Our History


What we now know as Congregationalism has its roots in the Reformation in England. Many devout Christians were concerned that the reforms then taking place in the English church were far from thorough. In the 1560's several groups of individuals were meeting together. They saw that the Church did not consist of those living within the Parish bounds of a local building or any other geographic boundaries. The Church consisted of those true believers that met together for worship, prayer, praise, and instruction. Believing in the priesthood of all believers, and recognising that Christ alone was the Head of the Church, they rightly concluded that such groups were independent of any external authority.


Horningsham Congregational Church

Horningsham Congregational Church

Built in 1566 is the oldest non-conformist

Church in England and is still in use today.

The weekly services use the 'Congregational Praise'; hymnbook


Richard Fitz was the pastor of such a group of about 100 gathering in London in 1567. Their views did not find favour with either the ecclesiastical or civic rulers who classified them as 'Separatists' or 'Dissenters'. As such they were believed to be a threat to the authority of the Queen. Fitz and most of his congregation were imprisoned and some, along with Fitz himself, were executed.


Penri statue small

The Statue to the martyr John Penry .

1563 - 1593 in St Cadmarch's Church, Llangammarch, Wales

Robert Browne began preaching and setting forth Congregational principles in 1572. By 1581 he was in prison for a short time before being released on the understanding that he must not remain in England. He left for Middleburg in Holland along with his whole congregation. His chief influence was through publishing. A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Anie. Although he later returned to the Anglican Church, this book laid down principles that were developed by a number of Christians. Notable amongst these were Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood, and John Penry. Barrowe in particular wrote vigorously defending and clarifying Congregational principles even while in prison, the paper, pen and ink being smuggled in to him, and the completed scripts made it out the same way. These were then taken to Holland where they were printed, and couriers risked their lives to smuggle them back and distribute them in England. Barrowe, Greenwood, and Penry all endured imprisonment and were finally hung in 1593. Ironically this was done under a law set up to stop Roman Catholics gaining the ascendancy in either church or state!

Persecution did not kill the new movement, but the harsh laws caused many to take refuge in Holland. Later on those we now call 'The Pilgrim Fathers' were Congregationalists seeking out life in a place where they could worship God according to their own understanding of the Bible. This is why even today Congregational churches are so strong in the USA.

A number of the Puritans were Congregationalists, although 'Independent' was the preferred term. John Owen 'The Prince of the Puritans', Thomas Goodwin and John Bunyan being some of the ones better known today. In different fields of endeavour, but still motivated by their strong religious beliefs were Oliver Cromwell and John Milton also in the 17th Century. The following century saw folk like Isaac Watts, 'The Father of English Hymnody' in England while in America Jonathan Edwards the great preacher and theologian who played a key role in the Revival of the times spring to mind. The works of both these folk are still extensively read and sung to this day. In 1658 delegates from over 100 churches met together at the Savoy in London and drew up two documents foundational to historic Congregationalism 'The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order' along with 'The Institution of Churches and the Order Appointed in them by Jesus Christ.'

Not all were famous, or even good. Sadly a number strayed from orthodox beliefs and went to the Unitarian Church. On the other hand, Congregationalists were very active in Overseas Mission work. The London Missionary Society, (LMS) formed in 1795 although originally interdenominational, became largely Congregational, David Livingstone in Africa, Robert Morrison in China and John Williams in the Pacific, being some of the brightest lights of the 19th Century.


Although not associated with any Missionary Society, Rev Barzillai Quaife became the first Congregational minister to settle in New Zealand, commencing in the Bay of Islands in 1840. A firm advocate for the Maori people, his outspoken views brought him into conflict with the ruling powers, especially as his views were spread in a newspaper he published.


Woodward St Cong Church

Woodward St. Congregational Church Wellington.

This is the earliest picture of a Congregational Church in New Zealand. Built in 1849.

This work did not give rise to any continuing cause, so the origins of Congregationalism in New Zealand are normally traced back to a Mr Jonas Woodward who commenced services in his home in Wellington in 1842. Under various names the Church formed from this little group exists today. The first Congregational Church at Auckland was formed in 1851, Dunedin in 1862 and Christchurch in 1864.


Woodward Mr Jonas

 Mr Jonas Woodward Pastor of the first Congregational Church in Wellington

from 1842-1859

During this time many Churches sprang up all around New Zealand, not only in the main centres but also in many very small settlements, and over the years these Churches were spread from Kawhia in the north to Invercargill in the south. Being independent, Churches could be formed wherever there were a few believers who wished to worship God according to the Congregational principles without asking any outside authority.

Along with the strong feeling of Independency there was also a definite felt need for fellowship with others of like mind, and so, in 1863, the Auckland Congregational Union and Mission was formed to serve the needs of the northern Churches. In 1882 the Congregational Union and Mission of South New Zealand was formed in Dunedin. One year later it was moved that the title and constitution of the Southern Union be altered so that the Auckland Union could combine. This finally took place in Wellington from February 21-26th 1884, when The Congregational Union of New Zealand (CUNZ) held its first meeting.

One main activity of the CUNZ was buying up sections in places for proposed future Congregational Churches, and then doing their best to assist them to be formed. Some however were never used. It is also worth noting here that in the early days virtually all ministers came either from England or Australia, and many returned, finding the rather rigorous conditions, even in the main centres, not conducive to either the good of their health or their children's education.

Although there were a number of churches, many were very small and did not survive long. The reasons for this are no doubt many and varied, but in his Chairman's address to the CUNZ in 1892 Rev W J Habens said, 'It is not our fault that our churches at home have not sent out a greater stream of emigrants. Our original inferiority in numbers was so marked that by the time a dozen Congregationalists could be found to form the nucleus of a congregation, three or four congregations of a hundred and twenty in each could be gathered, under different names, in the same neighbourhood.' In spite of this Churches were to be found in rather unlikely places, and in some e.g. Taumarunui, a Congregational Church was the first to be established, while in others, such as Whangarei, folk who were solidly Congregational in principle, took a leading part in Presbyterian Churches until such time as a Congregational one was established.

Never large in numbers, Congregationalists in N Z have nevertheless always had an influence well out of proportion to their numbers. It was due to the work of Rev Thomas Hamer in 1854, that the proposal by the Provincial Council that Bishop Selwyn's stipend of 600 pounds be paid by a grant from the Council, was defeated. They were strong supporters of the work of the Bible Society; Kate Sheppard the well-known activist for Women's Rights (whose image is on our $10 note) was a member of Trinity Congregational Church in Christchurch. The Rev Lionel B Fletcher while minister at Beresford St. Church in Auckland became 'possibly the first minister in New Zealand to Broadcast Church Services, He was a frequent broadcaster and used the name 'Uncle Leo' when talking to children.' (J B Chambers p43)

Because of the early mission work of the LMS a lot of folk from many Pacific Islands look to Congregational Churches as their 'home' Church along with those of other races.

In 1969 there was a major division in the CUNZ with the majority of congregations and ministers opting to choose membership in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. The reduced numbers have made fulfilling all obligations harder, but have brought out the very real dedication, which from the earliest days has been a feature of Congregationalism.

In His book 'A Peculiar People, Congregationalism in New Zealand' Dr Jim Chambers quotes the front page of the 'New Zealand Congregational Monthly' which certainly sets out well the ideals we have for our Churches.


The Centennial Assembly of the Congregational Union of N Z at St Anselm's Union Church,

Karori, Wellington 1984.

St. Anselm's is the successor to the Woodward Street Church



 A Church adequate for the task. The Church of the warm heart, Of the open mind, Of the adventurous spirit: The Church that cares. That heals hurt lives. That comforts old people, That challenges youth; That knows no divisions of culture or class, No frontiers, geographical or social; The Church that inquires as well as avers, That looks forward as well as backward. The Church of the Master The Church of the People, The high Church, the broad Church, the low Church. - high as the ideals of Jesus, low as the humblest human; A working Church, A worshipping Church: A Church that interprets the truth in terms of truth; That inspires courage for this life and hope for the life to come; A Church of courage, A Church of all good men THE CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD.'

History by Hugh Neilson
Emmanuel Congregational Church