Page 1: Biography
Paris, Percy Reginald
Methodist minister, editor, writer, political and social reformer
This biography, written by Kevin P. Clements, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Percy Reginald Paris was born on 22 June 1882 at Dunedin, New Zealand, the son of Eleanor Margaret Pocock and her husband, William Paris, a hairdresser. At the age of 16 Percy was converted to Methodism and attended the Dunedin Methodist Central Mission. He entered Prince Albert College, Auckland, a Methodist training institution, in 1903 and was ordained in 1906. At the age of 24 he took up his first circuit in Levin, then served another two years in Invercargill South. On 5 April 1910 he married Violet Rosetta Clark in Ōamaru. Circuits lasting three to five years followed at Mahurangi; Upper Thames; Auckland Central; Sydenham, Christchurch; Hamilton; St Kilda, Dunedin; and from 1935 to 1942 Taranaki Street, Wellington.
In all of these, but especially the inner city circuits, Percy Paris encountered great personal and social need. It was in response to this need and his own radical vision of Christianity that he started formulating a social gospel. This aimed at challenging the church and society to act on behalf of the poor, vulnerable and voiceless by advocating and working for political and social change.
From 1924 to 1934, as editor of the New Zealand Methodist Times, Paris stimulated many lively debates on current social and political concerns, both within and outside the Methodist church. In each issue he also contributed a column under the pen-names Brother Juniper or Brother Giles. In these he introduced his readers to the pacifist, egalitarian and socialist vision of St Francis of Assisi, his abiding guide and mentor. Paris challenged his readers to be compassionate towards the poor, homeless, ill and unemployed. His advocacy was helped enormously by his convening of the church's Public Questions Committee, which was mandated to investigate social evil, cases of individual and collective injustice, and the sources of conflict within the national and international community. Throughout the depression of the 1930s he promoted Christian pacifism, monetary reform (he was a firm believer in Douglas Social Credit), an end to unemployed workers' camps, support for the New Zealand Labour Party and the development of the welfare state.
In Dunedin Paris played a central role in helping to achieve a peaceful resolution to the 1932 unemployed workers' riot. Afterwards, he was asked to be their advocate in negotiations with authorities and was trustee of the Dunedin unemployed relief workers' bank account. In forging strong links with the trade union movement and the Labour Party he became close to a number of Labour politicians such as Frederick Jones, Michael Joseph Savage, Walter Nash and W. E. Barnard.
After moving to Wellington he often asked Labour members of Parliament to address his congregation on social and economic reforms. Although he had a sceptical attitude towards the state and a strong aversion to any form of totalitarianism, he thought states and governments were necessary to promote the redistribution of the world's resources and to overcome poverty amidst plenty.
In 1938 Percy Paris became president of the Methodist conference, the highest office in the Methodist Church of New Zealand. He took advantage of his inaugural address on 'The world and the church' to outline what he considered the role of the church should be in relation to money, wealth and education, and gave a theological justification for every part of Labour's proposed social security system. Paris argued that the church should not save just individual souls but society as well. While his talk provoked a negative response from the evangelical wing of the church it aroused strong and vigorous support from those clergy and laity committed to social transformation. It remains one of the clearest statements of the social gospel ever expressed by a New Zealand church leader.
Percy Paris died on 29 March 1942 in Wellington, survived by his wife, Violet, and two daughters. The Methodist church had lost one of its most articulate and visionary leaders and New Zealand had lost a tireless advocate of political and social change. C. H. Laws, a former president of the New Zealand Methodist Conference, said that Paris 'belonged to a type of his own and we have none to take his place in our New Zealand ministry'; Walter Nash, minister of finance, cabled from the United States to Paris's widow: 'Your husband was one of the greatest Christian men that we knew. His example and work will be remembered for many years in the history of New Zealand.'