Story: Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism

Page 3. Pacifism

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The Moriori people of Rēkohu (Chatham Islands) are said to have practised pacifism for hundreds of years. A chief named Nunuku ordered two rival tribes to cease fighting, destroy their weapons and make peace. He insisted that in future, serious disagreements would be settled by non-fatal single combat. The Moriori symbolised their rejection of violence by wearing white feathers in their hair, which later became an international symbol of peace.


For some Māori converts to Christianity, such as Taranaki leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, the biblical message of peace was deeply significant. They preached a gospel of non-violent resistance to European settlement on confiscated Māori land, and more than 2,000 followers came to live at their community at Parihaka, in the shadow of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). They passively resisted the surveying of their land for European settlement by ploughing it. On 5 November 1881, the settlement at Parihaka was occupied by settler volunteers and the New Zealand Constabulary Field Force. Since 2006 a peace festival has been held annually at Parihaka.

Man of principle

Pukekohe-born Ormond Burton enlisted for the First World War as a medical orderly. He was wounded three times, repeatedly decorated, and gained a lieutenant’s commission. His wartime experience helped to make Burton a lifelong pacifist. He became a Methodist minister and in 1936, together with Archie Barrington, founded the Christian Pacifist Society. In 1939 Burton objected on the steps of Parliament to New Zealand’s entry to the Second World War. He was later sentenced to 2½ years in prison despite international protest. When he was released in 1944, the only job he could obtain was as caretaker at Wellington High School. He spent 11 years there, eventually as deputy principal.

1890s to the First World War

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1892, combined pacifist views with advocacy of women’s suffrage and temperance (not drinking alcohol). The outbreak of a world war in 1914 sparked an upsurge in pacifist movements, mostly based on Christian ideals. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, formed in 1915, had a branch in New Zealand by the following year. A prominent pacifist, Unitarian minister James Chapple, moved his family to the then-neutral United States in 1915.

Pacifism in the Second World War

Several pacifist groups were formed in the years before the Second World War, including the mainly Methodist Christian Pacifist Society and the New Zealand Peace Pledge Union. None gained widespread support and Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage condemned pacifists as ‘cranks and ingrates, the dreamers of fantastic dreams, of ideological oddities and ne’er do-wells.’1 The Motueka citrus orchard of Hubert Holdaway, who had become a convinced Christian pacifist during the First World War, was a base for pacifist opposition to the war. It became known as the Riverside Community and remained a thriving pacifist community and communal farm in the 21st century.

Prominent pacifists

Many New Zealanders have held and advocated pacifist views at some time in their lives. They include prime minister Walter Nash, artist Leo Bensemann, Ngāti Toa chief Wī Parata, and ombudsman and race relations conciliator Guy Powles.

Nuclear-free Pacific

Opposition to war was more widespread from the 1960s, especially after France began nuclear tests in the South Pacific in 1966. The Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Coalition was formed in 1972 and the following year the New Zealand government took a case against the tests to the International Court of Justice and sent naval frigates into the test zone. Protests against visiting nuclear warships led to the formation in 1975 of the Peace Squadron, a civilian naval blockade. Legislation in 1987 made New Zealand officially anti-nuclear, the only such country in the developed world.

The anti-testing movement gained worldwide attention in 1985 when the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland Harbour by French secret agents. Subsequent financial compensation from the French government funded the Peace and Disarmament Education Trust, which has supported pacifist organisations such as the New Zealand Peace Foundation.

In 2008 three Christian peace activists damaged a satellite dish at the Government Communications Security Bureau base at Waihopai, near Blenheim. In court they claimed that they were acting for the greater good of humanity, and they were acquitted by the jury.

  1. Dominion, 12 February 1940. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Conscription, conscientious objection and pacifism - Pacifism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 October 2022)

Story by Mark Derby, published 20 Jun 2012