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Story: Allan, John Aitken

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Allan, John Aitken


Presbyterian minister, professor of theology

This biography, written by Ian Breward, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Born in Wellington on 18 August 1897, John Aitken Allan was the son of Scottish-born parents Eliza Ann Steel and her husband, William Allan, a prosperous draper and founder of the firm Veitch and Allan. His Presbyterian family was actively involved in St John’s Church: William was an elder and close friend of the politician and churchman John Aitken, and the minister, James Gibb, strongly influenced John during his formative years. Educated at Te Aro School, Wellington College and Victoria University College, he was a gifted student, and was active in the New Zealand Student Christian Movement.

After serving as a private with the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps from October 1917 to May 1919, Allan returned to Victoria, gaining a BA and first-class honours in philosophy in 1920, and an MA the following year. He then studied at the New College of the Free Church of Scotland, Edinburgh (1921–24), topping his year and winning a Cunningham Scholarship. The impact of teachers like H. A. A. Kennedy and H. R. Mackintosh stayed with him, but his views cannot be readily labelled, for he rejected both the shallowness of liberal theology and the emotionalism of evangelicals. His concern was to engage with the great themes of the Bible and the encounters with God from which it stemmed. He was emphatic that such study required the most searching intellectual enquiry. His philosophical training under Professor T. A. Hunter made him impatient of sloppy thinking and unexamined faith.

Small of stature (he was later known by students as ‘Wee John’), Allan was an energetic walker. Despite a slight stammer he was a fine public speaker, and his sparkling wit and repartee could be disconcerting in debates. After returning to Wellington he was ordained to the parish of Seatoun on 5 August 1924. In October 1928 he moved to St Ninian’s, Riccarton, and then to Mount Eden in May 1936. From there he was appointed professor of New Testament studies at the Theological Hall, Knox College, Dunedin, taking up his duties in February 1938.

John Allan and Nancy Murie were married by James Gibb at St John’s in Wellington on 29 May 1929. They were to have two sons and two daughters, and enjoyed a close family life, for Allan believed the family was fundamental to civilisation. In 1934 he chaired the General Assembly committee which produced an important report on marriage and divorce. In the 1930s he was also active in persuading the government to respect the civil rights of conscientious objectors to war and moved to a pacifist position himself, until the rise of Hitler persuaded him otherwise. During the Second World War he served in the Territorial Force as a private and then as a chaplain.

Allan played an important part in the development of theological education after 1945, which saw increased student numbers (many of them ex-servicemen), the development of the BD degree and the establishment of a faculty of theology at the University of Otago. Allan, George Knight, James Salmond and Helmut Rex brought a new energy to the teaching of theological disciplines and gave successive student generations an education quite the equal of much larger and more prestigious overseas faculties.

Allan became principal of the Theological Hall in 1947, serving until 1962. In 1948, as part of the Otago centennial, the University of Edinburgh conferred a DD on him. His service on a number of General Assembly committees (including those on international relations, doctrine and youth work) and the United Nations Association of New Zealand, together with his outstanding teaching, led to his election as moderator of the General Assembly in 1955. He opened a fine new building at Knox College, with classrooms and a library which provided amply for the increased student numbers and honoured the pioneers of Presbyterianism.

Allan read widely in and beyond his own field, introducing students to Catholic biblical scholarship long before it became fashionable to do so. He wrote little, but prepared lectures with painstaking care. His brief commentaries on Galatians and Ephesians were full of insight, and his duplicated notes on New Testament theology were a superb survey. His biblical scholarship, appreciation of ordinary New Zealanders and capacity to communicate his faith contributed significantly to the national influence of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s.

Initially Allan retired in Dunedin, before moving to Wellington to become minister at St Anselm’s Union Church, Karori West (1968–70). He continued to preach occasionally, read widely and take a keen interest in international affairs until his death, at his Lower Hutt home, on 31 August 1979. He was survived by his wife and children.

How to cite this page:

Ian Breward. 'Allan, John Aitken', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5a6/allan-john-aitken (accessed 19 April 2024)