Henry Dewsbury Alves Major was born in Plymouth, Devonshire, England, on 28 July 1871, the son of Mary Ursula Alves and her husband, Henry Daniel Major, a clerk in the Admiralty. The family emigrated to George Vesey Stewart's settlement at Katikati, New Zealand, in 1878. Henry, or Hal as he was known, was educated at home and was deeply influenced in his religious beliefs by the Tractarian views of his mother and the local vicar, William Katterns.
In 1890 Major moved to Auckland where he gained a first-class honours degree in natural sciences (geology) from Auckland University College and was regarded as the most outstanding theological student at St John's College. He was made deacon and appointed curate at St Mark's Church, Remuera, in 1895. The following year he was ordained priest and was acting vicar at Waitōtara from 1899 to 1900. On 1 November 1899 at St Mark's he married Mary Eliza McMillan.
From 1900 to 1902 Major was vicar of St Peter's Church, Hamilton, and in 1903 he went to England for further study. As a student of Exeter College, Oxford, he reached the conclusion that the Biblical and theological scholarship at his old university was a generation behind the times. In Oxford he would become more familiar with the historical method of Biblical criticism, and, more specifically, with research on the Synoptic Problem of the authorship of the Gospels; such was the challenge to his previously held beliefs that he would call this period 'the whitewashing of a colonial'. Major obtained further academic qualifications from Oxford, finally graduating DD in 1924.
Major had always intended to return to ministry in New Zealand, but in 1906 he was offered and accepted a position on the teaching staff at Ripon Clergy College. In 1919 he was appointed principal and was responsible for the college becoming Ripon Hall and being transferred from Yorkshire to Oxford. Major held this position until 1948, and in addition was curate of North Stainley from 1908 to 1911, rector of Copgrove from 1911 to 1919 and vicar of Merton from 1929. From 1941 until 1947 he was honorary canon of Birmingham. During this time he became 'the most pilloried cleric' of his day. He believed in training clerics along modern lines as part of his campaign to revivify a Church of England 'dying from the head downwards'. To this end he promoted theological liberalism and donned the 'hairy garment of the modernist prophet'.
Henry Major was deeply committed to theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical reform and the restatement of doctrine in accordance with the requirements of modern science. He addressed his arguments not just to fellow clergymen but to lay members of the church. He was the organising genius and strategist of the Churchmen's Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought (later the Modern Churchmen's Union). He founded and edited from 1911 to 1956 the monthly journal the Modern Churchman; in 1914 he initiated the annual conference of the Churchmen's Union; and he wrote extensively at both a popular and scholarly level. His Harvard lectures on English modernism (1927) are still the best introduction to the aims and methods of this movement in the Church of England between 1900 and 1950.
While he was well known as a brilliant and often vitriolic editor, those who knew Major well spoke of his humour and his humility. Nevertheless, he made many enemies, especially in Anglo-Catholic circles where he was known as 'the Anti-Christ of Oxford'. In 1921 he was the quarry of an unsuccessful heresy hunt. Henry Major spoke out on behalf of the educated laity at a time when he believed there was a 'conspiracy of silence' among the clergy. He saw himself as a middle man, mediating new truths to those in the pews.
Major assumed that any advances made in the mother Church of England would lead to changes in daughter churches, which is why he decided not to return to New Zealand permanently. He did, however, visit in 1928–29. He was not asked to address students at St John's College, although he was probably its most famous and notorious graduate. Recognition of a sort was accorded him when a Baptist minister, Joseph Kemp of Auckland, organised a series of anti-modernist meetings in response to his visit. Some of Major's sermons from this time were published in Thirty years after: a New Zealander's religion (1929).
Major is a landmark figure in the theological history of New Zealand because he achieved international status. Although he was raised in 'the backwoods of Katikati', his theology and churchmanship broke through colonial constraints. At the time, the Church of England in New Zealand did not know what to make of him; now his significance is acknowledged. Henry Major died at Merton, near Oxford, on 26 January 1961. His wife returned to New Zealand where she died in 1965 in Masterton. Henry and Mary Major had a daughter and two sons, one of whom was killed in the Second World War.