Story: Diverse Christian churches

Page 3. Lutheran, Dutch Reformed and Brethren churches

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The Lutheran Church is the world’s oldest Protestant church, formed in the early 16th century by the German priest Martin Luther. Five Lutheran missionaries worked in the Chatham Islands from 1843, but made little impact and left after several years.

The Upper Moutere area, near Nelson, was settled mainly by Lutheran migrants from Germany, from about 1843. Lutheran missionaries accompanied them, sponsored by the North German Mission Society. Pastor Johann Wohlers soon left to work among Māori on Ruapuke Island, near Stewart Island. Pastor Johann Riemenschneider moved to Taranaki and set up the first North Island Lutheran mission. Pastor Johannes Heine remained in Nelson, where 4% of the population was Lutheran in 1861.

Lutherans also arrived from Scandinavia in the 1870s and settled in Manawatū, northern Wairarapa and southern Hawke’s Bay. By 1900 New Zealand Lutherans numbered 450.

Making Marton

In 1860 German Lutherans arrived in Wellington and walked up the coast to settle in Marton, Rangitīkei. Church members and their descendants converged on Marton in October 2010 to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of this settlement. Pastor Mark Whitfield of St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wellington trekked up the beach highway to St Martin’s Lutheran Church in Marton, following in the footsteps of his great-great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Goile.

Discrimination against Lutherans

During the First World War membership of the Lutheran Church dropped because use of the German language was banned and many German migrants were interned. St Paul’s Church in Christchurch was confiscated, and in 1918 its bells were melted for scrap metal. St John’s Church in Halcombe, Manawatū, was burned down. Church numbers rose again after the Second World War with an influx of European migrants. In 2013 there were about 3,900 New Zealand Lutherans.

Dutch Reformed Churches

The Dutch Reformed Church was one of many new churches established across Europe during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The various present-day Reformed Churches regard the old and new testaments as the inspired and infallible word of God.

In the late 1940s migrants from the Netherlands settling in New Zealand hoped to find Reformed churches like those they had left behind. The Reformed Churches of New Zealand were officially established in 1953 in Wellington, representing congregations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In 2013 members of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand numbered about 4,600.

Brethren churches

The Brethren movement was founded in the UK around 1825, mainly by evangelical ex-Anglicans. The name ‘Brethren’, an archaic word for ‘brothers’, was given to members of the movement because they referred to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Brethren believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. The church split into Exclusive and Open Brethren in 1848. 

Behind the scenes

In 2005 members of the Exclusive Brethren were the subject of nationwide publicity when it was revealed that, although forbidden to vote by their religious beliefs, they had secretly (but unsuccessfully) campaigned against the Green Party and the re-election of the Labour-led government. These and similar activities led the government to introduce the Electoral Finance Act.

Exclusive Brethren

James Deck brought the Exclusive Brethren religion to New Zealand in 1853 and settled in Motueka, where the religion was still strongest in the early 21st century. Although its principles vary among different churches and different countries, Exclusive Brethren are generally discouraged from socialising with outsiders. New Zealand Exclusive Brethren are discouraged from watching television, using the internet or cellphones, reading fiction and listening to non-religious music.

Open Brethren

Open Brethren do not face the same restrictions as Exclusive Brethren. In May 1900 English-born Edward Whitehead opened the Bible and Tract Depot in Palmerston North, to produce publications for the growing number of Open Brethren assemblies. Many New Zealand Open Brethren have served as missionaries in other countries. The first group of five left for Penang, Malaya, in the early 20th century.

In 2013 members of the Exclusive Brethren numbered 219, the Plymouth Brethren (a branch of the Exclusive Brethren) 5,388 and the Open Brethren 7,844.

How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Diverse Christian churches - Lutheran, Dutch Reformed and Brethren churches', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

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