Kōrero: Religion and society

Whārangi 5. Religion and politics

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Conflict over Māori rights

The churches played significant, often controversial, roles in politics. Between the mid-1830s and early 1860s Anglican missionaries, clergy and laymen led the humanitarian campaign to uphold Māori rights and welfare. An even larger number of Māori Christians, also often Anglican, defended their land and political rights. Dissenters, secularists and anti-clerical Anglicans led the settler attack on what they saw as a reactionary clerical–Māori alliance determined to keep land and power away from ordinary settlers.

Evangelical reforms

Between the 1870s and the 1930s Scottish Presbyterians joined forces with other dissenters – Methodists, Baptists, Brethren, Congregationalists, the Church of Christ and the Salvation Army – to form a powerful evangelical coalition. Bringing activism from Britain, they spearheaded the great reform movements of the age, campaigning for:

  • Bible in schools, to introduce some form of Christian education into schools
  • sabbath observance, to keep Sunday a day of rest
  • anti-gambling
  • votes for women
  • prohibition, the largest social movement in New Zealand history, intended to eliminate the sale of liquor.

With support from at least 40% of the population, including the most active churchgoers, evangelicals sought to use the power of the state to tame individual behaviour (especially that of drinkers), civilise society, and make New Zealand more like God’s Own Country (as they imagined this).

Although evangelicals never attained all their goals, they had considerable success. Women won the vote in 1893; the Nelson system of a weekly session of non-denominational religious education before school began in the mornings steadily expanded to reach around 80% of primary schools by the 1960s; and Sunday trading and liquor laws remained restrictive until the 1980s.

Know thy enemies


The evangelical campaigners aroused considerable hostility. In the first decades of the 20th century the New Zealand Truth newspaper, reflecting the values of the Pākehā working man, often demonised evangelicals as ‘wowsers’, an army of bossy female killjoys in league with hypocritical parsons. To Truth writers and cartoonists, these ‘Puritan Pharisees,’1 attacking male pleasures and freedoms, wielded far too much public and political influence.


In these cultural conflicts the most significant divide was not between religious believers (the vast majority) and secularists (still relatively few), but between evangelicals and adherents of the Episcopal churches (Anglicans and Catholics). Although this divide was never absolute, many Anglicans and most Catholics were hostile toward evangelical crusades, which they saw as theologically mistaken, puritanical and coercive.

‘Applied Christianity’

In the 1880s, as political parties emerged, outsiders – dissenters, Catholics and secularists – often supported the centre-left parties in New Zealand’s relatively narrow political spectrum. The Liberal government (1891–1912) of John Ballance, a moderate freethinker, Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon, an Anglican populist, and Joseph Ward, a Catholic, attracted significant support from all three groups (as did Anglican Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Liberal Party in the UK). So did the early Labour Party, even though keeping such diverse groups together over issues like prohibition and Bible in schools proved difficult.

From 1912 members of the Protestant-dominated Reform party of ‘Farmer Bill’ Massey, a Presbyterian from an Ulster background, sometimes criticised Labour as overly influenced by Papists (Catholics) and godless Bolsheviks (socialists).

Political success eluded Labour until 1935, when leaders such as Michael Joseph Savage (who returned to his Catholic roots) and Walter Nash, an Anglican socialist, moved the party closer to the ideological centre. A dozen ministers or ex-ministers of religion stood for Parliament in 1935. Labour won a landslide victory by presenting itself as the party of practical Christian compassion, which it contrasted with the heartless and anti-family depression-era coalition government. Savage famously described Labour’s Social Security Act 1938, intended to provide security for all from cradle to grave, as ‘applied Christianity’. One of the law’s chief architects was Arnold Nordmeyer, a Christian socialist who was the Presbyterian minister at Kurow before entering politics.

Labour also forged an alliance with the Rātana Church which lasted until the 1990s. Much subsequent expansion of the welfare state occurred under National governments, testifying to the enduring significance of ‘applied Christianity’ in the middle ground of politics.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. New Zealand Truth, 14 November 1914, p. 1. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society - Religion and politics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/religion-and-society/page-5 (accessed 24 April 2024)

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