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Presbyterian Church

by Ben Schrader

The Presbyterian Church came to New Zealand with settlers from Scotland, rather than missionaries. Presbyterians were once thought of as dour, in part because of their stance against alcohol and their strict observance of the Sabbath. The church’s reforming ideals meant it often provided social services and was involved in social causes.

Church building and missions

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 a few 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.

First service

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.

National church

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.

    • William Webster's diary, 23 February 1840. Private collection. Back
    • Quoted in Peter Matheson and others, Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 1840–1990. Wellington: Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1990, p. 31. Back

Growth, reform and challenges


During the 1940s support for ecumenism (cooperation between Christian churches) increased. The Presbyterian Church was a founding member of the National Council of Churches in 1941 and Presbyterians were active in the council’s leadership. The church also supported the Council of Organisations for Relief Service Overseas (CORSO). In 1969 most of the New Zealand Congregational Church, including  a large number of Pacific Island people, merged with the Presbyterian Church. Concentration on internal concerns and a desire to retain separate denominational identities blocked subsequent attempts at wider church unity.

Renewed growth

In the 1950s the New Life Movement brought a renewed focus on growth. During the post-1945 baby boom, churches were built in the burgeoning new suburbs, providing much-needed social networks for families. In 1959 the church supported the visit of US evangelist Billy Graham, whose campaign attracted large crowds and led to an increase in church membership.


The 1950s also saw church reform. In 1954 Presbyterians voted to accept women in church government, and the first women elders attended the 1957 general assembly. In 1964 women were admitted into the ministry and the first woman minister, Margaret Martin, was ordained the following year.

Changes in the Presbyterian Church service also led to new designs in church architecture. The large dominating pulpit was relocated to the side and the (more democratic) communion table became the focus. Some churches arranged seating in a horseshoe shape so people could see faces rather than only the backs of heads. Others introduced colourful banners to brighten sober interiors.

Heresy trial

Theological reform proved more contentious. It came to a head in 1966 when Lloyd Geering, the principal of Knox College Theological Hall, questioned the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and later said he did not believe in life after death – the idea of an immortal soul. Conservative church members claimed these ideas contravened church doctrine and had Geering charged with heresy. Geering successfully defended himself at the 1967 general assembly, but the church formally dissociated itself from his views in 1970.

Debating doctrine


Lloyd Geering was not the first theologian to raise hackles. In 1888 William Salmond, a former Theological Hall professor, published a book that questioned the belief that human salvation only came from Christianity. When traditionalists slammed the book for doctrinal error, Salmond retorted that dogma fostered intellectual stagnation.



By the early 1970s the growth of the previous two decades had stopped and membership was dropping rapidly. The increasing secularisation of New Zealand society was one reason for this, but wider socio-economic forces also played a part, including the rise of private forms of entertainment such as television.

In 1964 church membership (as opposed to those who identified themselves as Presbyterian) stood at 90,500; by 2008 it had fallen to 29,300. By this time the church had a high proportion of older members – nearly 50% of parishes had no programmes for youth. The movement of population from rural to urban centres, and from south to north, also had an impact. The Presbyterian heartland was still Otago and Southland, but 25% of church members were in Auckland.

Holy rollers


During the 1980s the charismatic movement within the Presbyterian Church provided a revival of sorts. Its emphasis on receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit – including speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy and miracles – attracted people interested in the supernatural. Its high-energy worship style led to its followers being called ‘holy rollers’.


New challenges

Accommodating greater diversity and funding new ministries were among the challenges facing the church in the 21st century. Pews once filled with Europeans increasingly featured Pacific, Asian and other faces. The church hoped that building cross-cultural understanding between these groups would create greater unity. Diminishing income impeded new ministries. One solution was the ‘Press Go’ programme, in which individual churches could choose where to direct their funding. The church also looked at ways to release the considerable capital tied up in church property. A final challenge was to find ways to connect with new generations to ensure the church’s future.

Church structure and culture

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is part of the Christian Reformed tradition, whose 16th-century founders included John Knox, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. The tradition stresses the importance of the Bible (‘the word of God’) over the teachings of the church, which is structured through a hierarchy of church courts rather than a hierarchy of people. Courts make decisions to avoid the risk that individual leaders might abuse their spiritual power.

Church courts and the moderator

Courts are based at three different levels: local (sessions and parish councils), regional (presbyteries), and national (the general assembly). These courts set the direction and oversee the welfare of the church at their particular level. They are made up of ministers and elders (lay officials). The general assembly meets every two years and elects a new leader: the moderator – who can be a minister or an elder – who heads and speaks for the church during their term in office.

Spreading the word

The beginning of a traditional Presbyterian church service was often signalled by the carrying of a Bible into the church and its solemn placement on the pulpit, lectern or communion table. At the end of the service the Bible was carried out again to emphasise the conviction that the word of God should be taken into the world.


Services of worship

In the 19th century Presbyterian church services were simple and severe. Following Calvin’s lead, the singing of psalms (unaccompanied by musical instruments) was preferred to hymn singing. A typical sermon was 45 minutes long. By 1900 most churches had embraced hymns led by an organist. After 1950 worships styles became more diverse, reflecting the needs and aspirations of individual congregations. Shorter sermons, more regular communion services, the singing of praise choruses, unrehearsed prayer, and even dance made services much less austere. Most lasted an hour.

Burning bush

A symbol that became a Presbyterian Church emblem was the burning bush. It recalls a Bible story in which God talks to Moses through a burning bush, telling him to lead his enslaved people from Egypt to freedom in Israel. The story highlights two important Presbyterian beliefs: the power of God, and the need for people to be God’s emissaries. An image of a burning bush is often found on church lecterns and other furniture.



Traditionally, the interiors of Presbyterian churches were plain and devoid of religious imagery, reflecting the Reformed tradition’s reaction against anything that could be perceived as an idol and lead to superstition. Some churches allowed stained-glass windows or featured a cross on the wall. Ministers avoided the colourful vestments of Catholic and Anglican priests, restricting themselves to a black Genevan preaching gown. From the 1950s the growth of the ecumenical movement saw ministers adopt the ‘ecumenical alb’ (a long white robe). The rise of the charismatic movement – with its emphasis on freedom in worship – within the Presbyterian Church led many ministers to dispense with vestments altogether and wear ordinary clothes.

A communion of equals

The participatory nature of Presbyterianism is highlighted in the sacrament of communion. This recalls Jesus Christ’s last meal before his crucifixion and is commemorated through the sharing of blessed bread and wine. Traditionally, white cloths were placed on pews and the communion table to give the impression of everyone being seated at one table. The church elders (officials) sat beside the minister at the communion table. The minister served them communion, then the elders served the congregation. Traditionally the communion service was held only four times a year to retain its sacredness, but by the 21st century many congregations had moved to monthly or even weekly services – something that both Knox and Calvin had advocated.

Baptism compromise

Baptism signals a person’s entry into the Christian faith and incorporation into church life. It is one of two sacraments the church recognises (the other is communion). The Presbyterian Church has traditionally practised infant baptism. However, the rising influence of evangelicals in the church – many of whom believe baptism should follow a personal declaration of faith – led some ministers to support adult baptism only. The church allows ministers liberty of conscience on the matter, provided they make infant baptism available on request.



The devolved nature of decision making in the church meant individual parishes were relatively free to develop their own subcultures. Historically, this was expressed in socio-political terms – how conservative or liberal a congregation was. As the church became more ethnically diverse, new subcultures emerged. Some parishes forged multi-ethnic congregations with ministries that built cross-cultural understanding. Others consisted of mainly one ethnic group, with ministries strongly rooted in that group’s culture.

Accommodating difference

Such diversity can create problems when the church seeks unity on particular issues. This was highlighted in the 2010 general assembly when the church reaffirmed its ban on gay people and people in de-facto relationships holding church leadership positions – an emotive issue since the mid-1990s. Some opponents of the ban pledged to ignore it. Despite such differences, all parishes remained united by the Presbyterian belief in the primacy of the Bible.

Church and society

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.

Unworthy Christchurch

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.

Social services

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.

Declining influence

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.

    • Quoted in Peter Matheson, and others, Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 1840–1990. Wellington: Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, p. 84. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Presbyterian Church', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, updated 1 Mar 2017