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

Chapter IX. — The Controversy with Mr Rennie

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Chapter IX.
The Controversy with Mr Rennie.

The consideration of the weight of duty that lieth upon us, to commemorise to future generations the memorable passages of God's providence to us and our predecessors in the beginning of this plantation, hath wrought in me a restlessness of spirit and earnest desire that something might be achieved in that behalf, more (or at least otherwise) than as yet hath been done. Many discouragements I have met with, both from within and without myself, but reflecting upon the ends I have proposed to myself in setting out in this work it hath afforded me some support, viz., the glory of God and the good of present and future generations.

Nathaniel Morton.
(Introduction to New England's Memorial.)

In July, 1843, Mr Rennie issued an address to farmers, which was widely distributed throughout the rural districts of Scotland on behalf of the proposed new settlement. In the course of this address Mr Rennie refers to the appointment of the minister to the colonial party, and estimates Mr Burns very highly. He is "an approved, good minister, a man who has experience in the discharge of ministerial duties, and who is moreover a judicious, warm-hearted friend, and what is of no little importance in a new settlement, a skilful, practical agriculturalist."1As it was expected that Rennie would be the superintendent of the undertaking which was to start in a few months, this expression of his confidence in Burns was a good augury for their future relations. But radical differences of opinion grew up between Rennie and the Free Church leaders, including Burns and Cargill, in a short space of time, even before the October Assembly, which ratified the appointment of Burns as the minister of New Edinburgh.

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The Hocken Library preserves a collection of 141 letters which Burns wrote to Cargill from September, 1843. to April, 1847, during the period when the Scottish scheme passed through all the stages between failure and success. Unfortunately, we have not Cargill's letters to Burns, but only the replies of the latter. When Dr Burns died in 1871 his son, for some inscrutable reason, destroyed most of the valuable papers which had been preserved by his father. The loss to the history of the province by this catastrophe is irreparable. However, we can only be thankful that the diary of the voyage to Dunedin and the first few years of the colony survived the perils of time. And we must be grateful to the Cargill family for handing over the invaluable bundle of letters which Burns sent to Cargill during the three and a-half years in which the fortunes of the Scottish colony hung by a thread.

The first letter in this collection is dated Edinburgh, May 30, 1843, and is addressed to Captain Cargill. It was evidently written while the General Assembly was in session. An examination of the contents of the letter, however, reveals to critical eyes that the communication belongs to a later stage in the history of the negotiations, despite the fact that the Assembly was sitting on that date and that Burns was present. The letter exactly fits a similar occasion and date in 1845, when the Assembly was once more in Edinburgh.2Doubtless the subject of the 1843 Assembly was so much in mind that Burns wrote, in a moment of absent-mindedness, the earlier year at the top of the page of his letter, which was really written on May 30, 1845. Here, in all probability, we find the evidence on which Dr Hocken based his statement that Burns page 82and Cargill had for some time been in tacit agreement on the appointment of Burns to the post of minister to the Scotch colony. With the placing of the letter in the proper perspective that piece of evidence falls to the ground.

The first letter from Burns to Cargill is dated from New Prestwick on September 19, 1843, after the committee had nominated the minister and prior to the October Assembly which ratified the appointment. Burns is busily engaged in furthering the interests of the undertaking, and has a Mr M'Kinnell in view as the school-master for the settlement. He discusses various farmers and business men whose names have been mentioned to Mr Rennie as possible emigrants from Ayrshire. Burns is not at all optimistic as to their intentions of joining up with the party. He concludes the letter thus:—

When is it likely that you will be back in Edinburgh again? And do you still intend trying the north of Ireland? Another and more pertinent question: Do you hold it to be absolutely fixed that our expedition does actually start in March next? In short, that, your sales of land are such at this present moment as make it certain that the party will proceed at the time mentioned? If so, are you not afraid that the hour of securing labourers is shortening very fast?

The next letter shows that a crisis has arisen in the relationship of the proposed scheme to the Free Church, threatening to lead to a withdrawal of Burns from his nomination as minister, and the wrecking of the Free Church support for New Edinburgh. The letter is dated October 2:—

Whilst I was in Edinburgh last week some circumstances occurred—views and opinions came out which threaten to dissolve all connection between myself and the colony of New Edinburgh. Mr Rennie had requested me to come to Edinburgh that he might arrange with Mr Sym and myself as to religious instruction in the school of New Edinburgh. When we met and had tried unsuccessfully to settle this point Mr page 83Rennie requested Mr Sym to read to him the constitution (which, although enlarged and added to and in some things altered a little by the Colonial Committee, is substantially the same as that drawn up by your brother). At the mention in the constitution of the connection of all future ministers with the Free Church, Mr Rennie declared that he would not, and could not, consent to it; would not because it might hurt the future sales of the Company's land in the colony; could not because the expression in the correspondence "that the plan of the colony shall comprise a provision for religious and educational purposes in accordance with the principles of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland"—this expression stands in the way of such an arrangement, and renders it incompetent for the Company now to tie down these funds in the direction either of the Free Church or the Establishment; and that it must be left an open question. Both of these objections appeared to us to be very ill-founded. We represented to him that the harmony and religious peace of the future colony demanded that the title to these funds should be fixed now, and Mr Sym declared to him in an earnest manner that such was his conviction of this necessity that rather than see the colony subjected to such a calamity of an endowment to be scrambled for by all who can profess that their religious views "are in accordance with the principles of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland," he would renounce all claims for the Free Church, that the course might be open for connecting them exclusively with the Establishment. I repeated the same sentiment for myself. It was all to no purpose.

The services of a lawyer, Mr Sheriff Spiers, were invoked to throw the dry light of the law upon these matters. It was even suggested that the purchasers of land might be given an opportunity of expressing their opinions. The great object of Sym and Burns was to avoid future strife and dissension in the settlement—a possibility which was by no means remote, as the experience in existing colonies abundantly attested. With Presbyterianism divided into at least two antagonistic camps in the Homeland, the issues at stake were almost sure to be strongly pressed abroad. The question had a strong bearing upon education in its religious aspects.

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Still more unsatisfactory are Mr Rennie's views in regard to the school of New Edinburgh. He first proposed, as you heard, that the religious instruction in the schools should be confined to two days in the week. When he saw that that would not be agreed to he proposed that whenever the pupils should receive their lessons in the catechism and in the Scriptures they should be all marched to the church and get their religious instruction in the church, and he proposes this arrangement for a colony, the whole labouring class of which are to be exclusively from Scotland. Scotch Presbyterians! After all that we could say he obviously is as much as ever determined on carrying his own views on this point. Again in a note I had from him after I left him he says: "That the system of tuition must be defined"—implying that he is to define it. And obviously to prepare me for what he is to propose he presented Mr Sym and me with a copy each of the ninth report of the commissioners of National Education in Ireland.

From further remarks of Mr Rennie, Burns gathered that so far from entrusting the appointment of a school-master to the Free Church, or even to the minister, he intended to approve of the selection himself.

Now I certainly conceived in common, I believe, with yourself, that the Colonial Committee were requested to nominate a schoolmaster as well as a minister. The committee and yourself, from a regard not so much to my feelings as to the success and prosperity of both church and school, requested me to look out for a schoolmaster. In Mr M'Kinnel I had found a man that met my views to a very gratifying degree. The members of the Colonial Committee, at least Dr Welsh and Mr Sym, have an equally favourable view of him. Yet Mr Rennie, without one word of ceremony or one objection to him but that he is unmarried, which I admit is an objection, and without asking Mr M'Kinnel if he would be willing to remove that objection, the whole matter is unceremoniously taken out of my hands and the hands of the committee, and a person is to be chosen whose qualifications shall be in accord with such impracticable views and opinions as it is sufficiently obvious Mr Rennie's are. Now I hope you will not misunderstand me. It is from no soreness of wounded personal feeling that I write; page 85it is not even the slightest unwillingness to give way to a temper which appears to me to be not a little despotic and overbearing.

Neither have I the smallest itching for the exercise of patronage in this case. I have too great a sense of the heavy responsibility of such an appointment. If it had been yourself instead of Mr Rennie not one word of objection should have been heard from me. My apprehension proceeds from what I cannot help regarding as Mr Rennie's utter incompetency to judge of what is requisite to the proper establishment of a Presbyterian church and school. I should be sorry to say or do anything to hurt Mr Rennie's feelings. I should have preferred writing the substance of this letter to himself were it not that I am satisfied that nothing more is to be gained from discussing with him points on which he and I seem to differ so widely. Perhaps it may be as well to mention that, having occasion to send him a written note, I expressed myself to this effect: "I must defer till further leisure adverting more particularly to the other contents of your note which, taken in connection with what fell from you as to your own views, will lead me to review the whole of my position in connection with the New Edinburgh colony." I intended by this to hint to him that if the constitution is refused by the Company I would consider myself entitled to reconsider my engagement.

In this long and important letter Burns traverses most of the points which were to cause friction and dissension during the early years of the scheme in Scotland, and also in the settlement after its foundation. Although he did not adhere strictly to his attitude of unconditional opposition to Mr Rennie's proposals, Burns, with a truly prophetic insight, discerned the issues at stake, and he dreaded the rise of sectarian dissensions, from which probably even a denominational colony could scarcely hope to escape. Admittedly, his religious opinions were zealous, fervent, and intense, but he longed to avoid the incidence of sectarian wrangling in the new country to which his thoughts were ever turning. The charge of bigotry and fanaticism which he incurred by advocacy of "one religion page 86for the place"3 he was not unprepared to meet, and it is a subject which will be frequently before our minds. Critics of intolerance often fail to note the historical situation as it existed at a given time and in a definite locality. The Pilgrim Fathers of North America believed that they were justified in keeping the ruling British regime of episcopacy at arm's length. They had crossed the sea to found a home of liberty for their faith. If the Puritans should fall into a minority, or if they should be subjected to the successors of the Star Chamber, their dearly-won freedom would become an illusion, and their last state might be worse than their first. It is well known to historians that sacrifices for liberty may prove to be the precursors of intolerance, and the exiles for conscience' sake may cherish a standard of conformity as rigid as that which they had left behind. Such is human nature, and let him that is without sin cast the first stone.

Rennie, being a man of a very different stamp from Burns and Cargill, and not sharing their Free Church views, was averse from making the colony too pronounced in its prevailing religious hue, and he was anxious to provide for his party of intending emigrants, many of whom were neither Scottish nor Presbyterian, whether of the Established or Free Church persuasion. The Company evidently shared his views, for the constitution submitted by the Colonial Committee of the Free Church was not accepted by the directors. The fact remained, however, that the promoters of the colony had approached the Free Church with the idea of founding a class settlement in which the Free Church interests should be paramount; and it was not at all surprising that a man like page 87Burns, who had accepted a position in the scheme, expected that the assurances given to the Free Church would be loyalty carried out.

On October 24 Mr Rennie called on Burns at his home in New Prestwick, and Burns writes to Cargill:—

I have just parted from Mr Rennie, who met a few Ayrshire farmers to-day in Ayr, and after calling here has returned to Glasgow on his way to Greenock and to London. He showed me a copy of a minute of the New Zealand Company's on our constitution, which declares it to be beyond their power to allocate church funds of New Edinburgh exclusively to the Free Church. This settles that point. Ever since I saw you in Edinburgh, or rather since I wrote you at some length on this subject, I have had some misgivings as to the strong light in which I then viewed it. What if something were to happen to our Free Church either in her position or her principles which the settlers could not sympathise with? In short, we must trust to time the progress of events both in this country and in New Zealand, and the leading of Providence for the building up of a united and sound platform of ecclesiastical arrangements for our colony. I told Mr Rennie that, much as I desired the constitution to be sanctioned for the sake of future harmony in the Church, my mind was much more disturbed on the subject of the school, and that the children of the members of my own congregation should be provided with the means of educacation such as they have been receiving in the parish schools of Scotland. He seemed to assent to that as fair and proper. But as the constitution is now gone I asked him how he proposed to regulate the school, etc. He said by trustees appointed by the settlers after we go out. Against this I had nothing to say, except that I thought the trustees ought to be Presbyterians. That I saw he objected to. In short, he will get his own way in the matter unless there is a much stronger body of Presbyterian purchasers than I fear there may be.

I do not know, of course, what the Colonial Committee will say to it. For myself, as far as I can judge at present, I am disposed to take my chance and go out rather than throw up now after matters have gone so far. As soon as I see or hear from the Colonial Committee I will write you again. I page 88wish if possible to escape from these heartburnings and misapprehensions which this matter has stirred up. I return to the General Assembly to-morrow, but wished to write you at the earliest.

So the first bout with Rennie ended in favour of the secular leader. The issues as to Free Churchism or Presbyterianism, the religious character of the school, the denomination of the schoolmaster and of subsequent ministers, the freedom of endowments from denominational control seemed all to be decided by Rennie, with the backing of the Company, against the opinion of Burns and the Colonial Committee. Burns shows a very fair spirit, while realising that things have changed considerably since he was first approached on behalf of the scheme by Dr Welsh. But the feeling of dissatisfaction remained. It was surely an extraordinary position that had been created by the departure from the assurances previously given to the Free Church leaders. It looked as though the New Zealand Company was anxious to make a convenience of the Free Church, without offering anything in return. But two facts had emerged. Burns at any rate as first minister was a Free Churchman, whatever the sequel might be; and Rennie was revealing himself as a man whose fitness to lead a class settlement of Scottish Presbyterians to the Middle Island of New Zealand was seriously open to question at least from the standpoint of the Free Church, which had agreed to father the scheme of New Edinburgh.

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Mrs Burns.

Mrs Burns.

1 N.Z. Journal, 1843, p. 209.

2 The first suggestion of the later date of the composition of this letter was made by Mr F. M'Caskill, M.A., whilst engaged in research work on the life of Captain Cargill in 1928. Professor Elder, of the University of Otago, concurs in this opinion.

3 This was Wakefield's idea of a sectarian class settlement. See chap. V, supra.