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

The Rag Sorter's Son and Prohibition's Champion

At this distance in time it’s not easy to get the prohibition movement into perspective. For our stricter Methodist grandparents it meant everything. One of my grandfathers was a Rechabite, committed to Total Abstinence, no ifs and no buts. My other grandfather wasn’t.

It has been recorded that to celebrate the holding of the first New Zealand Wesleyan Conference in Christchurch in 1874, a layman put on a champagne breakfast at Sumner. Try as I might I haven’t found hard evidence for this, though Eric Hames records it as fact.

Nevertheless, it’s a reminder that at that time alcohol was not ‘demon drink’ for all Methodists. The Methodist Church has been around for nearly 200 years here, and for about two thirds of that time has preferred personal moderation and tight control of supply, rather than prohibition.

For about 60 years, however, it was so much the focus of Methodist attention that it symbolised our identity. That’s what we were known for but all the time we were changing.

A Temperance Committee of Conference wasn’t founded until the 1880s and then became the Temperance and Public Morals Committee in 1903. In 1934 temperance became just one part of the brief of the newly named Public Questions Committee. By 1970 the word had disappeared from the Conference Minutes index. In any case, there were by then other equally threatening examples of substance abuse.

But we should remember, and honour, the dedicated commitment of a host of Methodist leaders, lay and ordained to the cause. Some of them became public figures, and none more so than John Dawson.

Born in 1859 at Keighley, Yorkshire, John lost his father before his first birthday. Brought up in his great uncle’s home his mother still had to make her contribution to the family, and in the 1871 Census she is recorded as a rag sorter – probably working in the paper industry, sorting rags to be made into pulp. It was a boring and dangerous job thanks to the inhalation of cloth dust. There was something called 'rag sorter's disease', similar in nature to anthrax.

John became a factory worker when he was just old enough to earn a wage to help keep the family going. Primitive Methodism was strong in those factory towns and John was caught up by their identification with the working-class. He became a local preacher by the time he was 17 or 18.

In the early 1880s he was employed as a lay evangelist and at this time married Nancy Hoyle, his wife for more than 40 years.

Fortunately for John there was now a place at which he could receive some training - the Grattan Guiness Missionary Institute, the precursor to Cliff College (the subject of November’s item in this series). There he was prepared for an evangelical missionary ministry.

When he completed his course he was accepted on trial as a Primitive Methodist minister. He and his wife and two children were sent to New Zealand late in 1888. He served his probation chiefly at Thames, and after ordination spent five years in Christchurch. He then moved to the Webb St church in Wellington, during which time he was president of the Primitive Methodist Conference.

He quickly became involved in the New Zealand Alliance, the interdenominational Christian grouping leading the charge against the liquor industry and for prohibition. With universal suffrage then in place, the Alliance was a major factor in the political spectrum.

It needed more than just a Wellington Committee to direct its day-to-day operations, and in 1908 John succeeded another Methodist minister, Rev Frank Isitt and became its full-time general secretary. He held this position until his death in Wellington on September 13th 1925.

Despite this commitment, he had time to fill the role of president of the united Methodist Church in 1915, the honour being an indication of the significance the Church placed on his work for prohibition.

“Calm, deliberate manner.” “Sound judgement, tact, geniality, wide knowledge of the movement and burning enthusiasm.” “Dignified bearing, courtesy, charity, honourable and manly conduct.” “Great courage when speaking to Premiers and Cabinet Ministers.” James Cocker’s tribute is full of such phrases. I like this one of his to sum them all up: “John Dawson was a rock man…”

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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 7:00 PM