James Gibb was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on 15 June 1857, the son of James Gibb, a shoemaker, and his wife, Jane Greig, both devout members of the United Presbyterian church. James attended Aberdeen Grammar School from 1863 until 1872, and was thereafter employed by the Union Bank of Scotland until 1874 when he began preparation for the University of Aberdeen matriculation examination, a prerequisite for theological study. Admitted to the university in 1876 Gibb studied mathematics, natural philosophy, logic and moral philosophy, but because of ill health did not graduate. In 1880 he was admitted to Kings College, Edinburgh, but terminated his studies at the close of 1881 on the advice of his doctors and emigrated to Australia. Before leaving he married Jane Paterson Smith (known in New Zealand as Jean) on 28 December 1881 at Aberdeen.
James and Jane Gibb arrived in Melbourne, Australia, in March 1882. While completing his theological studies at Ormond College, James Gibb was appointed student missioner to the Footscray parish. He was ordained on 5 March 1883. As minister of Footscray, Gibb supported the orthodox Calvinist party, who in 1883 charged Charles Strong with heresy for his liberal views on sabbath observance and the doctrine of the Atonement.
In May 1884 Gibb visited Dunedin, New Zealand, and on 27 January 1886 he was inducted as the minister of First Church of Otago, Dunedin. Gibb gained immediate notice by his vigorous lobbying, on religious grounds, against French annexation of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), and through his popular preaching. He was elected moderator of the Presbytery of Dunedin in July 1886. While in Dunedin Gibb underwent one of several changes of opinion which were to mark his career. In Melbourne he had been a heresy hunter, zealous to preserve strict Calvinist orthodoxy. In Dunedin he found himself opposed to a conservative group older and less able than himself. He came into conflict with Alexander Begg, who opposed the use of organ accompaniment to congregational singing. Ironically, in view of his earlier opposition to Strong, Gibb was himself attacked for opposing a legalistic view of sabbatarianism; and he preached sermons against a too-rigid adherence to the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He was led to defend William Salmond, a University of Otago professor and a member of Gibb's First Church congregation, who in 1888 was accused of challenging the Calvinist doctrine of predestination in a pamphlet, The reign of grace.
In June 1890 Gibb was himself accused of heresy. Begg complained that Gibb had attacked the doctrine of election to grace, and the doctrine that infants who died before baptism could not enter heaven. This was more than merely a theological matter for Gibb: he and his wife had seen three of their children die in infancy. Gibb was acquitted of heresy by the Presbytery of Dunedin, but the conservatives appealed successfully to the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland. No penalty was imposed. In November 1893, following in the footsteps of the Free Church of Scotland, the synod passed a declaratory act, defining the degree to which one might depart from the Westminster Confession.
The 1890s were a busy decade for Gibb. He served on key southern church committees such as publishing, home missions and the Bible in schools movement, and was a member of the board of examiners for theological students. But his most important work came after he was appointed convener of the church union committee in 1894. Building on the work of the Reverend A. H. Stobo, Gibb led southern Presbyterians towards union with their northern co-religionists. Fearful of the potential for schism, he delayed the final consummation of the movement until the die-hard confessionalist minority could be persuaded to agree. The union took place in 1901, and Gibb was elected the first moderator of the newly united Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. His efforts were recognised with an honorary doctorate of divinity from the University of Aberdeen in 1903.
On 12 August 1903 Gibb became minister of St John's Church, Wellington. Now the colony's leading Presbyterian, Gibb led Presbyterian and inter-Protestant lobbies against gambling, breaches of the sabbath, violations of sexual morality, and British opium sales to China. He was a frequent columnist and correspondent in national daily newspapers, the Outlook and the Maoriland Worker (later the New Zealand Worker ).
Gibb's political lobbying reflected his advocacy of the social gospel – a renewal of Christian social emphasis. Gibb believed that by destroying national evils and reforming the human environment to a Calvinist plan, New Zealand could be remade as a terrestrial kingdom of God. His emphasis was on social reformation rather than individual salvation.
Gibb's vision of a Calvinist social order was behind his attempt to create a national evangelical church, and his strenuous advocacy of the Bible in schools movement. His attempt after 1902 to unite Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians failed because the smaller denominations feared for their identity in a body that would inevitably be dominated by the Presbyterians. A subsequent attempt to make Presbyterianism into a national church also came to grief: some sections of the church remained congregationalist in spirit and were unwilling to view the Presbyterian General Assembly as a regulative rather than a merely consultative body. It would have failed even without this obstacle, since Gibb took little account of the hard facts of demography: only 23 per cent of the population identified themselves as Presbyterian.
The Bible in schools scheme, favoured by many Protestants, became publicly identified with Gibb when, in 1903 and 1904, Premier Richard Seddon consistently blocked an attempt to hold a national referendum on the subject. In November 1904, infuriated by Seddon's temporising, Gibb denounced him from the floor of the Presbyterian General Assembly. Seddon in turn described Gibb as 'a political partisan, more of a politician than a clergyman.' In 1912 Gibb became a vice president of the Bible in State Schools League of New Zealand. This campaign, too, failed, in the face of Protestant disunion and a counter-attack mounted by Henry Cleary, Catholic bishop of Auckland.
Not all of Gibb's work in this period failed to bear fruit. As the convener of the Presbyterian Home Mission Committee from 1912 to 1924 he raised the stipend of home missionaries, increased their status in the church, and made it possible for the better of them to become regular ministers. They now received formal training and the status of elders. The result was the creation of a new network of stations and parishes in the rural North Island.
The First World War produced a significant change in Gibb's attitude to imperial and military questions. During the South African war (1899–1902) he had questioned British motivation. He was unconvinced that Britain had embarked on a just war, but insisted that British government would be more beneficial to South Africa's black population. At the beginning of the First World War he used his pulpit as a recruiting platform. By 1917, however, casualty returns and the influence of Charles Murray, a Christchurch minister, led him to a more critical position. A visit to Britain in 1919–20 reinforced his new anti-war stance.
Gibb's anti-militarism became more insistent and in 1922 he was elected inaugural chairman of the Wellington branch of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand. That year he was strongly criticised by his parishioners for his part in the Victoria University College debate on 'My country, right or wrong?', and he received further criticism for his defence in 1923 of A. W. Page, a science teacher who objected to the oath of loyalty required of teachers. Gibb supported Alun Richards and Alexander Miller, theological students who refused military service in 1927. In the same year the General Assembly refused to accept his 'Peace manifesto'. Gibb also shifted his political allegiance from Reform to Labour, mainly under the influence of Labour's seemingly pacifist policies.
Pacifism was Gibb's last public campaign; he resigned his ministry at St John's Church in 1926. Jean Gibb died on 31 October 1932. At the same time, the onset of economic depression and the rise of militarism in Europe convinced him of the failure of liberal democracy, and of the inability of the social gospel to transform humanity. He turned instead to the neo-orthodox Calvinist theology of Karl Barth, and his advocacy of the 'black frost of Barthianism' helped to popularise the new theology among New Zealand Presbyterians. Gibb's return to the fundamental tenets of Calvinism brought his theological thought back to where it had started 60 years earlier.
James Gibb suffered a stroke in 1934 and died at Wellington on 24 October 1935. He was survived by three daughters and two sons. As a Presbyterian leader he had at one time or another held nearly every office within the church. He was twice moderator of the General Assembly, several times moderator of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland and the Dunedin and Wellington presbyteries, and for 13 years convener of the Home Mission Commmittee. He was a founder of Scots College, Queen Margaret College and Turakina Maori Girls' College, and a vigorous supporter of the Bible class movement. Photographed in his moderator's robes, Gibb looks authoritative, determined and more than a little truculent – qualities well suited to making him the best-known and most controversial Presbyterian leader of his time.