Rutherford Waddell is one of the few New Zealand Presbyterian ministers to make it into the history books. He was minister of St Andrews Dunedin from 1879 to 1919 and still remembered for putting his faith into action in support of Dunedin seamstresses.
Of deep faith despite early struggles, and of wide interests and reading, he was founding editor of the Presbyterian Outlook whose first issue appeared on 3 February 1894. He was a pioneer in calling for social justice for women in the clothing industry, helped the formation of trade unions, and was one of the great preachers of his generation. His brother was a missionary in Japan and his niece Helen Waddell (1889-1965) became a famous medieval Latin scholar whose writings included the classic love story of Eloise and Abelard.
Under his leadership St Andrews supported missionaries overseas, particularly in China, and employed the first deaconess, Sister Christabel Duncan - whom he later married. During his ministry his sermons sold by the thousand. His friend and biographer John Collie wrote of "the thrill of spiritual passion that made his sermons different from all others". James Gibb said that others "may believe that some other is greater, but some of us know with certainty that no voice from any pulpit will again stir us as we used to be stirred"
The photo of Rutherford Waddell in St Andrew's Church, Dunedin, taken in April 1917, is from the Presbyterian Archives. See also Presbyterian Archives Waddell and the entry by Ian Breward in the online Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
In 1888 Waddell preached what must be the most famous sermon in New Zealand after Marsden's Christmas day address in 1814. His pointed denunciation of "The sin of cheapness" led to reports in the Otago Daily Times about "the pernicious sweating system" which drove down wages for seamstresses below a living wage - in some instances, "in Dunedin to a worse degree than it does at home."
At a meeting of the Synod of Otago and Southland Waddell brought a motion calling attention to the situation, claiming that "The working classes did not go to church because the capitalists prayed for them on Sundays and preyed on them during the other six days of the week." Following meetings and research in 1889 a government Sweating Commission was appointed in January 1890.
Waddell had accused firms some of whose names are still familiar (and one of which later became the major benefactor of Knox College) including Ross and Glendinning, Bing Harris, Sargoods and Butterworths with, "not only not helping us to remove a stumbling block out of the way of reform, but actually sitting down upon the block and keeping it in its place." In July 1889 Waddell was for three months the first president of the Dunedin Tailoresses' Union. He remains one of the few Presbyterian ministers to be mentioned in secular histories of New Zealand.
Waddell's social concern was rooted in a deep commitment to Jesus Christ. In his youth he struggled with and rejected Unitarianism and the idea of a Christian ethic without Christ. His sermons at St Andrews emphasised atonement and forgiveness, human guilt and wasted potential, the consequences of disobeying God's law and living by self-interest. He preached the Lordship of Christ over every aspect of life as the basis for social and national harmony.
Ian Breward, NZ Heritage and Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
J Collie, Story of the Otago Free Church Settlement.
F R Elder, History of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.
L. Barbour, "Rutherford Waddell: a preaching politician and a political parson," Forum, 23(3) May 1970.
"The Sweating System" Otago Witness 26 October 1888