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Interdenominational Christianity

by Peter J. Lineham

The story of Christianity in New Zealand is not only that of denominations. Many people rarely attended church but thought of themselves as Christians. Christians and churches often cooperated – through necessity, or with a common purpose.

Protestant collaboration

The tone of cooperation between Christians and churches embraced all Protestant churches, but was long suspicious of Catholics. From the late 19th century, different branches (denominations) of Protestant Christianity throughout the English-speaking world, such as Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, began to work together where they found common cause. Later, Catholics also participated. This movement – called interdenominational, non-denominational or ecumenical Christianity – has contributed to many areas of New Zealand society.

Initial shared parishes

Nineteenth-century New Zealand settlers expected to have a church in their district, but often individual denominations struggled to provide a full network. Settlers from different Protestant faiths often combined to build small community churches, with Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists providing a Sunday school and services in different weeks. The Catholic Church did not usually join in such arrangements. Since the Second World War this pattern of combined churches has revived, especially in new suburbs and in rural areas.

First interdenominational organisations

New Zealand’s earliest interdenominational organisation was a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society established in Auckland in 1846. It raised money to distribute bibles in New Zealand and overseas, and played a significant role in providing bibles to Māori. Many later organisations also sold and distributed religious literature, among them the Scripture Gift Association, the Bible Tract and Book Society, and the Scripture Union. The distribution of the bible and constant discussion of its meaning has long united and divided Christians.

Missions to Māori

The original missionary goal of converting Māori remained a shared vision of many denominations. In 1936 the United Maori Mission was established by former students of the Bible Training Institute. Their first missioner was Norman Perry on the East Coast. Māori have since contributed to various religious organisations and developed their own groups.

Missions to the poor

Other missions sought to reach out to the poor.  Following the British model, ardent individuals founded city missions in poorer suburbs, while others sought to reach people in the 'back blocks'. Most of the larger missions had a denominational origin, but they transcended this in their operation, appealing to a simple common Christianity. The most famous missioner, Colin Scrimgeour and his colleague Thomas Garland, left the Methodist Social Service Mission in Auckland and founded the non-denominational Fellowship of the Friendly Road, which gained a great following through its radio broadcasts and choir.

Anti-Catholic conspiracies

Charles Chiniquy was a priest in Quebec, Canada, who left the Catholic Church and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing about what he regarded as its evil influence. He claimed, for example, that Catholicism was behind the assassination of US president Abraham Lincoln. In 1880 Chiniquy visited New Zealand during a world tour. He was welcomed by the pro-Protestant Orange Lodge and several Protestant churches. Police attended his meetings to prevent disorder, and when churches withdrew support his visit was curtailed. After his lecture in Coromandel, a journalist wrote, ‘the feeling was one of disappointment … The desire to sell his books and receive money apparently superseded his advocacy of what in his opinion is true Christianity.’1

Anti-Catholic groups

Protestantism in the 19th century often regarded Catholicism as its enemy, and various Protestant associations emerged to combat Catholic influence. The first of these, the Orange Lodge, was set up in Auckland in 1843 and spread widely around New Zealand. The Protestant Political Association, founded during the First World War by Howard Elliott, was the largest and most extreme of these bodies. Anti-Catholic campaigners also visited New Zealand from overseas, notably the notorious former priest Charles Chiniquy in 1880.

Liberal advocates

Although Protestantism was changing internationally as the diffusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment and new scholarship challenged traditional doctrines and practices, the New Zealand denominations tended to be conservative. Some Protestants had a more open attitude. A prominent early liberal was Samuel Edger, who arrived in New Zealand as chaplain to the Protestant Albertland settlement on the Kaipara Harbour in the 1860s. When Albertland failed to develop, Edger set up in Auckland the independent Lorne Street Hall. In the 20th century the Unitarian Church and other independent churches embraced liberal religious ideas before these were accepted by other Christians.

    • Evening Post, 17 January 1880, p. 2. Back

Social and youth work

Temperance organisations

Churches and Christian community organisations set up many of the first orphanages and institutions for the poor, sick, former prisoners and ‘fallen women’ (prostitutes). A single cause came to dominate their social-work activities: temperance, the campaign against the sale and consumption of alcohol. The first temperance societies were aimed at Māori in Northland. Then came semi-religious non-denominational groups including the Rechabite Lodges (begun in Nelson in 1843), Bands of Hope aimed at young people (first in Auckland in 1859), Sons and Daughters of Temperance (1871) and Good Templar Lodges (from 1872).

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union spread rapidly from 1885 and mobilised middle-class women from a range of Protestant denominations, advocating the female franchise as a way to achieve its goals. The New Zealand Alliance focused the various temperance bodies on a vigorous, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to introduce prohibition. This was the high point of interdenominational Protestant Christianity.

Campaigning organisations

In the wake of the temperance campaign there were many attempts to motivate the Christian community to press for social and political change. Christians in New Zealand crusaded for causes among their fellow Christians and the wider society. In the 1930s the Christian Socialists, Christian Pacifists and Moral Rearmament campaigning organisations sought support from members of the churches. After the Second World War anti-abortionists and moral crusaders gained support, while liberal Christians were active in anti-racist and anti-war groups. One of the most prominent was the Council of Organisations for Relief Service Overseas (CORSO), set up by groups including the National Council of Churches, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the secular Red Cross. In the 1970s overseas aid and development organisations began competing. The largest Christian foreign-aid body was World Vision, which was founded in the US in 1951 and opened a New Zealand office in 1971. Today there is a wide variety of overseas aid organisations, most of them with Christian origins.

Children’s groups

Influencing children was often a priority. Sunday schools were the first community activities in many new settlements and churches cooperated in running classes. Bible Class unions were established by many churches from the 1880s. They attracted enthusiastic support and often campaigned for causes that their denomination was concerned about. From 1926 the Boys’ Brigade, Girls’ Brigade, Scouts and Guides also operated with the sponsorship of Christian churches.

Parachute music festival

Mark de Jong was a member of the Christian rock band Certain Sounds in 1978. In 1991 he staged the first Parachute festival of Christian music. It became one of the largest music festivals in the southern hemisphere, each year drawing crowds of 25,000 to the Mystery Creek Events Centre near Hamilton to watch more than 100 local and international acts play on six stages. The last Parachute festival was held in 2014 and the organisation now focuses on Christian musical training.


The international Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) began operating in Auckland in 1855. In 1878 an equivalent body, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), was set up, initially in Dunedin. Both aimed to guide young people entering the workforce to develop values and behaviours consistent with Christian principles. Initially they provided bible studies and ‘improving’ events, but in the 20th century they focused on physical exercise.

Christian youth events

Many other youth organisations were founded by churches and Christian groups. By the 1960s Youth for Christ was holding interdenominational youth programmes in many cities. Out of these evolved Christian pop music and from the 1990s the Parachute Music Festival became one of the country’s largest. Non-denominational religion is still highly visible among young people.


Bible in Schools

From 1877 the compulsory primary school education provided by the state was officially secular (non-religious). After this only the Catholic Church retained widespread involvement in education. Protestants recognised that secular schools could not take account of their specific denominations, but from the 1880s they became concerned about the exclusion of the Bible from education. In 1911 the Bible in State Schools League was reorganised to campaign for non-denominational Bible knowledge as a compulsory part of the curriculum. The campaign was interrupted by the First World War and never regained its momentum.

Our hour

New Zealand’s Bible in Schools programme is known as the ‘Nelson system’, because it was started in Nelson by the Scottish-born clergyman Reverend James Mackenzie in 1897. At that time schools were officially secular and required to teach for at least four hours a day. McKenzie realised that since the schools were open for five hours, one hour could legally be used for voluntary religious instruction. In 2006 Bible in Schools operated in about 60% of New Zealand state primary schools for half-hour sessions, with about 4,000 volunteer instructors. Around 5% of pupils chose not to attend the classes. The merits of the programme have been strongly debated in recent years.

‘The Nelson system’

In 1897 Reverend James Mackenzie of Nelson gained permission from his local school committee to present a non-denominational Bible-study programme before the official start of the school day. That became a highly successful alternative where it was permitted by regional education boards and followed a curriculum organised by the New Zealand Council for Christian Education (in 1974 renamed the Churches Education Commission). It was authorised by the Education Amendment Act 1964 and continued under the Education Act 1989, subject to the permission of school trustees. Parents could withdraw their children from any religious instruction. At times this issue has provoked noisy debates in local communities.

Crusader Movement

In state high schools religion was not banned, and school assemblies often provided a simple Protestant content, while elite church schools were based on specific denominations. In 1930 a visit from British evangelist Dr Howard Guinness led to the formation of the evangelical Crusader Movement, which spread to most state secondary schools. Since the 1980s high schools have been more cautious about permitting religious groups to hold activities during the school day.

University students’ groups

In the universities the Student Christian Movement (SCM), founded by the American John Mott and established in New Zealand in 1921, led students to become involved in social issues and to volunteer as missionaries overseas. One of those, William Pettit, became discontented with the growing liberalism of the SCM and led a breakaway movement from 1928. In 1936 this became the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions, and in 1973 it was renamed the Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship. In the 1950s the SCM promoted the establishment of interdenominational chaplains in many universities. The level of student Christian activity has declined in recent years, reflecting the increasing secularisation of New Zealand society, although a diverse range of religious organisations are active on campuses around the country. 


National Council of Churches

Ecumenism is the movement to bring churches closer together. This movement was strongly supported by leading Christians throughout the 20th century. In 1941 the National Council of Churches (NCC) was founded by seven Protestant denominations, including Anglicans, Baptists and the Salvation Army, to discuss their differences and to cooperate with each other. The NCC was a foundation member of the World Council of Churches in 1948. A separate Inter-church Committee on Public Affairs included Catholic representation.


Among the benefits from this movement was the establishment of interdenominational chaplains in prisons, hospitals and universities. The British Army had long had chaplains – all of them Anglican. During the First World War chaplains represented three types of churches: Anglican, Catholic and 'other Protestant'. However, after competition between them for priority the army insisted on a single structure, which largely survives today. Prison chaplains were voluntary until the creation of the Prison Chaplaincy Service in 1951. Hospital chaplaincies began as denominational but this changed from the 1940s as state funding was introduced on the basis that chaplains were interdenominational in character. Today they are supervised by the Interchurch Council for Hospital Chaplaincy. A key issue for all chaplaincies is how to accommodate representatives of non-Christian religions.

Council of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand

The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 authorised much closer links between Catholics and Protestants, and in 1989 the NCC was replaced by a new ecumenical body with Catholic participation – the Council of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, the Baptists would not join, the Catholics later withdrew and the organisation closed in 2005. Although various bodies have sought to fill the gap, including the biannual Church Leaders Forum, the New Zealand Christian Network, and the National Dialogue for Christian Unity founded in 2016, the days of organisational ecumenism seem to be over.

A broad church

In 1943 the Congregational Union, Methodist and Presbyterian churches at Raglan combined to form New Zealand’s first Union Parish Church. In 1947 the same three denominations decided to form a Union Parish in Taita, Lower Hutt, which became the first officially recognised Union Parish. From 1967 the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ) also included the Anglicans and Associated Churches of Christ. In 2018 UCANZ administered 124 cooperative parishes in New Zealand.

Cooperating parishes

Negotiations to create a single Protestant church revived after the Second World War, involving the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches and the Associated Churches of Christ. In 1964 the Anglican Church joined these discussions and in 1969 a plan for union was issued. Church members loyal to their own denomination, especially Anglicans, defeated these plans. However many cooperating parishes had been created by combining small parishes of several denominations. These parishes continue in the 21st century and have an overarching body, the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand. Training of ministers became more collaborative. In the early 21st century the University of Otago and the evangelical Laidlaw College were the largest providers of theological training.

Evangelical Christianity

First evangelical organisation

Evangelicalism is the movement to attract new followers through a personal, ‘born again’, experience of religion. The first attempt to form an evangelical organisation in New Zealand was the Evangelical Alliance established by a group of Protestant ministers in Wellington in 1848. Evangelicalism was a pressure group within Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational denominations from the 1920s.

Early visiting evangelists

Several independent evangelists, including Henry Varley, Margaret Hampson and George Soltau, came to New Zealand in the late 19th century, attracting people from a range of churches. The stream of British and American evangelists in the 1920s and 1930s included French Oliver, Aimee Semple McPherson and Gypsy Smith.

Bible Training Institute

Joseph Kemp, pastor of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle from 1919, founded the Bible Training Institute to train lay Christian workers and missionaries. The Institute, now Laidlaw College, was the largest of what became a wide variety of Bible Colleges.

Fundamentalist evangelism

The Evolution Protest Movement that flourished in the 1930s represented the more ‘fundamentalist’ end of the evangelical spectrum, with its belief in the absolute truth of the Bible, but other parts of the movement accommodated more modern ideas. Smaller denominations with an evangelical flavour often embraced fundamentalist ideas. The Baptists became increasingly evangelical after 1945. The Salvation Army and the Open Brethren had hundreds of congregations, and the Church of the Nazarene, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand and other small denominations shared a common outlook as part of an evangelical world.


The evangelical movement was deeply influenced by the Keswick Convention, a movement encouraging the living of Christian lives, which began in the Lake District of the UK in 1875 and spread to many other countries. The first such conference in New Zealand was the Pounawea Convention in South Otago, founded in 1908. The largest took place in Ngāruawāhia in Waikato from 1922, but there was a flowering of such events in the 1960s.

Later visiting evangelists

US preacher Billy Graham represented a new style of evangelist in the years after the Second World War, combining mainstream conservatism with a sensationalist style and formula. His brief visit to three main New Zealand centres in 1959 made a huge impact, and drew record audiences when his meetings were broadcast on radio. His return visit in 1970 did not gain the same level of support. Later evangelists included Luis Palau and Leighton Ford (both from the US), but each reached only a limited audience.

Local evangelists

A few local evangelists drew support across denominational boundaries. They included Andrew M. Johnson, a blind evangelist from Southland; Keith Rimmer of Auckland; Barry Smith, who was best-known for his theories about the end of the world; Māori evangelist Muri Thompson; and former lawyer Bill Subritzky.

Revival Fire

In 1927 Arthur Dallimore started a healing and evangelistic mission in Auckland. By 1932 2,000 people were attending his Revival Fire Mission meetings and the only building that could hold them was the Auckland Town Hall. Dallimore gave blessed handkerchiefs to followers to cure sickness. One grateful user wrote: ‘Last Sunday night I only just arrived home from your mission when my [motorcycle] battery went flat. Knowing I had no means of getting it recharged, I tied a blessed handkerchief round the battery box and prayed in faith for it to be ready to use tonight. This morning when I went to the garage and switched on the lights they were as bright as ever, and the battery was fully charged.’1.

Evangelical missions

Non-denominational evangelical agencies have flourished from time to time. The Missions to Seamen emerged in the 19th century. In the depression years of the 1930s missions for the unemployed included the colourful Revival Fire Mission associated with the early Pentecostalist Arthur H. Dallimore. More recently, interdenominational missions such as the Open Air Campaigners have aimed to convert students and workers. Overseas missions have also been a feature of non-denominational Christianity. The China Inland Mission sent many New Zealanders to China and other bodies have been active internationally.

Jesus marches

In 1972 around 70,000 people took part in ‘Jesus marches’ around New Zealand, publicised by the Māori evangelist Muri Thompson to protest against the moral decay of society. The final and largest of the Jesus Marches took place in Wellington in October 1972, when up to 25,000 marched to Parliament. One marcher commented, ‘The whole Body of Christ, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal, have participated according to their allegiance to Jesus, not according to denominations.’2 ” However, the New Zealand Methodist described the marchers as ‘limping for Jesus,’ and said that ‘it is not a “Jesus” march at all, but a morality march – with morality very narrowly defined.’3

    • Revival Fire Monthly 1, no. 7 (November 1934), p. 8. Back
    • Otago Daily Times, 6 April 1972, p. 5. Back
    • ‘Editorial: limping for Jesus,’ New Zealand Methodist, 4 May 1972, p. 2. Back

The charismatic movement

Charismatic groups

In the 1960s a new form of Christianity – the Pentecostal, or charismatic, movement – was adopted by people in a range of churches. This movement emphasised gifts of the Holy Spirit (such as prophecy and healing) given to ordinary people and led to a new range of organisations and leaders untroubled by the traditional divide between Catholics and Protestants. These ‘trans-denominational’ movements included the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship, Aglow, Christian Advance Ministries, Children’s Bible Crusade, Faith Bible College and Teen Challenge.

God on the airwaves

The Christian Broadcasting Association was formed in the mid-1960s and began commercial radio broadcasts on Radio Hauraki and then on the ZB network. In the 2010s it broadcast throughout the country on NewstalkZB, Radio Sport and RadioLIVE, as well as online. Radio Rhema began more evangelical Christian broadcasts in Auckland 1978 and later broadcast in other parts of the country. In the 2010s Rhema Media oversaw four national radio networks and a television station, Shine TV. It had also launched United Christian Broadcasters, an international media group with affiliates in Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Charismatic churches

The Assemblies of God, the Apostolic Church and the Elim church were the initial strong ‘brands’ of charismatic Christianity. In the early 21st century Christian Life Centres, Christian City Churches, Vineyard Churches and Destiny Church expanded at the expense of these older groupings.

Charismatic evangelists

Charismatic speakers and leaders included more women than earlier movements, reflecting the notion of the universal gift of the Holy Spirit, and changing social circumstances. Evangelists and speakers included Peter Morrow, Rob Wheeler and Cecilie Graham. There were some notable musicians, including David and Dale Garratt, in whose ‘Scripture in Song’ music simple biblical words were sung to contemporary rhythms.

The most influential organisations were American imports, including Youth With a Mission, which came in 1967. Christian Advance Ministries, which included Anglicans, Catholics and Pentecostals, held large summer conferences from 1972, but was eventually replaced by separate denominational bodies.

Modern charismatic movement

By the 21st century the charismatic movement had declined. However, some Pentecostal denominations (notably Destiny Church) were very successful. The largest congregations in New Zealand were so-called ‘mega churches’ – either charismatic churches in mainstream denominations or branches of Pentecostal churches. Some of these churches, including Life Church in Auckland, Arise Church in Wellington and Grave Vineyard in Christchurch, had congregations of up to 5,000 people.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter J. Lineham, 'Interdenominational Christianity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Peter J. Lineham, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 9 August 2018