Agnes Renton ‘A Woman of Character’

The previous blog opens a small window into the benevolent pursuits Agnes Renton carried out in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Memorial informs us her benevolence ‘was nourished, purified and strengthened by love to Christ. It pervaded all her plans, all her undertakings and all her activities.’ This God-given gift, of ‘benevolence’, led to her life-long ministry of commitment to others. Benevolence, accompanied with a spirit of selflessness and faith, was a ‘fundamental virtue’ of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Evangelical Calvinism. Since each person was a sinner the proof of whether a conversion was sincere rose or fell on how each person conveyed God’s gift of true benevolence. Agnes steadfastly stood by her commitment, surrounding all her work with a confidence in God’s promise of hope for the future.

Ministers of Bristo United Presbyterian Church. Rev.Dr. Peddie top right. His son William in centre. 1879.

A young minister, Rev. James Peddie, a loyal Associate Seceder, began a new ministry at the Bristo Street congregation in 1783, when Agnes was two years old. His support of the newly formed Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick and the Bible and Missionary Tract Societies and his strong advocacy for the voluntary efforts of the Associate Secession Synod appealed to Agnes’ parents. As regular attenders, Agnes sat through sermons, sang the hymns, learnt the Catechism, and slowly grew to understand the Westminster Confession, but it was the Bible where she found her inspiration. During the years of Peddie’s ministry Agnes developed an open, independent and enthusiastic understanding of her faith. By 1797, ‘after serious and lively impressions of the truth’, she was ‘received into the fellowship of the Church’.

The years until her marriage Agnes worked alongside her mother offering benevolent support. An avenue which provided her with ‘festivals of enjoyment’ during these years, and no doubt those that followed, were the sermons given at annual Missionary Societies gatherings, and talks by visiting Foreign and Anti-Slavery missionaries, no matter what ‘sect or party’. Generally held in the Assembly Room, these opportunities provided her with a network of people who held similar interests. The Memoir, when describing these gatherings highlights her middle-class and economic status.

Delightful is the remembrance of these gatherings the imposing throng of refined, intelligent, pious, people; the speakers sincere and eloquent, without claptrap, coarseness, or straining at effect; the sentiments and emotions elevating, stimulating, and purifying to the soul.

By the 1830s, the Renton children had mostly reached adulthood. Her daughters now able to undertake the management of the household freed Agnes to extend her benevolent activity among the increasing numbers of Edinburgh poor she confronted daily. By all accounts Agnes had a forceful personality. She had become known for her independence, the ability to make decisions fearlessly and to confidently put into action new projects. A friend noted that her ‘one passport’ to a project was ‘human misery’. Any criticism of her efforts brought the retort that ‘the beggar’s position demands for him all the countenance I can give him; the prince’s will secure for him plenty of parasites and flatterers to sound his praise, and win attention for his project, even were it less worthy than it is.’ Therefore, a priority for Agnes was to ensure the material needs of the poor were dealt with first, and then she concentrated on their spiritual needs.

Rev. Henry Renton, Kelso, writer of the Memoir of Agnes Renton

The author of the Memorial makes the observation however, that although Agnes recognised the need for some social reform to improve the living conditions of the poor, her focus was ‘identified with the advancement of its [Society’s] moral interests’. How accurate this observation is cannot be gleaned from the limited resource available, but hints throughout the Memorial do indicate her interests were beginning to recognise the necessity for some reforms. Her support of the Anti-Slavery Campaign, restricted alcohol use, and the education programme for Greek women are closely connected to reform, albeit with moral overtones.

Of interest is the strong views Agnes held against Malthus’ popular economic theory on population growth, which came to dominate religious and social theory. The removal of the Old Poor Law in particular, Agnes believed would unfairly affect children of the poor. When it was altered, Agnes saw the Bible as having a higher authority than anything found in State law and therefore should be ignored.

Neither is the ‘zealous’ support Agnes gave to the Voluntary campaign in 1830, a surprise. She had already voiced her preference that no one should be subjected to state control over religious or political beliefs. She ‘heartily concurred in Roman Catholic Emancipation’ and she took ‘a lively interest’ in the agitation for Political Reform and ‘felt the highest satisfaction at its triumph’. However, in the first decades of the nineteenth century a very fine line existed between what were considered ‘moral interests’ and how reform would take place. As writers such as A.C. Cheyne suggest, it was easy to reduce the cause for social and economic problems to a matter of Divine Natural Law. The problems and upheavals taking place among the destitute and homeless boiled down to a lack of personal faith and therefore lack of personal morality and behaviour.

Within her congregations Agnes obviously stood her ground and was a force to be reckoned with. She left Broughton Place congregation, where she had been a member for a number of decades, over a decision made by the Kirk Session, much to the chagrin of of her husband, family, and the Session. Frustratingly, no detail is given as to the reason of her departure. The Memorial notes she believed she had made a reasoned and genuine decision. ‘It only remained for those connected with her to lament her decision and to respect herself’.

The Rev. Dr. Peter Davidson, her minister at the time of her death, made comment in his memorial address, of ‘the natural intensity of force of Mrs Renton’s character’, and ‘the power which she was able to exercise over others’. Davidson believed there was no better way to describe her enthusiasm and passion for ‘the Lord’s work’ then that ‘she was truly … “a Mother of Israel”.’ He continued:

We have all need, my friends, to learn to pray more abundantly and perseveringly for the success of the gospel among ourselves, seeing we have undoubtedly lost one of the Lord’s remembrancers in this matter, one who obeyed from the heart the Divine charge, ” Ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth”.

The occasion in which Davidson gave this ‘honourable address’ was at the conclusion of Communion, the Sunday following her funeral, 26 December 1863. Not only was it rare to follow Communion with such a presentation, it was extremely rare for woman to receive it.

How Molly Whitelaw would have loved to know her great-grandmother’s story. In 1933 she wrote asking her mother for further information. The bemused response suggests the Memorial had been lost to the family. Her mother’s knowledge was limited to the family story of her philanthropic activity. Molly’s Mother, also Agnes, was only three years old when her father, Alexander and her grandmother Agnes Renton died in 1863.









‘The Handmaid of the Lord’; the Public Life of Agnes Renton

Who was the infamous great-grandmother? Hints of philanthropic activity, radical politics and dissenting Presbyterianism, what more could there possibly be to arouse my curiosity? So I set out on my own journey of Who do you think you are? to discover Molly Whitelaw’s antecedents. Heritage sites and Scottish censuses, bar several wrong paths, revealed three generations of both sides of Molly’s family. So which great-grandmother was she referring to? Imagine my delight when the Internet threw up a digitised copy of a Memorial for Mrs Agnes Renton, the great-grandmother Molly so admired.

Not lacking in detail the 147-odd pages took some reading, how verbose writing could be in 1866! Written by her son, Rev. Henry Renton, it reflects much about late eighteen and early nineteenth century Scottish society, a study in itself, but for another time.

Agnes was born on 16 February 1781 to Henry Duncan and Rachel (nee Anderson), a second-generation cloth merchant. Agnes was the fifth of ten children and the fourth daughter. They lived in a grand house, which stood back from the surrounding ‘gloomy tenement buildings’ and overlooked open fields that in time would become the New Town area of Edinburgh. Henry, her father, was a Seceder, a member of the Associate Presbytery formed in 1737 by Revs. Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine. This is another fascinating tale to tell sometime.

Rachel, Agnes’ mother, also a member of the Bristo Street Congregation, was attracted to the Society of Friends whose practical philanthropy she admired and whose beliefs against state imposition over the Church she agreed with. Her fondness at attending Quaker lectures added to her already strong motivation to be active in improving the lives of others. Rachel has the honour of being the only woman noted in the History of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church (1872) for her spiritual and practical outreach as a Bible-woman to the Canongate Mission. Both Henry and Rachel had radical political leanings, members of the short-lived Scottish ‘Friends of the People Society’ during 1792-1794. It advocated Parliamentary reform, male suffrage and peace with France. No doubt, they viewed their dissenting church beliefs and its demands for ecclesiastical reforms as linking closely with the political reforms the ‘Friends of the People’ were seeking.

Agnes at a young age experienced a strong reaction to the injustices she saw around her and developed a deep interest in politics; an interest fed by the imprisonment of Thomas Muir the leader of ‘Friends of the People’. He was imprisoned for sedition and treason in 1793 by ‘a panicky Government’ concerned at a possible revolution. He was tried and sentenced to penal transportation and sent to New South Wales. While awaiting deportation Agnes, accompanied by a servant, regularly visited him with a daily meal. Her visits to Muir formed the belief that all people had a right to voice their political principles and opinions without punishment. Her support for political prisoners, especially those connected with anti-slavery often became a contentious issue among her friends.

In 1801 Agnes received a proposal of marriage from William Renton, a dissenter and member of the Broughton Place Congregation. She informed him that she would never marry another man’s servant, ‘you must be your own master before you can be my husband’. Her somewhat spirited response forced him to develop a drapery business. Obviously, the drapery store proved satisfactory and Agnes and William married in July 1802, had twelve children, eight sons and four daughters, all but two living into adulthood. Described as a ‘woman of marvellous activity, energy, and goodness’ Agnes had ‘a light, well-knit, elegant person, a great agility and nerve, …and a constitution of remarkable health and vigour’. A good manager of the household with sufficient capital to employ servants and nursemaids, Agnes offered an open home in Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh and it become a centre of political and ecclesiastical activity. The burgeoning numbers of ladies philanthropic and moral reform societies evident in Edinburgh from the beginning of the nineteenth century were a godsend in satisfying her desire to see justice carried out for all people.

The Memorial suggests that her membership of these groups were too many to detail, but some stand out.  Her long association with the anti-slavery cause began in the late 1790s when she joined her mother in supporting the Quaker’s efforts to raise the public’s awareness to the horrors of the ‘Trade’. Although a law in 1807, outlawed British ships from carrying slaves, Scotland’s deep association with the slave economies did not end. The campaign needed to continue and by 1830 the Edinburgh Female Anti-Slavery Association was formed. The main focus was to support American women in their efforts to see the abolition of slavery and also to pressure Scottish merchants to boycott these economies. Later, in 1856, on the loss of a motion in protest against an offensive journal article, Agnes along with two others walked out of the meeting and formed a new society, which she presided over until her death in 1863.

Her international interests evolved further with the establishment in 1825, of the Scottish Ladies Society for Promoting Education of Greek Females. Agnes considered the best way to raise the standard of a nation seeking independence was by educating the women. She formed a Committee of which Lady Carnegie was president and she, secretary. By enlisting the support of Rev. Dr. M’Crie and Rev. Dr. Andrew Thomson, dissenting ministers, the Society gained popular support and worked towards supporting two educational agents. The scheme eventually failed.

Support for the abolition of the Corn Laws campaign held high appeal for Agnes. The injustice of taxes placed on corn forcing up the price of bread and causing people to go hungry, horrified her. This was a political battle lasting 40-odd years and with other members she diligently delivered pamphlets, attended meetings and wrote letters of protest to Government ministers and officials. Temperance and prohibition movements were also life concerns and she was a dedicated visitor to the women prisoners at Bridewell Prison. The Ladies Peace Society met regularly at Buccleuch Place for many years. She attended the Second Peace Congress held in Paris, 1849. War, like slavery, she considered, were evils ‘hostile to the will of God, contrary to all the interests of man, and repugnant to the spirit of Christ … holiness and peace were the bright attributes of the Redeemer’s kingdom’.

This feisty woman cared little for conventionalities, spoke her mind and took action where she believed it was required. In the next blog we will join her on her journey of faith.

References: Memorial of  Mrs Agnes Renton by Rev. Henry Renton; History of the Broughton Place United Presbyterian Church with Sketches of its Mission 1872; Two Centuries of Border Church Life V0l. 1, by James Tait, 1889. ‘Benthamite Radicalism and its Scots Presbyterian Contexts, by Valerie Wallace, downloaded 5/4/2017  https:/; ‘Scottish Friends of the People’ from Blog On this day in Scotland





Do I write a Biography? – that is the Question.

Why have I this urge to write a biography, I ask myself? I have never been a great reader of biography or autobiographies. In fact, I can count on one hand those I remember reading in my younger years. As a schoolgirl I chuckled over Doris Gordon’s life as backblocks Doctor, and was only partially moved by the story of Mary Slessor, which my Bible Class leader encouraged all her girls to read. Whether it’s because I was drawn to the world of medicine or whether biographies of women only focussed on women who achieved the ‘unexpected’, I read the biography of Agnes Bennett, by Cecil & Celia Manson and the autobiography Lady Doctor, by Frances L. Preston. My mother gave me Somers Cooks’, A Friend in Need: Nurse Maud her Life and Work, but its almost immaculate condition raises some doubts. Did I ever read it? Family tales of the years of the great depression my father told encouraged me to search out other stories. Mary Findlay’s Tooth and Nail and Robyn Hyde’s Godwits Fly are two that I vividly recall. These auto/biographies still sit on my bookshelves.

Attending University in my late 30s opened a new world. Those long and daunting subject ‘recommended readings’ that were distributed at the beginning of each course included auto/biographies. Some I read with enthusiasm, such as the two volumes of Harriet Martineau’s autobiography, Raewyn Dalziel’s biography of Julius Vogel and Frances Porter’s detailed and exciting biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand. Pressure of time meant I only dipped into others, now long forgotten. At the time I was hopeful they just might contribute towards a respectable exam pass rate. So in many ways it was surprising that I chose as my Post Graduate Diploma thesis, the life of the Dunedin woman Mary Downie Stewart. Reflecting on the reasons why I chose this direction may explain my present urge to write a biography on Mary (Molly) Dorothea Whitelaw (nee Shannon).

Continue reading

A Christian Pacifist Reflects on World War One – A Message of Universal Love

April 25, 1926, a young Scottish woman, Molly Shannon, led the ANZAC service that year, at Matawhero, Gisborne, an unusual occurrence in itself. The community knew Molly as the daughter of the Presbyterian manse. On the sudden death of her father, the Rev. James Wigston Shannon earlier that year, she stepped into his shoes to lead Sunday worship over a number of months. Described as vivacious with a generous and friendly personality, she had the ability to capture the attention of her listeners. Acknowledging her lack of a personal connection with ‘that strip of beach, of those sharp, scrub-covered hill spurs,’ of Gallipoli, did not hinder in any way the message she aimed for that ANZAC day. Molly Shannon chose to take her listeners on a personal journey into war-time France. Her international sympathies no doubt surprised many as she focussed on two powerful truths she gained over the war years: ‘The Truth of the Brotherhood of Mankind” as she expressed it, and the need for world peace in Jesus Christ.

Her sojourn into East Prussia while attending the University at Konigsberg during 1914, was where she first recognised how a common fear between nations could both unite and divide. Her friends and their families in Konigsberg, including many church members, likewise ‘feared the consequences of the rise of the many material gods around them, the sad loss of the country’s focus on the love of God’ and the blackening war-clouds they ‘prayed would never come’. These concerns similarly expressed in her own home country and frequently debated in her United Free Church of Scotland meetings, along with the disturbing media reports, reinforced the Shannon family’s long held pacifist views. ‘We want to remember,’ she told the Matawhero gathering, ‘that there were those in Germany who thought this way. It helps us to realise more deeply the senseless tragedy of the War.’

The family were deeply challenged, however, when Alastair, Molly’s brother volunteered immediately; first joining the 9th Royal Scots and later as 2nd Lieutenant of the 1st Highlight Light Infantry. He was captured by the Turks at the Seige of Kut in April 1916, was reported missing, but survived a nightmarish two years as a POW, including a ‘death-march’ across 1100 kilometres of desert and mountains. Eventually learning of her brother’s captivity Molly struggled with how best to support the British soldiers in war-torn Europe. An opening came in early 1917. She offered to assist at the Scottish Churches War Huts at the Labour Camp in Audrinsg and later at the engineering camp in Beaurainville, Northern France. This, a significant roll of support for the young soldiers away from home, where solace and comfort could be found, provided Molly with a means to contribute to the war effort without affecting her pacifist stance. At the same time Molly fulfilled a sense of ‘Call’ to bring a gospel message that could meet the soldiers ideals in supporting ‘a new world’ post-war. ‘The huts’, Molly explained, ‘radiate[d] a spirit of brotherly love and good cheer’. They were a symbol of ‘God’s enduring love and care… to make [the soldiers] rough places smooth.’ Near by the Beaurainville Camp was a German POW Camp. Compassion filled Molly daily as the German POW’s walked past their Hut, their eyes and bodies carried the same desperation, loss, and an inner hunger she was aware of among many soldiers at the Huts. ‘Where friends and enemies are bound together in the one bundle of life, she told the ANZAC congregation, ‘East and West suffer together’.

Prayer became more difficult, Molly confessed, as the war became more personal. ‘I could not pray for the safety of those whom I loved, apart from the safety of all the men who were fighting in great danger… yes even the enemy, they were as precious to their women as mine were to us…’. The struggle for Molly was to ensure her prayer life reflected an equal ‘earnestness for all men engaged in that awful conflict…’ As a Christian pacifist she reinforced the message to her listeners that all men and women owed it to each other to carry the burden of the consequences of ‘the sin of war’ and to bravely recognise and accept the universality of all peoples, or to use her expression, ‘The Brotherhood of Mankind’.

In concluding her address Molly’s words reflect the consequences of international conflicts continuing into the twenty-first century.

An injustice done even to a small nation will bear evil fruit in the life of all nations; one nation cannot be degraded & damaged or deal degradation & damage without world-wide results which all [people] must bear; on the other hand no nation can set itself to deal justly, to love mercy & to walk humbly with God without uplifting all the peoples of the earth…It is righteousness alone that exalteth the nations…and let us remember that Jesus Christ is our righteousness.

Molly Shannon married the Rev. Alan Whitelaw in 1930. She carried on her ministry in New Zealand at Te Awamutu, Blenheim and Johnsonville, and among the women of the Church both in New Zealand and overseas. Her war experiences saw her offer extensive assistance to the American soldiers, based at Woodbourne during World War Two, opening their home at all hours of the day, during their ministry in Blenheim. Towards the end of the World War 2 she compiled a popular booklet, When the Boys Come Home? on the care of the returning soldier and his family, which received wide acclaim within New Zealand.


Memorial Window Roslyn Presbyterian Church Dunedin

The theme of this window is that of a young helmeted soldier in uniform offering himself at the feet of the Master, the inscription reading, “On holy mountains out of the lap of the dawn, the dew of Thy young soldiery offers itself to Thee“.

Of the 119 Church members on the Roslyn Presbyterian Church “Great War” Roll of Honour, 19 made the supreme sacrifice for King and Country, being commemorated by an attractive marble slab placed beneath the window. (See

Weaving Vision, Heritage and Hope

The Synod of Otago and Southland history is completed and was launched at the Hewitson Library, Knox College, in November 2016.  Synod has agreed that copies be distributed free of charge.  Contact to order a copy.

Weaving Vision

Weaving Vision, Heritage and Hope examines the relationship between the Presbyterian Synod of Otago, southern Presbyterians and the wider New Zealand Presbyterian denomination focussing on its role and function from the time of Union of New Zealand’s two Presbyterian churches in 1901.  While recognising the significance of its financial support to both Church and community, Yvonne Wilkie explores Synod’s struggle to confront its social and spiritual goals in the face of declining membership, shifting demographics, changing social structures and expectations, issues of gender, biculturalism, cross cultural understanding and theological interpretation.  Synod’s quest to meet the needs of contemporary society and to fulfil their Otago Scottish founders’ vision of a ‘godly society’ through its outreach programmes threads its way throughout the book.  This history contributes to the discussion on the ever-changing religious and spiritual landscape in  southern New Zealand.


Coming up for air from writing the Synod History and to assure you I am still in the land of the living I share with you a report of the Rev. John Christie, Minister at Waikouaiti titled ‘Visit to Wellington 1881’.

Christie was representing the Synod at the Northern Church General Assembly, mainly to participate in the Union discussions. His report gives an interesting insight into a Southerner’s ‘superior’ view of Northern happenings. As an anti Unionist the issues of instrumental music and the new law allowing the marriage to a deceased wife’s sister are noted with some cynicism. He briefly outlines his experience of worship and an opinion of the General Assembly debate on Union.

the Rev. John Cairns Christie, Minister of Waikouaiti-Palmerston Parish from 1863

the Rev. John Cairns Christie, Minister of Waikouaiti-Palmerston Parish from 1863

“We left Lyttelton in the evening, crossed the straits between the two islands and entered the fine harbor of Wellington between 11 and twelve o clock. Wellington is a very interesting and promising city. It processes a fine climate, much warmer than Otago… “

“We were very hospitably received. We could not have been more kindly entertained than we were. As we arrived on Friday we had a part of the day and Saturday to look about us. It is very far indeed from passing the size and beauty of Dunedin…”

[Christie preached at two services, one at St. Andrew’s where Rev. Ogg was minister and the other at St. John’s where the Rev. Paterson was minister. He found the order of worship quite different from that in the South.]

“I did not feel very well at home till I got to the Sermon. The collection was taken while the organ played [?] piece of music. Some of the Elders go around with a plate. They find that they raise more money in this way than if leaving a plate at the door. Thus the Hymn Book and instrumental music are in use in the Northern Church…”

“The service is opened with praise. As the Bell ceases the organ immediately begins to play. During the execution of this piece of Music the Minister takes his place in the pulpit and composes himself before commencing his portion of service. When the music ends he rises and announces the Psalm a hymn to be sung. He then pauses and waits while the organ plays over the tune. After which he announces the Psalm a hymn and reads over one or two lines, and intimates how many verses they shall sing.”

“The reading of the psalm is given up and instead there is a rehearsal of the tune. It seems to me that in this way the psalm is made subordinate to the music. Two portions of Scripture are read, between which a whole Psalm is chanted by the choir… “

[An incident he describes was all too familiar to both First and Knox Churches in particular the Salvation Army Band marching to gather its worshippers]

“The first strange thing that I meet was the Volunteers marching to church with a band of music playing. It appears they had got new uniforms and this was the place taken for showing them off. They were accompanied by, and followed by a great noisy rabble and roughs from the streets. Those who had commenced divine serve were disturbed in their worship. Mr. Paterson met Colonel Pearce and he promised not to play while passing places of worship.”

General Assembly Meeting and Union

“The only features differing from our Synod was the celebrating of the Lord’s Supper in which the members of Assembly and members of the Church joined, 100 in all. The numbers of Assembly Clerical and lay would not be more than 30. The business transaction was very similar to what takes place in our own Synod… In regard to the union question … Its is not Union that is wanted.   It is absorption…No it turns out that the whole thing is money they want all the funds their way. [Synod Trust Funds]… I trust the union movement is effectively knocked on the head, and the affair will rest till there is a greater homogeneity[sic] between north and south than now exists.”

“I don’t think there can be any proper union so long as that dirty stepping stone of the deceased wife’s sister lies in the way. It is a downgrade step and will vitiate the work and position of our church and make her a prey to all Ishmaelites around. “

[He offers some suggestions that may bring about Union]

“The Marriage Law within the Church must be repealed, the north must cultivate a sustentation fund. The Otago Church must be more willing than she is now and less needy and willing to part with her property and yield up her identity. The Northern Church needs to get its congregations more in hand. It is almost Congregational. Really I do not wish to embark on the sea of troubles the union has before it.”

Union of the Northern General Assembly and the Southern Synod of Otago and Southland took place twenty years later in 1901.

Ref: John Christie, Addresses and Lectures Assorted, c.1880-1899, DA11/6

Synod Personality 2 : The Rev. Alexander Manson Finlayson

The Rev. Alexander Manson

The Rev. Alexander Manson

The first annual meeting of the newly formed Synod of Otago and Southland in April 1902, appointed the Rev. Alexander Manson Finlayson acting Clerk. At the same occasion they recognised the ‘long and faithful service of 37 years’ of the Rev. William Bannerman by appointing him as Senior Clerk. Bannerman ‘occupied the Clerk’s desk’ from the inception of the Synod, the supreme church court of southern Presbyterianism, from 1866. Finlayson’s initial role as Minute Secretary relieved Bannerman of that responsibility, which for the modern researcher is a blessing as Bannerman’s hand by this time is almost indecipherable.[1]

Finlayson arrived in New Zealand on 15 December 1875. He was born in Bower, Caithness on 2 June 1845 to Peter and Janet (nee Manson) Finlayson, the fourth of eleven children. Little is known of his early years. On completing his theological studies at the University of Edinburgh and Free College he gained a Masters Degree and was licensed by the Caithness Presbytery towards the end of 1874. In April 1875 he applied to the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland for a transfer to New Zealand, his preference being Dunedin. After fulfilling the requirements of the Committee,[2] he set sail for New Zealand in August 1875 arriving close to Christmas at Port Chalmers.

The Rev. William Johnstone, minister of Port Chalmers congregation, received this newcomer with some apparent enthusiasm, putting him to work within two days of his arrival. He supervised the Port Chalmers ‘grammar’ school exams and the following day preached at the evening Communion Service. [3]  Finlayson would soon relieve Johnstone of a section of his very extensive parish that extended from Port Chalmers to Oamaru, when he was inducted into Blueskin-Merton charge in March 1876.

The Synod at the time of Finlayson’s arrival was full of theological ferment. At his first meeting he confronted the full force of fiery discussions on issues such as the introduction of instrumental music, i.e. the organ, marriage to the deceased wife’s sister, an Act before the New Zealand Government, and the perennial debate over Union between the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches.

The debates drew out the two prominent factions.   The Rev. William Bannerman, a strident Calvinist and a man of decided views and strong will, and the chief union protagonist, and the less traditional and theologically adventurous group led by the Rev. William Will and later the young Rev. James Gibb.

Theologically, Finlayson firmly stood in his Free Church conservatism throughout his entire ministry. Although willing to accommodate some change, any hint at deviation from the doctrines as laid down in Westminster Confession and the Longer and Shorter Catechisms drew a sharp response from him.

A major clash arose with Gibb in 1890 over comments on the Doctrine of Election he made in a Sermon preached at First Church.  Gibb’s language in expressing his distaste around the Shorter Catechism’s statement on election was provocative. My ‘very soul revolts’ against the Shorter Catechism, he stated, when it suggests ‘God having out of his mere good pleasure from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life’.[4] An impassioned debate followed over several Presbytery meetings with Gibb admitting some error in his interpretation of the clause ‘mere good pleasure’ but ‘considered the language he used perfectly justifiable’. The Presbytery concluded that the case be dismissed and regretted that Gibb had ‘inadvertently’ used language to describe the Shorter Catechism that ‘it does not warrant.’ The decision riled Finlayson who immediately sought leave to bring a complaint before the next Presbytery.[5]

Finlayson firmly believed it his duty to raise this dissent, and he did so, as a constitutional issue to the Synod. He appealed to his ordination vowels where he promised to ‘maintain the unity and peace of the church against error and schism, notwithstanding whatsoever trouble or persecution that may arise.’ The unity and peace of the church, he believed, was seriously under threat not through Gibb’s action and misrepresentation of the Confession but by Presbytery not doing justice by its ‘constitution and its relation to ministers and to the synod’. By exonerating Gibb, Finlayson believed Presbytery had set a precedent whereby further challenges to the constitution would be difficult to defend. Presbytery had allowed the Confession of Faith and the catechisms to be attacked rather than defending them at a constitutional level.   Robert R.M. Sutherland, one of the appellants, elaborated this point further by stating the Presbytery had ‘not answered the complaint but offered excuses for the denial of the doctrine’.[6]

The debate that ensued finished at 1.15 am with the final decision, 43 votes to 19, aimed to appease all sides. They agreed to sustain the appeal; reverse the decision; regret Gibbs use of language; and seek reconciliation within the Presbytery and then declared the matter closed. [7]

Gibb’s many supporters including not only the First Church Office-bearers but ‘a monstrous regiment’ of women were in attendance.[8] They displayed their impatience throughout the debate causing the Moderator, on one occasion, to warn them that ‘shuffling their feet’ in an attempt to ‘curtail the proceedings’ was unhelpful to the proceedings. The decision was greeted with loud and prolonged applause. Apparently, the women present ‘vigorously’ displayed their delight with the outcome. One can only assume their delight lay in a favourite Minister no longer considered guilty of an heretical charge rather then their delight that the Presbytery was found to be wanting in their defence of the Confession of Faith.[9]

The Joint Union Committee, 1896.  AM Finlayson, 1st from left sitting in front row alongside James Gibb, Convener

The Joint Union Committee, 1896. AM Finlayson, 1st from left sitting in front row alongside James Gibb, Convener

The 1890 Synod meeting was a watershed for the future of southern Presbyterianism. For the strongly Calvinist Finlayson the realisation that the theological paradigm was shifting within the Church was difficult to accept. Two changes deeply concerned him:  the Declaratory Act in 1893, based on the Free Church of Scotland Act, stripped away the absolute authority of the subordinate standards and the commitment by the Synod to enter negotiations with the Northern Church to ‘mature a scheme for union’, Finlayson recognised as a fait accompli. By accepting a role on the Joint Union Committee in 1896 he worked to ensure that Synod retained as much of its original status as was possible under a Union Church. He argued long and hard, dissenting on a number of occasions until confident the ecclesiastical status of the Synod, the total control of the Synod’s trust funds and property, and oversight of the Theological Hall were secure.

As Clerk of the reformed Synod, Finlayson kept the wheels rolling but its new status demanded new initiatives to move forward into the 20th century. The Synod required a redefinition of its purpose and mission for the southern Church. Finlayson with his dogged Calvinist world-view was not the man to lead the way. The passion within Synod slowly dissipated over his years of Clerkship. Its role within the south lessened in significance and become largely a finance committee responsible for dispersing its Trust Funds; ‘a spectral remnant dealing out doles in the form of Grants’.[10] He remained in the position until 1929 when he retired at the grand old age of 83, well past his years of useful service.

The last meeting he attended was in 1932. Finlayson had been an active participant through the enormous changes that occurred within southern Presbyterianism over his 58 years. At the time of his retirement only the Revs. Alexander Grieg and William Scrogie were still alive from those early years. Alexander Finlayson died January 1933 in his 88th year, William Scrogie died in March 1933 and Alexander Greig in 1938 in his 100th year.


[1] Otago Daily Times, Issue 12316, 2 April 1902, Page 2 and 4.

[2] Micro Film

[3] Reprinted in the Bruce Herald, Volume IX, Issue 811, 13 June 1876, Page 3, from Papers Past.

[4] Otago Daily Times , Issue 8951, 1 November 1890, Page 4

[5] Otago Daily Times , Issue 8835, 19 June 1890, Page 2

[6] Otago Daily Times, Issue 8951, 1 November 1890, p 4

[7] Otago Witness , Issue 1916, 6 November 1890, Page 18

[8] Otago Witness , Issue 1897, 12 June 1890, Page 23.

[9] Star , Issue 7000, 1 November 1890, Page 3. The meeting concluded at 1.15 am it was a marathon effort even for Presbyterians.

[10] Collie, p234.