Book cover: Pulpit Radical by Ian Dougherty by Image supplied by author

Dunedin’s Populariser of Literature

Rutherford Waddell

Rutherford Waddell is best known as the Dunedin Presbyterian minister who preached a sermon on ‘the sin of cheapness’ that sparked major improvements to the lot of New Zealand workers, but he also made a significant contribution to Dunedin’s literary life, as I discovered while researching the recently published biography, Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner Rutherford Waddell.

Ulster-born Waddell brought with him to New Zealand a passion for literature, particularly the works of nineteenth century British writers. In addition to his demanding workload as a minister at the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Carrol Street for 40 years, from 1879 to 1919, he undertook a heavy schedule of literary lectures in Dunedin and beyond.

Waddell regarded the talks as an extension of his preaching. As he told his congregation, he had taken a larger view of literature than most of the other pastors in the city, ‘because he held that all literature that contained truth was God’s revelation.’

Waddell fell under the particular spell of the English novelist, Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name of George Eliot. He recounted that, on reading her novel, Adam Bede, ‘another world had opened upon him. It was a turning point in his life. There had dawned upon him a new conception of duty, of strength, of sorrow, of sin, of service, and of salvation’.

Waddell’s reputation as an interpreter and populariser of literature resulted in invitations to address meetings from Christchurch to Invercargill. He was particularly in demand by the proliferation of literary and debating societies and mutual improvement societies, which were keen to fill their weekly winter evening lecture programmes. More than 200 people turned out on cold Dunedin winter nights to listen to some of his literary lectures.

The Otago Daily Times reported that the hall at one talk, on ‘Irish humorists’, was ‘excessively crowded’ and the audience ‘frequently almost convulsed with laughter’.

Waddell also established and lectured at various literary organisations based at St Andrew’s, including the St Andrew’s Literary Guild, which was open to people from throughout the city ‘as a sort of centre of literary life.’ More than 100 people enrolled in the first year. He was additionally the inaugural tutor in English literature at evening classes run by a predecessor of Otago Polytechnic, the Technical Classes Association.

Waddell was also a popular if somewhat forthright judge at various literary competitions. He reported on an ‘original poem’ section in one competition, ‘A considerable number of the writers require to learn that more than facile rhyme is needed to constitute poetry.’

Waddell was criticised from time to time for championing the works of writers such as Evans and the Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

When chastised following a lecture on the ethics of Evans’ novels for ‘glorifying an Atheist and an avowed despiser of the divine institution of marriage’, Waddell deflected the criticism by pointing out that the lecture had nothing to do with her conduct.

Similarly, when taken to task for espousing the writings of ‘a drunken sot’, Waddell replied that Burns ‘drank from a deeper source of inspiration than that which this person had contemplated’. Waddell was a member of a committee that was responsible for the erection of the Burns statue in the Octagon in 1887.

Waddell also turned his hand to writing, from a handbook for tourists, to a weekly column in the Evening Star most Saturdays for 28 years from 1904 until his death in 1932. The eclectic subjects ranged from one column ‘on living too long’ to another on a man called John Smith who changed his name to ‘Mr Gagadib Gigadab’.

Compilations of many of Waddell’s articles, lectures and sermons were published as books, which sold in their thousands.

Waddell amassed a personal library of more than 5000 books, and established the only free reading room in Dunedin – containing books, newspapers and magazines, and a cosy fire in winter – two decades before the opening of the Dunedin Public Library.


A poster advertising a series of Sunday evening addresses by Rutherford Waddell in 1895.
AJ21/3, Presbyterian Research Centre Archives

Rutherford Waddell as a young preacher.
Tom Bracken’s Annual No 2, 1897.

[Book cover]