Unknown Minister in Crude Colony
The late years of the nineteenth century are as far away from us as the flood. Three wars have intervened since our letter headings registered 1900. Hoary empires have crumbled. A hermit nation has become the pest of the East. Napoleon has been outmoded. All things are strangely different. They have undergone and are undergoing a "sea change." It was in those distant and somnulent years that an unknown minister landed at Port Chalmers, and looked with some astonishment at a very crude colony, scarcely out of its swaddling clothes. He had been sent from "Spurgeons" to be minister of an insignificant church situate on the margin of the Taieri Plain.
Request to Spurgeon’s College
It was rather a custom in those distant days for small churches to appeal to that unmitred bishop of the Baptists, C. H. S., for young and fervent ministers to lead them withal. [It was Charles Spurgeon’s son, Thomas, who received most of the requests for the NZ churches]. Spurgeon had encouraged "Son Tom" to settle in Auckland. He also sent Dallaston to Christchurch. Some of his sendings made no mark at all on Church life in the colony: but these made history, and to them must be added F. W. Boreham.
Crude Colonial Church
Mosgiel was a queer little rectangular church, on which not a penny had been spent for reasonable adornment—cottage windows, a square porch, and uncomfortable seats for 150 people at a squeeze. Its people were a mixture, basically Scotch, with a tincture from Yorkshire mill towns. They sang vociferously in their graceless synagogue, and they prayed the fervent prayers of saintly men. They put their faith in "Spurgeons" to find them a minister. They put down money enough to bring out a bachelor, and they provided £150 a year for his keep and asked help of no benevolent Union. In the providence of God their faith was honoured. The strange young man who stepped ashore did not turn up his nose, as some have done, at colonial crudity and poverty. He did not book a return passage to the Motherland, He brought with him a romantic mind.
"The poem hangs on the berry bush where comes the poet's eye,
And the whole street is a masquerade when Shakespeare passes by."
Possessing the Poet’s Eye
Boreham had the poet's eye. That is an endowment few share. We make no claims at all in such high matters. We were very well acquainted with Mosgiel before Boreham was heard of. Many a painful journey we made, as a raw student, in a one-horse dray, shared with the Methodist "local" to preach to its people. We never dreamed that romance lived on those plains. Nothing had ever happened at Mosgiel. There had been no Maori war. The natives had vanished before the Scotch pioneers drove in their stakes. The sturdy people had merely transferred Scotch farm life to the large freedom of the Presbyterian settlement. Life was simple, and as flat as the plains they ploughed. It was a New Zealand "Thrums," a New Zealand "Drumtochty." F. W. B. was an understudy of Barrie and Maclaren, from whom no doubt he learned his craft. Be that as it may, that obscure hamlet acquired fame both in the Mother Country and in the U.S.A. entirely through the penwork of this strange young minister.
Dud or Gem?
We happened on him, we seem to remember, on the day of his arrival, for he was a guest in the Dunedin Manse. We certainly went over the hill to his induction service. We marked his goodly stature, exaggerated by his clerical attire, and his very unusual eyes. We can still see that untried colt showing his paces to those farm folk. He lifted a soft, persuasive voice and said his first say to the people who had brought him over seven seas. They sat tight, appraising their import and reflecting that "Spurgeons" had played the game and sent, not a dud, but a gem to be ground and polished in a life of service in the very young colony.
Congregation Shaped Pastor
That certainly is what happened. They altered him. For they were angular and sometimes raspy. He transfigured them, as his quality shone out under the discipline of the pastorate. In a way, what happened in England in Spurgeon's early days happened there. His young preachers came to stodgy towns and into rutty churches as flashes of light and bearers of confidence. So was F. W. B. in his first adventure. Mosgiel was not used to such lithe preaching, it heard from him amazingly little about the old shibboleths, and a great deal about the living Christ and about the actualities of life. Conversions happened and baptisms, which sometimes perturbed the Presbyterians, with whom otherwise he was always on good terms. His ugly little church was made even more ungainly by an addition. It was something to hear a man fresh from London town who could preach on the inner meaning of test matches and hit your middle wicket, who, as the Boer war came on, could give a series on David's valiant men who slew bears in pits on snowy days.
Then presently rumours were afoot that someone else was facing the seven seas, bound for Mosgiel. A very young, and, we always thought, a very beautiful English girl reached Wellington after a lonesome journey. Marriage followed almost at once. We very well remember a very frosty day on the Canterbury plains, when with J. J. Doke, who was afterwards a dear friend of Gandhi, whose life he saved, we drove in a high perched dogcart to Kaiapoi. There was no publicity, a handful of folk stood in a small drawing room. I stood at Boreham's right hand and found the ring, and J. J. Doke pronounced them man and wife. One of the romantic weddings was so consummated.
In the Making
To say that marriage made our friend might be exaggeration. It certainly released a great deal. We have recently glanced over one or two of his early literary ventures, and found them dull, and long-worded. The terse Boreham had not arrived. He soon did. He came to New Zealand very poorly equipped in scholarship. He brought one of the poorest collection of books we remember on a minister's shelves. But he felt a spur. Whether his lady applied it or not he may care to say. He began to read voraciously, and to collate what he read industriously.
Editor and Editorialist
The Denomination asked him to edit the New Zealand Baptist. High brows were more than a little concerned by his tone. They preferred heavy footed stuff that hides poverty in the robes of solemnity. But F. W. B. made hits in his chatty accounts of Union Conferences. Then he very astutely got on the literary staff of the "Daily Times," and wrote them leaders often fashioned on Gibbon, and on the anniversary of great men and great battles. It was Kipling's day of a fervent Imperialism.
Loss and Gain
His departure from New Zealand was a heavy loss to us. Certain churches which should have called him failed to call him, and as his term on the Taieri drew to a close he looked overseas and responded to Tasmania. What he has meant to Australian church life, Australians will be forward to say. He developed the essay habit with great zest additionally to fervent preaching and pastoral work. Mosgiel, seen across the Tasman waters, became increasingly romantic.
Artistic not Photographic
The figures drawn by him are artistic and not photographic. The blend of what ought to be with what actually was is often very pronounced. Bewildered people saw themselves "in a mirror darkly." They did not know themselves, and sometimes resented the publicity accorded them. John Broadbanks and the Silverstream manse have never been identified. They never actually existed, but they did ideally and have been welcomed accordingly. Fame and a competency came to him through his 25 books, but he has never lost his modesty. His welcome, both in England and Scotland, was astonishing, and specially in Scotland, for his Scotch was borrowed from his Mosgiel parishioners, and was not native to the soil of his life. Barrie could do it, Maclaren could do it, it was in their blood as it could not be in the blood of this Englishman.
Modest, Gentle and Courteous
In his early days he was famed for losing things. He was once at our manse in Christchurch, en route for a conference
and armed with his pencil and writing pad. He strode away to catch his tram. The lady of the manse found his pyjamas under the pillow, and his Sunday go-to-meetings in the wardrobe, and shaving apparatus in the bathroom. We understand that the guard in the Mosgiel train made regular collections of the left behinds. But whatever this embryo poet lost he certainly never lost his head. It has remained in its place and his hat is the old size. So modest and gentle, and so engagingly courteous is this great Australian figure, that we feel we shall never look on his likes again.
Source: J J North, NZ Baptist, April, 1943, 81.