’I did work hard on the Saturday & Monday & just got everything perfect, silver, flowers, bedrooms, table,’ wrote Molly Whitelaw to her mother in November 1934. Her preparations were in honour of the visit of Dr. James Moffatt and his wife and the Rev. Dr. Ian Fraser. The young Ian Fraser fell under this great theologian’s scholarly spell during his post-graduate studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during 1931 and 1932. It was not only James Moffatt’s scholarship that won the hearts of overseas theology students, however, but the couple’s amazing hospitality, friendship, and support they willingly extended. Mrs Moffatt, Ian Fraser noted, was their ‘mother away from home’. On completion of his time in New York, Fraser managed to extract a promise from Moffatt to visit New Zealand, during his forthcoming sabbatical in 1934.
Their arrival in Auckland was greeted with enthusiasm across the religious community. Auckland city honoured him with a civic reception where the deputy-mayor, acknowledged his theological scholarship and that the people of Auckland ‘were deeply interested in his visit and they still considered the Bible as the greatest Book in the world.’ Three of Moffatt’s past students contributed to the welcome: the Revs James A Thomson and James McKenzie studied with Moffatt in Glasgow 1918-1919, and Dr Ian Fraser with him in New York.
The name of James Moffatt was possibly best known among church-going New Zealanders through his translation of the New Testament in Modern Speech, which ‘placed English-speaking people in his debt’, according to James Thomson. The translation, however, touched a number of ‘nerves’ of those lovers of the poetic Authorised Version. His greater ‘colloquial approach and undue freedom’ was not to everyone’s liking. In 1924 he completed the Old Testament translation; his critics were no more impressed then, than they were a decade earlier with the publication of his New Testament translation. By the time of his visit in 1934, Dr James Moffatt’s prolific writings continued to be regularly reviewed in Church and local papers and were no doubt added to many ministers’ theological libraries.
Ian Fraser accompanied the Moffatt’s on the Express train south for a short stay with the Whitelaw’s at the Te Awamutu Manse. Molly in her typical gossipy-style letter to her mother gave the pertinent details of interest. ‘Dinner was perfect,’ she wrote, ‘our well practiced menu of clear soup, turkey with cauliflower, green peas, new potatoes, fruit salad & cream in individual glasses, lemon drink & ginger beer to imbibe & coffee.’
She noted the stress of the Auckland programme over the three previous days had tired Moffatt who retired to husband ‘Alan’s study to smoke & write letters to his children’ while Molly and Mrs Moffatt shared their common Scottish memories. These conversations, along with the evening discussions, including Rev Julian Blanchard, who had joined them for the evening buoyed Molly no end. As she reflected on the visit Molly realised that living in the small rural community of Te Awamutu and since the birth of her son Alastair, she had been starved of the familiar stimulating, intellectual conversation of a past life. ‘It was like a visit from very old friends bringing back the atmosphere of the Edinburgh days, & all the intellectual as well as spiritual satisfaction of friendship with people … who combined scholarly minds and strong intellects with a simple faith,’ she commented to her mother.
Adding to the delight of their visit was the jaunt to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves the following day. A system of underground limestone caves with waterfalls as well as thousands of glow-worms left the Moffatts’ in awe. Mrs Moffatt’s appreciation would have been music to the ears of those who accompanied them. ‘It was so marvellously beautiful’, she told the New Zealand Herald. ‘We have never seen anything like it elsewhere’.
James Moffatt and his wife continued their travels to Rotorua for the promised stint of trout fishing. Attractions at the popular tourist centre, where scores of visitors sought ‘cures in its medicinal waters’, included natural hot springs, bubbling mud pools, geysers and the famous model Maori pa at Whakarewarewa, appeared to take priority – no trout were fished for. A visit was also undertaken to the Presbyterian Maori Mission in Whakatane. They then headed south with two further civic welcomes planned at Levin, where Ian Fraser was the Presbyterian minister, and in the capital city, Wellington. Both were well patronised and in Wellington many people outside strained to hear the speeches through doors and open windows, fortunately on a ‘glorious summer’s day’.
In all centres Moffatt gave a similar message peppered with frank comment and humour. Bearing in mind the sense of unrest emerging out of Germany at the time, he emphasised the need to move beyond the superficiality of language and seek greater understanding, mutual respect and co-operation within countries and between nations in their aims for welfare and peace. With regard to Church and State, he suggested, ‘they should be like strawberries and cream – they should be taken together’. The church he reasoned was ‘the creation of character, which was what the civic authorities relied upon.’
To ministers present at various gatherings he stressed, ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes’, and warned them against becoming ‘maids of all work’. ‘You cannot expect your ministers’, he stated, ‘to do their proper work if they are serving tables’; an interesting turn of phrase considering today’s perspective with its greater focus on a ‘servant’ ministry. Congregations, he continued, needed to be more considerate to their ministers and if they were, ‘would get more out of them in realities’.
It was only in Wellington that acknowledgement of Mrs Moffatt presence was reported. Rev Julian Blanchard emphasised they were also welcoming Mrs Moffatt, as well as her husband, stressing her role as a helpmeet. ‘She had watched over the doctor’s studies, and those who profited by his writings owed her a debt of gratitude because her personal safeguard had enabled him to pursue the studies that had placed the world in his debt’.
In his final interview he side-tracked that importunate question visitors are so often confronted on his impressions of New Zealand. Not interested in voicing these, he responded that ‘it was a wonderful country and that he and Mrs Moffatt had been overwhelmed with kindness’. No, he had not fulfilled his wish to go trout fishing but smiling broadly, instead he noted, ‘I gave six sermons and 23 addresses’. He assured his interviewer, ‘I am coming back again for the trout.’ They left Auckland on 11 December for Vancouver.