Synod Personalities No 1. The Very Rev. Henry Barton 1880-1966

Henry Havelock Barton, began his three year ministry training at the Knox Theological Hall under the tutelage of Professors Michael Watt and John Dunlop in early 1902. Belonging to a new generation of ministers, HH Barton, as he was generally known, spent 58 of his 61year ministry in the Otago/Southland area.   A scholar of English Literature and French language in which he received a Master of Arts, first class honours degree, he excelled in his theological studies gaining the top honours in 1904.

Beginning Ministry:

The only parish outside of Otago and Southland Barton served was his first at Westport, on the west coast of the South Island, from January 1905 to July 1907. Westport was an old gold and coal-mining centre that had moved on from a frontier town to an emerging major port for the region. The population stood at around 3000 in 1901. The parish of some 150 families included a large and often inaccessible outlying area, north and south of Westport, made up of small coal mining communities where many Scots resided; a future focus of mission outreach for the newly installed Barton.

Barton immediately impressed the congregation and Session with his preaching and administrative strengths and by 10 July 1905 the Session rejoiced at the largest attendance ever at a Communion Service. His evangelical zeal encouraged the congregation to support the opening of a Home Mission Station at Denniston and Burnett’s Face, isolated coal mining communities high on a plateau overlooking the Tasman Sea. By July 1905 a missionary was in place and a section purchased for a church.

Burnetts Face coal mine, above Denniston. c.1900

Burnetts Face coal mine, above Denniston. c.1900

Although an encouraging beginning in these initial years it would never be an easy ministry and visiting church leaders found few positive words of support for the community.    The Rev. George Budd, Superintendent for the Home Mission, in 1925 found Denniston and Burnett’s Face to be ‘dismal’, and dotted with  ‘crude residences’.   It struggled as a mission charge with the support of Westport parish until the early-1960s. With the modernising of the mining industry Denniston was no longer viable and the families moved on.

During 1906 while Moderator of Westland Presbytery Barton aimed to raise interest among the local Congregations in overseas missionary activities. The women of the Westport parish formed a Women’s Missionary Union under his direction, the first in the region and one of the earliest within the national Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union that formed in 1906. The Presbytery visitation report carried out on the eve of his departure to Limestone Plains Parish in July 1907, noted an improved spiritual tone, increased attendance at worship, the establishment of young women’s and men’s Bible Classes and also a Christian Endeavour group. All important for the survival of rural parishes the report noted with pleasure the building of a new manse and the increased payments in stipend. He left a disappointed Westport congregation in ‘excellent heart’. Barton’s first ministry at Westport set the pattern for all his future parish ministries, which are reported on with enthusiasm, highlighting his unflagging determination to bring the ‘riches of the Bible and God’s grace’ to his congregation.

Foreign Missions Committee:

Henry Havelock Barton and his wife Dora on their missionary tour Canton, South China in 1922

Henry Havelock Barton and his wife Dora on their missionary tour Canton, South China in 1922

In 1921 and a break from parish ministry he took up a position as secretary for the General Assembly’s Foreign Missions Committee, replacing Alexander Don, a position he held until November 1927. In taking up this position Barton experienced some conflict between a sense of his real desire for parish ministry and his passion for mission. During his term he visited the three mission fields in South China, the Punjab and Vanuatu. The experience he ably used while touring New Zealand, speaking at conferences, to women’s missionary groups and writing study material, especially for the Bible Class Movement. In 1926 he was the principal secretary and organiser of the John Mott Conference in Dunedin. John Mott, a highly prominent figure, can be described as the founder of a new ecumenical movement when he formed the World Student Christian Movement in 1895. At the time of his visit to New Zealand in 1926, he held the position of International Chairman. Barton’s skills as an organiser were further enhanced with a successful New Zealand wide Presbyterian mission campaign under the leadership of the South China Missionary, Rev. George McNeur, while Moderator, in 1927. He resigned in November that year and returned to parish ministry at Lawrence, a small rural town in the Clutha district, once known as the gateway to the goldfields.

Mission Campaign Team in Auckland 1927. Henry Barton Secretary of Foreign Missions Committee 6th from the left back row, The V. Rev. George McNeur centre front row.

Mission Campaign Team in Auckland 1927. Henry Barton Secretary of Foreign Missions Committee 6th from the left back row, The V. Rev. George McNeur centre front row.

Synod of Otago and Southland:

While Moderator of the Synod in 1930 Barton successfully moved the Synod from an unimaginative church court, which reflected a general air of malaise, towards a Synod with a greater focus on its purpose as understood by the 1901 Union Act of Agreement. This he interpreted as encouraging a far closer spirit of cooperation between the Synod and the national Church. The previous decade or more, the Synod had focused on its responsibility of grant disbursements and little else. By re-introducing the Synod Missions Committee, which had gone into abeyance during World War 1, to support the national church to disseminate foreign mission information and church extension work to southern parishes Barton believed would reignite some fervor into its activities . The establishment of an Advisory Committee to assist Presbyteries was another means of supporting the work of the wider church but in its first incarnation had a short life..

Barton remained active on the Synod Mission Committee until the early 1960s. He liaised with the Otago Bible Society and was its President for many years, and the Colportage Society in which Synod was actively involved. He also served on the Synod Theological Hall Committee for 10 years first as Secretary and later as Convener. His initiatives in 1930 opened up new opportunities for Synod within its narrowly defined function under the General Assembly and have enabled the Synod to continue to broaden its horizons today

The extension of the Kingdom of God was his greatest desire, he believed in a personal evangelism as a means of renewing a society, which required ‘the light that only Christ can give’.

The General Assembly appointed Barton as Moderator in 1935. Part 2 of this post will develop his story further.

Ref:  Presbytery of Westland Minute Book, Presbyterian Outlook, Foreign Missions Committee Minute Books.


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