Page 1: Biography
Laidlaw, Robert Alexander Crookston
Businessman, evangelist, philanthropist, writer
This biography, written by Graham C. Stoop, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in May, 2015.
Robert Alexander Crookston Laidlaw was born on 8 September 1885 in Dalry, Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Jessie Marion Kerr Crookston and her husband, Robert Laidlaw, a hosiery manufacturer. In 1886 the family emigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand, where Robert Laidlaw established a hosiery factory and subsequently, in partnership, a hardware business. At the age of 16 Robert junior, known as Bert, became a clerk in the firm, after receiving his education at Otago Boys' High School.
Robert was raised in the religious environment of the Open Brethren. He experienced his own evangelical conversion at the 1902 mission of the American evangelist R. A. Torrey. Embracing Torrey's theological emphases, which were not dissimilar to those of the Brethren, Laidlaw later wrote that the Dunedin mission had 'radically affected the whole of my life'.
In 1905, after his family had relocated to Auckland, Laidlaw was appointed to the position of wholesale traveller, Otago and Southland, in his father's former business. A second traveller's appointment with a hardware firm followed in 1907 with his own move to Auckland. In 1909 he established a mail order business which he called Laidlaw Leeds. New and substantial premises were opened in April 1914 on a large central Auckland site at the corner of Hobson and Wyndham streets. During a business visit to California a year later, Laidlaw met Lillian Viola Irene Watson, the sister of American preacher Henry Ironside. They married on 26 July 1915 at Oakland, California.
In Auckland Laidlaw's business grew rapidly. When he was called up for military service in early 1918 he sought exemption on the grounds that Laidlaw Leeds could not operate without him and might close down if he went away to war, causing hardship to employees and investors. The Military Service Board granted an indefinite adjournment to his case, effectively excusing him. This outraged critics of conscription, who saw it as an example of favouritism towards the rich, and the Labour Party made it an issue during by-election campaigns that year.
Also in 1918, Laidlaw Leeds merged with the Farmers' Union Trading Company. Robert was appointed general manager, a position he held until his retirement in 1945.
Even as a young man Robert Laidlaw was recognised as a philanthropist and a Christian speaker and writer. He involved himself in many religious societies and institutions, and he lent his support to interdenominational evangelistic crusades, at which he spoke both in New Zealand and abroad. For 20 years he chaired the board of the New Zealand Bible Training Institute (now the Bible College of New Zealand); he served as a field director of the Army Scripture Readers and Soldiers' and Airmen's Christian Association in Britain and France during the Second World War; and he was active in religious broadcasting and the affairs of the assemblies of Brethren. In 1910 Laidlaw began to donate 50 per cent of his earnings to a range of largely evangelical causes and charities. He continued this practice for the remainder of his life, dispensing grants through the Bethesda Charitable Trust. But he is best remembered within religious circles for the 64-page evangelistic tract he published in 1913, which has been translated into 30 languages with more than 20 million copies printed.
This tract, The reason why, mirrors the fundamentalist theology of Torrey and the early twentieth century Brethren. It seeks to provide evidential and experiential proofs for the existence of God, and it emphasises biblical inerrancy, the eternal judgement of the unconverted and a substitutionary Christology. Far from being a reasoned theological treatise, however, The reason why is a personal and arguably narrow reflection on the Christian faith. Yet unlike much fundamentalist writing of the time, which was belligerent and sectarian, Laidlaw's tract was irenic in tone. Consequently it was used over several decades as evangelistic material in more mainstream, albeit conservative, Christian contexts.
Laidlaw's business acumen, his generosity, and his contribution to New Zealand evangelical Christianity have become legendary. Honoured in 1946 with an MBE for wartime services, he was also a recipient of the 1953 Coronation Medal and made a CBE for community services in 1955. Laidlaw was a man of strong convictions, dominant personality and caring disposition. He remained active in business and Christian work until his death in Auckland on 12 March 1971. He was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.