John George Laughton was born in Holm parish, Orkney, Scotland, on 2 December 1891, the son of John Laughton, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Ann Balfour Moody Shearer. He emigrated to New Zealand with his parents in 1903, and spent his youth at Mosgiel. After attending the University of Otago he studied at the Presbyterian Theological Hall, Knox College, Dunedin. In 1913 he was appointed student minister to Piopio in the King Country and in 1914 ordained home missionary there. On 23 December 1915 at Piopio he married Margaret Leask. She died on 20 September 1917; there were no children of the marriage.
Laughton's ministry at Piopio covered vast back-country areas. He identified closely with Māori, becoming adept at their language and earning their respect and affection; they called him 'Hoani'. In 1918 he was invited to join the Presbyterian Māori mission, and he moved to Maungapōhatu in the Urewera country, where the prophet Rua Kēnana had founded his religious community. Rua was released from prison in April and from the beginning his relationship with Laughton was marked by deep theological tensions.
Rua claimed to be Jesus Christ's brother and the Messiah, and Laughton found this unacceptable. However, through tact and careful listening on Laughton's part, and open interest on Rua's, mutual trust and friendship developed between the two. Together they developed a concept of unity based on the belief that one God could be found through different pathways. This brought together the followers of the Ringatū, Iharaira and Presbyterian faiths. The men shared a commitment to Māori education and collaborated on the establishment of a school at Maungapōhatu in July 1918. Through his association with Rua and the people of Maungapōhatu, Laughton developed an intimate understanding of Māori thought and tradition. Tūhoe conferred rangatira status on him, and at the prophet's behest, Laughton was to conduct Rua's funeral service in 1937.
Around August 1918 Laughton accompanied the Reverend H. J. Fletcher to Ruatāhuna. He helped to build a school there and later established schools at Matahī (1921), Tanatana (1922), Te Teko (1926) and Te Onepū, near Kawerau (1930). In 1921 Laughton was ordained a full minister in the Presbyterian church. That year, on 20 December at Rotorua, he married Horiana Te Kauru of Nūhaka, an outstanding graduate of Turakina Māori Girls' School and a schoolteacher at Matahī. They were to have five children.
In 1926 Laughton was transferred to Taupō. This became the base for his richly diverse, visionary and expanding ministry. He trained young Māori men for the ministry, became mentor to new recruits to the mission (lay and ordained, Māori and Pākehā), and spearheaded new developments in education. Totally committed to a renaissance of the Māori language, Laughton founded a press, Te Waka Karaitiana. This published journals of the same name, Māori translations of portions of Scripture, and general news of the Christian churches. He also compiled and then personally sponsored the publication of the Presbyterian Māori service book.
In 1936 Laughton was appointed superintendent of the Presbyterian Māori missions. Under his leadership a Māori boys' training farm (Te Whaiti) and five urban boarding hostels for young Māori men and women were established. Local Māori parishes were growing vigorously, and Laughton encouraged them to become more autonomous. He set up special Māori structures for church administration and ministry training and in 1945 the Presbyterian church created the Māori synod (Te Hinota Māori) as a separate entity. Laughton's vision of a marae base for the mission culminated in the official opening of Te Maungarongo meeting house at Ōhope, Bay of Plenty, in 1947. When Te Hinota Māori was established as a full synod of the Presbyterian church in 1956, Laughton was elected inaugural moderator; he held this position until his retirement in 1962.
Laughton's achievements were recognised in many ways. In 1942 he was installed as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand; in 1948 he was appointed a CMG for services to Māori and the Māori church; and, after four years organising the project, in 1950 he supervised the printing of the revised Māori Bible in London. He was appointed to the Māori Purposes Fund Board in 1943 and the Ngārimu VC and 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund Board in 1948, and was made a justice of the peace. He was also a member of the Polynesian Society.
John Laughton was a humble, gentle man with a deep love of Māori and the Christian faith. These attributes formed the foundation of a ministry that crossed all denominational and tribal boundaries. He died in Rotorua on 3 July 1965, survived by his wife, Horiana, two daughters and two sons, and was buried at Hillcrest cemetery, Whakatāne. The people of Maungapōhatu delivered a stone from their sacred mountain to rest on his grave.