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Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand

(7) The Presbyterian Church

(7) The Presbyterian Church

Reform movements usually begin with individuals and take shape in small groups of men and women who see the need for fighting some form of evil or of seeking some new method of advance. The older, the larger, the longer established, and the more highly organized a body is, the slower it is in beginning to move. When a body, such as the Presbyterian Church, does move, it is hard to stop.

Men and women of the Presbyterian Church were among the pioneer workers in the early stages of temperance reform. By means of Bands of Hope, Total Abstinence Societies and various forms of moral suasion, much good was done, and the foundation laid for further developments. The conviction that it is necessary not only to encourage personal abstinence but also to work for the abolition of the liquor traffic gradually took shape and gathered strength. The Presbyterian Church to-day stands shoulder to shoulder with the foremost workers for Prohibition.

Among the early workers who prepared the way were the Revs. James Chisholm, J. Christie, James Clark, James Doull, J. K. Elliott, J. Gibb, Wm. Gillies, David Gordon, James Kirkland, John Macky, page 169 Peter Mason, John Ryley, A. H. Stobo, James Treadwell, Dr. Waddell, Messrs. James Adam, J. G. W. Aitken, A. C. Begg, John Lamb, Thomas Peacock, and many others.

Prior to 1901 the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand existed in two branches, commonly spoken of as Northern and Southern Churches. The line of division between them was geographical; there was no difference between them in creed or in practice, and there was none in their attitude towards the liquor traffic. As the movement for the abolition of the traffic by the direct vote of the people took shape the Church stood steadily and firmly behind it, and particularly in crucial times she made her voice heard with no uncertain sound.

In 1889, the Assembly of the Northern Church, led by the Rev. J. K. Elliott (later Dr. Elliott) declared ‘in favour of a direct vote at the ballot box for the suppression of the liquor traffic, and also in favour of granting the privilege of voting to women.’

In 1890, the Synod of the Southern Church, led by Rev. J. Kirkland, urged ‘earnest prosecution of the work till final victory over the ravages of drink is obtained, endeavour to secure the voting power for women on this question, and aim at entire Prohibition as our goal.’

In 1891, the Northern Assembly declared ‘in favour of Prohibition without compensation,’ and in 1892 it ‘renewed its oft repeated testimony in favour of local option by direct vote of the people at the ballot box.’

In 1893, the Southern Synod went further in regard to political action and urged ‘members possessing the franchise to make conscience of page 170 voting in favour of candidates who can be trusted to support the temperance cause.’

That these resolutions were not words without meaning is evidenced by the fact that where the Church was numerically strong there the people made their will decisively felt. In the Clutha District, the population was, and is, largely Presbyterian. Under the Act of 1881, which gave some measure of control through Licensing Committees, licenses were refused in the Waikaka and Catlins districts. That prepared the way for more drastic action. The Act of 1893 gave the people real control and in 1894 Clutha became the first No-License electorate in New Zealand, No-License being carried by a majority of more than three to one. The campaign by which this result was secured was carried on almost entirely by Presbyterian ministers and laymen of the district. Two outside speakers rendered valuable service, one, Mr. R. McNab (later the Hon. R. McNab), a staunch Presbyterian, the other Mr. A. S. Adams (now Mr. Justice Adams), a loyal Baptist. The example of Clutha was followed a few years later by the adjoining electorates of Bruce and Mataura and by Invercargill and Oamaru. To-day, in strongly Presbyterian Otago, to a larger extent than any other part of New Zealand the people enjoy the benefits of Prohibition.

The Church has not been silent in more recent times, but has repeatedly urged its members to support Prohibition, and it shows no signs of slackening in the fight. Some typical resolutions may be quoted. In 1919, the Assembly ‘urged all ministers, office-bearers and members to use their utmost endeavour to secure the carrying of National Prohibition.’ In 1925 it ‘reaffirmed its page 171 unfaltering determination to fight on with the Alliance for the abolition of the liquor traffic from this Dominion.’

The Assembly, in November 1927, with perfect unanimity and great heartiness authorized ‘an appeal to all our members and adherents to vote and work for the carrying of Prohibition at the next referendum,’ and it also approved of setting free about fifteen ministers for a period of six weeks before the next election to assist in the Prohibition campaign.

Like those of an earlier generation, these resolutions are not mere words, but more than ever they express the settled determination to fight on till victory is gained.