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Story: Kemp, Joseph William

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Kemp, Joseph William


Baptist minister, fundamentalist and revivalist leader

This biography, written by Jane Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Joseph William Kemp was born in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, England, on 16 December 1872, the son of Joseph Kemp, a police constable, and his wife, Mary Hopkin. Orphaned at nine and then separated from his five siblings, the young Joseph had only 18 months' schooling. At 15 he became a committed Christian and began teaching at a mission school in Hull. He was subsequently influenced by the teachings of the Keswick movement, which stressed separation from the world through a personal act of consecration, and worked as a Presbyterian evangelist and Bible class teacher.

After studying from 1893 to 1895 at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, where he received a thorough grounding in transatlantic revivalism, Kemp became a Baptist. Powerful pulpit oratory, numerous conversions, and the teachings of premillennialism and dispensationalism became the hallmarks of his Baptist ministry in Kelso (1897–98), Hawick (1898–1902), and Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh (1902–15). He was married to Wilhelmina (Winnie) Binnie in Glasgow on 14 June 1898. Kemp became internationally famous for a Bible correspondence course he began in Edinburgh, and in 1907 he undertook the first of 18 Atlantic crossings to speak at American prophetic conferences on the imminent end of the world and the Second Coming.

He moved to New York in 1915 and was pastor at Calvary Baptist Church until 1917 and at the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle from 1917 to 1919. In America he strengthened his friendships with the authors of The fundamentals and with many premillennialists, who were later leaders in the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s. During and after the First World War, large crowds heard Kemp treat the Bible as a prophetic puzzle to be solved, in contrast to the liberals and modernists who viewed the Bible through the lens of cultural development. His work in both New York pastorates was cut short by ill health. While recuperating in Scotland he received a call to become minister at the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle.

After arriving in New Zealand in August 1920, Kemp revitalised the Tabernacle, attracting many young members. A handsome man, always immaculately dressed, he preached forthrightly in a full resonant voice. Introduced to New Zealand Baptists as an 'earnest evangelical', Kemp was soon regarded both as a spellbinder and as somewhat ‘unevenly sanctified’ because of his authoritarianism, dogmatism and complex personality. Although tennis was his only recreation, he banned Tabernacle tennis club activities with the 'unchurched' as connoting a dangerous worldliness. He encouraged young Tabernacle members instead to become evangelistic and prayer warriors; 30 became missionaries during his ministry. He instituted the interdenominational mid-week Bible study meeting in Auckland, which was attracting 500 people by November 1920. Despite employing modern evangelistic methods, including the first local radio broadcast services, he rejected all modern developments in theology.

Kemp's main significance is as the prime interpreter of American fundamentalism in New Zealand. His heresy hunting fostered a degree of doctrinal vigilance that had a lasting impact on popular piety but resulted in no major denominational schism as in the United States. In common with his American fundamentalist counterparts, he saw theological modernism as a colossal evil and made it the scapegoat for postwar trends such as the rising divorce rate and young people's rejection of absolute moral values. At his first major public campaign in May 1921, huge crowds heard him denounce sexually suggestive dancing, card playing, horse-racing and the theatre, and call for a Christian boycott against the film industry. Kemp was also a strong prohibitionist and an opponent of Sunday sport, beauty contests and smoking.

His most important fundamentalist legacy was the New Zealand Bible Training Institute (NZBTI), which opened in March 1922. Kemp was honorary principal and ensured that orthodoxy – as he defined it – was conserved and propagated. True to his prediction, the institute trained 100 missionaries during his lifetime. It provided the focus of a new non-denominational alliance that would co-operate for a variety of evangelical and fundamentalist purposes. Evangelical Christians who wished to train as Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, or Anglican ministers soon began to seek preparatory study at the NZBTI as a means of fortifying their faith against the alleged liberalism of the theological colleges.

A prolific writer, Kemp founded a monthly journal, the Reaper, in March 1923. Unlike other conservative evangelical journals, it disseminated specifically American theological trends. Kemp carefully reported developments in the American controversy between fundamentalists and modernists, but did not attack modernists at home. His articles and pamphlets defended biblical inerrancy and appealed to broader evangelical and revivalist concerns.

In 1926 Kemp went on leave. In the United States he was distressed to see the detrimental effects of the fundamentalist versus modernist controversy on interdenominational work. On his return his stance softened considerably, in part through the moderating influence of J. J. North, principal of the Baptist College of New Zealand, with whom he had clashed earlier. However, Kemp felt duty-bound to counter the visit in 1929 of the famous expatriate modernist Canon H. D. A. Major by defending the Bible at a demonstration in the Auckland Town Hall, attended by 3,000 people.

Kemp was a member of the Baptist College committee (1923–33), president of the Baptist Union of New Zealand (1929), and vice president of the Crusader Union of New Zealand (1931–33). He helped found the Ngaruawahia convention in 1924. His wife, Winnie, supported him throughout and exercised an important behind-the-scenes ministry, soothing those disturbed by his sometimes abrupt manner. The effects of a brain tumour forced Kemp from the pulpit in February 1933. He died in Auckland on 4 September that year, survived by his wife and two children. Six thousand people lined the streets around the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle to pay their respects to the combative preacher, now a warrior at rest. North gave him the only appropriate appellation: 'Mr Valiant-for-the-Truth'.

How to cite this page:

Jane Simpson. 'Kemp, Joseph William', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4k8/kemp-joseph-william (accessed 19 August 2022)