James Henry George Chapple was born on 23 August 1865 at Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. His parents were William Sandy Chapple, a butcher, and his wife, Elizabeth Bancroft, both English immigrants. William drowned on 23 April 1867, aged 29, and a baby born subsequent to his death and named in his memory died on 1 November 1867. Elizabeth took young James back to Somerset where he was raised by the Chapple family, and educated at a private girls' school run by his two maiden aunts. In 1881, at the age of 16, he was serving as an apprentice plumber. His mother had spent most of the intervening years in America, and took him soon afterwards back to Australia, apparently against the wishes of the family.
In Australia James Chapple joined the Salvation Army, becoming an officer. On 27 August 1890, in Newcastle, New South Wales, he married Florence Eugenie Gough, a Salvation Army officer from Ballarat. They served in several Australian states before James was appointed to Invercargill, New Zealand; he arrived at Bluff in early 1893 aboard the Mawhera. Florence followed in March on the Tarawera with the first two children of what would rapidly become a large family. Over the next four years they served in Oamaru, Dunedin, Gore, Blenheim and Ashburton, and in June 1897 James was appointed editor of the War Cry, based in Christchurch. However, in 1898 they went to Kumara, where James served as a Presbyterian home missionary. After a year in Eltham, in 1903 James was ordained a Presbyterian minister at St Andrews township, south of Timaru.
Chapple joined the pioneer New Zealand Socialist Party around 1905. His support from the pulpit of working-class interests resulted in a first attempt by the Timaru presbytery to remove him from St Andrews about 1907. His parishioners voted 200 to 8 that he should stay. Presbyterian dissatisfaction with Chapple's conduct reached a climax in 1910 when he chaired a Timaru meeting for the visiting English rationalist Joseph McCabe. The presbytery asked to question him in private. Chapple refused, and a public hearing to consider seven alleged transgressions took place on 13 September. Chapple was unrepentent, whereupon the presbytery immediately moved into closed session and resolved that he should 'withdraw peacefully' from the charge of St Andrews, and from the Presbyterian church. Chapple resigned, having for some time considered himself to be 'a square peg in a round hole'.
From October 1910 to March 1913 he was librarian of Timaru Public Library. He had been in contact with the Unitarian church in Auckland, and preached there late in 1910. With the support of the Unitarian leader William Jellie he founded the Timaru Unitarian Society, where he lectured as minister. A benefactor, George Wells, built him a new church hall which opened in May 1912.
When the First World War began Chapple preached against war, and in July 1915 he and his wife took 13 of their children to the United States, then neutral; their eldest child, Leonard, had enlisted in defiance of his father's pacifism. The family lived in the San Francisco area, and returned to New Zealand before the United States entered the war.
In 1917, as Unitarian minister in Christchurch, Chapple conducted services which became noisy political meetings and included topics such as, 'War enables profiteers to stand on velvet whilst the poor stand in queues'. Police took notes during a lecture tour of the West Coast that Chapple made in March 1918, and charged him with two counts of seditious utterance at Greymouth. The case was heard in the Christchurch Magistrate's Court on 10 and 17 May. Chapple was convicted on both counts and sentenced to 11 months' gaol. The magistrate described him as a dangerous man.
On his release he continued as a Unitarian minister in Christchurch until 1925. In England in 1924 his two books were published: The divine need of the rebel and A rebel's vision splendid. Although his socialist views alienated him from many within the Unitarian movement, he continued to lecture under their auspices. The Chapples shifted to Tauranga, then to Henderson, West Auckland. 'As I age I move steadily to the left', James wrote in 1929. He alternated with William Jellie and others as a Unitarian minister in Auckland from 1939 to 1941, when he voluntarily withdrew, fearing that his public support for the advance of Soviet communism might create problems for the church. The Unitarians were sorry to lose him, exasperating as he had become to many, and increasingly deaf. He died in Auckland on 8 April 1947, survived by Florence Chapple, eight daughters and six sons.
Chapple's life provided the basis of the novel Plumb (1978), by Maurice Gee, his grandson. The book explores the life of a retired minister, with flashbacks to his younger days. Much of the early part of the story is Chapple's, and there is similarity between George Plumb's social analyses and Chapple's writing. Plumb may be more eloquent, but Chapple was no less forceful. Of short stature and bald-headed, with piercing blue eyes, he aimed to produce 'an uproarious community of heretics', and his radical social ideas made him one of the most controversial preachers of his time.