A settler church
Unlike the Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches, the Presbyterian Church did not send missionaries to New Zealand. It arrived only after colonisation had begun, as a church for settlers. The first minister, John McFarlane, was among a contingent of Scots who landed in Wellington on 20 February 1840. He held his first service three days later on board the ship Bengal Merchant, but had to wait four years before he had a church. This was a simple wooden structure on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, in which he held services in English, Gaelic and Māori. McFarlane’s concerns about the treatment of Māori by settlers found little support and, with his health deteriorating, he returned to Scotland in late 1844.
William Webster, a passenger on the Bengal Merchant, recorded his impressions of the first Presbyterian service in New Zealand, on Sunday 23 February 1840. ‘Mr. McFarlane gave us a sermon in the forenoon on deck from the 137 Psalm verse 5. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand forget her cunning”. This was an excellent sermon and I trust it will produce a deep and permanent impression on us all.’1
The Free Church
The Wellington church (later called St Andrew’s) was the only one founded in New Zealand before the Church of Scotland was split by the 1843 ‘Disruption’. Reformers had argued that congregations, not the state or landlords, should appoint ministers. When they failed to get their way, they left and set up the Free Church. Some of these people migrated to New Zealand. The hub of the Free Church in New Zealand was Dunedin, which was founded in 1848 by Thomas Burns and William Cargill as a Free Church settlement – the only one in the world to become a city. One-eighth of the proceeds of land sales went to religious and educational uses, endowments that later generated great wealth for the church.
In 1854 the Reverend Norman McLeod led some 800 Scottish settlers from Nova Scotia, Canada to create a new community at Waipū in Northland. Unlike Dunedin, this settlement never grew beyond a small town.
While most New Zealand Presbyterians were Free Church adherents, differences emerged during attempts to create a national church. When the first general assembly of regional presbyteries (courts) was held in 1862, the Otago and Southland presbyteries stayed away. The southerners feared they would lose their endowments and identity in a national church and formed their own synod (council) in 1866. This split Presbyterians into a northern church above the Waitaki River and a southern church below it.
A second attempt at union succeeded after the parties agreed the southern synod could be part of the new church structure but keep its endowments. The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand came into being on 31 October 1901. The name Aotearoa was added in 1991 to acknowledge the church’s partnership with Māori.
A tall call?
When calling in the late 19th century for a new minister for Christchurch’s St Andrew's parish, the congregation asked that ‘none but a really clever minister should be sent – one who is not only fluent in speech and a good extempore preacher – but capable ... of giving an occasional week-evening lecture on Astronomy, Geology, Natural History or other secular subject of popular and instructive interest.’2
In 1906, 23% of New Zealanders (203,600) identified as Presbyterians. A quarter of them regularly attended church, more than the proportion of Anglicans who did so. The church was strongest in rural areas, particularly in the Scots-settlement heartland of Southland and Otago, where about 50% of the population identified as Presbyterian. Female church members outnumbered males but were excluded from church government.
In the early 20th century the church extended its reach. Home missionaries (unordained ministers) were sent to areas not served by regular ministers. By the 1920s most Presbyterians had access to either a minister or a home missionary. New emphasis was placed on ministering to Māori. In 1905 the church founded Turakina Maori Girls’ College at Marton. In 1918 John Laughton opened a school at Rua Kēnana’s settlement at Maungapōhatu, the first of six he set up in the Urewera region. The ministry was boosted by the ordination of the first Māori ministers, Timu Tioke in 1931 and Hemi Pōtatau in 1933.
The church also strongly supported overseas missions, notably in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), South China, and the Punjab in India. Women deaconnesses and lay people were instrumental in the success of missions.