Methodism started as an 18th-century breakaway from the Church of England, led by two Anglican priests, the brothers John and Charles Wesley. Their followers called themselves Wesleyans and their highly disciplined behaviour earned them the mocking nickname of Methodists. This later became the accepted name for their faith.
By the early 19th century Methodists had thousands of adherents across the English-speaking world and a vigorous missionary programme. They believed in the importance of personal salvation through moral and virtuous living, and looking outwards to help their communities. Methodism had a strongly evangelical focus.
The Wesleyan Missionary Society in Britain established its first New Zealand mission at Kaeo, in Northland, in 1823. Further missions were established during the 1830s and 1840s on the west coast of the North Island, leaving the east coast for the Anglican Church Missionary Society missions. Methodist mission stations were operating at Hokianga, Kaipara, Manukau, Kāwhia, Waipā, Mōkau, and New Plymouth by 1840, and South Island missions were established at Waikouaiti and Cloudy Bay during that year.
In 1848 the Methodist Church opened a large school for Māori at Three Kings in Auckland, where girls learned domestic duties and boys were taught agriculture and carpentry. One of its early pupils was young Waikato woman Martha Pātene, whose father was a Methodist minister. Martha and her brother later ran their own boarding school at Karakariki, west of Hamilton. It was described by a government inspector in 1863 as ‘the happy and only promising result of the native education enterprise’ that he had seen.1
The church tried to meet the shortfall in ministers and funding by establishing the Native Institution in Auckland in 1845, where Māori ministers could be trained to preach to Māori communities.
The New Zealand wars of the 1860s were a turning point for the Māori mission. Methodist ministers took the government’s side in the conflict, a move which undermined their cause with Māori communities.
From the early 1860s the church shifted its main emphasis to tending to Europeans, though its work with Māori continued on a limited scale. Training Māori clergy – which was suspended during the land wars – resumed in 1877, and missionary work in Māori communities was increasingly done by Māori ministers. The Māori mission continued through the 20th century, forming a separate Māori board (later known as Te Taha) from 1973.
Methodist missions in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea were jointly administered by the Australian and New Zealand Methodist churches until sole control moved to Australia in 1913. New Zealand took charge of the administration of the Solomon Islands mission from 1922 to 1968.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Barker, Mary Troup. Seeker of souls & gold: William Hough, pioneer preacher and prospector. Christchurch: Concept Marketing, 1985.
Chappell, A. B. Across a hundred years, 1841–1941: a brief story of the beginning and early progress of Methodism in Auckland, N.Z. Auckland: Auckland Centenary Committee, 1941.
Fry, Ruth. Out of the silence: Methodist women of Aotearoa, 1822–1985. Christchurch: Methodist Publishing, 1987.
Hames, E. W. Coming of age: the United Church, 1913–1972. Auckland: Institute Press, 1974.
Morley, William. The history of Methodism in New Zealand. Wellington: McKee, 1900.
Owens, J. M. R. Prophets in the wilderness : the Wesleyan mission to New Zealand, 1819-27. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1974.