John James North was born at Dukinfield, Cheshire, England, on 26 July 1871, the son of Emma Heritage and her husband, Alfred North, a Baptist minister. The family settled in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1882 when Alfred accepted an invitation to be minister of the Hanover Street Baptist Church. After attending Dunedin Normal School, John worked for several years in the wholesale drapery firm of Bing, Harris and Company.
In April 1892 John North was accepted for training as a Baptist minister, and began his studies the following month. There was no Baptist theological college at the time, so as well as being tutored by senior Baptist ministers North attended lectures at the Presbyterian Theological College and the University of Otago. On completing his training, he was ordained in 1895. Two years later, on 5 February 1897, he married Cecilia Haig at Dunedin. They were to have four sons.
For 30 years North ministered in Baptist churches at Spreydon, Christchurch (1895–1903); Oamaru (1904); Vivian Street, Wellington (1905–12); and Oxford Terrace, Christchurch (1913–26). Over the years North became widely known for his popular and fearless preaching. His transparent sincerity, lack of sentimentality and intellectual ability made him an able promoter and defender of orthodox Protestant Christianity. His preaching was recognised both in New Zealand and overseas. In 1908 he was guest preacher at meetings of the first Australasian Baptist Congress. In 1923 he preached in London and at the Baptist World Congress in Stockholm. He was chosen to give the final address at the Campaign for Christian Order in 1942. At a packed meeting in the Wellington opera house, attended by the governor general, the prime minister and other dignitaries, he preached on 'Chaos or Christ'. The sermon was broadcast nationally and was published as a booklet.
North's involvement in social issues brought him considerable notoriety. He strenuously opposed gambling and took every opportunity to attack what he called 'the gambling mania'. Opposition to the liquor trade was another lifelong crusade. He supported the temperance movement and when the prohibition movement was at its peak in 1919 he gave it his enthusiastic backing. In Christchurch in 1918 he protested that the dark banks of the Avon River were being used for immoral purposes and demanded that proper lighting be installed. For this he was pilloried in the annual students' capping parade which included an effigy of 'Riverbank North'.
His uncompromising criticism of Roman Catholicism involved him in sometimes fierce disputes. During his ministries at Wellington and Christchurch he preached a series of sermons on what he saw as the errors of Catholicism. In 1916 he condemned the neutrality of the Pope during the First World War, and when the centenary of Catholicism in New Zealand was celebrated in 1938, he published a provocative 64-page book on The plain points of Protestantism.
In addition to his pastoral and preaching duties North was secretary of the Baptist Union of New Zealand from 1901 to 1904, and president in 1905 and 1932. He supported Baptist involvement in the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. When the Baptists decided in 1924 to form their own theological college in Auckland, North was appointed as the first principal. He served for nearly 20 years, training a generation of ministers and missionaries until his retirement in 1945.
A skilful and prolific writer, North edited the New Zealand Baptist from 1915 to 1948. He wrote articles in newspapers and magazines in Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand and published numerous tracts and booklets. In 1928 McMaster University in Canada conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of divinity and in 1950 he was made an OBE 'in recognition of his fifty years of service to the churches and people of New Zealand'.
John North died in Auckland on 14 July 1950; Cecilia North had died in 1947. Their ashes were interred in the grounds of the theological college in Auckland. In 1954 a new accommodation block at the college was named the Dr J. J. North Memorial Wing.
A friend said that in North's personality 'the lion and the lamb lay down together'. The 'lion' came out in his fierce polemic against gambling, the liquor trade and Catholicism and in his sometimes abrupt manner. But many also knew him as a man of deep sensitivity whose understanding, sympathy and concern for those in need was particularly evident in his letters and in his care of his students.