Page 1: Biography
Laws, Charles Henry
Methodist minister and administrator
This biography, written by J. J. Lewis, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Charles Henry Laws was born at Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England, on 21 January 1867, the eldest of seven children of Mary Ann Newlands and her husband, Thomas Laws, a journeyman joiner. Thomas Laws was a local preacher and the family were devout Methodists.
In 1873 The Laws family sailed for New Zealand on the Douglas, eventually settling in Napier. Charles excelled at Napier District School, where he won two scholarships and was made dux. He was a pupil-teacher there from 1882 to 1884. After a brief period as assistant master at the Hastings School, in 1885 he entered Wesley College, Three Kings, Auckland, for theological training. Despite matriculating he was refused permission to engage in university studies, but later studied as an Auckland extramural student and graduated BA.
Laws served for over 30 years in circuit ministries in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Hawera and Auckland. He married Charlotte Emily England, a Sunday school teacher and painter, at Christchurch on 12 April 1892. There were five children, two of whom died in infancy.
Charles Laws was an outstanding biblical preacher. Nevertheless, he thought that religious teachers ought to acquire some scientific knowledge and held that nothing in the scientific tradition negated the existence of God. Love of literature was reflected in his polished utterances, noted for their lucidity and simplicity.
Early in his career Laws rose to become a leader of New Zealand Methodism. He served as conference secretary (1904–7); as chairman of the district in Otago (1906), a position he also later held in Canterbury and Auckland; and from 1910 he was president of the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia, held in Adelaide. In this position he succeeded, in 1912, in gaining the right to self-determination for New Zealand Methodism. After this Laws worked to bring about the unification of New Zealand's four branches of Methodism, achieving his goal in 1913. In the working out of details, reshaping the law book, and the re-establishment of church funds, Laws set his stamp on the emerging institution. In 1922, the centennial of the arrival of the first Methodist missionary in New Zealand, Laws became president of the New Zealand Methodist Conference. In the same year, the University of Toronto conferred upon him the degree of doctor of divinity.
Laws also helped train Methodist ministers. He was appointed principal of Dunholme College in Remuera, Auckland, in 1920. Tall, erect, rather intimidating in his remoteness, he was magisterial in approach. Always thoroughly prepared in his lectures, he expected from his students the same discipline he imposed on himself. In 1929 he saw the realisation of a dream: the opening of a new theological college and hostel, Trinity College, near the university. He was elected a foundation fellow.
An interest in the history of Methodism in New Zealand led Laws to establish the New Zealand branch of the Wesley Historical Society, and to produce brochures on Methodism in Napier, at Whangaroa, and in the Hokianga district. He edited the New Zealand Methodist Times from 1934 to 1937 and researched the church's early missionary work.
Charles Laws died at Auckland on 8 February 1958. Charlotte Laws had died in 1946. Through his skill at preaching and his administrative ability, he had been the foremost product of New Zealand Methodism and the architect of its independence.