Kōrero: Religion and society

Whārangi 7. Religious cooperation and nation-building, 1920–1970

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero


From the late 1920s the divisive, sectarian forces in society galvanised by war and prohibition waned. Community-building became stronger. Southern and northern Presbyterians united in 1901, followed by all four major strands of Methodism in 1913. Ecumenical (religious cooperation) and peace movements emerged in Protestant churches between the wars and became stronger after the Second World War.

Secular nationalism

Nation-building took secular as well as religious forms. Cultural nationalists celebrating a distinctive New Zealand identity emerged in literary and academic circles. The more secular, such as historian and poet Keith Sinclair, were ambivalent about if not hostile towards churches that shackled New Zealand to the Old World and puritanism.

Religion and politics

With the partial exception of the Presbyterian New Life movement, which set out to attract new followers to the church in the 1950s, Protestant church adherence and attendance declined slightly in the post-war years. Church leaders still enjoyed close and friendly relations with politicians, who generally had a church or Sunday-school background. Several, such as Labour’s Walter Nash and Arnold Nordmeyer, and National’s John Marshall, maintained strong Anglican or Presbyterian connections throughout their lives.

Preaching to the masses

When Billy Graham visited New Zealand in April 1959, only sports stadiums with grandstands were large enough for the crowds – Carlaw Park in Auckland, Athletic Park in Wellington and Lancaster Park in Christchurch. It is claimed that Graham preached to over a quarter of a million people, more than 16,000 of whom publicly committed themselves to follow Jesus.


Churchgoers such as Baptist lawyer Oswald Mazengarb, the Reverend Jack Somerville, a liberal Presbyterian, and Lucy O’Brien, president of the Catholic Women’s League, served on the 1954 government committee of inquiry into teenage ‘moral delinquency’. In 1959 several government departments cooperated to facilitate the tour of American evangelist Billy Graham. A shadow Protestant establishment remained near the heart of social, cultural and political life in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) relaxed the Catholic Church’s hostility toward the modern world, encouraged the use of local languages instead of Latin, and supported working with other Christians. It also had the effect of reducing Protestant–Catholic tensions.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Stenhouse, 'Religion and society - Religious cooperation and nation-building, 1920–1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/religion-and-society/page-7 (accessed 23 April 2024)

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