Life and Times of D. M. Stuart, D.D.
Chapter XVII. — Social Reformer
Human labour was always invested with a divine dignity in Dr Stuart's eyes. Beneath the humble lot, and the hands that were hardened by daily toil, he recognised the immortal soul with its measureless capacities to live and love and work for God. His congregation embraced a large proportion of such people—domestic servants and humble toilers for their daily bread; and when they settled down in life and passed away from under his immediate care, his interest in them never waned, even when they were out of sight in distant homes. In all movements affecting the condition and well-being of the working classes he never overlooked what would make for their material comfort in his anxiety to promote their spiritual advantage. He was an ardent advocate for suitable and decent accommodation for them: for he believed that improved and healthy conditions of family life lie at the foundation of all social and moral reform. When he found a family crowded in a home that was all too limited for their requirements and comforts, he found as a rule it was not unusual for squalor to set in, followed by debasement, which gradually deepened into a hopeless criminality. The Doctor maintained that it was a duty incumbent upon municipal authorities to insist on such accommodation page 117being provided for the labouring classes as would conduce to their comfort, happiness, and respectability.
He noticed with surprise, and with something of dismay, the strong tendency which existed in many of the rural population to drift from the country into the towns. The result was that when winter came round, with its usual lull in trade, and partial suspension of business enterprise, the trouble with the unemployed increased—they became disheartened, and, to some extent, demoralised. When he could succeed in getting the ear of the great political leaders of the country, he therefore used his opportunity and influence to urge upon them the wise and enlightened policy of settling the people as largely as possible on the waste Crown lands. He felt that wise discrimination was needed to ensure success—that to set a man to live by agriculture who had never driven horse or handled plough, and who was destitute of the most rudimentary knowledge of the simplest processes of husbandry, was sure to issue in disappointment and loss. But, he believed, if those who had been born and bred on small farms could be induced and encouraged to settle down and work the land, they would not only get a decent living, but secure by steady industry and thrift a comfortable independence for themselves and their families.
Every step which the Legislature took in advance on this great question he followed with intelligent and keenest interest, feeling how momentous was its bearing on the national prosperity. The Village Settlement page 118Act he believed to be in the right direction, and was rejoiced to think that under liberal land laws the country was moving along on lines which would lead it to the best solution of one of the most perplexed problems which our Colonial politicians have been called to face. "I am glad," the Doctor wrote, under date 12th September, 1889, "your son has come out of the Agricultural College with so good a record. I trust that he may soon find a suitable position. I would be glad had he taken to the ministry, but next to that I am pleased he has taken to a vocation which tends to make earth like Eden. It ever delights me to see a piece of mother earth made to produce food and fruit for men. I am sure that agriculture is only in its beginning as regards productiveness, and as a field for the exhibition of the highest faculties.
"…. My first choice was the calling of a schoolmaster, my second the calling of the minister, and if I were to change I would be a farmer, cultivate mother earth, and hold colloquies with fruits and flowers, and earth and heaven."
Unable, owing to a stated engagement, to attend a meeting on 22nd July, 1892, convened by the Mayor of Dunedin to consider the Charitable Aid question, he wrote as follows:—"I confess to a great disappointment, that in this young country, with its thousands of unoccupied acres, and that coveted summum bonum: every man his vote and every child his school—an arrangement, which is in substance a Poor Law, should be needed. I trust the outcome of the discussion will be some plan by which our lads between thirteen and eighteen years of age may be trained to dig and delve, page 119sow and reap, and to give a hand in the varied work connected with the cultivation of mother earth. With the many-sidedness of such a training they will be able to pick up a livelihood where others would starve. It would be a gain all round if our men of light and leading were to give attention to such matters, which are our life."