logo Practical Dreamers

Independent Methodism
in New Zealand

Donald Phillipps


 A unique mark of Methodism is its connexionalism.  To be a Methodist, almost by definition, means working with other Methodists throughout the country.  John Wesley towards the end of his life spoke of Methodists as being a connected people. Methodism does not have an independent congregational polity, each local congregation having vested final authority in the annual Conference.

There are always those for whom such centralised authority is tedious and frustrating. The delays inherent in seeking approval for what are seen as no more than local concerns can be thoroughly irksome. In matters of personal faith and practice, this sort of decision-making may seem downright wrong . At such times unless the offended individual or congregation swallows their pride and concedes the matter at issue, they may find themselves seriously considering their relationship to the Church as a whole.

Over the years, though individuals and even whole congregations have often enough thought this way, it has come out into open dispute relatively rarely.  The decision of some Methodists to do so in 2000 and form the Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand is too recent an event to be the subject of uncritical study.  They were not the first group to do such a thing, however, and what follows is an attempt to record those earlier occasions and the people involved.

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During the last decades of the 19th century there had developed, among the principal denominations at least, an unease with the growing secularization of New Zealand society.  Unlike older European cultures there was nothing like a state church, and church-going was purely a matter of choice.  Attendance at Sunday worship was not a priority for colonial families whose ambitions were for educational improvement and material prosperity.  How to get such people interested in religion exercised Methodism, and from the mid-1880's there was a renewed emphasis on evangelism, a casualty within the Wesleyan tradition with its Victorian passion for respectability.

At a different level, questions being asked by science appeared, to some, to cast doubt on the authority of both Church and scripture.  The debate within Methodism on the theories of Darwin had featured in the Church's newspaper over a lengthy period and opinion was sharply divided.  Since Conference was the place where ordinary Methodists met to hear what the Church's mind was on any great matter it was hardly likely that Conference would, in fact, be able to agree on issues of such magnitude.

This was the time, too, when, within Wesleyan Methodism, the place of the Bible as God's literal word was being called into question.  The new methods of scriptural study, or the 'new criticism' as it was described, were the subject of successive Conference lectures in the early 1890's.  For some this sort of talk could result only in the subversion of traditional certainties.

The response of the Church was typical.  There was a closing of ranks by means of restructuring in 1896 and in 1913, when the previously separated branches of the Church formed a unified successor to Wesley.

If mainstream Christianity had lost its fire, there gradually emerged throughout the country a significant number of autonomous congregations, gathered around their chosen pastor.  Often these congregations and their ministers were loosely linked in what were described as evangelical networks.  A few examples from within the Methodist family are instructive.

Beniamin Vanes was a Wesleyan minister who came to New Zealand in 1878.  He had been stationed in Birmingham at a time when revivalism was just beginning to make its presence felt.  He settled at Waikouaiti, and was appointed to ministry there, serving until 1883, when he then resigned.  The reason for this could simply have been that of someone who did not wish to itinerate.  He stayed on in the township for nearly twenty years, officially recorded in the New Zealand Gazette and Wise's Directory as an 'Independent Wesleyan' minister.

He opened a mission hall, gathered a congregation, and beyond Waikouaiti conducted services at Shag Point, Merton, Puketeraki and later at Flag Swamp.  While he maintained cordial relations with the Conference appointed Home Missionaries, the township could hardly support two Wesleyan causes.  The fact that on his death in 1902 his people invited the Primitive Methodists to take over his work may suggest his ministry was more evangelical than was customary among Wesleyans at that time.

Samuel Buchanan spent a considerable time as a Wesleyan Home Missionary, serving at a number of places in the north of the North Island from 1885.  Later he was at the Bernard St Primitive Methodist church in Timaru, but resigned early in 1903.  By May he had been licensed as an Officiating Minister under the Marriage Act, as an 'Independent Free Church' minister.  An individual minister was entitled, under the Act, to be registered in this way, so long as he had the official support of ten respectable citizens who were part of his church or congregation.  Buchanan maintained this separate ministry until the end of 1910, when he became a Presbyterian Home Missionary, and was appointed to Frankton Junction, where he died in 1913.

Henry Curran  of Feilding, had from 1892 until 1895 been a Hired Local Preacher for the Primitive Methodist Church at Hunterville.  He then continued as an independent evangelist or missionary at a number of North Island country towns, especially in the Hawkes Bay.  He returned to Feilding where he remained until 1916, officially recorded as a minister with the Brethren Assemblies for a time.  Curran finally moved to Hawera, where he established the Aotearoa Undenominational Mission, and died there in 1945.

In 1896 major changes took place in the management of the Methodist Church's Freeman's Bay Helping Hand Mission. The driving force behind this Mission was a group of prominent Auckland businessmen, chief among whom was  William H.Smith,  cofounder of Smith and Caughey Ltd.  It is clear he found the Connexional property approval process frustrating when he wanted to get on with the business of saving souls and providing charitable services.  Smith severed his links with the Mission in 1897 and started the Auckland Central Mission in a  'somewhat degraded district,'  around Cook Street.  A deaconess, Sister Francis, followed him.  Soon afterwards a new centre was opened in Albert Street, with Sunday evening services at His Majesty's Theatre.  The Mission performed an important central city role for many years.

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The United Methodist Free Church came to New Zealand in 1860 when a society was formed in Rangiora and the first minister was appointed to Christchurch in 1864.  The UMFC was formed from the various secessions within Wesleyanism in the Midlands between 1827 and 1851.  All shared a dislike of Wesleyan authoritarianism, and looked for more democratic forms of government, locally and nationally.  They became the United Methodist Free Church in 1856 retaining their identity in New Zealand until 1896 when they reunited with the Wesleyans.  At that point there were 23 UMFC churches and 6 other preaching places, and over 2000 attendants at worship.  Their main strength was in Canterbury, but in Wellington and Hawkes Bay there was a significant presence.

There was one congregation in Auckland, at Mt Eden, formed in the early 1870's.  They had not always enjoyed the services of a minister, and it may well have been that the congregation became less dependent on such leadership.  They decided in 1893 to distance themselves from the other UMFC societies, though they wanted to be recognised as one of the United Free Churches of New Zealand.  Maybe the old passion for democracy had bubbled up again when the union negotiations took place.  There continued this uniquely independent Methodist church in Mt Eden, and from 1896 there was a John Smith, clergyman, recorded as living in Valley Rd.  Almost certainly he was John William Wetherall Smith, just retired from the Methodist ministry in 1896.

In Auckland, then, not all Methodists were of the same mind.  Apart from the foundation of the Auckland Central Mission in 1897, the emergence of the Free Methodist Church of New Zealand in 1900 is not entirely coincidental.  There were doubtless some who did not share the optimism that a larger denomination would be more effective.  The Primitive Methodists held back from union in 1896 partly because they felt Wesley's evangelical imperative was not sufficiently observed.

In 1899, a former UMFC minister, John Hosking, D.D., now Methodist minister at Hamilton, announced his candidature for the Waikato Electorate at the General Election.  This ran counter to Methodist law and the Auckland District Synod advised him to make a choice between pulpit and politics.  He 'voluntarily' resigned, but shortly afterwards announced he intended to form another Methodist Church 'in opposition to the united body'.  The New Zealand Herald, on February 27th 1900, carried a letter from a leading Christchurch minister, Henry Bull, suggesting Hosking had been spreading false information about the Church's actions, and denying any suggestion he had been dismissed from the ministry.

On February 26th, at the Mt Eden church, a meeting, called by Hosking, was held to form 'an annual assembly in connection with the Free Methodist Church.'  A good deal of preparation went into it since there were representatives from the Waikato, the eastern Bay of Plenty, and Wellington.  The outcome was the establishment of the Free Methodist Church of New Zealand.  Its rules were those of 'their Free Methodist friends in Australia'.  It seems the Mt Eden people had maintained contact with a remnant who didn't follow the Australian UMFC when it became part of the newly formed Methodist Church of Australasia.

The new body had quite a group of officers.  John Hosking was the President, Job Benning and Richard Ashwin were the Vice Presidents, W.Cole and J.Williams were the Secretary and Treasurer, while L.O.Stanton (formerly associated with the Helping Hand Mission) was the Home Mission Secretary.  The newspaper report set out a list of stations, and Hosking, who must have already taken over the Mt Eden congregation, was confirmed in that position.  He resided at Mt Eden Rd. and was assisted in Auckland by James Saunders.  Samuel Potts was appointed to Ngaruawahia, Henry Young to Omaio (east of Whakatane), Ashwin to Hamilton, and Benning to Wellington.  Within a couple of weeks their names had been gazetted as licensed under the Marriage Act.  Wise's Directory of 1901 included the Free Methodist Church of New Zealand as a separate body, noting that their Annual Assembly was held in the first week of January.

If a reason for the break had to do with wishing to offer a more evangelical ministry, the Mt Eden church seems to have become part of a network of like-minded congregations.  There were links with both the Auckland Central Mission and the Auckland Methodist City Mission.  Advertisements in the New Zealand Herald show a group of preachers who moved between these bodies.  Moreover, friendly relations were maintained with the Primitive Methodists, whose ministers occasionally preached at Mt Eden.

Hosking spent about eighteen months at Mt Eden before moving on, and his place taken by Job Benning.  Probably the activities of the FMCNZ were centred on Mt Eden, with its full-time minister, and there were a number of preaching places, especially in the Waikato, at Whakatane, Te Awamutu, Drury, Ngaruawahia, and Hamilton, for shorter or longer periods.  In Auckland there may also have been services at Otahuhu where Saunders resided.  The Wellington FMCNZ congregation, based at Petone, probably did not survive the departure of Benning in 1901.

For nearly forty years the Mt Eden cause steadfastly maintained its independence.  Ordained ex–Methodist ministers like Job Benning and John W.W. Smith were in charge until at least 1912.  Then it seems that a layman, John Lowden, who later became a Presbyterian minister, was pastor until 1916.  Francis Paton is recorded in January 1917 and J.R.Gardener in August 1918.  George Alexander Johnstone Macdonald is named as minister in 1919 and 1920 church advertisements.  He had been a Presbyterian Home Missionary on the North Shore until 1917.  The latter two must have had other employment, Gardener being described as a baker and Macdonald as a wireless operator in the Directory.

The FMCNZ ministers continued to be officially recognised, in terms of the Marriage Act, only until 1916.  It is hardly surprising that the body did not survive the 1914–1918 War, and in any case, some of the justification for continuing as a separate Methodist entity disappeared with the union between Methodists and Primitive Methodists in 1913.

At the end of 1922 William Perry, an ex-Baptist minister, and one of a small group describing themselves as the United Evangelical Church in New Zealand, is named as the leader of Sunday worship and other activities at Mt Eden.  From 1929 the congregation was pastored by a man who achieved distinction as a communicator, Kenneth Hector Melvin.  In the Gazette he is consistently described as an Independent Methodist.  When he moved into broadcasting in 1937 a major change took place and the congregation became associated with the Valley Road Baptist Church.  As late as 1970 the notice board at the corner of Mt Eden and Valley Roads stated this was the Mount Eden Free Methodist Church in conjunction with the Valley Road Baptist Church.

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Finally, in the story of independent Methodism, some notice should be taken of the Fellowship of the Friendly Road.   C.G. Scrimgeour, another great communicator, spent some years as Home Missionary with the Methodist Church, and from 1927 was missioner at the Auckland Methodist Central Mission.  He did memorable work there, but was a difficult employee from the Church's point-of-view.  In 1932 he resigned in order, among other things, to establish a non–denominational radio church on 1ZB.  He worked with another Methodist layman, Thomas Threader Garland, who had already made a name for himself with his children's choirs.  The Friendly Road attracted thousands of listeners, and through his 'Man in the Street' broadcasts Scrimgeour voiced the concems of ordinary people.  'Under the guise of religion' it has been said, he pushed 'the rigorous censorship of broadcasting to the limits.'  The Friendly Road had a chequered career until Scrimgeour's appointment as Controller of Commercial Broadcasting in 1936, though the Children's Choir kept the name going for some years longer.

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Additional notes on the ministers connected with the MFCNZ

Richard Ashwin - c.1832-1901

The only possibility is Martin Richard Ashwin, a farmer from Hautapu, near Cambridge.  The fact that he died, aged 69, in February 1901, possibly bears this out, since the Richard Ashwin, who was appointed the first co-Vice President in 1900, was not reappointed in 1902.  It is known that the family had Methodist links and Richard's involvement in the inauguration of the FMCNZ may well be connected to John Hosking's ministry at Hamilton.

Job Benning - 1858-1915

Born at Wednesbury, Staffordshire, it seems likely he came to New Zealand in the mid 1880's.  After applying to the Presbyterian Church for employment as a 'Student Evangelist' in 1887, he became a UMFC minister in 1889, and served at Waipawa, Oxford, and Westport.  He did not transfer in 1896 to the newly named Methodist Church of New Zealand but made himself available for appointment as a Home Missionary.  Between 1896 and 1900 he served at Kumara, Little River and Petone.  In 1900 he resigned from Wesleyan Methodism and his name appears in the Directory for that year as living at the Free Methodist Church manse in Petone, so he must have formed, briefly, a FMCNZ cause in the Wellington/Hutt Valley region.  He was then appointed to Mt Eden, where he remained until 1905, being Vice President of the FMCNZ 1902–1904, and President 1904–1905. He then joined the Primitive Methodists and served at Eltham, Hamilton and Waikouaiti, staying on at the latter place after the 1913 Union.  He died there in 1915.  His brief obituary in the 1916 Conference Minutes makes no reference to his four years with the FMCNZ, but does refer to him as an 'unconventional' minister.

John Hosking, D.D. - 1860-1919

Born at Copperhouse, West Comwall, in 1860, he was educated at Redruth Public School, and at Victoria Park College, the UMFC Theological Institution 1883-1886, and received on probation at the 1886 Conference.  He offered his services to the Committee for Colonial Missions and was sent immediately to Australia where he served at Ballarat (1886-1887), Melboume (1887-1888), and Brisbane (1888-1891).  He apparently had offered to come to New Zealand in 1890, and the following year a New Zealand layman on a visit to Australia was impressed by him, and an appointment was offered.  He served at Christchurch, 1891-1896, and during that time was Chairman of the UMFC District in 1894.  He was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by the Shaw University and Barritt College, of Raleigh, North Carolina in 1895.

While in Christchurch he established the Christian Evidence Society and the Moral League.  He was something of a controversialist, and gained prominence through his very public exposure of the confidence trickster Arthur Bentley Worthington.  Morley describes him as a voracious reader and voluminous writer, and in the New Zealand Bibliography he has ten entries, including a 565 page treatise on Christian morals, theology and history.  After the Union of 1896 he was stationed at Hastings (1896-1897) and Hamilton (1897-1899).  He was clearly a man with leadership ability.

After his time at Mt Eden he was appointed the pastor at the Fitzroy Congregational Church in Melbourne.  While in Melbourne he was prominent as a leader of the Protestant Federation, and was also active as an Orangeman and as a temperance advocate.  During the 1914-1918 War he visited the United States, and on his retum he became minister of the Chapple St Baptist Church, where he spent only a few months prior to his death, at Broken Hill, on June 27th 1919.

John Lowden - 1873-1956

His name first appears in 1911 as a marriage celebrant, and remains until 1915.  He can hardly be other than the John Lowden who became a Presbyterian minister in 1917.  Born in Durham, he came to New Zealand in 1881, and initially worked for his father who was a blacksmith/engineer in Mataura.  He was in Auckland by 1910, employed firstly as a commercial traveller and then as an accountant, living at Chester St., Mt Eden.  He may have helped to keep the Mt Eden FMCNZ cause going after J.W.W.Smith retired.  He was appointed Home Missionary at Reefton in 1917, and a year later became the minister of the Momingside church in Auckland where he remained until 1926.  His later charges were Paeroa, till 1931, and Picton until his retirement in 1938.

Charles Thomas Macfarlane - 1875-1949

Bom in Motueka he undertook Salvation Army training, and from 1893 was a commissioned officer in various places.  It appears he was appointed as a Home Missionary to Te Awamutu, probably in 1899, but had to retire through ill-health.  Very briefly he was living in Masterton as an insurance agent, but by March 1900 was back at Te Kopua/Kakepuku in the Waipa County as schoolteacher/postmaster and was licensed under the Marriage Act as a minister of the Free Methodist Church of New Zealand.  He must have gathered around him in that remote country area a small congregation.  He moved again in August 1901, probably to Tangoio, on the east coast north of Napier, in the same employment, but no longer a minister.  He stayed there until at least 1913 by which time he had become a J.P.  From no later than 1919 he was a teacher at Tauranga, and he had retired by 1938.  He and his wife, Margaret (nee Gillespie) lived there until his death at Thames.

Kenneth Hector Melvin - 1905-1969

Born in Rotorua, he had received musical training, earning the LRCM.  He was the Mount Eden Free Methodist Church pastor from 1929 till 1937, and married Ena Margaret Orr, in 1932.  From 1937 he was involved in the radio industry, initially with his Melvin Radio Studio, producing radio programmes for 1ZB, and becoming nationally known as 'Tusitala, Teller of Tales' on National Radio 1938-1942; and he was also a newscaster.  He served as a Flt.Lt. with RNZAF in Padfic 1943-1945.  In his later career he was Sales Manager, Watties Canneries from 1957-1960, and then moved to Dunedin as a lecturer in education, at Otago University, 1960-1966.  From that University he obtained his Ph.D in education.  He then moved to Boston University where he was Professor of International Education, until his death three years later.

Samuel Potts - 1852-1915

It seems likely he came to New Zealand in the 1880's, and may have initially settled at Te Awamutu.  Samuel was received on probation at the 1895 UMFC District Meeting and was sent on probation to Reefton (1895-1896), and to Westport in 1896.  He stayed on there, after the Union, until 1898, but appears to have retired from ministry at that time.  He was appointed to Ngaruawahia in 1900 with the FMCNZ, then to Drury (1901-1904), Ngaruawahia again (1904–1907), and finally to Hamilton (1907-1912).  He must have retired at that stage since the entry in the 1913 Directory describes him as a carpenter living at Ngaruawahia, though his name continues as a Officiating Minister under the Marriage Act.  He died at Ngaruawahia on November 17th 1915.

Henry Price - 1850-1911

Born at Acton, Cheshire, it is not known when he came to New Zealand, but he first appears on the list of Wesleyan Home Missionaries at Whangaroa in 1888.  He stayed there until 1891, when he moved to Helensville, and in 1892 was stationed at Russell.  After six years, having responsibility for the extensive Bay of Islands Circuit, he retired in 1898 to take up business there.   'Himself the son of a local preacher', according to Morley, 'his heart was always in the work. He kept up his reading amid the fatiguing work of the district, and preached eamest and instructive sermons.'  Despite his new employment he appears in the Electoral Rolls for the Bay of Islands as a Wesleyan Minister until 1902, and he may have lived on there until late 1904.  His name first appears in the list of FMCNZ ministers licensed under the Marriage Act in February 1905, and he is to be identified with the Henry Price employed as a gardener and resident in Epsom, from that year.  He died at Meadowbank on August 4th 1911, aged 61, and his burial record describes him as a missionary.

James Saunders - c.1850-1921

He entered the UMFC ministry in New Zealand in 1890 as minister at Woodville.  After two years, he was stationed at Richmond (Christchurch) for a year and then in 1893 his name disappears.  He was among the first FMCNZ group named in 1901, and was the last to be registered as an officiating minister under the Marriage Act in the 1916 Gazette.  His whole ministry was at Otahuhu where he was employed as a soapmaker at the Union Soap and Candle Co., of which firm he eventually became assistant manager.  Though his name does not appear in the directories with the title of Rev'd he may have formed and maintained a worshipping group in that part of Auckland until he retired.  He was Vice President of the FMCNZ from 1904 onwards.  James and his wife, Jemima, moved to Wanganui where, it would seem, they had family, and where he died in 1921.

John William Wetherall Smith - c.1867-1944

The second son of a Captain John Smith of Melboume, he was born at sea.  His childhood and young manhood were spent in Australia, and he was 'educated for the church'.  His first call to ministry was at Gippsland where he spent two years from about 1891.  He came to New Zealand about the end of 1892 and was received on probation at the 1893 District Meeting.  His first appointment as probationer was at Papanui, 1893-1894.  He was not passed in that year of probation through ill health.  He was then stationed at Arrowtown (Wakatipu), 1894-1896, and after the Union of 1896 was appointed as a probationer to Collingwood St., part of the Pitt St. Circuit.  He then retired from ministry through health at the 1896 Conference.

As has been said it is possible he stayed on in Auckland, residing in Valley Rd.,  and supplying the ministry for the Mt Eden Free Methodist Church, where he stayed until 1899. He then entered the Presbyterian Home Missionary service in 1900 and was sent to Pembroke (now Wanaka) 1901-1904, and he married Catherine Barclay of Hawea Flat in 1901.  He moved to Colac Bay for a year (1904) before re-entering the ministry of the FMCNZ in 1905.  He was appointed to the Mt Eden church and remained there until about 1912.  Ill-health forced his retirement and he sought the open air of Central Otago, where he worked as a boarding-house keeper but principally as commercial traveller based on Alexandra and then Roxburgh until his death.  He had played minor representative cricket for Auckland.

William Stewart

It is difficult to identify this man. None of the Electoral Rolls for Auckland, which have a number of William Stewarts, describe any of them as a minister or missionary - almost without exception they are artisans of some sort. In 1905, at least, there was a William Stewart who was active at the Auckland Central Mission, and he was doubtless the same person whose name appears on the list of Officiating Ministers in 1910 as a Free Methodist Church minister.

Henry Young - c.1836-1925

Formerly a Congregational minister he was part of the inaugural FMCNZ meeting at Mt Eden in February 1900 where he was confirmed in an appointment at Omaio, nearly 40 miles along the coast east of Whakatane.  He and his family came to New Zealand in 1885 and he spent one year at the Ravensbourne church in Dunedin.  He then took up teaching in Native Schools with his wife and daughter.  They were at Whirinaki in 1888, Ahipara in 1893, Te Kopua from 1895 till 1900 when he moved to Omaio.  He retired from Omaio in 1907, but had probably given up his connection with the FMCNZ in 1905 when his name ceased to appear as an Officiating Minister under the Marriage Act.  He moved to Auckland, where he died on September 1st 1925.


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