Small but vocal minorities of secularists – atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and rationalists – flourished alongside Christian and Jewish communities. In 1856 Charles Southwell, early Victorian Britain’s most flamboyant atheist, alarmed the government by establishing a strongly anti-Māori, anti-missionary and pro-settler newspaper, the Auckland Examiner.
Organised freethought flourished during the 1880s, after attempts to exclude Charles Bradlaugh, Britain’s leading secularist, from the House of Commons for refusing to take the religious oath of allegiance. Freethought leaders Robert Stout, a Dunedin lawyer, and John Ballance, a Whanganui newspaperman, became premier in 1884 and 1891 respectively, earning New Zealand a reputation as a freethinkers’ paradise.
Secular liberal and left-leaning views were more likely to be found among university academics and writers. Even at organised freethought’s peak in 1891, combined numbers of freethinkers, atheists, rationalists and agnostics never rose above 2% of the population.
Men and women
Men dominated all varieties of secularism until the late 20th century. In the freethought, rationalist and secular societies established in the 1870s and 1880s, men outnumbered women by at least four to one. Dominated by strong-minded men who agreed on little apart from the evils of organised religion, such organisations struggled to contain their internal differences. The Dunedin Freethought Association, the largest and liveliest in the country, imploded in 1885 over spiritualism. Atheists and rationalists dismissed spiritualist claims, sometimes contemptuously, offending less sceptical freethinkers.
In contrast, women numerically dominated most church congregations, especially when it came to active religiosity such as church attendance, communion, teaching Sunday school, fundraising, community outreach and social welfare. While men owned the pulpit, women and girls dominated the pew. They were the backbone of the churches and of household religion.
No established church
The legal and financial privileges enjoyed by the established churches in Britain were not transplanted to New Zealand. Churches struggled to adjust to being voluntary organisations dependent on lay supporters. The Church of England suffered between 1840 and 1865, because many Anglican settlers felt that most of the clergy and missionaries supported Māori rights and welfare too enthusiastically.
The first New Zealand Parliament, enshrining ‘a perfect political equality in all religious denominations’1 in 1854, separated church and state more sharply than in the Australian colonies. The Education Act 1877 established a nationwide system of free, compulsory and secular primary schools. Voluntary organisations such as scientific societies, trade unions and service clubs sometimes discouraged members from discussing religion. There was a desire to secure harmony by keeping religion private.
A secular prayer?
When Parliament held first met in May 1854, James Macandrew immediately requested a prayer to acknowledge the ‘divine being’.2 This was opposed by Frederick Weld, a Catholic, because it would imply a state-endorsed religion. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, however, argued that a prayer was common practice elsewhere and did not imply a state religion. The Speaker asked the sergeant-at-arms to find the first available clergyman of any denomination to conduct prayers. Later the Speaker conducted prayers himself. It was joked that he would look left, look right, and then pray for the country.
A secular New Zealand?
In rejecting a state church, New Zealand was more secular than its parent societies. Yet (as in the United States) religion has sometimes flourished in societies that separate church and state. New Zealand’s secular state and primary schools owed more to Christian and Jewish hostility towards established churches than to the influence of a few strong secularists.
Weekly church-going peaked during the late 1890s at 30–40% of the population. Many adults, especially Anglicans, attended less regularly – once or twice a month or for major festivals – without considering themselves non-religious. In any given year, most adults went to church at some point. In the early 20th century at least two-thirds of all children attended Sunday school, reflecting a widespread parental commitment to educating their children in the Bible and Christian teaching.
Some have suggested that the working classes rapidly rejected Protestant churches. But in south Dunedin, heavily urban and industrial, working-class families dominated most Protestant congregations between 1890 and 1940. Working-class women and girls were especially numerous in evangelical congregations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Brethren and Salvation Army). The churches were probably fairly socially inclusive and were never exclusively middle-class institutions.