The Methodist church was at the height of its popularity and social influence in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time around 10% of the population were Methodists; later the percentage declined sharply.
The church collectively rallied around the temperance cause – discouraging the drinking of alcohol – which gained strength from the early 1880s. In 1893 it released the Reverend Leonard Isitt from pastoral duties to campaign for temperance full-time. Isitt entered Parliament on the temperance ticket and became one of the cause’s leading voices. The church urged its members to avoid the dangers of alcohol, starting with children in the Band of Hope, through to rallying for local and national prohibition. Methodists were mainstays of the prohibition movement from the 1890s to the 1930s, and provided many of its leaders.
Some working-class Methodists sought to pursue the lessons of their faith through political action. The Methodist enthusiasm for egalitarianism, and for protecting the needy, found a voice in left-wing politics. Methodist missionary Colin Scrimgeour, known as Uncle Scrim, hosted the Friendly road, a popular but controversial religious radio programme in the 1930s. In it he criticised the government and urged support for the Labour Party on humanitarian grounds.
Down by the river
A group of Christian – largely Methodist – pacifists established Riverside community on an orchard and farm outside Nelson in 1941. At the time conscientious objectors were treated harshly, and Riverside residents faced antagonism from some locals. Founder Hubert Holdaway had his membership of the Motueka Fruitgrowers Association terminated, Riverside children were harassed at school, and the community was generally derided as ‘bloody pacifists’.1
Others interpreted the message of Methodism as a call to pacifism, arguing that war was incompatible with the teachings of both Methodism and the Bible. Archie Barrington was a leader of the Christian Pacifist Society, made up mainly of young Methodists. By the outbreak of the Second World War it had over 500 members. Some, such as Walter Lawry and Allan Handyside, were imprisoned as conscientious objectors. The Methodist church itself did not oppose the war, nor urge members not to fight.
The Methodist church invested in a number of institutions aimed to help the poor and needy. Several city missions were established in the 1920s, which helped the sick, poor and hungry, both practically and spiritually. Methodist children’s homes, funded by donations from the community, were established in Auckland, Christchurch and Masterton.
Social and cultural changes brought a relative decline in attendance numbers from the 1920s. Shrinking congregations made it difficult to maintain church property, and a number of local churches merged with their Presbyterian counterparts to form new union churches from the 1950s and 1960s. Methodists made up 4.5% of the total population in 1981 and 2.6% in 2013.
From the 1950s an influx of immigrants from the Pacific Islands, where Methodism had been widespread since missionary influence in the early 19th century, provided some new growth to the New Zealand church. In 2013, 33% of New Zealand Methodists were of Pacific Islands ethnicity.
Debate and dissent
Perhaps the most important and divisive debate within the church in recent times has concerned homosexuality. At the 1990 Methodist Church conference a gay man, David Bromell, sought recognition as a Methodist minister. A group, consisting largely of Pacific Islands members, opposed this step and formed the Wesleyan Methodist Movement. Many members, some ministers and several entire congregations left the main Methodist Church in protest over this issue, and in 2000 the Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed as a breakaway church.
From the 1960s the Methodist Women’s Fellowship (MWF) supported the work of their church at home and abroad. They funded a rehabilitation scheme for disabled people in Indonesia, which was visited in the 1980s by lifelong Methodist Naomi Lange, president of the Māngere East MWF. She was travelling in Indonesia with her husband, Prime Minister David Lange, and wrote, ‘[I]t was splendid to see how wisely they were spending the money the Women’s Fellowship had raised for the project.’2
Women and Methodism
Women Methodists have been important as lay preachers and congregational leaders since the earliest days of the New Zealand church. Local women's guilds existed in some churches from the 1880s. The first woman to be ordained a Methodist minister in New Zealand was Phyllis Guthardt, in 1959. The Methodist Women's Fellowship was formed in 1964 to unite several types of women’s groups within the church, and remained active in the 2010s.