As part of a reforming church tradition, Presbyterians believe their church should be actively involved in shaping and reshaping the society of which it is a part.
The austere nature of Presbyterian Church culture gave rise to the stereotype that Presbyterians were wowsers (puritanical teetotallers). This impression was underscored by the church’s emphasis on keeping the sabbath (banning work or participation in recreation on Sundays) and upholding personal and public morality. The church’s relentless condemnation of sabbath-breakers, drunkards and fornicators alienated some. The stereotype was not entirely fair. Support for sabbath-keeping was based not only on scripture, but also on a belief that with a six-day working week people needed time to rest and recuperate.
In 1876 the Reverend John Elmslie of St Paul’s in Christchurch thundered that the name of Christ should not be linked to a city with theatres, gambling saloons, taverns and brothels. He suggested this antipodean Gomorrah should be renamed Canterbury.
From the mid-1880s many Presbyterians joined the temperance movement, believing alcohol was destructive of family life and society. In 1894 the church used its considerable influence in Otago to help make the Clutha electorate the first to vote to prohibit liquor sales inside its boundary. Teetotallers also succeeded in banning church communion wine and (on hygiene grounds) the use of the common communion cup. Grape juice replaced wine, and was served in small individual cups.
The Presbyterian Church’s emphasis on Bible teaching was reflected in its strong support for education. The church was a prime mover behind the founding of Dunedin’s University of Otago in 1869. A theological hall (Knox College) for the training of ministers was opened in 1876, followed by one for deaconesses in 1903. Presbyterian children attended Sunday school and Bible class.
Between 1900 and 1930 the church relentlessly advocated Bible teaching in state schools. It believed education without a Christian context and foundation inhibited character development. When the government resisted these overtures, the church built its own secondary schools. In the 2010s these schools maintained strong ties to the church, but were organisationally independent of it.
In 1906 the church formed the Presbyterian Social Services Association (PSSA), which opened orphanages and worked with juvenile offenders. In 1918 it opened the Ross Home for the aged in Dunedin, an initiative other centres soon followed. The PSSA grew to become New Zealand’s largest church-based social service provider.
In the 21st century the organisation was known as Presbyterian Support. It comprised seven autonomous regional organisations and was structurally independent of the church. It offered a range of services for children and families, older people and disabled people.
A reforming reverend
In 1888 Rutherford Waddell, a Presbyterian minister in Dunedin, delivered a sermon on the ‘sin of cheapness’, arguing that the quest for cheap consumer goods was driving down wages and forcing workers into piecework ('sweating') to make ends meet. Waddell’s allegation led to a royal commission on sweating, on which he sat. Its recommendations resulted in a tightening of labour laws. Waddell’s example highlighted the reformist strand of Presbyterianism.
War and peace
Most Presbyterians supported New Zealand’s entry into the First World War. The Reverend James Gibb declared it was the duty of all eligible men to ‘offer themselves at once to their country and the duty of all women to surrender their men’.1 As reports of battlefield horror and deaths mounted, Gibb became an anti-militarist and, after the war, a leading peace campaigner. While he never convinced the church to support his position, anti-militarism found new expression in post-1950 church-based peace and anti-nuclear movements.
During the second half of the 20th century the church took a more liberal line on social issues. Many ministers protested against the 1960 All Black tour of South Africa, which did not include Māori players. The church opposed the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand and in 1986 supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality, positions that got it offside with its more conservative membership. Since then, falling membership and increasing secularisation has seen the public influence of the church wane, but it has continued to be active in public debate. In the 2010s it supported calls to combat climate change and encouraged its members to support fair-trade practices.