The Presbyterian Bible Class Movement : 1888 - 1972

Bible Class Union Symbol Today youth work is growing again. Many churches and some presbyteries, sometimes in cooperation with others including community groups, employ youth workers. Parachute and Faith Festival provide annual gatherings of spiritual challenge and music unconstrained by the tastes of older generations. For some years now the church has had a national youth co-ordinator.

In some congregations, like St John's in Wellington, there is a strong memory of the glory days of the Presbyterian Bible Class Movement. Enquiring conversations among older people in other congregations as well can produce BC badges from dusty collections of memorabilia and unleash nostalgia for Easter Camps, Bible Class dances and debates, and memories of Presbyterian Harriers and study groups, and of teenage and young adult years in country towns hooning around in their father's cars while their elders fretted over the morality of dancing. Relationships of friendship and often marriage built networks which provided the church with elders missionaries and ministers through the 20th century. They were both challenged and strengthened by the experiences of depression and war and they knew what practical Christian leadership was about. The cohesion and faith of those who knew they could just get together and make things happen can still be a force to be reckoned with. There is still a gleam in many an octogenarian eye of what it has meant to be part of a Christian group which initiated change and adventure.

Formally the Bible Class movement came to an end at a meeting in Blenheim in March 1972. For some years it had been combined with the Methodist movement. Tensions over style, organisational philosophy, social and evangelistic attitudes and theology came to a tipping point when neither ecumenically or denominationally was there the leadership available among youth themselves or from the church capable of generating a new vision. It has taken time to rebuild, and the changing cultures of society in the 35 years since have led to different ways of doing things. A cultural swing towards new patterns of group belonging and generations spared some of the intensive debates about identity has created new opportunities. It may be surprising to discover how much of the vision of the early founders of the movement has a freshness and relevance.

In 1888 George Troup at St John's advocated "the co-operative method" - the sharing of leadership among young people themselves, rather than being in the role of students in the minister's bible class. The YMCA and YWCA movements and Christian Endeavour had also encouraged leadership development among youth themselves, meeting spiritual, social, and educational needs in an age when not so many young people went to secondary school. The Student Volunteer Movement leading later to the Student Christian Movement and Evangelical Unions in the universities and teachers colleges met with similar success with a similar philosophy of facilitating internal leadership in the 18 to 30 age group. Young men at the bottom of the professional ladder were quite capable of drawing up a programme and presenting papers. Troup's approach fitted an ethos of self-improvement which his own astonishing career epitomised (see references and DNZB article online). The growth into a movement was not entirely in a vacuum. Churches generally had been concerned about the absence of religious education in schools and the ministers bible classes were in a sense a substitute. It was an era in which organization modelled on business was yielding results, and uniformed groups (Brigades and Scouts) came into existence, not to mention the Salvation Army eventually as a whole church. Troup's model addressed these needs and mood with an empowering appeal to flexibility and responsibility for self, connecting with young adults as much with late adolescents.

In 1894 a similar group founded in Dunedin and 1895 at Lower Hutt. A magazine was launched in 1899 and attempts made at joint activities and camps. Troup's vision was for a "four square" balance of the spiritual, mental, physical and social. For many young people Bible Class became their life outside work and study.  In 1901 a national camp was organised at Titahi Bay and a national movement launched. Bible Study was at the heart of the movement and Easter and later also summer Camps a key feature. It was important that the constitution made the movement an integral part of the church. By 1903 there were 85 classes and some 2000 members. Mainly urban it essentially ran itself. A summer conference in 1904 in Oamaru attracted 741. Similar movements developed among Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists.

Despite the constitution placing the movement within the church it was inevitable that there were unresolved tensions about being a church within the church, and whether the leadership philosophy could be sustained. How much national, versus regional and local leadership was needed? It was one thing for those in their twenties to take responsibility, but the junior bible classes needed more oversight. A system of travelling secretaries acted as coordinators, a pattern picked up by later by the Evangelical Unions. No denying that wrestling with these very issues helped develop significant leaders.

Sage argues that after the initial enthusiasm the influence of liberalism undermined the spiritual and theological foundations of the movement resulting in steady decline.  His history is one of decline, death and absorption into the wider church. This resulted in his history being held from publication and it is a pity that the issues of social and theological change could not have been more adequately explored, and the task remains. His views were likely to have been coloured by his own sense of marginalisation as an evangelical, and it might have been conceded that theological diversity may have made some of the unifying cries of the earlier phases of the movement harder to sustain. There is a parallel in the history of the Student Christian Movement and the break away of the evangelicals in the late 1920s. The SCM did later decline almost terminally, as did the the Bible Class Movement. In both cases there was a theological shift involved and it would have been all too easy for Sage to see this as cause and effect applying equally to both.

The issue of theological centre and how it is maintained is important, but the Bible Class Movement followed for good or ill the theology of the church generally which became more diverse through the 20th century; SCM's strategic mistake was not that it accommodated students who were not evangelical or fundamentalist, but that eventually it detached itself altogether from its Christian moorings. This caused great pain to those of quite respectable middle of the road theology, and fed rather simplistically into slippery slope theories of theological diversity and terminal decline. It is not that how the theological challenges of the generations are addressed is irrelevant - it was one of the core strengths of the Bible Class movement that it allowed those sorts of conversations and questions to be aired in a safe space, but that the growth and decline of movements as movements is a matter for sociology as well as ideology/theology. The Bible Class movement began as more liberal and church orientated that Christian Endeavour, and less sport orientated that the YMCA. though it had features of both. It might be possible to argue that it never did quite fit the model that Sage bemoaned losing. And neither Christian Endeavour nor YMCA proved themselves more conspicuous in their ability to sustain relevance in changing times.

Leaving it all to the young people themselves of course meant that from time to time they would do things which hindsight would suggest were unwise. In 1922 there were 1200 present at the Hawera Conference, and the aggressive evangelism put numbers off who determined that "never again".

The 1890s had been an age of optimism that the Kingdom of God was not far off echoed in the call by the student leader and soon to be ecumenical statesman J R Mott for the evangelisation of the world in this generation. Mott visited New Zealand twice and the mood and sense of responsibility of students and bible class members was similar. Often they were the same people.

That optimism was shaken by the War, but military language still found a ready place in the church. It  was a short move from military strategies to evangelistic tactics. World War I wiped out some of the greatest talent and prematurely aged a number of others. The Depression had a serious effect. J D Salmond in the 1930s brought a fresh commitment to addressing perennial issues of finance and morale, and theme of integration of youth work into the life of the church, but it needed more than organisational change to overcome apathy and decline.

In a sense this became apparent in the 1950s when the post-War baby boom and the expansion of the church for a time turned the tide. In association with the New Life Movement the demographics of ethos of the era brought into church growing numbers of Sunday school and junior bible class members who in turn would rejuvenate the movement as a whole. But times had also changed and when the 60s and 70s saw the beginnings of the social change and church going decline that has continued since it was going to be difficult for the old models to continue however important they had once been.

There is a time in the story of movements in the church when the right thing to do is to stop and to start again. Whether the meeting in Blenheim in March 1972 was the right and inevitable time for that to happen for the Bible Class movement can be debated, but perhaps it had to happen sometime if new generations were to be allowed to form their own associations around their own needs freed from the culture and legacy of a movement which had served the church well for some time.

How should we tell the story?

Another issue is to explore is  "What questions should we be asking?"

Shortly after the official closure, Bruce Stewart appealed in the minister's magazine, Forum, for historical material to be sent in, yet the challenge to write a definitive history remains to be taken up over 30 years later.

Perhaps it is not actually obvious how such a history should be framed, though help might be found from parallel histories of youth movements and movements generally in other churches and overseas. In the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand are the main issues why the movement arose (the essay question Robert Anderson addressed) and why it declined (Sage)? Are there other questions, perhaps surrounding the policy that J D Salmond pursued in the 1930s of integration with the church? Does our experience with the church's mission, with the charismatic movement and the new life movement have parallels in terms of the need for independence and connectedness more than integration? Is it of the nature of the case that the benefit of movements require a cycle of death and resurrection? Is what we should learn the inspiration of what a leader like George Troup can achieve, or the importance of reading the signs of the times and finding vehicles for renewal which function well in the complex of values, needs and aspirations present in any generation?

In church history generally perhaps we have difficulty with the story of movements which are deeply personal and meaningful to those involved, or is this just the challenge of writing social more than institutional history?

Part of the answer lies in being deliberate about identifying the assumptions and questions of the era we live in and accepting that it is legitimate to explore the past with those questions. In doing so we are I think more likely not only to be true to ourselves, but better able to identify where the story we are telling questions those assumptions and challenges us in ways we do not expect.

John Roxborogh


Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (go to and search)

Brash, Thomas Cuddie   1874 - 1957
Hay, James Lawrence   1888 - 1971
Troup, George Alexander
   1863 - 1941

Growing up in New Zealand : Church going 1925-50

One hundred years of youth ministry

At the Presbyterian Bible Class Camp at Napier in December 1917, an appeal was made for teachers to open schools in Maori settlements

Presbyterian Youth Ministry

'St David's Senior Bible Class 1926' Upper Hutt City Archives

Summer Days are Camping Days

Sunday in Caversham

George Troup and Tourville House Plimmerton (pdf)


Anderson, Robert. "The Bible Class Movements represented a striking and distinct innovation" Church History Essay, Theological Hall, 1973.

Boyd, Robin. The witness of the Student Christian Movement, ATF Press, 2007.

Breward, Ian. Unity and Reunion, 1972. Lecture, 1973, unpublished paper "Ecumenism in New Zealand", c1974. Which way to reunion? 1981.

Brabyn, Isabella Purvis, Life Upon Life: A History of the Presbyterian Young Women's Bible Class Union, Christchurch, Presbyterian Bookroom, 1954.

MacLeod, Angus.  "The rise and fall of the Baptist Bible Class Movement", pp.41-55. The New Zealand Journal of Baptist Research, 4, October 1999

McEldowney, Dennis, ed. Presbyterians in Aotearoa 1840-1940, pp 57, 83, 96f, 101, 110, 121, 131f, 171.

McKenzie, J M, "Recollections of the Bible Class Movement" The Outlook, August, 1973, 27, 39-40.

Sage, Clive. A jubilee history of the Young Men's Bible Class Movement, 1962.

The Badge

The Bible Class Union badge was originally designed by Mr Ad Howitt for the St John's Young Men's Bible Class in Wellington around 1900. The Young Men's Bible Class Movement officially took over the badge in 1902. It was later adopted by the Young Women's Bible Class Movement and, with a change of colouring, by the Bible Class Movements of other denominations.

According to the Rev W Bower Black in his booklet Our Badge, 1928, blue stood for Loyalty, white for Purity, and gold as a symbol of the Divine - of God. Rev Black called on members to be Heralds - to wear the badge because of having something to proclaim, to be Covenantors - as having entered into a solemn covenant with Jesus Christ our Lord, and as Crusaders - to go out and win fellow converts and to 'fight the good fight' in the World. ( )