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

Mad About Mission

We were talking the other day about epidiascopes. Some of you will recall those cumbersome contraptions. They were the precursor of the slide-projector and they opened a window on an otherwise unimaginable world.

In the hands of a skilled operator they could turn a dull recital of facts into a vivid description of real, though very different, people. As a boy I can recall the occasional visit of Arthur Scrivin, the General Secretary (1933-1952) for Overseas Missions of the Methodist Church of New Zealand, and of the time he talked about the villagers of Fiji.

Arthur was one of a succession of able men who directed the Church’s overseas missions. It was, after all, an essential part of being Methodist to have an interest in what was going on beyond our shores.

Aotearoa/New Zealand began as a mission station in 1822 and it had that status for 30 years. When we became a semi-independent district we didn’t lose sight of our South Pacific responsibilities.

Over the years we gave of our time and talents as we sent skilled missionaries, teachers, doctors and nurses to Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Until the early 1920s we made our contribution via the New South Wales Conference but from 1922 we took full responsibility for the Solomon Islands.

We never lost sight of the rest of the South Pacific world, however, nor they of us. Wesley College became a place where potential leaders from the Pacific nations received their education.

On this occasion let us pay tribute to one of the great leaders and administrators from the time when overseas mission was at the very heart of our prayers and our practical support.

John Wear Burton was born in North Yorkshire in 1875 and came to New Zealand with his family when he was eight. His parents were Robert and Maria, and Robert became a wheelwright in Masterton. John was apprenticed to his father but he was influenced by his family’s missionary tradition and became a local preacher at age 17.

He received the standard two years theological education at Prince Albert College, and served his four-year probation as Paeroa and Darfield. While at College he attended the inaugural meeting of the Student Christian Movement in Melbourne, and joined its outreach, the Student Volunteer Movement.

With this sort of theological background, John acquired a reputation as a theological radical though he was cautious in his public utterances.

After one more year at Richmond (Christchurch) he transferred to the NSW Conference and spent the next eight years in the Indian Mission in Fiji. Prior to his departure in 1902 John had married Florence Mildred Hadfield.

In Fiji he was appalled by the indentured Indian labourers' living conditions on the sugar estates, and exposed the abuses in his most influential and controversial book, Fiji of Today (London, 1910).

He returned to New Zealand and spent three years at New Plymouth before becoming Secretary for Overseas Missions for the Victorian and Tasmania Conference, a post he held from 1914-1924.

He then moved to Sydney and for more than 20 years he was the General Secretary for Overseas Missions.

John also found time to complete his Master’s degree in 1925, and he was later awarded an honorary Doctorate in Divinity from the University of Toronto. He retired in 1945 but was then appointed President General of the Methodist Church of Australasia from 1945-1948.

Burton had a natural organizing ability and a capacity for single-minded pursuit of aims. His astute recommendations often effected decisive changes in mission policy.

He regularly visited the stations in the Pacific and was an early advocate of devolution of authority. He was convinced of the need for better-qualified missionaries and introduced training programmes that included language study and anthropology.

He belonged to the social and humanitarian tradition, ‘disdaining popular judgments and adhering to principles of justice and utterance of Christian conscience’. For 23 years he was editor of the Missionary Review.

His many published works dealt with the responsibility of colonial nations to their dependent territories and the role of the missions in assisting their peoples through years of rapid modernization.

The disastrous cyclone that has devastated so much of Fiji is a timely, and practical, reminder that we are linked in mission. That word may have many layers of meaning but one is, surely, that we belong to each other. Missions are no longer ‘overseas’. With John Wesley we must affirm that the world is our mission.

John Wear Burton