Story: Diverse Christian churches

Page 1. Baptists and Congregationalists

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A last-minute verbal addition to the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, sometimes called the ‘fourth article’, guaranteed freedom of religious belief in New Zealand. Since then successive administrations and governments have upheld New Zealanders’ right to follow any or no religion.

Of the new religions introduced since European settlement, Christianity has been by far the most dominant, although in a wide variety of denominations. The Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and Methodist churches have had the largest memberships, but many smaller Christian denominations have also had a significant presence.

Baptists

The Baptist Church arose among dissenters from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Its members believed in the full-immersion ‘baptism of believers’. They did not practise infant baptism, but instead baptised adults and older children who were able to make a commitment to the church.

Growing numbers of Baptists migrated to New Zealand from the 1840s. Decimus Dolamore became New Zealand’s first Baptist minister in 1851 when he arrived in Nelson, where he remained for the next 40 years.

By 1882 there were 22 Baptist churches around the country, and in that year the Baptist Union of New Zealand was formed as their central organisation. A prominent figure was the Reverend Thomas Spurgeon, son of a famous London Baptist preacher, who was minister of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle from 1881 to 1889 and later a nationwide evangelist. By 1900 New Zealand Baptists numbered 16,000.

Women can do anything

The progressive Baptist minister Samuel Edger migrated to New Zealand with his family in 1862. He believed in greater equality for women and supported his daughters undertaking higher education. Kate Edger graduated with a BA in mathematics and Latin in 1877, the first New Zealand woman to gain a university degree. In 1890 she married Welsh Congregational minister William Evans and ran a private school in Wellington while raising three sons. She campaigned for women’s suffrage and saw women gain the vote in 1893.

Baptist missionaries

Missionary work has been an important part of the Baptist faith. Unlike larger Christian denominations, the New Zealand Baptist Church did not begin with missions to Māori, but a temperance-based mission worked with Rotorua Māori for several years from 1880. The New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1885 and its first missionary, Rosalie Macgeorge, was sent to India the following year. She died in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), during her voyage back to New Zealand. In the 1990s the Baptist Missionary Society changed its name to tranzsend and shifted its focus to cities in South and South-East Asia and the South Pacific.

The New Zealand Baptist Theological College was founded in 1924 in Penrose, Auckland, to train ministers and missionaries for the church. In 1992 it was renamed Carey Baptist College after the 18th-century Englishman William Carey, the first Baptist missionary to India. Te Whare Amorangi, in Papatoetoe, Auckland, is a Baptist theological college for Māori. One graduate is the former Mongrel Mob leader Tuhoe Isaac.

In 2013 there were about 54,300 New Zealand Baptists in 244 churches and fellowships.

Congregational Church

The Congregational Church was named for its democratically organised, independent local congregations. The Reverend Barzillai Quaife became New Zealand’s first Congregationalist minister after settling in the Bay of Islands in 1840. The country’s first lasting Congregational church opened in Wellington in 1849, in Woodward Street, which was named after Jonas Woodward, a pioneer member of the church. Congregational churches later opened in Auckland (in 1851), Dunedin (1862) and Christchurch (1864). Their central organisation, the Congregational Union of New Zealand, held its first meeting in 1884. It had 6,700 members by 1900.

Congregationalist activism

Congregationalists in New Zealand have had an influence out of proportion to their modest numbers. Women’s rights activist Kate Sheppard was a member of Trinity Congregational Church in Christchurch. Church members were also active in the temperance and prohibition movements.

Missionary work by Congregationalist missionaries in the Pacific Islands in the 19th century meant that a large proportion of New Zealand’s post-Second World War Congregationalists were of Pacific Islands origin. The first Pacific Islanders’ Congregational Church was formed in 1948 in Newton, Auckland. In 1969, with falling church membership, a majority of Congregationalist ministers and congregations chose to become part of the Presbyterian Church.

In 2013 there were almost 10,000 members of the Congregational Church in New Zealand. Of these, over half were affiliated with Cook Island and Samoan churches.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Diverse Christian churches - Baptists and Congregationalists', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/diverse-christian-churches/page-1 (accessed 21 October 2020)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Apr 2018