Thomas Chalmers and the background to Free Church Settlement in New Zealand

1844 D O Hill photo of The Rev Thomas Chalmers and his Family at Merchiston Castle SchoolChristianity reached New Zealand with Samuel Marsden’s Christmas sermon in 1814, if not earlier, but the first recorded visits of Scottish Presbyterian leaders were not until the late 1830s and were connected with visitors, traders and settlers not missionaries. St Andrews in Wellington dates from European settlement in Port Nicholson in 1840 before the Treaty was signed, and the Free Church of Scotland planned settlement in Otago in 1848.

Presbyterian settlers and their ministers came from Britain in a time of turmoil, change, conflict and hope. After Napoleon was defeated, Scotland like Britain generally was faced with unemployment and unrest. The agricultural revolution was giving way to the industrial revolution as a major driver of social change, but the Highland Clearances also drove crofters off leasehold land to be replaced by sheep. Cities like Glasgow saw exponential population growth. Steam was powering not only industry but also transport. To some at least, migration abroad seemed a solution to Britain’s ills and the search for a place where Christian and economic ideals might be realised.

The French Revolution may have lead to conservative reaction which delayed parliamentary reform until the 1830s, but its stimulus to ideas of the “Rights of Man” and to creative thinking about society occurred at many levels. Britain had lost an empire in North America, but it gained one in India and after 1813 Christian missionaries were for the first time legally allowed in British territories. The slave trade had been abolished, though slavery itself would continue for decades, and missions were seen as reparations for the wealth Britain had gained from Africa, then later from India.

In 1796 the Moderate dominated General Assembly of the Church of Scotland rejected overtures requesting the authorisation of collections to support the new Protestant missionary societies which were being formed not only in London but also in Paisley, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and in the north east of Scotland in Huntly. However in 1824 it was the Moderates rather than the Evangelicals who committed the Church to having its own overseas mission, and set about sending a missionary headmaster to India.

By the 1830s Evangelicals dominated the courts of the church with fresh energy. The expansionist mood of the country contributed to the drive to church extension at home, the support of settler churches in Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and the sending of missionary teachers to India. However Evangelical rejection of patronage led to a small number of contested appointments to parishes. When these disputes worked their way through the courts to reach the House of Lords, the conflict required a parliamentary solution which unfortunately eluded the political will and Christian wisdom of the times.

By 1843, after what was later called “the Ten Years Conflict” Thomas Chalmers (pictured above with his wife, daughters and grandson, in 1844) and others believed their only way forward was a mass secession of over a third of the ministers and members. Carefully organised with dignity, sacrifice and commitment in May, some 470 ministers, together with their elders and congregations resigned. The nobility and tragedy of this act of principle stunned parliament and the “auld kirk” which lost many, though far from all, of its finest leaders. It cannot have been surprising that pride and bitterness followed the selflessness of the sacrifice.

The resultant rivalry in church and institution building took decades to redress after the bulk of the Free Church rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1929. Meantime the turmoil and commitments of these experiences were taken by Scots migrants around the world and to New Zealand.

Although Chalmers doubted the effectiveness of migration for solving the social problems of those who stayed behind, his faith and breadth of vision inspired many of the ministers and others who left for overseas after 1843. The Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland which organised the Otago Settlement in 1848 named the port in the Otago harbour after him as their first moderator. He was undoubtedly the dominant figure of the early 19th century church.

The life of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) provides a window into this period when the Church of Scotland moved from rejection to acceptance of overseas mission, from Moderate to Evangelical dominance in the General Assembly, and from a substantially united national church, to one denomination, albeit still the established church, alongside the Free Church of Scotland, various secession groups, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.

One effect of the Disruption was to change the formal role of the Church of Scotland in society. Historically the Kirk had been responsible not only for Christian ministry, but also for the supervision of schools and the provision of poor relief. Even without the relegation of the established church to one among several denominations, the strain of maintaining these services to society was already becoming apparent. These functions soon passed into the hands of rate-payers, city councils and the government. These debates, and the assumptions articulated by Chalmers as responsibility for “the Christian Good of Scotland”, came to New Zealand with Scottish Presbyterian settlers, keen for a new life and freedom at the end of a dangerous voyage to the other side of the world, but also determined to serve God and follow the faith of their ancestors in a new land.

 John Roxborogh.

See also, The Legacy of Thomas Chalmers (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 23(4) October 1999, 173-176.)