An anniversary, Methodist Mission, and a song.

By Colin Gibson in Articles

William Ready began mission work in Dunedin 120 years ago.

My thoughts are turning to preparations for the 120th anniversary of what was then called the Dunedin Central Mission, marking the occasion when the Reverend William Ready commenced his mission work in the lower Octagon, then surrounded by the hotels, brothels and drinking dens which attracted idlers and the urban poor.

Ready was himself the product of the London slums, one of the lucky boys saved from its squalor and hopelessness by an act of charity. He became a minister of the Bible Christian Church (a smaller offshoot of Wesleyan Methodism) and was sent to New Zealand in 1887. When he came south from Christchurch in May 1890, charged to do a similar work, he immediately began in the way he believed was most appropriate-he stood on a soap box, sang a gospel song, drew a crowd and invited them to worship the next day.

The song Ready chose to sing to this mostly male audience (for no decent woman would have ventured into such a public area at night) was 'Where, O where is my wandering boy tonight?' written in 1877 by the American Baptist preacher, composer and gospel song writer Robert Lowry.

The choice of such a song to carry Ready's message is an interesting one.

'Where, O where is my wandering boy tonight?' is a musical setting of a story poem: a popular art form still used for religious and social purposes. It is offered in a traditional site for social work in the 19th century: not in a church or on a door-knocking campaign, but in a public arena where men congregated to drink and socialize. It is squarely focused on a contemporary social problem that is still with us-alcohol abuse. Its target audience are those disconnected from their families, mostly poor and probably out of work.

Its lyrics tell of a mother grieving for her 'lost' son: actually an up-to-date, feminised version of Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son (telling such stories for a persuasive purpose is a classic and very ancient strategy.) Its address is to simple, deep emotions: it doesn't threaten or try to terrify its audience with hellfire punishments as earlier preachers and some modern ones have tried to do, or attempt to persuade them as modern liquor and driving advertisements do, using factual information about the awful consequences of their behaviour. Its essential appeal is to a nostalgic sense of the warm and happy security provided by the listener's family in early childhood (a piece of shrewd psychology). It goes lightly on religion: Jesus appears only appears in the final verse, where he is identified with the mother-figure.

Although much has changed in the social scene (though the Octagon is still a 'dangerous' place late at night), and Dunedin Mission activities have shifted to other problem areas like early childhood education, prisoner rehabilitation, dysfunctional families and training for re-employment-that is, to the underlying causes of social problems-the appeal is still to heart and mind, as it was in Ready's song.

There is another connection, too.

The musical setting of this hymn, which reached the Chapman-Alexander mission hymnbook known as Alexander's Hymns No 3 and was used widely in New Zealand, was written by Robert Harkness, an Australian musician who travelled extensively in round-the-world tours as a pianist with some of the leading evangelists of his day. He himself wrote several hundred gospel songs which were featured in these campaigns, and compiled a popular correspondence course on 'evangelistic' piano playing. Robert was the uncle of the Reverend Howard Harkness, who was minister here in Dunedin at Mornington Methodist Church from 1942-46.

-- Colin Gibson

First printed as a Connections article in the Parish weekly bulletin, 21 March, 2010.