Page 1: Biography
North, Lawrence Alfred
Baptist minister and administrator
This biography, written by Martin Sutherland, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Lawrence Alfred North was born in Ghum, near Darjeeling, India, on 5 November 1903, the son of Charles North and his wife, Emily Jessie Wiseman, who were Baptist missionaries. He entered a family uniquely active and respected among New Zealand Baptists. His grandfather, Alfred North, and uncle, John James North, were prominent ministers and denominational leaders.
On their return from India in 1910 the family settled in Dunedin, where Charles, a doctor, established a successful medical practice. Lawrence was educated at Arthur Street School and Otago Boys’ High School. Although not an outstanding scholar he excelled in sports, music and singing. At 16 he entered a Dunedin law firm and in 1926 was admitted as a solicitor. However, a legal career did not appeal: North sensed a call to Christian ministry. He married Frances Flora Merrington in the First Church of Otago, Dunedin, on 16 October 1930. The ceremony was performed by her father, E. N. Merrington, who was master of Knox College, the Presbyterian residential hall. This exposure to another Christian tradition fitted well with the North family’s broadly liberal approach to their faith.
The themes that would dominate North’s career were already evident. His administrative skills, broad sympathies and family connections led him naturally into both denominational leadership and ecumenical openness. After theological training and a nine-month pastorate at Mornington Baptist Church in Dunedin, he was appointed to the church at Oxford Terrace, Christchurch, in 1930. This was a remarkably precocious achievement, as Oxford Terrace was one of New Zealand’s four flagship Baptist churches, which were normally led by senior figures – North was only 26.
He steered the congregation through the depression years and the membership reached its peak during his tenure. In this central Christchurch position his ecumenical contacts grew, notably in friendships with the Anglican Bishop Campbell West-Watson, and the Presbyterian Reverend Alan Watson. An international dimension was added in 1937 when North, with these two and the Reverend Alan Brash, attended the Life and Work conference in Oxford, England. This conference led directly to the formation of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand, in which North would play a prominent role for many years.
In 1938 Lawrence North was appointed general secretary of the Baptist Union of New Zealand and moved with his family to Wellington. At 34 he was surprisingly young to be appointed to the denomination’s top administrative position. This time the move was not successful. By his own admission he found it ‘difficult to settle into the office work’. In 1939, after less than a year in the job, he accepted the pastorate of Vivian Street Baptist Church. Fifteen years of fruitful ministry followed. North contributed to denominational affairs, serving as president of the New Zealand Baptist Union and Missionary Society in 1951–52. He developed contacts with political figures, continued his ecumenical involvements and found outlets for his rich baritone voice in concerts and broadcasting. In 1955 he was the keynote speaker at the golden jubilee of the Baptist World Congress in London.
In the same year the position of general secretary of the denomination again became vacant. North was appointed and held the post in its various guises until November 1968. He held together a sometimes disparate group of churches and saw the denomination through a period of considerable growth and change. On his retirement he described his approach in the booklet Baptist church life and administration , which became a standard manual. Throughout his secretaryship North took an active interest in overseas missionary causes and was a figure of stature in the international community of Baptists. His commitment to ecumenism saw him serving the National Council of Churches in a range of capacities, notably as president in 1959–60.
After his official retirement in 1968, North continued to live in Wellington, returning to pastoral work in a series of part-time ministries. In 1971 he was made an OBE and in 1977 was appointed minister emeritus at Wellington Central (formerly Vivian Street) Baptist Church. In February 1978 Frances North died after a long illness. On 10 June that year Lawrence married long-time family friend Phyllis Margaret Kerr (née Kain) at the Cashmere Presbyterian church and settled in Christchurch. He died there on 21 October 1980, survived by Phyllis, and three daughters and a son from his first marriage.
As his grandfather and uncle had been before him, Lawrence North was a dominant figure in New Zealand Baptist life for more than three decades. His abilities, experiences and sympathies uniquely equipped him to lead the denomination in the crucial years of expansion and change following the Second World War.