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

Chapter VIII. — The Minister of New Edinburgh

page 68

Chapter VIII.
The Minister of New Edinburgh.

Your leader ought to be one of that class of men, who, with a holy horror of being in debt, yet have no turn for money-making, or making themselves comfortable; men who are either moved by a stern sense of duty or whose delight is the happiness and approval of others. A man combining both motives would be your man.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
(Letter to John Robert Godley, July 13, 1848.)

The events so beautifully described by the daughter of Dr Burns cover a period of transition which powerfully affected the prospects of the proposed colony. We have seen that a scheme was in course of preparation under the New Zealand Company. It was being fostered by Rennie and Cargill. The idea of a Scottish and sectarian settlement was lying at the back of their minds when the upheaval of the Disruption occurred. Five days after the crisis in the Church, Rennie and Cargill, then in London, approached the Company with a changed proposal. By this time the differences between the Colonial Office and the directors of the New Zealand Company had been patched up—only temporarily, as it proved— but the Company's title to land had been acknowledged. Accordingly, the way seemed to be open for an early start with a party of emigrants who might safely proceed to a site selected by the Company's principal agent in New Zealand. The colony should be Scottish and Presbyterian, with provision for religious and educational facilities, and the name of the new settlement was to be New Edinburgh. Englishmen and others who accepted the conditions would be welcomed into the proposed community; but the proceeds of the sale of land should be utilised in promoting the emigration of labourers from Scotland alone. page 69Fresh "Terms of Purchase" were devised; and provision was made for a church-building fund of £5000, for ministers £10,000, and for schools another £10,000. The directors agreed to these proposals, at least in a general way, and so the New Edinburgh scheme was started on its chequered history.

The whole of Scotland had been stirred by the sacrifices made at the Disruption; and Rennie and Cargill interpreted the signs of the times as a great opportunity for pressing the claims of New Edinburgh. Surely, they said to themselves, the people who are willing to go into the wilderness for the sake of principle must represent the type who will undertake emigration to a virgin colony! The example of the Pilgrim Fathers, who had founded New England, was ever present in their minds, although the circumstances were by no means parallel. 1The great colonies which had been established by sturdy Christian men and women in America had been frequently adverted to by Wakefield; and, as we shall see, the reference was constantly brought into prominence by the advocates of the Scottish Free Church settlement. Certain it is that Rennie, immediately after the events just recorded, betook himself to Edinburgh, and there conferred with Dr Candlish and Mr Robert Cargill, a "Writer to the Signet and brother of William Cargill, with a view to bringing the scheme before the Free Church. Although the newly-formed Church had more than enough of difficulties confronting its ministers and members in Scotland, its vision of extending the Redeemer's Kingdom abroad seemed to be clearer than ever. Missionary and colonial schemes were placed in the forefront of the Assembly's business, and a Colonial Committee, under the convenership of the celebrated Dr Welsh, was formed at the first Assembly in page 70Canonmills. An acting sub-committee was appointed in the capital, and the minute of that committee, bearing the date June 7, 1843, gives the evidence of this important business:—

It was stated by Mr Cargill that the New Zealand Company had come to the conclusion of providing permanently for the support of churches and schools in all their new settlements, and, as they were about to form a Scottish colony in New Zealand, they had set apart the sum of £25,000 for the sustentation of the ministry, the erection of places of worship, and the erection and endowment of schools in a settlement about to be formed in New Zealand, all in connection with the Free Church of Scotland, and that it was the desire of the Company that a minister and schoolmaster should be appointed in the meantime to accompany the first body of Scottish emigrants. The committee entered most cordially into the views of the Company, and assured Mr Cargill that they would use their best endeavour immediately to secure a suitable minister and teacher for New Zealand, and would, according to his suggestion, consider the best method of carrying out the munificent intentions of the Company.

This minute, signed by John Jaffray, interim secretary, was extracted from the records at the request of Mr Robert Cargill. The original is in the Hocken Library, Dunedin, and is a document of great historical value. So is the letter from Robert to William Cargill intimating' the enclosure of the extract minute. It is quaint and interesting as written:—

Edinburgh, June 29, 1843.

My Dear Wm.,

The only official document which has been jettisoned is this extract, which I have just obtained from Mr Jaffray. Evidently the first object was to get a proper minister, and you saw how judicious and prompt were the endeavours of the committee as to that. The result was that Mr Burns came immediately to town, and, having communicated fully with Mr Rennic, as well as the committee, he was himself favourably disposed, and went to the country to consult his friends. There page 71is yet no answer. Should he decline, there are other well-qualified ministers and, first, Doctor Mackay, of Dunoon, to be applied to.

I have taken care to possess Dr Welsh of your several suggestions, which will best be applied by the committee when they get an accepting minister to consult with them. Of course, they will recommend ministers when required, and while they will at this time appoint such as the Company may approve of, they will afterwards appoint, as they may be authorised, whether ministers or successors. But as to the modifying and securing of the endowments these are the concern of the colonists and the minister. At the same time the committee will in all views submit to the Company what arrangements are likely to be beneficial and satisfactory. Any minister now to be appointed will be in connection with the Free Australian Synod now organising until two Free Church ministers shall be got to form a Presbytery in New Zealand, which will connect with the same Synod. The patronage at each endowment will likely be vested in perpetuity in the Free Church.

Yours very faithfully,

R. Cargill. 2

The words of the minute are of vital significance to the understanding of the original charter of the New Edinburgh settlement, as a distinctly Free Church enterprise, organised on the spiritual and educational side by the Free Church. But how different was the dream to be from the reality! The terms of the foregoing negotiations were destined to be the basis of a great controversy, the echoes of which would reverberate through the proceedings of the next four years. Meantime, however, the convener of the committee set about finding a suitable minister, and, as we have seen from Robert Cargill's page 72letter, two names were soon selected in the order named, the Rev. Thomas Burns, of Monkton, and the Rev. Dr Mackay, of Dunoon. There proved to be no need to fall back upon the second nominee. It is interesting to know that Dr Mackay afterwards migrated to Victoria, and became the minister of the Gaelic Church in Melbourne.

While these negotiations were taking place, Burns bad returned to his former parish in the capacity of a minister of the Free Church congregation of Monkton, as described in the memoir of Mrs Bannerman. Having taken part in the "Ten Years' Conflict "with all the zeal of an evangelical champion he was devoted heart and soul to the Free Church and its great mission. He was held in high esteem by his brethren. He was placed on the Special Commission of the Assembly. He threw himself into the work of organising the Free Church in his own parish. All his former office-bearers, except one, and the majority of his congregation followed him. He founded the Ayr Free Church Presbytery, and was appointed to the clerkship. He helped to build up the cause at Ballantrae, his old charge, and at Troon. His connection with his own congregation of Monkton was soon cut short, however, by the announcement of his appointment to be the minister of the Scottish party which was expected to leave in a few months for New Edinburgh. As early as July his office-bearers knew of his intention, and the congregation, fearing that all the best ministers would soon be picked out for the numerous vacancies in the Free Church, prepared a call to his successor. He proved to be the Rev. John M'Farlan, the son of Dr Patrick M'Farlan, of Greenock. The father was deeply interested in colonisation. He appears in D. O. Hill's well-known picture of the Disruption Assembly, signing the Deed of Demission as the page 73minister who renounced the largest stipend in Scotland. Dr Patrick M'Farlan became Moderator of Assembly in 1845, and he is especially remembered by us as the leader of public worship at the service which was held when the Philip Laing was about to sail from Greenock for Otago.

But we are anticipating. The overtures to Burns in regard to the New Edinburgh appointment are of great moment; and even more important are the motives which led him to accept the position. It is stated by Hocken that "for some months previously there had been an informal and tacit understanding between Captain Cargill and Mr Burns, that if the great movement were availed of the latter should be proposed as minister."3This would go to show that Burns and Cargill were already acquainted with each other, and that Burns was definitely aware of a probability that he might fill some such post in a Scottish expedition to New Zealand. It would be interesting to know the authority on which this statement was made by Dr Hocken. We have seen that Dr Welsh formally approached Burns with the proposal that he should be the nominee of the Colonial Committee of the Free Church for the position of minister to the Scottish settlement of New Edinburgh, and in this matter the recommendation of the committee was sure to receive the approval of the General Assembly. The name of Burns was brought before Dr Welsh by Mr Robert Chambers, the eminent writer and publisher, who, with his equally distinguished elder brother, took a deep interest in the proposed colony, as we shall have occasion to observe page 74presently. Mr Chambers was well acquainted with Burns, and spoke very warmly of his high, sterling qualities and his willingness to endure hardship on the colonial field.

The answer given by Burns to this invitation was dictated by the purest and most spiritual motives. He was an earnest Christian man who desired before all else the extension of Christ's Kingdom to the uttermost parts of the earth. He was convinced that the evangelical message and the lofty ideals of the Free Church constituted the supreme blessing for mankind. He was also a fervent patriot, who loved his native land with all the warmth of a Scot, and he believed that Scotland had a place for herself in the portions of the southern hemisphere which were being occupied by the British race. It appeared to his clear, constructive mind that colonisation provided a wonderful opportunity for a great lay mission, which would be permanent in its nature and fruitful of good works throughout all future time. Writing of his decision to accept the post of minister to the colony, he thus expressed his feelings, as viewed from a later date:—

The subject was fully brought under my consideration in 1843 by the late lamented Dr Welsh, who was at that time convener of the Colonial Committee. After mature deliberation, I accepted the situation. It was not the least considerable of its recommendations that it had the sanction and warm approbation of a man of Dr Welsh's eminently sound judgment. Another promising feature was the auspicious bearing which the proposed plan of colonisation was calculated to have both in promoting the best interests of the colonists themselves and in lightening the future labours of the Colonial Committee at Home; and, lastly, it seemed to me that, under God, the effect of planting in that most interesting quarter of the world page 75a carefully-selected section, in all its integrity, of our home Christian Society, would far exceed that of any mission whatever. 4

It is quite évident tliat the idea of a "class settlement" as a religious foundation, with provision for church and school under Free Church auspices, was of the utmost importance in commending the New Edinburgh scheme to Mr Burns. To his creative vision—which had something of the poetic quality of his Uncle Robert's genius, although working in an entirely different direction—the planting of a colony of Scottish Free Churchmen in the extreme south would mean the beginning of a growth of religious and national life which could hardly fail to affect the whole future of the Antipodes. The army of Christ would be immeasurably strengthened if a base were established in the southern hemisphere. It would help to take the forces of unrighteousness in the rear and enable them to be overthrown. He felt it to be the call of God that he should undertake this task of leading his fellow-countrymen to New Zealand, and he consecrated himself to the cause with the molten enthusiasm of a missionary and a patriot. It is impossible to appreciate the aims of the pioneers of the settlement unless their passionate fervour is realised with a measure of sympathy and understanding.

The second Assembly of the Free Church was held in Glasgow from October 17 to 24, 1843, and the New Edinburgh enterprise received the general approval of the highest court of the Church. The report of the Colonial Committee was more definite in its terms of page 76approval than in later years of the protracted negotiations over the scheme:—

It affords your Committee high satisfaction to state that an application has been made to them for a minister and schoolmaster for the projected colony of New Edinburgh. This colony is in some respects peculiar—a principal feature of the plan being that a certain part of the purchase monies (£25,000) is to be set apart for ecclesiastical and educational purposes to parties holding the principles of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Your Committee embrace this opportunity of expressing the high approbation with which they regard the plan of special colonies, by means of which they trust that the provision made for educational and religious purposes will be rendered fully available, and those unseemly contentions prevented which have too often divided the settlers in other colonies. Your Committee would record their gratification that their countrymen, the Presbyterians of Scotland, have been selected as the class by whom the first experiment of the plan of a special colony is to be tried. They feel the deepest interest in the scheme and the most anxious desire for its prosperity; and, when they were applied to for the first minister to New Edinburgh, they conceived it to be their duty to seek out a man of well ascertained ability and worth. They consider themselves particularly happy in having secured the services of the Rev. Thomas Burns, late of Monkton, for this important sphere. They entertain the most confident persuasion that the emigrants will find in him a most affectionate friend, a prudent counsellor, and a faithful and devoted pastor; and they cannot doubt that with the blessing of God on his labours, New Edinburgh will speedily present such a scene of comfort, prosperity, and peace as will satisfy all of the wisdom which the governors of the New Zealand Company have evinced in adopting the plan of special colonies. Your committee have further to state that the New Zealand Company, with that enlightened liberality for which they are distinguished, have agreed to grant £150 per annum for three years for a minister at Nelson, the Colonial Committee guaranteeing a similar sum for the same period. Your Committee trust that they will soon be in a position to make an page 77appointment in Nelson, where they are aware a Presbyterian minister will be hailed by their countrymen with feelings of the most cordial gratitude and joy. 5

The report of the Colonial Committee was received by the Assembly on October 23, and the following resolution was adopted, inter alia, on the motion of the Rev. James Sym, the vice-convener, who presented the report:—

The General Assembly approve of the report, and concur in the approval expressed by the Committee of the plan of the special colony in New Zealand; and though fully sensible of the loss sustained by the Church at Home in her present straits in the transference of the services of the Rev. Thomas Burns at Monkton to that colony, they willingly relinquish him in consideration of his peculiar qualifications for the important station he has been called to occupy.

These were not merely conventional words of praise. Burns was held in very high esteem for his personal character and his work's sake. He had occupied one of the most important parishes in the west of Scotland, and had sacrificed his position for the service of the Free Church. We may picture him in the forty-eighth year of his age, tall, massive, with his hair beginning to turn grey, combining, in his strongly-marked personality, energy with dignity, quietness of demeanour with great determination of character. For the next four years he moves about Scotland, attends meetings in Edinburgh and Glasgow, speaks on behalf of the Free Church and the Scottish Emigration Scheme to various bodies, including the large congregations whom he was called upon to address as a minister of the Free Church.

The attitude of the General Assembly to the proposals brought before it through the Colonial Committee was distinctively favourable to the design of Rennie and Cargill. page 78Everything looked exceedingly promising for the early consummation of their plans. The Free Church had given the enterprise all the support that could reasonably be expected of a spiritual court. Governor Fitzroy, of whom great things were expected, had taken his departure for New Zealand, carrying with him the authority of the Colonial Office to select a suitable site for the Scottish colony, preferably at Port Cooper. The promoters of the scheme announced the departure of the first party for the spring, as the autumn sailing would mean arrival at the end of the New Zealand summer, and lack of time for thorough preparation.

But there were not wanting signs of impending trouble, based mainly upon two issues, namely, uncertainty as to the exact meaning of the term "Presbyterianism," under the auspices of which the colony was to be founded; and, secondly, the extent of financial help which the New Zealand Company would actually provide for religious and educational purposes. Hocken takes a strange attitude in discussing the Assembly's resolutions. He comments on the reference to the Company's promise to find £25,000 for these objects, and adds, "Yet no such special agreement appeared in the prospectus issued, nor even in Mr Rennie's letter of May 23 to the directors. This serious difference was the fruitful source of much misgiving and soreness later on."6But, surely, Hocken has overlooked the distinct inclusion of £5000 for church building fund, £10,000 for ministers, and £10,000 for schools and masters, in the Terms of Purchase submitted on May 23 to the Colonial Committee, after conference with the New Zealand Company, and quoted by Hocken on page 16 of his book! The reader of the New Zealand Journal comes upon fre-page 79quent references to the same subject, 7 and it is difficult to understand how such a careful historian as Dr Hocken failed to realise that the Free Church had solid grounds for regarding the provision for church and school as a definite promise of aid to the extent of the sum named. But whatever the basis of the undertaking may have been, one thing is certain, the money was never paid for the purposes indicated. The other matter which began to cause dissension was the interpretation of the denominational basis of the New Edinburgh enterprise; and that issue soon became acute in the correspondence which ensued between Burns, Cargill, and Rennie, of which mainly one strand, from Burns to Cargill, has been preserved to us.

1 See the leading article New Zealand Journal, July 8, 1843, in which the Pilgrim Fathers are referred to by way of comparison and contrast.

2 Volume entitled " Letters of Rennie and Dr Aldcorn" (manuscript collection in Hocken Library). See "Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales," by the Rev. Dr J. Cameron and the Rev. John Walker in connection with the references to the Free Australian Synod. Dr John Dunmore Lang, of Scots Church, Sydney, had already begun a movement for the separation of the Presbyterian Church in Australia from the State, and had renounced his civil endowment. On his return from Scotland and America he espoused Voluntaryism in an address given on February 6. 1842.

3 (3) Hocken's "Early History," p. 19. Probably Dr Hocken reached this conclusion from the evidence of the first letter of the Burns-Cargill correspondence, which is dated Edinburgh, May 30, 1843. There seems excellent reason for believing, however, that this, should have been dated 1845, and that Burns made a slip of the pen when writing in the year. The subject will be discussed later.

4 Letter to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church. See report of meeting of the Committee, October 5, 1847, published in the New Zealand Journal, October 9, 1847.

5 See Scottish Guardian, October 27, 1843.

6 Hocken, op. cit., pp. 20-21.

7 E.g., New Zealand Journal, July 8, 1843, in the leading article, and August 19, 1843 (no actual sum given here). See also the extract minute of June 7, 1843, above.