The spread of Methodism
European settlers began arriving in numbers from 1840, many from areas of Britain with a strong Methodist influence such as Cornwall and Lincolnshire. British Methodist leaders also actively encouraged members of their churches to improve their conditions by migrating. By 1858 around 10% of New Zealanders were Methodist, a higher proportion than in England.
Local Methodist clergy soon had a growing settler community to preach to, in addition to their Māori missions. The first sermons were preached to settlers in Wellington in January 1840, New Plymouth in January 1841, and Auckland and Nelson later the same year. Basic chapels were built in each place. In New Zealand, unlike Britain, where the Anglican Church had special status as the ‘established’ church, all Christian denominations operated on an equal footing and were self-supporting.
In the early 1860s a special settlement for Methodists and other ‘nonconformist’ Protestants was founded at Albertland on the Kaipara Harbour. The local minister was William Gittos, who maintained good relations with the local tribe, Te Uri-o-Hau. However Albertland never rivalled Auckland, as its backers had promised. There was no road to the extremely isolated settlement, and farming conditions were difficult. Many intending Albertlanders remained in Auckland instead and most others drifted away, leaving only a small and determined core of Methodist pioneers.
By 1850 there were 22 Methodist ministers preaching to Māori and European communities across the colony. As the population grew the number of churches proliferated, and most towns – even small ones – had Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic churches within a few years of being established.
The British Methodist Church was governed by a committee of ministers led by a chairman, who met to make high-level decisions at an annual conference. The British conference initially governed the church’s colonial outposts, and supplied the ministers for its congregations in New Zealand. This changed in 1854, when it created an Australasian conference to allow Australia and New Zealand to jointly administer their own affairs under British supervision.
The administrative connection with the British church was severed in 1874, and an annual New Zealand conference was held to report to a triennial Australasian conference. The New Zealand church completely separated itself from Australia in 1910.
In 1913 the New Zealand Wesleyan Methodist Church united with the smaller Methodist groups – the Primitive Methodist Church, the United Methodist Free Church, and the Bible Christian Church. (These churches had been formed in Britain in the 19th century by Wesleyans who disagreed with mainstream Methodism) The combined body was called the Methodist Church of New Zealand. At that time the new united church boasted 23,000 members, and 92,000 people attended its church services. It owned 453 church buildings and could count 685 other preaching places, almost 200 ministers and nearly 1,000 lay preachers (preachers who are not ordained ministers).
Meetings, meetings, meetings
Local Methodist churches were awash with committees and groups. Church management was carried out at leaders’ meetings, quarterly meetings, parish councils, and church trustee meetings. Young people could seek improvement through the Circuit Youth Council, the Christian Endeavour Society or the Young Worshippers’ League. Women could contribute to church life through the Ladies’ Guild, the Methodist Women’s Fellowship, sewing circles, or the Fireside Club. Missionary work was supported by mission committees and the Methodist Women’s Missionary Union.
The local church
The New Zealand church developed a strong national life through its district synods and national conferences. A national newspaper, founded in 1871, kept congregations in touch, and allowed issues of interest to be debated across the community. From 1866 ministers were required to leave each circuit (the series of preaching places they visited regularly) after no more than three years. This helped stop districts from becoming too parochial, and aimed to create a united national church by forging strong links between ministers and the laity. Lay people were extremely important both as church managers and as preachers, and represented their circuits at local and national management forums.
Sunday school was an important part of Methodist life. Small children joined the Band of Hope (a young peoples’ temperance group), and progressed through junior, intermediate, and senior classes as they got older. Classes were segregated by sex until the 1940s. Local church leaders took the classes, leading discussions on subjects relating to self-improvement, personal and public morality and ethics, and social responsibility.