First evangelical organisation
Evangelicalism is the movement to attract new followers through a personal, ‘born again’, experience of religion. The first attempt to form an evangelical organisation in New Zealand was the Evangelical Alliance established by a group of Protestant ministers in Wellington in 1848. Evangelicalism was a pressure group within Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational denominations from the 1920s.
Early visiting evangelists
Several independent evangelists, including Henry Varley, Margaret Hampson and George Soltau, came to New Zealand in the late 19th century, attracting people from a range of churches. The stream of British and American evangelists in the 1920s and 1930s included French Oliver, Aimee Semple McPherson and Gypsy Smith.
Bible Training Institute
Joseph Kemp, pastor of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle from 1919, founded the Bible Training Institute to train lay Christian workers and missionaries. The Institute, now Laidlaw College, was the largest of what became a wide variety of Bible Colleges.
The Evolution Protest Movement that flourished in the 1930s represented the more ‘fundamentalist’ end of the evangelical spectrum, with its belief in the absolute truth of the Bible, but other parts of the movement accommodated more modern ideas. Smaller denominations with an evangelical flavour often embraced fundamentalist ideas. The Baptists became increasingly evangelical after 1945. The Salvation Army and the Open Brethren had hundreds of congregations, and the Church of the Nazarene, the Reformed Churches of New Zealand and other small denominations shared a common outlook as part of an evangelical world.
The evangelical movement was deeply influenced by the Keswick Convention, a movement encouraging the living of Christian lives, which began in the Lake District of the UK in 1875 and spread to many other countries. The first such conference in New Zealand was the Pounawea Convention in South Otago, founded in 1908. The largest took place in Ngāruawāhia in Waikato from 1922, but there was a flowering of such events in the 1960s.
Later visiting evangelists
US preacher Billy Graham represented a new style of evangelist in the years after the Second World War, combining mainstream conservatism with a sensationalist style and formula. His brief visit to three main New Zealand centres in 1959 made a huge impact, and drew record audiences when his meetings were broadcast on radio. His return visit in 1970 did not gain the same level of support. Later evangelists included Luis Palau and Leighton Ford (both from the US), but each reached only a limited audience.
A few local evangelists drew support across denominational boundaries. They included Andrew M. Johnson, a blind evangelist from Southland; Keith Rimmer of Auckland; Barry Smith, who was best-known for his theories about the end of the world; Māori evangelist Muri Thompson; and former lawyer Bill Subritzky.
In 1927 Arthur Dallimore started a healing and evangelistic mission in Auckland. By 1932 2,000 people were attending his Revival Fire Mission meetings and the only building that could hold them was the Auckland Town Hall. Dallimore gave blessed handkerchiefs to followers to cure sickness. One grateful user wrote: ‘Last Sunday night I only just arrived home from your mission when my [motorcycle] battery went flat. Knowing I had no means of getting it recharged, I tied a blessed handkerchief round the battery box and prayed in faith for it to be ready to use tonight. This morning when I went to the garage and switched on the lights they were as bright as ever, and the battery was fully charged.’1.
Non-denominational evangelical agencies have flourished from time to time. The Missions to Seamen emerged in the 19th century. In the depression years of the 1930s missions for the unemployed included the colourful Revival Fire Mission associated with the early Pentecostalist Arthur H. Dallimore. More recently, interdenominational missions such as the Open Air Campaigners have aimed to convert students and workers. Overseas missions have also been a feature of non-denominational Christianity. The China Inland Mission sent many New Zealanders to China and other bodies have been active internationally.
In 1972 around 70,000 people took part in ‘Jesus marches’ around New Zealand, publicised by the Māori evangelist Muri Thompson to protest against the moral decay of society. The final and largest of the Jesus Marches took place in Wellington in October 1972, when up to 25,000 marched to Parliament. One marcher commented, ‘The whole Body of Christ, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal, have participated according to their allegiance to Jesus, not according to denominations.’2 ” However, the New Zealand Methodist described the marchers as ‘limping for Jesus,’ and said that ‘it is not a “Jesus” march at all, but a morality march – with morality very narrowly defined.’3