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The 1912 Heresy Hunt

Donald Phillipps


 In July 1912 a Wellington Methodist layman,  Walter Clement Burd,1 charged the Rev'd J.G.Chapman,  minister of Wesley Church,  Taranaki St.,  with false preaching and teaching.   Mr Burd was a member of that congregation and described himself as a Lay Preacher and Lay Pastor,  though the nature of the latter position is unclear.   He wrote to the Chairman of the Wellington District,  the Rev'd S.J.Serpell,  claiming that Mr Chapman was  'promulgating doctrines contrary to those contained in  John Wesley's Notes on the New Testament  and the first fifty-three of John Wesley's Sermons,  as at present published'.   He further charged him with breaches of Methodist discipline.   Mr Burd followed his July letter with a second in November,  elaborating on the charges he had made earlier.

The doctrinal charges related to  (1) Future Punishments and Rewards;  (2) The Holy Scriptures;  (3) Sin and Death;  and  (4) The Fall of Man.   In each case Mr Burd supplied shorter or longer quotes of what Mr Chapman had said.   He did not offer a rebuttal of Mr Chapman's words,  nor did he set out what he regarded to be an orthodox statement on these theological issues.   He appears to have assumed that their unorthodoxy or falsity would be themselves sufficiently clear to the District Chairman and the members of the Synod to whom they would naturally be referred.

His fifth and sixth charges,  relating to Methodist discipline,  were of a more general nature,  referring to Mr Chapman's disregard for  'the Church's orthodoxy'  and  'conformity to the traditions of a past age'.   He disapproved of his minister speaking favourably of Robert Blatchford,  a socialist writer,  and Charles Bradlaugh,  the freethinker.   His last complaint was that such preaching had driven many away from Taranaki Street Church,  and had caused 'general unsettlement'  amongst the congregation,  including his own family.

All these charges were  'investigated'  by the Wellington District,  and must have been discussed at the Annual Synod held that year in Napier.   It would appear that Mr Burd had been present at that meeting.   Nevertheless,  the Synod  'unanimously considered the charges unfounded'  and expressed their confidence in Mr Chapman.   Mr Serpell and Mr Jones,  the Synod Secretary,  each made reference to the context in which Mr Chapman's statements had originally been made.   Mr Serpell referred to Mr Chapman's avowal of his belief in and loyalty to  'the great fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion,'  while Mr Jones noted that Mr Chapman had  'declared his loyalty to Methodist doctrine as understood today.'

Mr Burd was unimpressed by Synod's decision,  and was particularly incensed that he had not been called to give evidence,  which he felt was discourteous.   It was clear in his response to Mr Serpell that he was astonished,  or shocked,  that  'not even one dissentient voice'  was raised,  'not even the Chairman'.   He believed the 'hearing' was quite illegal and a 'travesty of justice',  that the case had not been given  'careful attention',  and that the basis of the charges before the Synod were not those he himself had brought.   He made it clear he would now ensure that the charges were brought before the coming Annual Conference.

The appeal to Conference,  which met in Auckland,  was heard on March 2nd,  1912.   It was not an open hearing,  but was before a Committee appointed by the Ministerial Session of Conference.   The Committee reported its findings back to the Ministerial Session.   Mr Burd was given to understand that the exact nature of the charges had never been made clear to the larger group of ministers in the first place.

One of the problems for the researcher is that there is no record at all of any of the discussions in the Conference minutes,  nor in the full coverage of the Conference proceedings in the  New Zealand Methodist Times.2   Mr Burd claimed that this was  'most reprehensible,  and the omission must have been with the deliberate intention of keeping our people uninformed of this most serious matter'.   It is hard to disagree with his judgment on this matter.

There was,  however,  a fairly brief,  'garbled',  newspaper report,  under the heading  'A Heresy Hunt'.3   A delegate had suggested that the full finding of the Conference  (which must have been submitted to it by the Ministerial Session)  should be published and that discussion should be taken in open Conference.   By then  'the original version of the affair'  had appeared in a Christchurch newspaper,  and this is what had been copied by the  New Zealand Herald.   The President,  in making a statement on the matter to the  Auckland Star  two days later,  indicated that one of the members of the specially appointed committee had divulged the information to the Christchurch paper.

Conference,  nevertheless,  decided to discuss the charge in committee,  and the following information was issued for publication over the signature of William Ready,  the President:

1.   The charges of heterodoxy do not refer to doctrines peculiar to Methodism,   and specially guarded in our constitution,  but to doctrines held by the Christian world in the 18th century.

2.   In regard to Holy Scriptures,  Mr Chapman uses the well–worn formula that  "they contain the Word of God,"  and appeal to our moral sense to discover those parts that breathe an un–Christian spirit.   Wesley,  also,  in his preface to his version of the Prayer Book,  explains that he had omitted the imprecatory Psalms as unfit for Christians to repeat.

3.   Mr Chapman believes in and preaches future consequences of sin as  "wages"  or natural results,  not as arbitrary inflictions or tortures.   He does not deny the eternal duration of these consequences,  but regards that as an open question,  and the word as indefinite.

4.   If we regard Wesley's sermons apart from Wesley and his history,  we must frankly say that Mr Chapman's views differ from Wesley's.   By this we do not mean that they necessarily contradict Wesley's.

We beg to point out: –

1.   That Wesley's main doctrine,  that of free grace,  was a revolt and a strenuous battle fought in vindication of the character of God from the awful reflections cast upon it by the earlier and contemporary puttings of the doctrine of election.

2.   That the compassionate heart of Wesley was tortured by the prevailing views of hell.   He tells us that he sought diligently for a way of escape,  and declares,  "weeping,"  that he found none.   Here again his heart was in revolt against prevailing opinions of the Divine character.   After 150 years,  a loyal son of Wesley may feel the same heart revolt,  and be in the true line of march.

3.   The recent Ecumenical Conference sent a message to be read to every Methodist pulpit in the world.   That authoritative message urges,  "Let us unite steadfastness in the faith with complete intellectual freedom and confident ability to march with the times."

4.   In view of these things we cannot recommend the Conference to censure a frank and courageous man,  whom we regard as loyal to all that is essential to the teachings of our Church.

5.   The evidence leads us to think that misconception as to Mr Chapman's theological position arises mainly from the manner in which he has sometimes expressed himself,  the effects being to alarm minds unaccustomed to new statements of old truths.   In this respect your Committee feel that Mr Chapman somewhat indiscreetly antagonised those who differ from him.   At the same time we recognise that advanced thought and critical research necessitates change of emphasis in the delivery of our message,  and we should thankfully receive all the light that an intelligent study of the Bible and the discoveries of science can put upon those vital and eternal truths of experimental religion that have ever been the strength and glory of the Methodist pulpit,  and on which the salvation of the world depends.

6.   Finally,  we congratulate Mr Burd on the admirable clearness,  spirit,  and temper with which he presented the case.   It is also due to Mr Chapman to say that he replied with quiet frankness to the charges,  admitting the utterance of some statements,  denying the use of some,  and explaining or resetting others.

The publication of the finding in the  Auckland Star  apparently stirred up quite a local reaction.   There was a well–attended meeting at Albert Park the following Sunday,  called to consider  'The infidelity of the churches,  with special reference to the Methodist Conference,  and its complicity with infidelity.'   The matter was taken up immediately by the Sydney  Evening News,  using Chapman's denial of hell–fire as their headline.   The newspaper interviewed a number of church ministers who all roundly condemned both the Conference and Mr Chapman.   In April  The Bible Investigator and Inquirer,  a monthly religious journal based in Melbourne,  made it the subject of a lengthy article,  with a similar emphasis.   Mr Burd reported he had received letters of support.

During 1912 three sixteen page pamphlets were published in New Zealand attacking the new Methodist theological orthodoxy.   The first appeared within about two weeks,  and was written by the Rev'd George Aldridge.   He was a notably independent Church of Christ minister from its Life and Advent stream,  based on West St.,  Auckland.  His work was entitled  Rhetorical Flourishes:  Heresy in Methodism.4   The second originated in Dunedin,  its author being  William Anderson.5   His booklet,  written in a somewhat more journalistic style,  was called  How Methodists meet heresy.  Is dogma dead?   The third,  also published later in the year,  was by Mr Burd himself.   It is entitled  Heresy in the Methodist Church  and is the only source available for the factual background of the case.

Mr Burd's argument has been largely traversed already,  though mention needs to be made of the final section in which he sets out those passages in the Law Book which relate to doctrine.   He then goes on to provide support for each of his charges by using words from some of Wesley's sermons.   The other two booklets attacked the Methodist Conference for its failure to take positive steps to counteract what the writers believed to be a denial of the truths of scripture.

The introduction to Aldridge's booklet was written by Louis E. Falkner,  a member of an evangelical network in Auckland.   He stated that  'The action of the Methodist Church in condoning the proclamation of doctrines so widely divergent from the plain statement of the Word,  and its acquiescence in the mutilation of the Bible and denial of its inspiration and authority,  have antagonised and grieved many faithful Christians,  among whom are not a few members of the Methodist Church.   Such action on the part of an authoritative Church Conference with its consequent disturbance of the faith of those who look to it for guidance,  cannot be passed by without comment and protest;  and it is surely the duty of those who would contend earnestly for the faith to state in no uncertain terms their surprise and disapproval of the findings of the Conference.   It is to be hoped that the finding does not really represent the attitude of the Methodist Church,  but is a hasty and ill–considered attempt to save the Conference from an unpleasant duty,  and that if the matter be re–considered,  a more sane and satisfactory decision may be arrived at which will save that body from merited condemnation,  and from public division.'6

Anderson adopted a rather more subtle approach,  though his final judgment was clear.   'It turned out,  however,  that a hunt was wholly unnecessary,  for Mr Chapman,  the accused,  came boldly into the open,  faced his accuser,  and stood to his guns.   Was heresy proved?   Few,  we venture to say,  will question it;   that is,  if there be such a thing in the present day.   It does seem now almost impossible for a man to apostatise to the extent of bringing himself under the ban,  or even the censure,  of his Church,  much less of incurring his suspension.   Mr Chapman's case was undoubtedly one of heresy in the superlative degree,  black as night,  with the very hiss of the serpent in it,  while all the time denying the existence of that reptile as the mouth–piece of Satan in the Garden of Eden.'7

James Gates Chapman  (1863–1925)  was a Londoner by birth who came to New Zealand in the 1880s.   He was received on probation in 1889,  and served successively at Hawera  (1889–1890),  Leeston  (1890–1892),  Thorndon  (1892–1893),  Milton  (1893–1895),  and Balclutha  (1895–1897).   He was then given permission to visit England during 1897–1898.   It was already evident that Chapman possessed  'rare gifts and outstanding ability as a preacher,'  and from then on he was appointed to represent the Church  'in some of our most important Circuits.'8   He was stationed at Mt Albert  (1898–1901),  Devonport  (1901–1904),  followed by Wanganui  (1904–1909).  and New Plymouth  (1909–1911).   He was then at Taranaki St. from 1911 till 1920,  at which point he retired from ministry due to ill health.   It will be noted that the charges were levelled during his first year at Taranaki St. but that he continued there for a further eight years,  a length of appointment almost without parallel in New Zealand Methodist parish ministry.   He continued preaching in  'Evangelical'  churches around Wellington until his sudden death at the end of 1925.

Since the charges were made during his time at Taranaki St.  it is interesting to read the comments in Charles Freeman's history of Wellington Methodism.   He described Chapman as  'a keen scholar,  a great reader,  honest and fearless,  an original thinker,  modern but strongly evangelical,  a good preacher,  an excellent visitor'.9   These words follow what was in Chapman's obituary in the Conference minutes,  which also spoke of him as  'a prince of preachers and a capable administrator  … '   The comment made when his retirement from ministry was finally recognised by Conference probably goes near to acknowledging the 1912 furore.   The 1923 Minutes spoke of Chapman as always  'maintaining the evangelistic note,  with a fearless statement of the truth in its application to modern problems.'

The editor of the  New Zealand Methodist Times,  appointed in 1910,  was Lewis Hudson,  then stationed at Timaru.   Within three months of the 1912 Conference he invited Chapman to write the guest leader.   Under the heading  'The Value of a Creed',  Chapman went on the attack,  with a statement of faith which was,  he said,  forward looking,  rather than based on blind adherence to old creeds and,  presumably,  to traditional scriptural interpretation.   He affirmed that  'the world is organised for righteousness;  that Jesus Christ is the highest we know;  that death does not end all;  that our eternal destiny is settled by each of us.'10   That Chapman was given the privilege of such a public response strengthens the impression that the Church leadership was not going to allow individual attacks on ministerial orthodoxy to undermine Conference's authority in such matters.

The Church newspaper gave no space to,  or mention of,   the matters which had so obviously disturbed the even tenor of Conference.   Mr Burd had noted that he had received letters from Primitive Methodists who now thought,  in the light of the failure of Conference to maintain Methodist orthodoxy,  that the proposed union with the Wesleyans should not proceed.   No such change of direction was made by the Primitive Methodists in their movement towards the union which was consummated the following year.

The strong impression is that,  for Methodists of that time,  so long as their minister was committed to the Methodist evangelical tradition,  he could say very much what he liked.   Eric Hames aptly sums up the gap between pulpit and pew during this period:  'However,  the conservative reaction that showed itself after the first world war would seem to indicate that on the one hand the rank and file of the ministry can have done very little to educate their congregations,  and that on the other hand a not inconsiderable proportion of the members must have slept through the whole controversy.'11   Clearly,  John Gates Chapman was not one of the 'rank and file',  and maybe at least one of his congregation was wide awake.

  1. Walter Clement Burd  (c1848-1920)  had lived in Timaru prior to coming to Wellington about 1898.   He was employed as a clerk/storekeeper with the New Zealand Railways.

  2. This coverage is found in the issue of  23.3.1912

  3. New Zealand Herald,   March 7th 1912

  4. George Aldridge  (1854-1926)  was for 42 years the minister of the congregation at West St.  Auckland  and was the author of twenty tracts and pamphlets on religious subjects.

  5. Taking into account the language of the pamphlet it seems more than likely that the author was William Peter Anderson  (1876–1957).   This is the assumption made by Bagnall in his New Zealand National Bibliography.   William Anderson was a newspaperman who,  having started with the Lyttelton Times,  moved to the Mataura Ensign and then to the Clutha Leader before joining the staff of the Otago Daily Times.   He remained with them until the end of his career,  becoming chief sub–editor.   He retired to Broad Bay,  and at the end of his life wrote the history of the Methodist cause there.

  6. Aldridge   Rhetorical Flourishes:  Heresy in Methodism   Auckland 1912,  p.1

  7. William Anderson   How Methodists meet Heresy:  Is Dogma Dead?  Dunedin,  1912, pp.4f

  8. Conference Minutes   1926,  p.17

  9. [compiled Charles J. Freeman]   The Centenary of Wesley Church,  Taranaki Street,  Wellington,  New Zealand      Wellington,  1940,  p.41

  10. New Zealand Methodist Times,  29.6.1912,  p.1

  11. Eric Hames   Out of the Common Way:  The European Church in the Colonial Era  1840–1913   Wellington 1972,  p.81

©  D.J. Phillipps   2003


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