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

Home Missionaries from Cliff College

Cliff College at Calver, Derbyshire has been training mission-oriented evangelists for well over a century. It wasn’t originally a Methodist institution but it was led by Thomas Cook and Samuel Chadwick, two Wesleyan ministers, from 1903 to 1917.

That period coincided with a time of growth in New Zealand Methodism but it was also a period when, as a newspaper headline said, there was a ‘dearth’ of home-grown candidates. This was because there was no effective Connexional institution for theological education, and because it was hard to attract Methodist College-trained young men to come to the other side of the world.

A budget-minded Conference sought to recruit staff for its Home Mission Stations as a way of dealing with the shortage. It was natural enough for them to turn to Cliff College.

It principal, Thomas Cook, had impressed the Church here during his mission to New Zealand in 1894-1895. So in 1907, in 1912, and again in 1914 Conference sought the help of Cliff College to provide young men to take up Home Mission appointments. In 1914 William Slade, who was visiting England, was deputed to undertake the selection task.

The great Primitive Methodist leader John Dawson had been trained at Cliff College’s predecessor, the Grattan Guiness College. Tom Dent, John Metcalf and Vincent Binet, of Solomon Islands fame, were trained there. JW Bayliss, already honoured in this series, was another.

The 1912 appeal had yielded some fruit and altogether six young men had come to New Zealand by 1914. Harry Kings and F. Gardner Brown were two of them, and each served a long a fruitful ministry. Others of that vintage were Wilfrid Bowden, Wesley Bratt, and Tom Flower. The latter after 10 years in Home Missions joined the Congregational ministry.

The last to come, in October 1914, exactly a century ago, was Reginald Arthur Edward Briggs, and of him we know least of all. He was one of the small number of NZ Methodist ministers who lost their lives in the Great War, and he must not be forgotten.

There’s no known photograph of him. There isn’t even a photograph of his gravestone in France. The Cenotaph record does have a photograph of the brass plaque in St Paul’s Church, Symonds St., Auckland where his name appears alongside his brother soldiers from the Medical Corps.

This is all we know of him: Reginald Briggs was born at Brixton, London, in the March quarter of 1893, the son of Ernest Edward and Emma Eliza Briggs. His father was a tailor’s clothing shop manager at Preston near Brighton.

In 1911 Reginald was a grocer’s assistant at Tottenham. He probably entered Cliff College in 1912. William Slade recruited him in mid-1914, and he must have arrived on these shores about the beginning of October.

By the 10th of that month Reginald had been welcomed to his appointment as Home Missionary at Nukuroa, a settlement near Studholme, on the South Canterbury coast. It was quite a hive of Methodism but Reginald was the only man ever to reside there as a Methodist minister.

He had never married so he would have been boarded by one of the local families. He was under the oversight of Rev George Stockwell, the Waimate minister, just 5kms away. At the 1915 Conference he was continued at Nukuroa but during the year he responded to the call to serve overseas.

He left for military camp on November 24th 1915 and enlisted in the Medical Corps. After his training he went overseas in early February 1916, and he served on the Western Front until he died of wounds on August 25th, 1918. If he was, for example, a stretcher bearer, he was as exposed to fire as any other soldier.

3/1687 Private Reginald Arthur Edward Briggs, of the No 2 Field Ambulance, New Zealand Medical Corps, is buried at the Archiet-le-Grand Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, Northern France. A name and a number – that’s all we have left to identify someone who came to New Zealand with, let us remember, such a high calling and such high hopes.

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Effective Mission For Today?

Donald Phillipp's article on the Old boys provides various lines of enquiry. It set me thinking. The New Zealand Conference looked to Cliff College to meet needs in the emerging colonial church.

But already Methodism had peaked and was in decline relative to the population growth. New theological awareness from the 1880s and beyond was slowly but surely indicating that societal beliefs were changing. If we look at what Cliff College is today, will its kind of missionary endeavour in the 21st century prove any more effective than in the early decades of the 20th century?

- David Bell

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Cliff College Today

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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 6:00 PM