Unsung Methodist Personalities: Biographies from the history of New Zealand Methodism by Donald Phillipps

Once Were Evangelists

I wondered whether April 2016 might mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of a Methodist minister. Just two names popped up, one of them a notable figure, President of Conference and all of that.

The other a man spent just three years as a ‘hired local preacher’ with the Primitive Methodists and probably never preached on a regular basis to a congregation of more than a few dozen. But this man lived and died an evangelist, and that is an honourable calling.

Henry Curran was born on April 5th 1866 at Kaiapoi, the son of John and Isabella, who had come from County Down to New Zealand in about 1863. The Curran family had first settled at Kaiapoi, where there was a Primitive Methodist Mission from the mid-1870s.

The family sometime later moved to farm in the Feilding/Colyton district, and Henry probably worked with his father. When he was 16 he sustained a serious injury while working in a gravel pit. He then set up a firewood business at Makino, and it must have been at this place that he became a local preacher, at the age of 17.

He was instrumental in establishing a Primitive Methodist cause in Makino, and for five years he was its Sunday school superintendent.

From Makino, in 1892, he was appointed by the Primitive Methodist District Meeting to serve his Church at Hunterville as a sort of chaplain to the workers on the Main Trunk Line project, then starting to move northwards into the Central North Island Plateau.

Henry was there until 1895 when he returned home to Makino to take up his old business again. Towards the end of his active life he described his career from that time as being that of an evangelist and medical missionary. In every electoral roll he is described as either preacher or minister or evangelist.

It would be fascinating to know more about that other, ‘medical missionary’, side of his work. That he was interested in health matters is confirmed by his authorship of a book, published in 1923, entitled: ‘Hydro-Dietetic Treatment: A System of Natural Rational and Simple Treatment, That Can be Carried By Any Moderately Intelligent Person, with the Maximum of Success with the Minimum of Expense’.

One might wonder whether he encouraged this sort of approach to health as a natural, rational and simple extension to his evangelism.

For a time he remained in the Feilding area but then moved to the Hawkes Bay for 10 years. It was there that he saw the need for, and the opportunity to, work among the Maori. He claimed to have been the first ever missionary appointed to Waikaremoana.

In 1906 he set up a school at Kokako, near the Lake, and it was officially recognized as a native school, with Henry’s daughter, Ida, as its sole teacher. It did not last for much more than a year, but is further evidence of Henry’s vision. Judith Binney, the historian, refers to him in this episode as a Methodist home missionary.

Most of his energies from that time onwards must have been directed towards working with Maori. He was back in the Feilding from about 1910, but he also travelled the country widely – from Stewart Island to the Far North – on mission.

He also visited Queensland as a ‘Maori missionary’ in 1912. While Henry seems to have been in a formal relationship with the Brethren assemblies for the first two decades of the century, he was also a regular preacher around South Taranaki (as the Rev H Curran) in Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches.

He finally established himself at Hawera about 1923 as the leader of the Aotearoa Undenominational Mission. That name most likely underlines the fact that his everyday evangelistic work was principally among the Maori of South Taranaki. We have to remember that it took a very long time for ‘Aotearoa’ to become an accustomed part of the Pakeha vocabulary.

Henry had married Louisa Green at Feilding in 1889, and at the time of their golden wedding anniversary there was a very generous tribute to his lifelong evangelistic ministry published in the New Zealand Herald. He died, at Hawera, on October 26th 1945.

In many ways, denominational labels pale into insignificance when placed alongside the single-minded determination of women and men who feel so strongly the call to save souls. They obeyed their call, often without the security of a large denominational organisation behind them, and depended on the good will and generous assistance of a relatively few committed supporters.

Such a man was Henry Curran. What lessons can he still teach us?