Activism and Methodism for the Common Man
Colin Scrimgeour was the first missioner of the Auckland Methodist City Mission, a campaigner for social justice and a pioneer broadcaster in New Zealand.
He was one of Methodism’s most colourful figures, someone around whom various legends accumulated; described as charismatic, unconventional, a man who had trouble working with authority.
Scrimgeour began his working life as a freezing worker. He had no church background but felt a call to ministry after the death of his mother.
He began home mission work in 1923 and after a couple of appointments was sent to the Methodist theological college for training. He stayed at Dunholme for four months and at the end of that time decided academic study was not for him.
Scrim was a person more at home with practical rather than academic work. Biblical criticism and systematic theology went in one ear and out the other. He had a distaste for academic study not uncommon among Methodists. He claimed not to like the Bible because in his opinion it was too old fashioned, and got most of his Christianity from reading Tolstoy
While leaving college was probably a good decision for Scrimgeour personally, he would sometimes be accused of preaching a message without theological depth - “saccharine philosophy”.
In 1927 he was appointed to the Auckland Methodist City Mission to reorganise their work.
2. Work at the Mission
As a denomination, Methodism had conflicting ideas about how it should respond to the problem of poverty.
It was described as a movement “drawn both toward the poor and away from the poor”: drawn away from the poor as it grew from revivalist beginnings, became increasingly middle class, concerned with consolidating its position, and losing touch with working class origins; toward the poor as it looked back to the example of Wesley, and embraced a social gospel with commitment to creating God’s kingdom on earth.
Within Methodism there has also been tension between those who see social concern worked out through activism or pietism; changing social structures or individual lives.
Scrimgeour was definitely activist – first report to Conference about effects of the approaching Depression, “being brought face to face with the tragic circumstance of hundreds of the city poor” (MAC, 1928, p.128) – trying to provide relief to the unemployed; the urban poor were the focus of his work.
A great, energetic organiser, he appealed to the business community, bankrolled mission finance, all sorts of discounted or donated goods: in 1929 gave out 3,000 parcels food clothing, 5,000 meals to men who were unemployed.
Mrs Scrimgeour women’s committee worked alongside Methodist deaconesses to help meet particular-needs’ families. In 1931 the Mission opened the first soup kitchen in Auckland catering for women and children.
Scrim helped form Auckland Social Workers’ Association; coordinated relief work in city; started making representation to government.
He had a passion for finding new forms of communication for evangelism. In 1929 he started Sunday evening church services in Strand picture theatre, showing “talkies” (films) as a way of getting people in.
These attracted big crowds of up to 1,500 people. There would always be an inspirational address by Scrimgeour, who was also a great attraction.
“Scrimgeour could get on that stage and talk splendidly. I don’t know that there was any great depth in anything he ever said ... often it was quickly prepared over tea, an hour or so before the service ... but he had a way of putting things that made people listen, and he was always interesting.” (Len Horwood in I.F. Faulkner, The Decisive Decade, p.8.)
Scrimgeour wasn’t an evangelist in any traditional sense. His approach was described as “rationalist rather than conventionally religious”. He didn’t set out to win people to Christ but to change their thinking by raising issues.
While doing good work, he started to express a sense of frustration at its limits. In 1931, for example, he said,
“Four years’ experience of social work, in the course of which I have given 23,000 interviews to people seeking food, has convinced me of the futility of organized charity as a means of feeding the unemployed. I am not even sure that such work is Christian. It seems more an excuse for not being Christian. Every social worker realizes sooner or later that to feed a man is to starve him. He must feed himself, otherwise his independence is lost and his pride destroyed.” (February 1931) C Scrimgeour in Les Edwards, Scrim: Radio Rebel in Retrospect, p.44.
Viewing relief as an ambulance at the bottom of the hill, Scrim called upon the Government to take responsibility for the country’s economic, social crisis.
The radical edge to his views was seen most famously in his supposed response to the actions of protesters during 1932 Queen Street riots – he pulled palings off the fence surrounding the Mission and used them against the police.
“The State had supplied the police with high-quality batons; the Church had put into the hands of the unemployed good stout palings to fight with. A fence well lost, he thought, if it served to remind his own church and all others that their place was alongside the poor, the jobless, the fugitive.” (1932) Les Edwards, Scrim: Radio Rebel in Retrospect, p.9.
While this was a wonderful remark, there is some doubt as to whether Scrim actually said it.
3. The Friendly Road
At the end of 1932 Scrim resigned from the Mission to form a non-denominational radio church, working with Tom Garland, a Methodist layman involved in children’s radio.
The reasons why he left are shrouded in mystery. Scrimgeour began radio work in 1931 and saw its potential as a means of communication. He was very good at it and very popular. He may have decided that speaking to a national audience was a better way to effect long-term change.
Although the 1930s was a time of strict radio censorship, Scrim was able to express the concerns of ordinary people in his “Man in the Street” programme. He spoke critically of the government by preaching what he called the politics of the Carpenter.
He dared not quote from political sources, but being a reverend could use the New Testament as a text. He could talk of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the temple whereas any mention of radical politics would have had him off the air.
This side of the Friendly Road’s message was resented by many in government and Scrim was involved in various battles to stay on the air.
In the most notorious incident in 1935, one of Scrimgeour’s broadcasts, scheduled for the Sunday night before the General Election, was jammed, probably on the orders of the Post & Telegraph Department, apparently afraid he encouraged people to vote Labour. At his peak Scrim had an audience of about 25,000, so he had an impact.
Such stories show the power and influence of radio in New Zealand in the 1930s.
After the election Scrim remained in broadcasting in New Zealand and Australia. The rest of his career contained all sorts of other battles and controversy to come.
For Methodists, Scrimgeour represents the commitment to social justice and the tendency to activism which is one part of the Methodist ethos. This activism took him out of the Church and eventually away from mainline Christianity.
Overall, the message of the Friendly Road was about being nice to people. It was full of “homely anecdotes, but [lacking] any specific doctrinal content”.
This was evident in Scrimgeour’s own description.
“I am often asked the question - ‘What is the Friendly Road?’ The best answer I can give is that it is an expression of the brotherhood of man, the breaking down of intolerance. Ask yourself this question: ‘Which would you rather be, a flood-lit cathedral, or a tin tabernacle with a light in the window to hearten some hungry soul?’ If you know the right answer, you know the spirit of the Friendly Road.” (15 July 1937) Colin Scrimgeour, Chats: Talks on the Friendly Road, n.d., p.119
However, although sentimental and naive, Scrim’s message carried a humanity and concern that spoke to a great many people and gave them hope, where the Church was failing to do so.
Davidson, A.K., “Scrimgeour, Colin Graham” in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Four 1921-1940, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1998.
Edwards, Les, Scrim: Radio Rebel in Retrospect, Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1971.
Faulkner, I.F., “The Decisive Decade: Some aspects of the development and character of the Methodist Central Mission, Auckland, 1927-1937”, Wesley Historical Society of New Zealand, No. 37, October 1982.
Macquiban, Timothy, “Wesleyan Responses to Poverty” in Meadows, P.R. (ed.), Windows on Wesley: Wesleyan Theology in Today’s World, Oxford, Applied Theology Press, 1997.
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