A secular society?
Some people have described New Zealand as a largely secular society in which religion never much mattered. Others believe that, with the arrival of European settlers, religion shaped New Zealand society in significant ways. New Zealand had no one dominant form of religion – but it was still important in the country’s development.
Europeans who settled in New Zealand brought their religious traditions, loyalties and sometimes hostilities with them. Religion was often dynamic and socially divisive, especially between the 1830s and 1930s, despite the idea that New Zealand left Old-World religious divisions behind and became a world exemplar of social tolerance and harmony. Religious and secular visions of the good society inspired bridge-building that often brought communities together. However, religious divisions remained, sometimes leading to conflict, and to harsh treatment of religious communities that did not fit in.
The United Kingdom background
Religion was a dynamic force in the 19th-century United Kingdom. The established church, integral to the workings of the state, was the United Church of England and Ireland (known as the Anglican Church). Until the constitutional revolution of 1828–32 – just a decade before the Treaty of Waitangi – only Anglicans were able to participate fully and freely in state and society. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, Catholic emancipation in 1829, and a substantial extension of the electoral franchise to small-property owners in 1832 eliminated many, though not all, of the disabilities imposed on dissenters and Catholics.
More than 400 ministers who left the Presbyterian Church to establish the Free Church of Scotland in 1843 believed that congregations as well as patrons should have rights in their choice of ministers. One of the oldest ministers to join the Free Church was Thomas Burns. Lacking a secure living, he was attracted to the idea of going to Otago, and became the new settlement’s minister.
North of the border, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, governed by male elders, played a similar establishment role until 1843, when many of its most talented and committed ministers and laypeople formed the Free Church. They left because they thought the church was failing to keep in touch with the mass of the people, not because they rejected the idea of an established church.
Throughout the 19th century religious outsiders continued to attack establishment privileges. They included Protestant dissenters, Catholics, and a small but lively assortment of secularists (atheists, rationalists, agnostics and freethinkers). These conflicts affected politics, the law, economics, science, intellectual life and family relations.
While most people identified with a faith, Protestant dissenters – Methodists, free Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Brethren, Quakers and the Salvation Army – were more active, not only in church and chapel, but also in reform movements such as antislavery, Chartism, unionism, temperance, sabbath observance and women’s suffrage campaigns. Most dissenters voted for the Whig (later Liberal) party. Anglicans and Presbyterians, though normally baptised, married and buried under church auspices, were less likely to attend church regularly or to support socio-political change. Many Anglicans, devoted to ‘church and King’, voted for the Tories.
Amongst Irish Catholics, the Irish potato famine and a devotional revival sent mass-going rates soaring from the late 1840s. By the late 19th century almost all Irish Catholics went to mass at least once a week. Irish nationalism and Catholicism strongly coalesced. Partly in response, Irish Protestants – especially in the north – grew more committed and sectarian.
A small but vocal minority of secularists – atheists, rationalists, agnostics and freethinking liberals – resembled in their activist style the dissenters and Catholics, with whom they sometimes cooperated. Increasingly influential in the universities, science and literary circles, they sought to reduce the power of the churches, if not to eradicate religion.