Kōrero: Religion and society

Whārangi 2. Church adherence and attendance, 1840–1920

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No established church

Until 1920 over 90% of European people in New Zealand adhered to a Christian denomination, and more than three-quarters were Protestant. Those who had been a majority in their country of origin – English Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians and Irish Catholics – found themselves a minority here (Presbyterians in Otago and Southland partly excepted). At a national level, no denomination had the numbers to set itself up as the official state church. This balance of power probably encouraged cooperation. Everyone had to win support from other denominations to get things done.


Adherents of the Church of England, the largest denomination, with about 40% of the population in 1900, took a relaxed approach to churchgoing. Less than a quarter of adult Anglicans usually attended church on a Sunday. The most observant tended to be Evangelicals at the Protestant (low church) end of the spectrum, and high church (Anglo-Catholic) adherents, who were closer to Catholicism.

Many ordinary Anglicans used the church almost as a public utility for baptisms, weddings and funerals. They attended mainly at Easter and Christmas, and during the Harvest Festival. Anglicans were more numerous in Canterbury (especially Christchurch), which had been founded in 1850 as a Church of England settlement. They were also common in Marlborough, Nelson city and much of the North Island.


Presbyterians, mostly Scottish by birth or background but also some northern Irish, comprised over one-fifth of all Pākehā from the 1870s. Around 40% usually attended church. Presbyterians were particularly numerous in Otago (founded by Free Churchmen in 1848), Southland and rural south Canterbury.


Methodists, mostly English in origin and comprising about 10% of the population, were the keenest churchgoers among the four largest denominations. Well over half attended church each week. Methodism was strongest where English and Cornish labourers settled, as in Taranaki, Manawatū and the suburbs of and rural areas close to Christchurch. By the end of the 19th century younger Methodist leaders had begun to abandon the enthusiasm of the movement’s roots and embrace the more sedate tone of the Anglican–Presbyterian community. Methodism began a long, slow numerical decline.

Strong influence


Although Congregationalists were never numerous in New Zealand, they exerted considerable influence, especially in progressive causes. Their members included Kate Sheppard, leader of the movement for women’s suffrage; George Fowlds, a left-wing Liberal cabinet member and prohibitionist; George Hogben, for 16 years a reforming secretary of education; and David McKee Wright, a distinguished poet and temperance advocate.


Evangelical sects

Baptists, mostly of English origin, numbered around 2% of the population from the 1870s. Over 40% usually went to church. The denomination was strong in Auckland city and in Dunedin, especially amongst the skilled working class of its southern suburbs. Almost 60% of Congregationalists regularly attended church.

The Salvation Army arrived from England in 1883 and soon drew people to its lively services – although many would not have claimed Army membership in the census. The Army’s war on sin, especially the lucrative liquor trade, attracted hostility from male larrikins, and from respectable town councils who restricted the Army’s outdoor proselytising with bylaws.

The smaller Protestant denominations – Church of Christ, Brethren and Lutherans (who were largely German or Scandinavian in origin) – each struggled to reach 1% of the population. Quakers and Unitarians were smaller still. The size of these groups made it difficult to establish viable congregations, especially in country areas.


Catholics, who were mostly Irish, and initially poorer and less literate, comprised about 14% of the population from the 1870s. Larger concentrations, drawn by the gold rushes, settled in Central Otago and especially on the West Coast. About 40% of colonial Catholics went to church regularly – a lower proportion than in post-famine Ireland. By 1920 almost 60% of Catholics were going to mass.

Other faiths

Tiny faith communities flourished alongside larger denominations. Jews, mostly from Britain and Europe, contributed disproportionately to political, business, civic and cultural life. They included lawyer Ethel Benjamin, politicians Julius Vogel and Samuel Shrimski and clothing manufacturer Bendix Hallenstein. Chinese gold miners arrived in the 1860s, bringing Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions.

Rise and fall


Some churches arrived from America to soar spectacularly and then crash. A Temple of Truth, founded in Christchurch’s Latimer Square by the charismatic American preacher A. B. Worthington, attracted congregations of several hundred during the early 1890s. Urging the faithful to embrace God’s law of love, Worthington enthusiasticaly practised what he preached. When local ministers revealed that ‘Sister Magdala’ was actually his eighth wife by bigamous marriage, the Temple of Truth tumbled.


New religious movements from the United States came too. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), born in upstate New York, flourished from the 1880s among Māori disillusioned with the British churches, despite hostility from local Pākehā communities. Spiritualism, also originating in New York, burgeoned from the late 1860s, sparking disputes amongst church folk, men of science and freethinkers. Touring spiritualists, often charismatic women, attracted large audiences to their public séances. Many supported liberal causes such as women’s rights and socialism.

Seventh Day Adventism, founded by American prophet Ellen White, built branches of its Sanitarium health-food company as well as churches from the end of the 19th century.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society - Church adherence and attendance, 1840–1920', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/religion-and-society/page-2 (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā John Stenhouse, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018