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

Is Your Breathing Embarrassed?

That’s a good way to catch your attention – a short, snappy question – a touch bizarre even. You just have to know what the answer is.

John Baxter was born in Jamaica, and came to New Zealand with his family in 1869, aged 23. He’d grown up largely in the English Midlands, where he must have learned his trade as an apothecary.

He set up in business on his arrival, and before long was doing exactly what men of his ilk did – he developed his own products. How many of you have used or maybe even still use Baxter’s Lung Preserver?

I did when I was a kid. It was nice. It was raspberry-syrupy sweet. And it was one of the few ways a good Methodist could take a nip. Its active ingredient was ipecacuanha (an expectorant) but its more stimulating and understated aspect was its 10 percent alcohol.

John came to this country because his Methodist minister father, Matthew, had been sent here to take over the leadership of the United Methodist Free Church.

In 1869 Matthew was aged 57, and nearing the end of his ministry – he retired just seven years later. But of all the men who came to this country in the 19th century it might be claimed that Matthew Baxter was far and away the most experienced, in terms of national leadership. His career makes fascinating reading.

Born in Cumberland in 1812 he was the son of John and Rebecca. His father was an agricultural labourer, and recorded as a pauper in the 1851 Census. Matthew was a local preacher at 17, and began his ministry as a probationer within the Wesleyan Connexion at Hull, in 1831.

It seems highly probable that he was, by nature, a democrat, and the authoritarianism of the Wesleyans at that very time and place in Yorkshire was both overbearing and non-negotiable. After a year he resigned and remained in the wilderness until he was influenced by a Primitive Methodist minister, John Flesher, and spent two years as a Primitive Methodist minister at Scarborough.

It was there he threw his lot in with the Methodist secessionist group, the Wesleyan Methodist Association. This was primarily a Yorkshire/Lancashire reaction to the minister-dominated leadership of the Wesleyans, and Matthew quickly established himself as a young man of ability.

Matthew served in various circuits around the Midlands until he was sent to Jamaica to open up what must have been one of the earliest missionary causes for the WMA in 1842.

When he returned home after nearly 10 years he had established a reputation, and for most of the next 10 years was deeply involved in the leadership of his branch of Methodism.

He had returned to Scarborough, and while there became the examiner of probationers. Then, while at London, he was the Connexional editor and book steward (1854-1859). He was president of the Assembly (WMA), 1856, and secretary of the Assembly in 1860. By this time he had moved to Sunderland.

His work as book steward bore fruit in his writings. He was the author of Ten Lectures Addressed to the Working Classes (1854); Methodism: Memorials of the United Methodist Free Churches (1865); and (with J. Everett) Hymn Book of the United Methodist Free Churches (1867).

A decline in his health led to his removal to New Zealand and then to his relatively early retirement from ministry altogether. He moved out of town and settled in Oxford, but kept up his preaching.

When he died in 1893 he left 150 acres of land to the St Asaph St church, the headquarters of Free Methodism in New Zealand. He clearly kept up his reading, and in his will bequeathed over 500 volumes to the Oxford Circuit. Where might they be now?

No other Connexional leader came to New Zealand to take up an appointment. In Christchurch the United Methodist Free Church punched above its weight because of men like Baxter.

At the very time when the sort of Connexional organisation to which we have become accustomed was in the making, there were a number of notable UMFC leaders whose influence was such that it was Christchurch, not Auckland or Wellington, that was chosen for the national headquarters of the denomination. Maybe we owe him more than we can imagine.

Matthew Baxter

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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 8:00 PM