Synod Personalities No 1 Part 2 V. Rev. Henry Havelock Barton

Henry Havelock Barton’s nomination for Moderator-Elect of the General Assembly in November 1934 was greeted with warm and enthusiastic support.[1]

From early in Barton’s ministry his national church profile began to emerge with several convenerships of General Assembly Committees, most noted, the Theological Hall and the Women’s Training Institute Committees. The latter Committee he served a record 33 years as a member, secretary and Convener, as well as lecturer.  One deaconess recalled a somewhat challenging question thrown at them during one lecture, when he asked,  ‘Why did God not kill the devil?’  Unfortunately, she does not reveal their conclusions!

As a consequence he was known to a large number of ministers and deaconesses who passed through these training Halls. But it was his time as Secretary of the Foreign Missions Committee where Barton inspired the most confidence not only among the missionaries but also the wider Church community.  An enthusiastic supporter of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, Barton also reached a wide audience with his regular ‘Foreign Missions Jottings’ and missionary study guides in issues of its magazine, The Harvest Field.

Presbyterian Women's Training Institute Committee, Henry Barton 2nd from rt, front row.. 1928

Presbyterian Women’s Training Institute Committee, Henry Barton 2nd from rt, front row.. 1928

Barton was a very popular choice as Moderator among those in the Synod South.  Theologically, he grew up within a conservative Free Church heritage at a time when new questions arose from science and ‘higher criticism’ that challenged the inerrancy of the Bible in particular.  No doubt influenced by his tutors, especially Professor Dunlop, who admitted his interest in the works of German theologians, and Prof William Salmond, a controversial figure in Southern Presbyterianism, Barton could be viewed as  ‘mildly liberal’ with a strongly evangelical ethos.

It is rather curious that in the many accolades and descriptions of him and his activities over the years no mention is made of either his evangelical missionary or pastoral zeal, which is so apparent in all his parish ministries and wider Church work.  For his colleagues it was his administrative skills and his gentle manner that received most praise. The Rev. James Robertson, his nominator for the Moderator’s position, described Barton as ‘courageous, kindly, tactful, patient, well-informed, and sound in judgment’. Barton had developed a reputation for solving problems and conducting delicate negotiations.[2]

The Assembly met at its usual time of November 1935 when Barton was installed as Moderator.  One of the first significant functions as Moderator is his address to the gathered ‘fathers and brethren’ and visitors.  Generally viewed as one of the most important if not prophetic of addresses to be received by the Assembly, those present expected to be challenged, both at the level of the ‘body politic’ and personally.   The sermon was just that. Titled, ‘The Church Militant’, it highlights for us today the deep-seated concerns at what appeared as uncontrolled changes taking place within a post-war church and society.[3]  “No thinking man can look out upon the turbulent situation of our day without the realisation that these are indeed ‘perilous times’,” stated Barton, quoting from Basil Mathews.[4]

Barton’s central message to his fellow brethren stressed their main task was to ‘preach Christ as the great Physician’ so that the abundant ‘light that only Christ gives’ reaches out to everyone.     This strongly evangelical message was framed within a context that highlighted the reality of the world’s political issues of extreme nationalism, offering Germany and Italy as examples, and communism with its ‘anti-God campaign’.  Worse, however, was the ‘weakening of Christianity by the forces of materialism’ that resulted in a growing secularism. The traditional signs of a successful evangelical and personal faith, they and previous generations knew regular church attendance, observance of the ‘Lord’s Day’, prayer meetings and family religion were all on the decline.  The moral chaos where the ‘trinity of  evil –impurity, intemperance, and gambling-‘ continue to remain the enemies of ‘the Church militant’, he argued.

To confront this decline and its causes, the church should not involve itself in what he describes as ‘Outposts’.  Issues of dogma where many seek refuge had taken primary place and caused bitter disputes that few outside the church understood.  Here his ‘mild liberal’ thinking is revealed when he suggests, for example, that ‘[g]ood men have claimed for the Bible what it never claimed for itself’; or his response to the evolution debate that would have, no doubt, upset many in the new Evangelical movement emerging in the New Zealand Presbyterian Church since World War 1.[5]

What does it matter, from the point of view of evangelical Christianity, whether we hold with the great majority the doctrine of evolution or not?  It is not to abandon the faith … to believe that God has revealed his truth…through the patient labours of the scientist nor to minimize His power and His wisdom if we accept this as a method of His working.

The gathered, however, may have felt some reassurance when he appealed to their Scottish Presbyterian roots by referring to the Shorter Catechism, noting that ‘The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God…’. [6]

Barton emphasised the importance of a teaching ministry that would clearly develop what the Church stood for with an unambiguous precise every-day language that made the ‘old gospel’ exciting and life-changing.  Yet he was equally concerned that the Church not expend its energies on matters that best be left to the experts, such as the economy; an issue that had involved the Presbyterian Public Questions Committee through the years of the depression.  A man of his time however, he held onto to the evangelical message that by righting a person’s inner spiritual being, the causes and consequences of the ‘evils of the day’ would be resolved. He concluded, ‘Let our Church lift up her voice.’

Just what affect his sermon had on those present we will never know.  The Assembly debated and agreed to some of the issues he touched on in his sermon, such as supporting the League of Nations to bring about world peace. They did not however, agree to the ordination of women as elders.  Barton encouraged women’s work and noted that the role of Eldership would see some’ Deborahs’ join with the men to assist in ‘stemming the tide of worldliness’. They did not receive that privilege until 1954.

Following his term as Moderator Barton was called to Weston-Totara Parish in North Otago and retired from full-time ministry in January 1945.

he V. Rev. Henry and Mrs Barton, centre front, with the Taumarunui Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union, during his Modertorial tour, 1935.

he V. Rev. Henry and Mrs Barton, centre front, with the Taumarunui Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, during his Modertorial tour, 1935.


[1] Synod Parishes prior to becoming Moderator of the General Assembly 1935.  Limestone Plains 1918-1911, Maori Hill 1911-1921, Lawrence 1927-1936

[2] Outlook, 4 December 1935, p.14

[3] Outlook,  11 November, 1935, pp 5-7.

[4] Basil Joseph Mathews was a prolific writer on the missionary and the ecumenical movement. Editor of various missionary magazines.  From 1942 to 1949 entered the academic world first appointed Professor of Christian World Relations in the School of Theology of Boston University and at the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, Massachusetts and later Union College, University of British Columbia,.

[5] Rising Tide, Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand 1930-1965, by Stuart M. Lange, Otago University Press, nd.  p21

[6] ‘Church Militant’ Sermon, Outlook,  11 November, 1935. p5


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