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

Waiting for the Telegram

When Christopher Abernethy died in 1927, he was described as a ‘brother beloved’. This was a fine epitaph for a man whose ministry of 40 years was spent mainly in country circuits.

Christopher was never called upon to exercise authority in any Connexional sense of the word. He just did his job, faithfully and well, from his first probationary appointment in Whangarei in 1879 till he retired from Papanui in 1919. He served in Hokitika, in Gore, in Woodville - altogether a total of 12 Circuits in all, mostly for just the standard three year term.

He was born at Braewick in the Shetlands, on June 6th, 1846, the youngest child of Mitchell Abernethy, a crofter with six acres, and most likely a dairyman as well. In the 1861 Census Christopher’s occupation is given as ‘coro read’ – probably a cowherd, working with his father.

The next year, aged just 16, he came to New Zealand, like thousands of others, to make his fortune in the newly discovered Tuapeka goldfields. The Shetlands had long been an active missionary area for the Wesleyans, and, maybe Christopher had been caught up. Whatever the case, he was a local preacher in Tuapeka in 1871, and came up as a candidate from the Teviot Circuit in 1878.

In those days very few candidates received anything by way of formal theological education – only two were sent in 1879 to Wesley College at Three Kings. Seven others, all of them notable in their time, went straight into Circuit work. So Christopher learnt as he went.

With no minister at Whangarei to turn to for advice, his nearest senior colleague was William Gittos on the Kaipara.

Significant demands were made on young probationers in those days. He would have boarded in someone’s home (likely a parishioner’s). So when and where did he find time to read the required books and do his assignments?

He was required to carry out such assignments as these in the 1879 probationers’ set studies: (1) What are the internal evidences that the Bible is divinely inspired?; (2) Give an outline of Wesley’s Sermon on Salvation by Faith; or, on The First-fruits of the Spirit; (3) Write a sketch of the Life and Times of Daniel.

What sort of a personal library had Christopher acquired? How busy he must have been to answer those and a score of other questions, and be received into Full Connexion at the Auckland Conference in 1883.

By that time, too, he had found his wife-to-be Georgina Shorland, the daughter of John Shorland, an Auckland carpenter. They were married on April 10th, almost certainly as he was about to set off for Hokitika.

Christopher’s 1928 Conference obituary says, “When he was sorely bereaved, there was no faltering in his faith in the wisdom and love of God.” His latter years were indeed bitterly testing for him, in that respect. Georgina died, aged only 47 after undergoing serious surgery. Their eldest child, Jessie, born in 1885, married Thomas Haslett in 1919, and died the following year.

What is particularly poignant at this moment, when our country remembers the victims of war, is that Christopher and Georgina lost two sons in World War I. Thomas Abernethy was born at Balclutha in 1890, and when he enlisted he was recorded as a cycle agent. He served as a rifleman, and was killed at Havrincourt, on September 12th, 1918. The previous year, Kenneth Abernethy died of wounds on August 16th. Born at Willowby, Mid Canterbury, Kenneth had been a journalist and was a second lieutenant with the NZ Rifle Brigade at the time of his death.

Only one child, Rex Clifford Abernethy survived. He was born at Gore in 1891, and died in 1965. He, too, served with the Rifle Brigade. Rex was awarded a Military Cross for bravery and ended his active service as a captain in the Indian Army Reserve.

How many Methodist families experienced the same tragedy, and even worse? How many families back home, having experienced the trauma once, waited in fear for a second or a third telegram to be delivered with unbearable news?

Christopher Abernethy was not alone in this but even at this distance in time we must remember the mothers and the fathers like him, who, for a time, carried such a burden of grief.

Christopher Abernethy completed 40 years of ministry in 1919 and superannuated that year. He retired to Christchurch, where his surviving child, Rex, was a solicitor. Five years later he travelled across the world to stand by his sons’ graves and then made a last visit to his Shetland homeland.

He died in Christchurch on April 29th, 1927.

Christopher Abernethy 1846-1927


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