Described as 'a past master in the science of hair-splitting', Philadelphus Bain Fraser, or 'PB' as he was known, gained a reputation for his dogged defence of traditional Presbyterian teaching. He was born in Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland, on 13 January 1862, the son of Daniel Fraser, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and his wife, Margaret Affleck Bain.
Educated at the High School of Glasgow and Aberdeen Grammar School, Fraser graduated MA from the University of Aberdeen in 1884 and gained teaching experience in London and Guildford. He married Jane (Jeannie) Murray Irvine in London on 11 February 1885, and they arrived in New Zealand later that year.
Fraser was employed as a teacher in Otago, and taught at Mount Stuart (near Waitahuna) and at Waiareka School, Weston. An opponent of the secular clause in the Education Act 1877, he acted as secretary of the North Otago Bible in Schools Association and edited the Bible in Schools Advocate, in 1892 writing an article on the 'Mental mutilation of the people's children, by exclusion of the Bible from schools'. In the general election of 1893 he unsuccessfully contested the Oamaru seat on the issue. He was a member and chairman of the Otago Education Board and president of the Otago Country Schools Committees' Association. His Rural education (1910) dealt with the disadvantages suffered by rural primary schools, and made suggestions to improve them.
A protégé of James MacGregor, minister of Columba Presbyterian Church in Oamaru, Fraser was accepted in 1892 as a student for the ministry. He served in the home mission charge at Dunback and then as the first minister at Lovells Flat in the Clutha presbytery where he was ordained in 1897. Initially he opposed the union of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland with the northern Presbyterian Church of New Zealand but he accepted the compromise in 1901 which allowed for the synod's continued autonomy. He was active in the church's General Assembly promoting co-operation among churches, but he was fervently opposed to the early moves made towards union with the Methodist and Congregational churches. In 1910 he was appointed the first superintendent of home missions, basing himself at Feilding. He travelled the country supporting the extension of the church into rural areas. Largely under his guidance, the home missions expanded greatly between 1910 and 1913. In 1914 he became minister at Hokitika.
Zealous in the defence of Presbyterian orthodoxy, Fraser attacked whatever he saw as theological error. His pamphlet, A brief statement of the reformed faith (1909), was a moderate declaration of traditional Presbyterian teaching. In 1913–14 and between 1932 and 1934 he attacked John Dickie, professor of systematic theology at the Presbyterian Theological Hall, for his liberal teaching which attempted to bring a positive engagement between experience and tradition, in contrast to his own confessional and Biblical approach. Fraser gained little support, and resigned from all committees when Dickie was cleared. From 1914 to 1935 Fraser was editor and proprietor of the Biblical Recorder, an Australasian monthly which upheld 'the Inspired Word, Evangelical Principles, and Missionary Enterprise' and attacked what Fraser disparaged as rationalistic theology.
Jeannie Fraser died in Feilding on 28 July 1911; the couple had four children. Their only son, Whampoa, made a significant contribution to technical education as the first principal of Hamilton Technical School from 1924 to 1949. Fraser married Catherine Janet Armstrong in Dunedin on 2 August 1915. He retired in 1926, moving from Hokitika to Dunedin, where he died on 30 October 1940. He was buried in Feilding.
A small man, Fraser has been remembered largely as a doughty controversialist, but he was also noted for his extensive theological library, his pastoral work and his great interest in overseas missions.