Page 1: Biography
Pratt, Major Albert Rugby
Methodist minister, church administrator, historian
This biography, written by Colin Brown, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Major Albert Rugby Pratt came from a prominent Methodist family in Hobart, Tasmania. His grandfather, William Pratt, was transported to Hobart Town in 1825, became a printer, was pardoned in 1859, and on retirement became the city missioner for the Wesleyan Methodist church. Rugby Pratt's father, Alfred Courtney Pratt, emigrated to New Zealand, where he worked as a newspaper manager and printer in Hawke's Bay and Wellington. He married Anna (Hannah) Glazebrook, and Rugby, born in Gisborne on 7 July 1875, was one of three children. The family returned to Hobart in 1880 or 1881.
Rugby was educated at the Battery Point school, passed the sixth standard and, aged 12, entered commercial life. From 1895 he was a Methodist lay preacher. In 1897 he was appointed a home missionary and accepted as a candidate for ordained ministry the following year. After training at Queen's College, Melbourne (1899 and 1901), and one year of supply work at Launceston (1900), Pratt exercised a brief ministry at Hopetoun, Victoria. The unification of Methodist churches in Australasia in 1902 created a surplus of ministers in Australia, while there was an appeal from New Zealand for assistance, to which Pratt responded. On arrival he abandoned the surname Courtney-Pratt, which had crept into family usage.
Pratt was appointed initially to Richmond, Christchurch (1902), moving successively to Westport (1904), Roxburgh (1908), Gore (1911), Hastings (1915), Trinity Church, Dunedin (1919), and Palmerston North (1923). On 2 April 1908 in Westport he married Ruby Jane Hill. Pratt's considerable skills as preacher, pastor and administrator were quickly evident. He served as chairman of various districts, and was on the secretarial staff of the New Zealand Methodist Conference from 1915 to 1926. In 1927 he was appointed connexional secretary by a unanimous vote and brought a modernising approach to New Zealand Methodism's top administrative post (based in Christchurch), which combined executive, financial and legal duties. In 1932 he was president of Conference.
Pratt was president of the Buller Prohibition League (1904–8), a member of the Hawke's Bay No-Licence League (1916–18) and on the executive of the Bible in State Schools League of New Zealand. In 1925 he published a pamphlet on gambling. He was also prominent in the Palmerston North SPCA. The depression years changed his focus, and his presidential speech to the Methodist Conference in 1932 reflects this, expressing sympathy for the unemployed and insisting on the church's role in providing moral leadership and taking social action to promote justice. But after announcing 'the collapse of the competitive industrial system', deploring militancy, and envisaging a co-operative society motivated by need, not profit, Pratt returns to a religious emphasis on individual sin and social selfishness, necessitating change wrought through the gospel.
In 1940 the Methodist Conference unanimously supported a motion that the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi be enshrined in statute. Pratt believed that the treaty had been subverted by Pakeha, and considered the wars of the 1860s a tragedy. In his historical writing, however, he characterised traditional Maori religion as 'a chaos of dark superstitions'.
Pratt was a prolific writer. Missionary history was his major interest, but he also maintained a considerable output of articles and pamphlets about Methodism generally, and the churches and institutions with which he was associated. His most significant publication, The pioneering days in southern Maoriland, published in 1932, was the basis for his election as a fellow of the Royal Historical Society that year. He contributed to G. H. Scholefield's Dictionary of New Zealand biography (1940) and secured missionary materials for Methodist archives. He hoped to write the biography of the pioneer missionary Samuel Ironside, and his notes were of material assistance to a later biographer. A vice president of the Wesley Historical Society (New Zealand Branch), Pratt was widely consulted about missionary Methodism. He was quick in detecting what he regarded as error and informing the perpetrators accordingly. He wrote little on theological topics, but was a strong defender of infant baptism.
Pratt's concerns extended beyond local Methodism. In 1922 he visited Tonga, where the Methodist church had separated from its parent. His visit was generally regarded as helping to create the climate in which reunion was later effected. As one of the creators of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand in 1941, he helped draft its constitution, served on its executive, was vice president for two years, and acted as general secretary on two occasions. He had long been interested in moves towards church union and served on Methodist committees to consider this. Where the Anglican church was concerned, however, he was cautious and prescient, noting that its two main 'parties' tended to disagree on church reunion.
Pratt died in Christchurch on 6 March 1946. He was survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter: one son had predeceased him. Ruby Pratt had led a mainly private life, caring for her family and husband and supporting him in his public duties. She served with him on the committee of the South Island Methodist Orphanage and Children's Home at Papanui and was known for her graciousness and friendliness. She died in 1975.
In many ways Rugby Pratt was a Methodist typical of his time: ecumenically minded and with social concerns which were re-shaped by the depression. Business sense, efficiency and a forceful character tempered with a genial manner won him many friends and wide respect. Pratt once said that if he were three men he would be minister, businessman and journalist. He combined all three roles with energy, and his life ended before he had accomplished all the tasks he had set himself.