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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter XII. — The Lay Association

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Chapter XII.
The Lay Association.

Nature and religion are the bands of friendship, excellence and usefulness are its great endearments.

Jeremy Taylor.

The affairs of the Rev. Thomas Burns during the period which elapsed between the purchase of the land at Otago and the reception of the official reports in Scotland in February, 1845, were affected by the ill-fortune which dogged the steps of the New Zealand Company and its proposed new colony. He seemed to have committed himself to a losing cause, and he was constantly faced with the question of his future career. On the one side stood his Scottish tenacity, inspired by a vision of patriotic and religious service in the scheme of colonisation, which had come to him as a direct call of God to go out and lead his countrymen, like Moses, to the land of promise. On the other stood. the counsels of prudence, coupled with the opportunity of fulfilling an honourable and successful ministry in the Church which he loved. His finances were growing more and more slender, and the pressure of the leaders of the Church that he should withdraw from a wildgoose chase to the Antipodes was increasing every month. In the middle of September, 1844, he paid a visit to his young brother Gilbert's home at Knockmaroon Lodge, near Dublin, in Ireland. From this brother he received encouragement to persevere in the venture to which he had committed himself. He availed himself of the time of quietness to read over the papers connected with his appointment, and he returned to New Prestwick with the determination to leave no stone unturned to further the success of the scheme. Even in Ireland he tried to interest his fellow-Presbyterians by page 115contributing articles to the newspapers of Belfast and Dublin.1 Soon afterwards he discussed the fruitful idea of forming a strong Free Church Committee to strengthen the movement and co-operate with the Company in planting the colony on lines that would be satisfactory to the religious and educational interests which he had so much at heart.

With the retirement of Mr Rennie from the enterprise Burns's letters to Dr Aldcorn and Captain Cargill show an increasing devotion to this phase of the organisation. He was constantly casting about for suitable men to form a strong combination on behalf of the undertaking. He and Cargill drew up a circular for distribution throughout Scotland, with the object of obtaining recruits for the party of suitable emigrants. Even the question of the place of residence and ministerial work in Scotland was considered in the light of his usefulness in spreading the evangel of the great lay mission to the South Seas, as the following extracts show:—

I find Dr Candlish is beginning to grumble at my continuing so long unattached, and I have received communications from the Home Mission Committee and the Convener of the Colonial Committee. I cannot honourably withdraw till that party (the first) should be dropped either as hopeless or as requiring an unreasonable length of delay. (January 10, 1845.)

The Home Mission Committee is trying to root me out from this locality in order to get my services in other districts. They have expressly appointed me to preach to Mr Charles Brown's congregation in Edinburgh on March 9 and page 11616, and once in Edinburgh they will not let me back in Ayrshire. The Presbytery of Ayr have refused to sanction my removal until a substitute for me is sent. Now, I have no other object than to be as useful as I can to our scheme, and to reside wherever I can best serve that object. (February 28, 1845.)

The aim of the propaganda in which Burns was engaged was sincerely set forth in the following typical sentences from his letter of March 15:—

Let us lay before suitable persons the proposed Colony and its eminently religious aspect as a great lay mission, which, under God, may soon assume the character of a powerful centre of evangelising influence, overspreading the countless isles of the Pacific, and extending even to India and China.

The reader may remember with thankfulness what has been done since that time by the Church planted by Burns in Otago in regard to missionary enterprise. Preachers, teachers, medical men, and nurses have been sent out to the New Hebrides, China, and India, and there is no doubt that this noble prayer by the pioneer minister of Presbyterianism in the South Island has been answered from on high in the creation of a truly missionary enthusiasm, which should be maintained for the highest ends of mankind. One of the greatest features of the infant Church in Dunedin was the raising of contributions to missionary work when their congregational needs were very pressing. The adage, "like minister, like people," has seldom, if ever, received a clearer confirmation than in the Church which grew up in the pioneering days of Otago.

When Burns perused the full accounts forwarded from New Zealand concerning the choice of the site of the colony his comments indicated his practical gifts as a coloniser, for he was enabled by his imagination and great "sense of country " to anticipate the problems of the page 117future. He is impressed by Tuckett's reasons for preferring Otago to Port Cooper, but he proceeds to offer some criticisms. He questions the wisdom of locating the future town of Dunedin

on the bleak side of a hill, whereas had he chosen the east side of the harbour, it would have been on the sunny side of the slope—a great point. I know the answer will be that he would have planted us in the very heart of the Natives. Now, as to this I am not sure but that amalgamation in so small a number would be ultimately safer and better than what appears to be a permanent separate localisation. 2

Other points which he raised were that the land around Dunedin appeared to be hilly and densely wooded, and therefore difficult for cultivation; also that the best land seemed to be more than nine miles from the town, "all along the internal water communication"—to which Tuckett had attached much importance. Burns concludes his remarks with this sensible summary: "But it is of no use speculating upon what I know so imperfectly the details of." Burns asks Cargill to send him suitable books so that he may study the Maori language, although he recognises the advantage of teaching the Natives to use the English translations. His charity was shown in the same letter (March 5):—

I have been delighted with the notice of Mr Watkins's (Wesleyan missionary) success amongst the Natives along that coast. I trust I shall find him still at Otago or neighbourhood when we get there, and also Mr Woehlers, the German missionary at Ruapuke, in Foveaux Straits. You see, I have already surmounted all difficulties in thought—am already far on my way to my future country. 3

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His opinion of Bishop Selwyn was, however, biassed by the alleged Puseyism of his teachings, against which the convictions of Burns ran in diametrical opposition. When he came to meet the bishop in the new land the utmost cordiality was shown on both sides, and Burns, as a newcomer to New Zealand, received much kindness from the bishop, and responded to his genuine goodness of heart with equal friendliness and admiration. The bishop stood just as stoutly for his denominational position, with its High Church leanings, as Burns did for his; and yet that state of matters in nowise interfered with a considerable disposition to co-operate on both sides to the limit of the accepted beliefs and practices of their respective Churches, as we shall see later.

Burns's house in New Prestwick was "taken over his head," and he had to seek another; but he was anxious to stay in Ayrshire, so that he could help to secure suitable labourers for the colony. He projected tours to various parts of Scotland for the same purpose, and approached the Presbyteries of Glasgow, Paisley, Greenock, and Edinburgh, who hailed his scheme "with one voice "; but with the proverbial canniness of the Scotch, which tended ever to keep the enterprise in abeyance, they advised Burns and Cargill to "proceed very quietly." Burns suggested to Cargill that the title of New Edinburgh should forthwith be given up and expunged from the prospectus which they were about to issue, with a view to the insertion of Otago.

On March 21 Burns attended a meeting of elders, specially recommended by their ministers, for the furtherance of the scheme, and looking forward to the formation of a Lay Association. The meeting was held in the office in Edinburgh, and gave a stimulus to the movement. Burns brought before them a suggestion of the Rev. Mr page 119(afterwards Dr) Begg that to ensure the Free Kirk character of the colony the Free Church should buy up the whole 150,000 acres of the proposed settlement—"a feat that he declared the Free Church could easily do." The idea was grasped at with much heartiness, but, as so often happens with such proposals, it remained in that condition of mere approbation. Suggestions of a modified form, involving an outlay of less than the £300,000 required, were then considered, e.g., the purchase of 20,000 acres by "some Free Church capitalist on condition that the Company should make over to them the right of pre-emption of the remaining 130,000 acres, to be all bought up by the Free Church within, say, 25 years. This proposition they all thought perfectly feasible." (Letter to Cargill, March 22.)

Burns was delighted with these proposals, but felt doubtful about being able to find investors to the extent of the amounts mentioned. Mr William Johnston, of the celebrated firm of W. and A. K. Johnston, engravers and mapmakers, of Edinburgh, whose names we have all seen on our school maps, was a hearty supporter of the scheme, and donated to Burns a large drawing of New Zealand, and one of the Otago district for use at his meetings, an offer which was gladly accepted. Mr Johnston also endeavoured to interest capitalists in the proposed purchase of Otago land in the name of the Free Church.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Colony was not definitely settled. Burns was a strong supporter of Cargill, and wrote on April 4:—

On the subject of the agency of the Colony, I do not see that there can be two opinions as to who should be approached. Even if an equally qualified person should present himself, it would be indecent and discreditable to set aside your just and undeniable claims. I will do what lies in me and in the page 120way your own feelings dictate. But is it not both expedient and necessary that you should, without further delay, come yourself to Edinburgh, and at once take your place at the head of the movement?

The General Assembly, which was to be held in Edinburgh, was approaching, and it was desirable that the opportunity should be used to bring the Scottish Colony once more prominently before the ministers, elders, and general public. Burns was indefatigable in furthering the interests of the undertaking, while Cargill, like Rennie before him, had his headquarters in London. Burns was on the spot, and the bulk of the work fell to him. In letter after letter he urges Cargill to come to Scotland for a visit and help him carry on the campaign and launch the Lay Association. The services of a broker are needed, and various names are suggested and discussed. The objects of the proposed association are definitely mooted in a letter dated April 19:—

It is necessary to form a Scotch Company (Free Church, of course) and take the Otago Settlement out of the hands of the New Zealand Company, while receiving aid by surveys, etc. Pray write me your views as to the Provisional Committee.

Burns speaks of his conference with Mr Handyside and Mr Robert Allan, and states their confirmation of his proposals; and shows by his letters that his time is fully taken up with the business side of the movement, in addition to his clerical duties in different pulpits. The name and pronunciation of the future colony cause him some little concern:—

By the way, some of our Edinburgh friends said Ota-a-a-go was an awkward name. Suppose we spell Otaygo, and then there will be no dubiety about the sound of the vowel "a." They will call it Ot-e-go, or Otaygo, in spite of our teeth; unless we can improve upon it and make it more euphonious. Liberties, I see, have been taken with it already. In the deed page break
The original map which was published (in 1845) in the pamphlet "Scheme of the Colony of the Free Church of Scotland."

The original map which was published (in 1845) in the pamphlet "Scheme of the Colony of the Free Church of Scotland."

page 121defining the boundaries it is called Otakou, which is very barbarous. Otago is more civilised. It might be polished and furbished up a little more to please British tastes. (April 21, 1845.)

A few days later, just as he is starting for Glasgow, he writes:—

I have as yet made no progress either in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and the whole seems to lie upon my shoulders (April 24.) Your presence in Edinburgh is absolutely necessary to put our New Zealand enterprise into shape and to set it fairly on its legs (next letter). The very life and well-being of our enterprise is hanging in the balance, and I feel the responsibility lying upon my unaided judgment to be more than 1 can answer for. Moreover, I have for some time past felt as if I were stepping out of my own proper place in seeking out the best methods and the best men of business for carrying out this commercial transaction without the assistance or countenance or accompaniment of any layman having a direct interest in the scheme; and I began to fancy people saying behind my back after I had left them: "There goes a minister of the Free Church, moving heaven and earth for a Colony to himself that he may be its minister." This feeling on my part has received confirmation by several of my friends, both clerical and lay. hinting that, having now been instrumental in bringing the scheme to the door of the Free Church and obtaining its sanction, I should allow the commercial branch of the enterprise to be prosecuted by some laymen. They even went so far—some of them—as to say that my continuing to take the principal share of the movement might awaken a prejudice in some minds against it. I rather fear that you imagine that the big Free Churchmen whom I have consulted have been so enlisted in the cause that they are keeping the thing before their own minds and pressing it forward. The hands of every one of them are choke full of their own business, so that no sooner do I part from them than our cause ceases to get any help from them. It is absolutely indispensable that the scheme be immediately put into proper hands, who will work it out in skill and energy. (Letter 79.)

And so the proposal for the Lay Association became a definite objective of Burns and Cargill Burns page 122urges that the Scottish people will trust a company in Scotland, and especially a Free Church Company, distinguishable from the New Zealand Company, although allied there-with, more fully than one located in London. In furtherance of the movement Burns travelled to Dunoon.

From Glasgow I went clown the Clyde as far as Dunoon and Kilmun, where I met two excise officers who appear to be both interested in New Zealand—one of them named M'Hutcheson, at Dunoon, has a brother-in-law squatting at Pigeon Bay. He has built one or two schooners, and has grown-up sons who sail one of them. Mr M'Hutcheson named some four or five families in Stirlingshire who had formed the intention of emigrating to New Zealand. I mean to write to them.

This Mr William M'Hutcheson was the father of the gentleman of the same name who lives in Dunedin (in 1929). His father, who met Mr Burns in 1845, left Scotland for Port Chalmers in 1861. His brother, Mr John M'Hutcheson, was one of the pioneers in Wellington, Nelson, Wanganui, and Port Cooper. He returned to Scotland in 1846, and assisted in organising the Otago party in Glasgow, settling later at Blenheim, in New Zealand. He was a member of the household of the brother-in-law referred to in Mr Burns's account given above. This relative was Captain Francis Sinclair, one of the most remarkable personalities of the early 'forties in New Zealand. Captain Sinclair built a schooner in Wellington with the help of his family; and in that little ship he took as passengers the Deans brothers and Mr Ebenezer Hay to their destination in the present Canterbury. He then settled with his family in Pigeon Bay, having as his neighbour Mr Hay. Captain Sinclair was drowned in a storm off the Kaikouras before the arrival of the Scotch settlers in Otago. His widow subsequently settled in the island of Niihau, one of the Hawaiian Group, and her family still have their home there.

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Mr Burns wrote a letter to Mr M'Hutcheson, on the suggestion of Mr Lewis MacDonald, and that letter has been preserved by his son.4 The letter shows how the movement for the Lay Association was progressing (April 19):—

Besides my own personal predilection, I am satisfied that as a Scotch enterprise it will be more likely to prosper under the auspices of the Free Church in present circumstances than under any other. This, however,, is only as to church and schools. The other and the principal feature of the scheme is its secular and commercial character, which the Free Church can have nothing to do with. But in this feature also I am thankful to say that the scheme has at length taken a shape much more promising to my mind and much more likely to recommend itself to the approbation of my countrymen. It is about to be taken up… by a Scotch company of Free Churchmen who will take the scheme from the New Zealand Company by a regular commercial transaction, and by means of their own directors carry out the measure in such a way as, under God, may lead to the harmony and peace of the settlement …and provide an eligible place of refuge in a peaceful land of fine soil and unrivalled climate for hundreds and thousands of Scotch families escaping from the pressure and difficulties of an overcrowded community at home… So soon as the company is formed you will hear of it. I wish much that our first party could be ready by September next, and every effort will be used to accomplish that.

The Colonial Committee of the Free Church were indebted to Mr Burns and Captain Cargill for much of the material which went into their report and proposed deliverance, which were partially written out by Mr Burns in one of his letters to Captain Cargill The idea of the class settlement was revived in the business papers of the projected Lay Association and the forthcoming General Assembly. Burns's efforts to find lay support for the Otago Scheme bore fruit on Friday, May 16, 1845, when the first public meeting of Free Church laymen interested page 124in the movement took place at the Eagle Tavern in Glasgow. In the papers of Captain Cargill there is a memorandum of this meeting, written in Cargill's hand, from which we obtain the narratal of the proceedings. 5There were only eleven persons present, but the influence of the gathering far exceeded the mere counting of heads. The names deserve to be kept in remembrance—Henry Dunlop, John Bain, William Campbell, John Blackie, J. G. Blackie, William and Allan Buchanan, Matthew Whytlaw, Rev. Thomas Burns, Dr Andrew Aldcorn, and Captain Cargill. With the exception of Burns and Cargill, none of these figured in the committee appointed in 1843, mainly because that was an Edinburgh and this a Glasgow committee. The chairman, Mr Dunlop, stated the object of the meeting, and then called on Mr Burns to speak, and he sketched the history and present outlook for the enterprise. Burns was followed by Cargill and Aldcorn. Mr Whytlaw, who had lived in New Zealand at the Bay of Islands, emphasised the attractions of the Colony for farming and residence. A general conversation followed, in which Mr Campbell suggested that "of the 20,000 acres to be disposed of before the first party leaves this country, a portion should be taken up in Glasgow, another in Edinburgh, and so on in the principal towns in Scotland, by which means the enterprise would be at once easily started." The first resolution forming an Association of Laymen of the Free Church for the purpose of promoting the necessary sales of land, and of otherwise carrying into execution the Scotch Settlement of Otago (New Edinburgh) upon the principles stated in Mr Cargill's letter to the Rev. Thomas Burns, of date March 29, 1845," together with sis other motions were carried.

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2.That we consider the facilities offered by the New Zealand Company for the formation of class settlements to be a public boon and calculated to give a new and elevated tone to British colonisation, and, if duly responded to by the churches at home, that it must have the effect of carrying the best specimens of religion and civilisation into the dark places of the earth, and of combining the benefits sought for by emigration with the diffusion of light and beneficence to universal man.
3.That the Association will therefore use every effort amongst those of their own denomination who are desirous to emigrate for conveying the best of the people to the Free Church Settlement of Otago.
4.That Dr Aldcorn, of Oban, be requested to act as secretary to the Association.
5.That these resolutions be communicated to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church, in order to the scheme being brought under the notice of the General Assembly.
6.That the secretary be requested to take all proper means for circulating information through members of Assembly when returning to their several presbyteries and congregations throughout the country, and that thereafter an early meeting of the Association be called either in Edinburgh or Glasgow with a view to further measures.
7.That the thanks of the Association be expressed to Captain Cargill for his persevering labours in this interesting cause, and for his support of the excellent minister, the Rev. Thomas Burns, of Monkton, who has been appointed by the Company; and that an early opportunity be taken to convey to the Company their confidence and satisfaction as regards the position of Mr Cargill, and which he is so well calculated to occupy.

Thus came into being an organisation which was of considerable importance to the projected Scottish Colony. It emphasised the Free Church character of the proposed class settlement. It placed behind Burns and Cargill the support of earnest and capable business men in Scotland filled with zeal for their own Church and the particular branch of it which they hoped to plant as a cutting in the soil of Otago; and it assisted in disseminating the information which was essential to securing suitable recruits from page 126the people of Scotland. It was the direct result of the indefatigable and unselfish labours of Burns in the north and Cargill in the south. It did something—not as much as expected, perhaps—to relieve Burns of the secular and commercial aspects of the undertaking which had been pressing upon his heart, and even upon his conscience. Granted the moral support of the General Assembly, and the practical co-operation of friends of the movement in Edinburgh and elsewhere, the Lay Association, with its provisional committee and secretary, restored confidence in the scheme, so far as the Scottish people were concerned. The thanks accorded to Burns and Cargill had been well earned. The careful reader can scarcely fail to note the significance of the terms of the last resolution, and especially of the grateful acknowledgment of Cargill's "support of the excellent minister, the Rev. Thomas Burns."

The General Assembly, which opened a week later in Edinburgh, adopted the recommendations of the Colonial Committee, and gave its blessing to the spiritual and moral activities of the venture, while refraining from identification with the commercial side, which lay outside the province of an ecclesiastical court. The subject came up for decision at the sitting on June 3, 1845, when the following resolution was entered on the minutes:—

The General Assembly have very great pleasure in the prospect of the speedy establishment of the Scotch Colony of New Edinburgh in New Zealand, consisting of members of the Free Church, and with every security for the colonists being provided with the ordinances of religion and the means of education in connection with this Church. Without expressing any opinion regarding the secular advantages or prospects of the proposed undertaking, the General Assembly highly approve of the principles on which the settlement is proposed to be conducted, in so far as the religious and educational interests of the colonists are concerned, and the Assembly desire to countenance and encourage the Association in these respects.

1 See his letter written after his return, and dated October 10, in the Hocken collection. Gilbert Burns was of the prosperous firm of Todd, Burns & Co., linen drapers, in Dublin. Gilbert proved to be a good friend to the Colony, and as early as 1844 had paid £24 deposit to Rennie for two lots at New Edinburgh. Gilbert Burns's name was brought forward for inclusion on the committee by his brother Thomas. Throughout his life Thomas Burns corresponded with Gilbert in the most intimate manner. A few of these precious letters have been preserved in a brochure printed by Dr Burns's grandson, the late lamented Mr J. W. H. Bannerman, to whose work reference will be made in the sequel.

2 After his arrival in Dunedin Burns selected land on the Peninsula, and built a house there which he called "Grants Braes," showing his continued faith in the theory which he stated 12,000 miles away from the site.

3 See previous chapter. Burns was permitted to meet Mr Woehlers after some years, but Mr Watkins had left Waikouaiti in 1844, and had been succeeded by Mr Creed.

4 It is in the Library of the Early Settlers' Association of Otago.

5 Otago Manuscripts, Volume 7, Hocken Library.