William Charles Nation was born in Sydney, Australia, on 18 February 1840, the eldest child of William Nation, a printer, and his wife, Mary Jenkin Howe. In 1857 the family moved to Nelson, New Zealand. On arrival William junior began work as a printer for the Colonist newspaper, established by his father. An advocate of temperance, he helped organise a Band of Hope for young people and also joined the Nelson Volunteers.
After the Otago goldrush began, Nation moved south, and spent a short time working in Dunedin and Lyttelton printing offices, before returning to Nelson. When he received an offer of work at the Christchurch Press he accepted. Before leaving Nelson he married Sarah Ann Webley, on 12 August 1864. They were to have six daughters and two sons.
Nation worked in the jobbing room of the Press for 12 years. He then left to join the staff of the Wellington Independent. After overseeing all aspects of printing at the Independent and its successor, the New Zealand Times, Nation decided to strike out on his own, and in 1881 bought the Wairarapa Standard in Greytown from Richard Wakelin.
While at Greytown Nation's long association with spiritualism began. In March 1883 he and three of his daughters performed an experiment designed to test the theory of spirit survival. After discovering that they could apparently cause a table to move without exerting physical force on it, they carried out other spiritualist exercises, including automatic writing. Nation believed that his daughter Bertha was the channel for the phenomena, and she was soon in demand as a medium.
Some local ministers of religion investigated Nation's activities and he had a dispute in the press with L. M. Isitt, a prominent Methodist minister, who was sceptical about the Nation family's claims. Nation, however, adhered to his interpretation of events and asserted that his spiritualist beliefs were consistent with the Christian religion. Formerly an Anglican Sunday school superintendent, he renounced his orthodox faith. He later claimed that he and his family were pressured by the church, and that he was persecuted in business.
A spiritualist circle was formed and met regularly at Nation's house. The group was led by a recently widowed woman known as 'Mrs C', who had discovered her mediumship there. The Ngati Kahungunu chief Tamahau Mahupuku of Papawai was invited to take part in some of the meetings, at which he was reported to have made spirit writings, and Te Manihera Te Rangi-taka-i-waho was convinced that Bertha Nation had made contact with his deceased daughter. William combined his faith with his business, and in June 1887 established a spiritualist paper called More Light, the title page of which carried the legend, 'That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.' All the work required to publish the paper, from writing articles to typesetting, was done by Nation alone.
Children, with whom Nation had a special empathy, were the focus of much of his missionary work for spiritualism. He actively supported the lyceum system of spiritualist training for children, and he also wrote about the teachings of child spirit guides who had manifested themselves at his seances. He always delighted in organising educational activities for children and involving them in fund raising for charitable causes.
Nation's concern for children as well as his deep love of nature may have prompted his campaign for the introduction of Arbor Day in New Zealand. He had read of the movement in the United States, where a special day was set aside for schoolchildren to plant trees, and he wrote to the Greytown Borough Council suggesting that they support a similar scheme. The council endorsed the idea, but would not fund it. Nation raised the money himself, by staging various entertainments, and was soon able to arrange the planting of 150 trees beside the road south to Featherston. A ceremony took place on 3 July 1890; the day was declared a holiday in Greytown and over 800 Maori and Pakeha gathered to hear speeches and to plant the trees, some of which are still standing. Nation's efforts to introduce Arbor Day at a local level were matched by Dunedin conservationist Alexander Bathgate's campaign to have Arbor Day declared a national holiday. This was achieved in 1892.
In order to improve his business prospects, Nation sold the Standard in 1893 and moved to Shannon. Here he was joined by his son Charles Cecil, and together they published the Manawatu Farmer and Horowhenua County Chronicle. At Shannon Nation was appointed registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Although he had ceased to publish More Light, he maintained his commitment to spiritualism, and also arranged an Arbor Day for Shannon in 1894.
In 1896 Joseph Ivess began producing the Levin and Manakau Express and Horowhenua County Advertiser. Alarmed by the competition, Nation moved his entire business, including the building itself, to Levin where he thrived and was eventually able to absorb the rival paper into his own. In 1909 he sold it to D. S. Papworth. While continuing as registrar of births, deaths and marriages for Shannon, Nation served as coroner for Levin for nearly 17 years and was appointed a justice of the peace in 1899. He once more raised funds for tree planting, this time for the South African War memorial avenue in Cambridge Street. His son, Percy, had been killed in the war.
At Levin, Nation's involvement in spiritualism intensified. In 1903 he established another spiritualist newspaper, the Message of Life. The monthly paper was a success and for years Nation produced it single-handedly in a shed behind his residence. He republished many of his articles in a book, Remarkable experiences in the phenomena of spiritualism in New Zealand (1907) which went to three editions in New Zealand and one in Canada. This was followed by several other publications, including Life here and hereafter (1914). He was for 13 years president of the National Council of the Spiritualist Church and travelled the country, visiting and encouraging isolated spiritualist groups. Later he was a member of the Spiritualist Church of New Zealand, and served on its executive committee for four years.
William Charles Nation died at Levin on 29 May 1930. His wife had predeceased him in 1923, and only four of his eight children survived him. The July 1930 issue of the Message of Life paid tribute to 'Grandpa Nation, New Zealand's grand old man in the cause of Spiritualism'. Today he is best remembered as one of the earliest supporters of the Arbor Day movement in New Zealand.