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“THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT of all believers who are in the Body of Christ”: Evangelical ecumenism and the Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand, 1848–1986.[1]

Stuart Lange —

Unity among Christian believers was strongly urged by Jesus,[2] and by several New Testament writers.[3] That call to unity is acknowledged by most Christians, but usually more easily acknowledged than implemented.

The twentieth century saw the rise of the worldwide ecumenical movement, which promoted a closer relationship between some denominations, denominational mergers and reunifications, and rapprochement between major Christian traditions, especially Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. In 1948, the World Council of Churches was established. In New Zealand, the ecumenical movement led to the church union movement, the National Council of Churches (1941–1987), and the Christian Council of Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand (1987–2005). While retaining theological diversity, the ecumenical movement has often embraced a more liberal theological stance.

Parallel to the ecumenical expressions of Christian unity, and long preceding it, there have been many evangelical expressions of trans-denominational unity among evangelical Christians.[4] Historically, evangelical trans-denominational unity of spirit and co-operation has been especially evident in times of revival, evangelistic campaigns, non-denominational missionary societies, evangelical philanthropic causes, gatherings such as the Keswick Conventions, shared evangelical institutions such as Bible Colleges, parachurch organisations such as Scripture Union or Alpha, and student bodies such as the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions.

It has been characteristic of evangelicals to see the unity of Christian believers as a spiritual oneness in Christ, reflecting shared belief in the Gospel, and shared mission. Evangelicals have commonly believed that such spiritual unity transcends denominational and cultural differences, and that unity is a matter of the heart rather than of formal structures or denominational mergers.

While unity among evangelicals has most often been informal, a more formal structure for evangelical unity has been in existence since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1846, over 800 evangelical leaders gathered in London from Britain, America, and Europe (and from some fifty-two denominations) to establish the Evangelical Alliance.[5] The organisation was not initially formed to create Christian unity, but to express and nurture the spiritual unity that evangelicals already felt with other evangelical believers in their common passion for the gospel. It was “not a union of churches as such, but a union of individuals holding evangelical sentiments.”[6] The official magazine was Evangelical Christendom. The Evangelical Alliance was based in Britain, but had much wider reach and influence than Britain alone.

This article begins to trace the influence and presence of the Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand. Its influence and presence has waxed and waned, but has been continuous from the late 1840s through to the present (and through the New Zealand Christian Network and the World Evangelical Alliance, it still continues). This article surveys the very long period from 1848 through to 1986. For the years prior to the 1950s, the main sources are newspapers, which give a broad indication of the impact of the Evangelical Alliance at different points. Exhaustive research of archives around the country might yield more information. From the late 1950s, a number of people in Christchurch and elsewhere made a serious attempt to give new impetus to the Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand, with both regional branches and a national organisation; again, the coverage of that in this article is broad-brush, and not intended to reflect extensive archival research. [7]

Beginnings of the Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand

Late in 1848, a New Zealand branch of the Evangelical Alliance was established in Wellington. Its official magazine was the New Zealand Evangelist, co-edited by the Rev Samuel Ironside (Methodist) and the Rev John Inglis (Presbyterian). The first issue of the monthly New Zealand Evangelist set out in detail the “evangelical principles” of the Evangelical Alliance, as articulated back in Britain: the spiritual oneness of “living believers in Christ,” the truth of God as revealed in Christ and the Scriptures, an agreed statement of faith, and the promotion of the gospel.[8]

Founders of the movement were quoted as declaring that members of the Evangelical Alliance should be calm, loving, and peaceable, and that they had no intention of becoming a union of churches. Apprehensions were also expressed about the perceived threats of Roman Catholicism and the high church Tractarian movement, and about religious scepticism. In several respects, and especially in the emphasis on spiritual unity rather than structural unity and the insistence on members upholding a detailed doctrinal basis, the presuppositions and aspirations of the Evangelical Alliance movement significantly differed from those of the twentieth century ecumenical movement.

While active for several years, the earliest New Zealand branch of the Evangelical Alliance seems to have wound down after the departure from Wellington of Ironside in 1849 and Inglis in 1850.[9] The New Zealand Evangelist ceased publication. In the early 1850s, however, there appeared The Evangelical Times and Christian Advocate, advertised as “based on the principles of the Evangelical Alliance,” and published by the Wellington Independent.[10] Meanwhile, a new branch of the Evangelical Alliance was established in Auckland, with an extensive programme of public lectures on Scripture, doctrine, and church history.[11]

From 1861, the Evangelical Alliance in Britain had called for a universal “Week of Special and United Prayer” for the first week in January, and distributed a prayer guide for the week. Until well into the twentieth century, and in most cities and towns, the annual Evangelical Alliance week of prayer was widely promoted and observed in New Zealand among Protestant churches. Prayer services under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance were held every night, usually in a different denomination’s church building.[12] Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists very commonly participated, along with Primitive Methodists, the Church of Christ, Congregationalists, and Salvationists. Anglican churches were less likely to take part, but some did.[13] Later, the YMCA also sometimes hosted the Evangelical Alliance prayer week.[14] The week of prayer seems to have been valued not only for the prayer, and as a celebration of solidarity in the Gospel, but also as demonstration of essential unity of spirit among “non-conformist” churches. For many decades, the Evangelical Alliance “Week of United and Universal Prayer” (as it became known) was primarily the way the Evangelical Alliance was known and active in New Zealand.

The Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand in the earlier twentieth century

From 1912, the Evangelical Alliance in Britain had called itself “The World’s Evangelical Alliance” – but with only limited success. To work well, a world alliance would eventually need to be a confederation of national alliances, rather than just an extended influence of an organisation based in Britain.

Nevertheless, in Whanganui, in the early twentieth century, the “Wanganui [sic] Christian Convention” closely identified itself with the Evangelical Alliance, declaring that its basis was “that of the World’s Evangelical Alliance,” and that it aimed to be “uniting like-minded people.”[15] At National Park, it had a campsite where it ran an annual Keswick-style conference known as “The Waimarino Evangelical Alliance Conference.”[16] It also ran large inter-denominational street meetings in Whanganui.[17]

In 1927, an Evangelical Alliance branch was re-started in Auckland,[18] and in the early 1930s, there was a Wellington branch of the Evangelical Alliance. It is not clear, at least from newspaper reports, when those groups may have folded.[19] The survival of any such group depends on some local leaders able to sustain the vision. There was no national Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand, and no provision for any: the relationship was simply one of individuals and groups supporting the “World’s Evangelical Alliance” in Britain. It is not clear how much connection New Zealand supporters of the Evangelical Alliance had with the “Evangelical Alliance of Australasia,” or what status that entity had.[20]

The overall trend, however, from the 1920s, was for the profile of the Evangelical Alliance in New Zealand to diminish. This reflected the gradual eclipse of evangelicalism in the theological academy, and in some denominations. A focus on Christian inter-church unity was becoming much more commonly associated with the newer ecumenical and church union movements. For some denominational leaders the identity of “evangelical” had acquired connotations of doctrinal backwardness and old-fashioned revivalism. Because the Evangelical Alliance had resisted liberal theology, it would have appeared outdated to some church leaders.[21]

The Evangelical Alliance in post-World War II New Zealand

As elsewhere, evangelical Christianity in New Zealand saw a resurgence in the 1950s.[22] After the horrors of war, there was a mood of spiritual and moral reconstruction. This was the period when Billy Graham was beginning to gain wider public support for a clear evangelical presentation of the Christian message. In Britain and the USA, the InterVarsity Fellowship had fostered a recovery of evangelical scholarship, which increased evangelical confidence. In the USA, in 1942, the National Association of Evangelicals had been formed, with a moderate evangelical outlook that avoided the narrower tone of pre-war American fundamentalism. In Britain, the Evangelical Alliance experienced a new burst of life, sponsored the Harringay Billy Graham Crusade, launched a new magazine (Crusade, later Today), founded the Evangelical Missionary Alliance, and established an overseas relief work (TEAR Fund).

In New Zealand, in 1958, a branch of the Evangelical Alliance was launched in Christchurch. The key instigator and driving force was J. E. (Ted) Davies, an evangelical Anglican layman who had come out from Britain as a senior aviation executive. He had connected with the burgeoning post-war evangelical Anglican movement in Christchurch that had grown out of the pre-war ministry of W. O. Orange.[23] The speaker at the inaugural meeting in Christchurch was another Anglican who had come out from England: the Rev Ken Gregory, an evangelical minister in Dunedin, and the leader of the Otago Evangelical Fellowship.[24]

The Evangelical Alliance provided a very useful vehicle for evangelical Anglicans in Christchurch to collaborate with evangelicals from other denominations. The President was the Rev Alex Munro, a Presbyterian. Others involved at leadership level were the Rev Harry Thomson (who led the Church Missionary Society), Don Laugeson (an Anglican layman), and various Baptist ministers and lay people.[25] For some years, the Evangelical Alliance (Canterbury) was fairly active. Soon after it began, it welcomed a visit from Jack Dain, the Overseas Secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship, and then threw itself into promoting the 1959 Billy Graham campaign.[26] The Evangelical Alliance sponsored evangelistic Billy Graham films in the Civic Theatre (resulting in many new Christian commitments),[27] gave a platform to eminent visiting speakers including John Stott,[28] ran mass Bible study courses, began an evening Bible College (in conjunction with the Bible Training Institute),[29] sent delegates to the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism and the Lausanne Congress in 1974,[30] hosted an exhibition of biblical archaeology,[31] sponsored and led a large missionary convention,[32] and held a monthly public prayer meeting.[33]

There was also an Evangelical Alliance in Auckland. This appears to have been less active than the branch in Christchurch, but likewise provided an interdenominational platform for visiting speakers. In 1965, it sponsored a large Town Hall farewell to the prominent evangelical leader the Rev Graham Miller, when Miller left New Zealand for Melbourne.[34] There was no branch in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. In the late 1960s, however, there was a branch in the Bay of Plenty.

The Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand, 1966-1986

In 1966, at a meeting held in Auckland, an Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand was founded. It was based on the regional Evangelical Alliances already existing in Christchurch, Auckland, and Otago. Its primary support was the branch in Christchurch. Its stated aims were “to testify to the unity of the holy universal church to which all true believers belong,” to arrange tours of visiting evangelists and teachers, to convene conferences (including pastors’ conferences), to provide “intelligence and guidance” on “evangelical action through the Churches and elsewhere,” to initiate and advise regional alliances, to encourage the Evangelical Missionary Alliance,[35] and to “maintain a watching brief” over the ecumenical movement, Protestant-Catholic relationships, public issues, and cults.[36] Some of these things were achieved, such as a successful invitation to John Stott to speak in 1969 at residential multi-day ministers’ conferences at Tyndale House in Christchurch and at the Bible Training Institute in Auckland, and public meetings in at least Christchurch and in Dunedin.[37] Also, a New Zealand branch of the Evangelical Missionary Alliance (now Missions Interlink New Zealand) was begun in 1972, and a New Zealand branch of TEAR Fund in 1975.[38] In 1975, a sub-committee of the Evangelical Alliance sponsored a Wellington conference on Christians and social action, but the top leadership in Christchurch was perceived to be unenthusiastic, and one observer felt the Evangelical Alliance was “in the doldrums.”[39] By the end of the 1970s, the Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand had lost momentum in New Zealand. No further branches had been added, and the Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand had failed to win the attention or the wide support of the New Zealand evangelical constituency. One crucial factor was the departure of Ted Davies from New Zealand. Another was the constant reality that evangelical leaders were largely preoccupied with their own churches, denominations, and local mission, and involvement in something like the Evangelical Alliance was rarely a priority. One pastor from that time commented: “When each parish is surrounded by paganism, the Evangelical Alliance seemed a luxury … and when you see signs of encouragement in your parish, you want to put more time into it than ever.” He also dryly noted that such national movements all faced the same problem: “The local minister is paid by the local parish.”[40] Another pastor observed the great difficulty such a movement had in enthusing the "rank and file" to become involved, or to give financial backing.[41] In addition, some observers felt the Evangelical Alliance had failed to bridge the sharp inter-evangelical divisions of that time, and was perceived by charismatic or Pentecostal leaders as anti-charismatic.[42]

A wider question arose out of international evangelical reconfiguration that had created the World Evangelical Fellowship two decades earlier: how appropriate was it to still have in New Zealand an Evangelical Alliance that primarily related only to Britain? As far back as 1951, about ninety evangelical leaders from twenty-one countries had met in Amsterdam, to envision a new and more effective global evangelical confederation.[43] Participants included leading supporters of the Evangelical Alliance in Britain, such as John Stott and Jack Dain, and also some key American evangelicals such as J. Elwin Wright, Harold J. Ockenga, and Clyde W. Taylor.

The wider international context for this development was the signing of the United Nations charter in 1945, the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the renewed evangelical impetus in North America, the sunset of British imperial power and influence, and a growing sense of global multi-nationalism. The World Evangelical Fellowship would both include the old Evangelical Alliance and in effect, take over its international dimension. It was an important development, but not a complete change. In 2001, the Kuala Lumpur Assembly of the World Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to that of the World Evangelical Alliance, asserting among other things essential continuity with the original 1846 Evangelical Alliance.

In New Zealand, by the early 1980s, the Evangelical Alliance was fading away. It was clear that a fresh start was required, and that a new national evangelical entity would need to be affiliated with the World Evangelical Fellowship. That day was soon to come.

Stuart Lange is a Senior Research Fellow at Laidlaw College in Auckland, a Presbyterian minister, and the National Director of the New Zealand Christian Network. His publications include A Rising Tide: Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand, 1930-1965 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013).

[1] The quote comes from the Doctrinal Basis of the Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand. The capitalised words were thus in the original. “The Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand: Doctrinal Basis” [Sept 1966], TSCF Archives (held in the New Zealand Evangelical Archive, Deane Memorial Library), N1/11.

[2] John 17:20–23.

[3] E.g., 1 Cor 1:10; Eph 4:2–6; Heb 12:14; 1 Peter 3:8.

[4] The word “evangelical” refers to that stream within Christianity that places particular emphasis on the proclamation of the Gospel, and the authority and use of the Bible. From the outset, Christians of an evangelical flavour have been part of most Protestant denominations in New Zealand, and are thought to currently make up something like a third of all New Zealand Christians.

[5] This development was reported in the colonial press in Wellington: New Zealand Spectator, and Cooks’ Strait Guardian 2.109 (15 Aug 1846): 2.

[6] New Zealand Spectator, and Cook’s Strait Guardian 3.126 (14 Oct 1846): 3.

[7] There are some materials relating to the Evangelical Alliance in this period in the archives of other organisations, but whatever archives may remain extant of the Evangelical Alliance (Canterbury), the Evangelical Alliance (Auckland), the Otago Evangelical Fellowship, and the Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand have not yet been located.

[8] “Religious Intelligence,” The New Zealand Evangelist 1.1 (1 July 1848): 14–19, https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-MinNewZ.html.

[9] Ironside was transferred to Nelson, and after an initial visit to the New Hebrides, Inglis spent a year as a locum minister in Auckland before beginning extended missionary service on Aneityum,Vanuatu.

[10] Advertisement, Wellington Independent 7.826 (10 Sept 1853): 2.

[11] New Zealander 7.546 (9 July 1851): 2; New Zealander 8.620 (24 Mar 1852): 4.

[12] E.g., Daily Southern Cross 18.1467 (7 Jan 1862): 2; Tuapeka Times 5.255 (11 Jan 1873): 6; Otago Daily Times 3731 (21 Jan 1874): 2; Press 15.2011 (4 Jan 1879): 1; “Call to Prayer,” Gisborne Herald 74.22220 (4 Jan. 1947): 4.

[13] E.g., Bush Advocate 20.916 (9 Jan 1908): 5. The reference was to Feilding.

[14] Evening Star 11775 (3 Jan 1903): 5.

[15] “Wanganui Christian Convention,” Wanganui Chronicle 50.12145 (4 Jan 1908): 6; “Waimarino Alliance Camp Society,” Waiapu Church Gazette 20.5 (1 Nov 1929): 13.

[16] Dominion 14.89 (8 Jan 1921): 9.

[17] “‘Back to Church’ Campaign,” Wanganui Chronicle 76.18730 (12 March 1923): 2.

[18] “Evangelical Alliance,” New Zealand Herald 64.9675 (29 June 1927): 14.

[19] “Farmers and Prayer,” Dominion 53.73 (6 Jan 1933): 4; ‘Empire Day of Prayer’, Dominion 27.88 (8 Jan 1934): 4. Note also Wanganui Herald 33.9785 (4 July 1899): 2; this refers to a “Union,” which may possibly be an error.

[20] Nelson Evening Mail 41.38 (15 Feb 1906): 3.

[21] Press 63.12807 (18 May): 12.

[22] See Stuart M. Lange, A Rising Tide: Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand, 1930-1965 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013).

[23] Lange, A Rising Tide.

[24] Press 98.28678 (30 Aug 1958):18.

[25] Interview with the Rev Graham Lamont (Dec 2001).

[26] “Evangelical Alliance,” Press 98.28736 (6 Nov 1958): 11.

[27] “Commitments for Christ,” Press 99.29161 (23 Mar 1960): 17.

[28] E.g., Press 109. 31984 (10 May 1969): 25.

[29] “Bible Study Course,” Press 104.30696 (11 Mar 1965): 18; “Bible Studies,” Press 104.30683 (24 Feb 1965):18.

[30] “1250 at Congress on Evangelism,” Press 106.31206 (2 Nov 1966):7; Press 114.33645 (21 Sept 1974): 18.

[31] “Biblical Exhibits. Display in the City,” Press 104.30698 (13 Mar 1965):16.

[32] “Convention told of Missionary Work,” Press 106.31180 (3 Oct 1966):16.

[33] Press 104.30900 (5 Nov 1965): 34.

[34] “Farewell to Respected Evangelical Leader,” Challenge Weekly (20 Nov 1965): 6–7.

[35] At this time the Evangelical Missionary Alliance operated out of the U.K, with no New Zealand branch.

[36] “The Evangelical Alliance of New Zealand: Constitution” [Sept 1966], TSCF Archives N1/11; likewise Challenge Weekly 24.38 (1 Oct 2): 4.

[37] J. E. Davies to N. Hunt, F. W. Cowan, R. L. Heywood, 17 July 1967, TSCF C5/15; J. Hunt to clergy, ministers, and lay leaders – Evangelical Alliance (Auckland) Inc., 29 Nov 1968, IVF C1; C5/15 “[Draft] Itinerary for the Rev J. R. W. Stott [1969].” The invitation was a joint one with IVF, which paid half the cost.

[38] https://missions.org.nz/about/; https://www.tearfund.org.nz/.

[39] TSCF 1603–1654; Dick Tripp to John McInnes, 11 April 1976, TSCF N1/15; Maurice [Goodall] to John [McInnes], 24 April 1976, TSCF, N1/16.

[40] Interview with the Rev Dr Graham Miller (Nov 1999).

[41] Interview with the Rev G. Morrison Yule (Aug 1999).

[42] Interview with Dr John Hitchen (15 Nov 2018).

[43] On the World Evangelical Alliance, see D. M. Howard, The Dream that Would Not Die: The Birth and Growth of the World Evangelical Fellowship 18461985 (Exeter: Paternoster, 1986); also W. H. Fuller, People of the Mandate: The Story of the World Evangelical Fellowship (Grand Rapids, Mich., USA: Baker Book House, 1996).