Story: Laughton, John George

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Laughton, John George

1891–1965

Presbyterian missionary

This biography, written by Jim Irwin, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998, and updated in January, 2011.

John George Laughton was born in Holm parish, Orkney, Scotland, on 2 December 1891, the son of John Laughton, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Ann Balfour Moody Shearer. He emigrated to New Zealand with his parents in 1903, and spent his youth at Mosgiel. After attending the University of Otago he studied at the Presbyterian Theological Hall, Knox College, Dunedin. In 1913 he was appointed student minister to Piopio in the King Country and in 1914 ordained home missionary there. On 23 December 1915 at Piopio he married Margaret Leask. She died on 20 September 1917; there were no children of the marriage.

Laughton's ministry at Piopio covered vast back-country areas. He identified closely with Maori, becoming adept at their language and earning their respect and affection; they called him 'Hoani'. In 1918 he was invited to join the Presbyterian Maori mission, and he moved to Maungapohatu in the Urewera country, where the prophet Rua Kenana had founded his religious community. Rua was released from prison in April and from the beginning his relationship with Laughton was marked by deep theological tensions.

Rua claimed to be Jesus Christ's brother and the Messiah, and Laughton found this unacceptable. However, through tact and careful listening on Laughton's part, and open interest on Rua's, mutual trust and friendship developed between the two. Together they developed a concept of unity based on the belief that one God could be found through different pathways. This brought together the followers of the Ringatu, Iharaira and Presbyterian faiths. The men shared a commitment to Maori education and collaborated on the establishment of a school at Maungapohatu in July 1918. Through his association with Rua and the people of Maungapohatu, Laughton developed an intimate understanding of Maori thought and tradition. Tuhoe conferred rangatira status on him, and at the prophet's behest, Laughton was to conduct Rua's funeral service in 1937.

Around August 1918 Laughton accompanied the Reverend H. J. Fletcher to Ruatahuna. He helped to build a school there and later established schools at Matahi (1921), Tanatana (1922), Te Teko (1926) and Te Onepu, near Kawerau (1930). In 1921 Laughton was ordained a full minister in the Presbyterian church. That year, on 20 December at Rotorua, he married Horiana Te Kauru of Nuhaka, an outstanding graduate of Turakina Maori Girls' School and a schoolteacher at Matahi. They were to have five children.

In 1926 Laughton was transferred to Taupo. This became the base for his richly diverse, visionary and expanding ministry. He trained young Maori men for the ministry, became mentor to new recruits to the mission (lay and ordained, Maori and Pakeha), and spearheaded new developments in education. Totally committed to a renaissance of the Maori language, Laughton founded a press, Te Waka Karaitiana. This published journals of the same name, Maori translations of portions of Scripture, and general news of the Christian churches. He also compiled and then personally sponsored the publication of the Presbyterian Maori service book.

In 1936 Laughton was appointed superintendent of the Presbyterian Maori missions. Under his leadership a Maori boys' training farm (Te Whaiti) and five urban boarding hostels for young Maori men and women were established. Local Maori parishes were growing vigorously, and Laughton encouraged them to become more autonomous. He set up special Maori structures for church administration and ministry training and in 1945 the Presbyterian church created the Maori synod (Te Hinota Maori) as a separate entity. Laughton's vision of a marae base for the mission culminated in the official opening of Te Maungarongo meeting house at Ohope, Bay of Plenty, in 1947. When Te Hinota Maori was established as a full synod of the Presbyterian church in 1956, Laughton was elected inaugural moderator; he held this position until his retirement in 1962.

Laughton's achievements were recognised in many ways. In 1942 he was installed as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand; in 1948 he was appointed a CMG for services to Maori and the Maori church; and, after four years organising the project, in 1950 he supervised the printing of the revised Maori Bible in London. He was appointed to the Maori Purposes Fund Board in 1943 and the Ngarimu VC and 28th (Maori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund Board in 1948, and was made a justice of the peace. He was also a member of the Polynesian Society.

John Laughton was a humble, gentle man with a deep love of Maori and the Christian faith. These attributes formed the foundation of a ministry that crossed all denominational and tribal boundaries. He died in Rotorua on 3 July 1965, survived by his wife, Horiana, two daughters and two sons, and was buried at Hillcrest cemetery, Whakatane. The people of Maungapohatu delivered a stone from their sacred mountain to rest on his grave.

How to cite this page:

Jim Irwin. 'Laughton, John George', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998, updated January, 2011. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4l4/laughton-john-george (accessed 7 December 2019)