Presbyterian Churches in 19th Century New Zealand

The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand was formed in October 1901 with the amalgamation of churches in the Synod of Otago and Southland area with those north of the Waitaki River.

Presbyterians had by and large come to New Zealand as settlers from Scotland, Ireland and Australia. Dunedin and Waipu were Presbyterian settlements, but significant numbers were found in other parts of the country including Christchurch, Port Nicholson (Wellington), and Auckland. Ministers came with the first European settlers to Wellington, Otago and Waipu, but generally nascent congregations called ministers from Scotland.

With some exceptions (the Presbyterian Church in Pukekohe East still has bullet holes from an attack in September 1863) Presbyterians were remote from the land wars. Again with some exceptions they were little involved in Maori mission. In settler society Presbyterians forged their own life, and structures including the holding of the first General Assembly in 1862 even though presbyteries south of the Waitaki River refused to join and formed the Synod of Otago and Southland in 1866. They also supported the founding of the University of Otago, became concerned about denominational rivalry, organs in worship, and Christian education in a secular education system. Emerging social issues included awareness of justice issues for workers, problems of alcohol and morality, and women getting the vote. Gold rushes transformed Dunedin’s population and economy and diluted its Presbyterian hegemony. Chinese among the miners became a focus for mission and by the end of the century overseas missionaries from New Zealand were in India and Canton as well as the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). The Presbyterian Bible Class movement became a major vehicle for leadership development and growth in faith.

Although there would have been Scots among boat crews visiting New Zealand from early on, possibly the first known European Presbyterian to visit New Zealand is John Grono (or Gronw) who was a sealer who worked around the southern coast of New Zealand from 1810 to 1826. He was based on the Hawkesbury river, NSW where he built his first boats. He married an Elizabeth Bristow and was an elder of the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church where he and his wife are buried in the grounds.

The formidable New South Wales Presbyterian pioneer Rev John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878) visited and wrote about New Zealand in the 1830s. Described in the Scottish Dictionary of Church History and Theology as "minister, politician, journalist and emigration agent" he was influenced by Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow and pastored the Scots Church in Sydney from 1826 until his death. He promoted Protestant migration to relieve poverty in Britain and "effect the moral regeneration of Australian society, dominated by convicts and Roman Catholics." Among other migration projects, in 1837 he brought nearly 4000 Highlanders to New South Wales.

British Government awareness of New Zealand related to concern for the convict settlements in Australia and the possibility that other European nations, particularly the French, might claim control before it was necessary and possible to assert British suzerainty. The Church Missionary Society presence at the Bay of Islands from 1814 was reported and shared in missionary journals among the increasing numbers of supporters of overseas mission who sought to encourage humanitarian values and engage with missionary opportunities in the region. The Pacific was the early focus of the London Missionary Society whose directors and supporters included Presbyterians and Congregationalists in both England and Scotland. British society was energetic and reinventing itself through industrial revolution and the Reform Bills from 1832, an interest which many evangelicals shared. Ideas of utopian community led to secular experiments in New Lanark near Glasgow, the Cadbury estates in Birmingham, and New Harmony in Connecticut. Emigration was seen as a way of relieving famine, poverty and over-population at home and creating a new world overseas.

The New Zealand Company was a reflection of these ideals, some practical, some romantic. Its first ships reached Petone. before Hobson and Maori had met over the Treaty at Waitangi on 6 February 1840. Its negotiations with government representatives in London and New Zealand were often fraught, and most of its settlements including Nelson and New Plymouth struggled. Today a cross on the Petone foreshore marks the arrival on 20 February 1840 of the first Presbyterians intent on settlement, including the Rev John Macfarlane. It took nearly four years before the congregation that became St Andrews on the Terrace had their first church. Macfarlane and the first congregation provided a link to the pre 1843 Disruption “Auld Kirk” while the second Presbyterian church in Wellington, St John’s in 1953 received John Moir from the Free Church of Scotland as its minister.

In Victorian Britain emigration became an industry in itself with vigorous publicity and agents travelling the country. The major destination was Canada, but Scots and Scots Irish (Scots whose families had migrated to the north of Ireland) also went to other parts of the Americas (including Argentina as well as the United States), South Africa, Australia and also New Zealand, which became "the furthest promised land".

In Auckland the first service was held in 1842 and St Andrews Church in Symonds Street was opened in 1849. David Bruce (see the reading) was the second minister, and his energetic ministry laid the foundation for Presbyterian churches over a large part of the North Island.

The Church of Scotland had seen the need to provide pastoral support for migrants from the 1820s when a Colonial Committee of the General Assembly was set up to raise funds for ministers and churches in the colonies. This structure was continued by the Free Church. Some Scottish Evangelicals were interested in migration and after the Disruption of 1843 the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland gathered support and people for what in 1848 became the Otago Settlement.

Although Otago was very much a Free Church project (at first it tried unsuccessfully to keep out Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists), people migrated for a range of personal and economic circumstances. Some had a strong faith and a sense of God's leading and providing, others found that faith as they made the arduous, dangerous and cramped journey to the other side of the world and sought to establish a new life for themselves and their families. The familiarity of Scottish worship, including its communion seasons, may have been nostalgic, but it was also a source of nurture for a real faith.

The divisions among Presbyterians at home in Scotland were to some relatively unimportant, to others sources of sensitivities which fuelled debates as attempts were made to form a national church. Presbyteries were formed once there were about 3 ministers in an area. The Synod of Otago came into existence in 1866 but not until 1901 did it unite with the Northern Church presbyteries. Whatever the arguments, there was a common belief that church extension, home mission to Maori and Chinese, social services and orphanages, overseas mission to the New Hebrides, India and China, and ministry training for ministers and soon deaconesses, required a national church. Being one church might be a source of conflict about mission and identity, but few questioned the need for it to exist, or even that properly constituted it would be a means of grace.

"To encourage a missionary spirit among them"

Auckland Presbytery first met in October 1856 and among its carefully worded statements there was recorded the following minute:

Believing that it is the duty of the Church of Christ, in obedience to her Master’s command, in harmony with her design, in gratitude to God for all the unspeakable benefits she enjoys, and out of respect to her spiritual welfare, to endeavour to extend the knowledge of salvation throughout the world, (the Presbytery) feel called on thus early to acknowledge the obligation that rests upon them, while seeking to advance and maintain the interests of true religion at home, to enter on the work of missions in general, so soon as in God’s providence they shall be in circumstances to direct the contributions of their people into specific channels; and meanwhile, recommend to all the ministers, in their public instructions, to bring the importance of missions before the minds of their people, and endeavour by all commendable means to encourage a missionary spirit among them.

(Presbytery of Auckland Minutes 14 October 1856 to 7 July 1869, p.25, Presbyterian Archives, Dunedin).

In 1900, after many years of negotiations and delays, it was accepted that there should be a united body of Presbyterians in New Zealand. On 31st October 1901, the Northern and Southern Churches met in Dunedin. The General Assembly met in Knox Church Dunedin and the Synod of Otago and Southland met in First Church. After various motions were agreed to, both Churches came together that evening in the Agricultural Hall and were constituted by their respective Moderators, the Rev J. K. Elliott and the Rev J. Gibb. 

Wellington Pioneers 1840

St Andrews on the Terrace

Davidson, Allan K. Pious Energy. "Presbyterian Beginnings: John Macfarlane," Presbyterian Personalities and Perspectives, Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1989, 7-13.

Auckland Settlers 1842

Davidson, Allan K. Pious Energy. "Apostle of Northern Presbyterianism: David Bruce,"  Presbyterian Personalities and Perspectives, Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, 1989, 15-21.

First meeting of Auckland Presbytery, Daily Southern Cross, 25 October 1856

St Andrews Symonds Street

The Otago Free Church Settlement 1848 - 1900

Dunedin City Council, Birth of a City

Alison Clarke, The Presbyterian way of life in the 19th century

John MacGibbon, Going Abroad

Rutherford Waddell

Waipu 1854

Journeys of Norman Macleod

Gordon MacDonald, The Highlanders of Waipu, 1828.

Waipu Heritage Centre 

Congregational Churches

The Congregational Union of New Zealand was established in 1884 with around 30 congregations.

Support had been received from Congregational churches in Britain through the Colonial Missionary Society founded in 1836 to support "education and religion" and to raise funds and personnel for churches in the British colonies.

In 1842 it supported the formation of a Congregational Church in Wellington. In 1956 the Colonial Missionary Society was renamed the Commonwealth Missionary Society, and in 1966 it merged with the London Missionary Society as part of the new Council for World Mission. 

Reformed Presbyterian Church

Their pastoral work was appreciated in the Northern Church, and their legacy to New Zealand Presbyterianism was involvement in mission in the New Hebrides and an initial attempt at Maori work in the Manawatu. John Inglis of the Reformed Presbyterian Church was in New Zealand from 1852 prior to continuing to his destination. See Story of the New Hebrides Mission.

Chinese Migration and Mission

History of Chinese in New Zealand
Donald Cochrane, The Story of The New Zealand Chinese Mission  1867 to 1952

Social Conscience

Rutherford Waddell and "The sin of cheapness"

Some Presbyterians (eg Burns in Otago) had a pastoral concern for Maori, but Presbyterians were strongest in areas with relatively little contact with Maori, and had no history of understanding their language, culture and social needs. Presbyterian attitudes to the New Zealand wars were at best ambiguous with ministers involved as chaplains to British troops. See Peter Matheson, in Presbyterians in Aotearoa, 38-39.

Northern and Southern Presbyterians : Moves towards Union

Agreement for Union, 1901

Until 1901, there were two separate and distinct Presbyterian churches in New Zealand with the Waitaki river being the dividing line between the Northern and Southern Churches.

The first attempts to amalgamate the groups were made in 1861 in Dunedin and in 1862 in Auckland. Travel between the areas was difficult and expensive with shipping being the main method of transport.

In 1900, after many years of negotiations and disruption, it was accepted that there should be a united body of Presbyterians in New Zealand.

On 31st October 1901, the Northern and Southern Churches met in Dunedin. The General Assembly met in Knox Church Dunedin and the Synod of Otago and Southland met in First Church. After various motions were agreed to, both Churches came together that evening in the Agricultural Hall and were constituted by their respective Moderators, the Rev J. K. Elliott and the Rev J. Gibb.


Benedetto, Guder and Kim provide a useful summary. The chapters in Presbyterians in Aotearoa give greater detail, the references in Christianity in Aotearoa tell a larger story of which Presbyterians are part. Presbyterians began as a "settler" church associated with migrants. Anglicans, Methodists and Catholics were mission churches to New Zealand Maori before they developed a ministry to migrants.