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

Letters after the name

If you cast your eye over the lists of ministers of the Methodist Church of New Zealand for any year since, say 1950, you would expect to find that a fair proportion of those named would have a university degree. If you go back to the years prior to 1900, you will find hardly any.

The first was William Fletcher, a University of London B.A. (1850) who taught at Wesley College in Auckland from 1853, and was received on probation in 1856, a year before going to Fiji as a missionary teacher.

But the honour, if that is the right term, of being the pathfinder belongs to James Thornton Nott, who graduated B.A. in 1889, while at the Three Kings Wesleyan College in Auckland, and who spent an almost unique fourth year there while completing his M.A., which he received in 1891. The accompanying photograph is probably the first ever of a Methodist minister posing as a graduate of the University of New Zealand.

It might almost be true to say that such academic goals were discouraged by the Church in the early years of ministerial training. Three Kings principal Alexander Reid, though a member of the Auckland University College Council, believed, as Rev Susan Thompson has noted, that the main aim of ministry preparation was not the acquisition of academic learning but the development of personal character and the equipping of students as evangelists. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that James Nott would have completed his degrees without Alexander Reid’s encouragement.

James Nott came from old Wellington stock. He had been born at Tawa Flat into a farming family, the son of William and Emma (née Martin). His father is noted by Morley as being one of the founders of Tawa Methodism.

After his education at Wellington College, it is likely James worked on the family’s 250-acre farm ‘Ivy Bank’. After his years at Three Kings his probation was served at Riverton (1891-1893) and then at Woolston (1893-1895). For whatever reason – more than likely the death of his father in 1895 – he decided not to continue in ministry, and returned to the family farm.

He did not marry, and when the family property was sold in 1919 he moved to Naenae. James retained his interest in Methodist affairs, and at least until 1914 was still being referred to in the local newspapers as the Rev J.T.Nott. He was an active lay preacher, and not just in Methodist worship.

Though a sheep-farmer, the Cyclopedia of New Zealand published at the turn of the century, referred to his “hobby” of biological studies, “on the results of which researches he often lectures, being ever willing to lend his services to any worthy object”. He wrote a column on science matters for the Advocate, the Church newspaper, from1899-1901.

 James Nott remained particularly involved in the then important field of public education, and was able to speak with authority and acceptance on a wide range of topics. Many of them, it must be said, suggest an emphasis on moral and ethical values, such as that delivered before the Johnsonville Progressive Literary and Debating Society – ‘The pit whence we are digged’. But he ranged widely: ‘World Peace’ (for the Theosophical Society), ‘Some Heroes of our Time’ (for the YWCA), ‘Lost Lands of Long Ago’, Antarctica, Old New Zealand, and ‘Problems of Life’ for young men at the YMCA and elsewhere.

 While at Naenae he became the secretary of the Taita Cemetery Trust but seems largely to have dropped out of public life by 1930. Except that when the Napier earthquake struck he went there and produced a folio of high quality photographs depicting the devastation. He went on holiday to England in 1938, and died at Fiji on the journey home, on October 17th 1938.

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J T Nott

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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 8:00 PM