live henceforth under a flag', a discreet reference to her approaching marriage to William Bannerman.
After schooling in Edinburgh William studied for four years at Edinburgh University and then at the Free Church Theological College there. He kept himself by private tutoring, and with one pupil made an extensive walking tour of Europe, including an ascent of Mont Blanc, with a vigour that foreshadowed his later journeys in New Zealand. He served for two years in the parish of Crathie, before offering himself to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland for work in New Zealand. Together with the Reverend William Will he arrived on the Stately at Port Chalmers on 5 February 1854, at first staying in the Burns household. The area south of Dunedin was divided between the newcomers, Will being allocated the Taieri district, and Bannerman a huge, sparsely populated territory stretching from Waihola to Riverton.
Bannerman held the first service in South Otago on 19 March 1854, in the home of one of the five families who made up the congregation. Over the next two years a 'little church in the bush' was built by volunteers at Puerua, on land donated for the purpose and using timber from the property. Through its open door on Sundays, Jane Bannerman was to write later, bird song mingled with songs of praise; on weekdays, more prosaically, it was used as a school. On 27 June 1854 Bannerman became a founding member of the Presbytery of Otago, the first to be established in New Zealand, together with the Reverend Thomas Burns and the Reverend William Will, and lay members Captain Cargill, John Allan and John McGlashan.
On 21 May 1856 in Dunedin William Bannerman and Jane Burns were married by Jane's father. Husband and wife differed sharply in personality: William, imposing in stature, uncompromising in opinion, was a 'typical representative of the old school of Scotch Presbyterian ministers'; Jane, resembling him in strength of will, had also a grace and warmth that charmed all acquaintances, a 'soft invincibility'. Both had been indelibly influenced by the Disruption that had torn apart the Church of Scotland in 1843 – Jane's father was one of the leading dissidents, and William, a theological student, had supported the protesting ministers. For almost 30 years, while they raised their six children, the Bannermans were to share the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland in South Otago.
Their immediate concern after their marriage, however, was the building of a manse. William had taken his bride to a 'little clay whare' at Warepa. Now his parishioners built a substantial weatherboard house, which he and Jane lined with clay. Jane, who came to it soon after the birth of their first child, wrote affectionately of the 'unbroken wilderness all around and fern ten feet high on the slope of the river'. In the first year of his ministry William walked 3,600 miles. 'A minister's life in those days,' wrote his wife in 1900, 'was one of hardship and exposure – sometimes sleeping in the open air at night, taking risks, fording streams, or being caught in the snow in more distant parts of the country; or detained by the swollen rivers where there was no shelter or habitation.' A horse, which cost half a year's salary, made travel easier, but in 1861 William suffered a serious accident when his horse fell in the snow and crushed his leg.
During the Bannermans' long ministry in South Otago Jane was often left alone with their children for up to a month at a time, but she did not complain. She was capable, hospitable and evidently much loved in the community. While her husband was conducting services away from Puerua, she would hold home services for the children, servants and visitors. There are dozens of sermons and commentaries on Scripture extant in her meticulous hand.
In the 1860s there were changes in the parish. For a time the lure of the goldfields left a congregation of mainly women and children. More permanently, with the rapid growth in population and the improvement in communications and transport, the great unwieldy parish was gradually broken up. The Bannermans could concentrate on Puerua, where a larger church was built in 1866. In 1868 a visit by missionaries from the New Hebrides suggested a new direction of Christian pioneering. In 1873 William became convener of the synod's foreign missions committee and held the post until 1899. He was a leader of the New Zealand Presbyterian opposition to French annexation of the New Hebrides in the mid 1880s, fearing the loss of the Presbyterian mission in those islands. For Jane raising money for missions became a single-minded passion. It took many laborious forms: mounting pressed seaweed on little cards, for sale in the United States; sewing incessantly for sales of work; making up, for sale, small packages of arrowroot sent in bulk from the New Hebrides – one letter mentions 6,850 pounds; and selling shells and 'native bags' from the same source.
William Bannerman was also tireless in the work of building up the administrative framework of the Presbyterian church in New Zealand. He had become clerk of the Synod of Otago and Southland on its establishment in 1866 and held that position until 1901. He was moderator of the synod in 1873 and 1899. He had also helped to establish the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1862, but is remembered as one of the loudest and longest opponents of the union of the two Presbyterian churches in New Zealand, on doctrinal grounds. Honoured as a church leader well beyond Otago, William attended two general assemblies of the Victorian and New Zealand churches, and in 1876 was chosen to represent the Church of Otago at the Alliance of the Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System, in Edinburgh.
A buggy accident in 1884 forced William to retire from pastoral duties in his early 60s, and the couple settled in Dunedin. William continued his involvement with the missions and the synod. In 1889, after the campaign to preserve the New Hebrides from French control had succeeded and the British and French had reached a compromise, William and Jane visited the New Hebrides mission. In the 1890s William contributed to the continuing debate on the union of the country's Presbyterian churches, writing two pamphlets arguing against marriage to a deceased wife's sister – one of the principal issues in dispute. In 1900 William's old university, Edinburgh, honoured him with a doctorate. Dr William Bannerman died in Dunedin on Christmas Eve, 1902.
When her husband retired, Jane Bannerman flung herself into philanthropic activities in Dunedin. She founded a Dorcas Society in her suburb of Roslyn, set up a weekly mothers' meeting for prayer and study, involved herself in the YWCA, the Dunedin Sailors' Rest, and the provision of religious literature for lighthouse keepers. Inspired by the New Hebrides visit she intensified her work for missions. Her groups in the Ladies' Mission Aid Society raised almost £50 each quarter at this time, mainly to provide for missionaries' children. When the various women's mission societies united in 1905 as the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union, she became its first president and remained its international secretary, despite increasing deafness, until her death in Dunedin on 9 October 1923.
It is fitting that a plaque put up by the PWMU honouring Jane Bannerman as a 'pioneer of women's mission work in New Zealand' should stand beside one to her husband, in First Church, Dunedin. The Bannermans demonstrated the style and quality of leadership in the community provided by the best of the early ministers and their wives, in a pioneering ministry that was truly a joint effort.