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Story: Stuart, Donald McNaughton

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Stuart, Donald McNaughton


Presbyterian minister, educationalist

This biography, written by Margaret Morgan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Donald McNaughton Stuart was the first of twin sons born to Alexander Stewart, a farmer, and his wife, Janet McNaughton, at Stichs (Stix), Perthshire, Scotland. He was baptised Donald on 2 February 1819. Educated at the parish school of Kenmore, he acquired sufficient knowledge to earn a living as a teacher when he left home at the age of 14 or 15. Keen to pursue education at a higher level, he saved hard and in 1839 began study towards an arts degree at the University of St Andrews. However, in 1843 he was one of those expelled for supporting the candidacy of Thomas Chalmers as rector, against the wishes of the university authorities.

Financially embarrassed, he moved to England in pursuit of work, accepting a post at a preparatory school in Windsor. At the same time he commenced part-time theological study, which he subsequently completed in Edinburgh, and was ordained as a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in 1848. On 8 May 1849 he was inducted into his first charge as minister of the border parish of Falstone and Kielder in Northumberland. He married Janet (Jessie) Robertson, at Upton cum Chalvey, Buckinghamshire, on 3 July 1850.

Although happy at Falstone, in 1858 Donald Stuart wrote to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland that he was 'panting for the exciting labours of planting the gospel in some part of our great Colonial Empire'. His opportunity came with a call to Otago, New Zealand. Donald and Jessie Stuart and their three young sons sailed for Otago on the Bosworth, arriving on 25 January 1860. After serving at First Church for some months, on 16 May 1860 Stuart was inducted as first minister of Knox Church, Dunedin. He was the seventh minister to take up a charge in Otago and the second minister settled in Dunedin.

Donald Stuart made an immediate impact on the young community. Over six feet in height, he was instantly recognisable by the plaid he wore draped over his shoulders. He became an important and influential public figure, well liked for his genial manner, ready smile and compassionate interest in people, and for his tolerance and deep commitment to the social expression of his Christian principles.

His popularity as a minister was attested by the rapid growth of his congregation. The first Knox Church, on the corner of Great King and Frederick streets, had provision for 578. On 5 November 1876 the present church, on the corner of George and Pitt streets, was opened. The imposing bluestone building, designed by R. A. Lawson in Gothic style, has the capacity to accommodate over 1,000 worshippers.

Stuart was an active member of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland and the Presbytery of Dunedin. His synod activities reflected his interests in education and church expansion: he was a senior member of the synod's University, Theological College and Church Extension committees. He advocated the foundation of a theological college, and was its tutor in church history and historical theology during 1875. In 1872 he had been awarded a doctorate of divinity by the University of St Andrews.

Considering it an obligation to help forward education in the province, Stuart was especially involved with the development of secondary and university education. He was chairman of the Otago Boys' and Girls' High Schools Board from 1878 to 1894. He also inaugurated technical training in the province by urging the establishment, in 1865, of a night school in connection with Knox Church. He was a key figure in the movement to establish a university in Otago although he always modestly disclaimed his own contribution. Among the first appointed members of the Otago university council, he was elected vice chancellor in 1871, a position he held until elected chancellor in 1879. He used his influence for tolerance and moderation in university controversies. During his tenure the university added schools of mines, medicine and law to its original core of arts and science subjects. He opposed the absorption of the University of Otago into the University of New Zealand, but was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1874 to 1881.

Stuart's public life was a marked success, but his private affairs were less fortunate. Jessie Stuart had died on 16 April 1862. Two of his sons were heavy drinkers, to the detriment of their careers, and predeceased him. His eldest son, who survived him, failed in business. Stuart died at Dunedin on 12 May 1894.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Morgan. 'Stuart, Donald McNaughton', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2s50/stuart-donald-mcnaughton (accessed 21 May 2024)