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New Zealand Jesus

Social and Religious Transformations of an Image, 1890–1940

Geoffrey Troughton

What did early twentieth century New Zealanders make of Jesus, and what do their understandings tell us? This study provides the first historical analysis of New Zealand images of Jesus. Using a diverse range of churchly and secular sources it examines key themes and representations. These images provide insights into the character of New Zealand religion and its place in the nation’s history and culture – from dimensions of childhood and gender through to debates about social reform. They also highlight broader dynamics of social and religious change. Crucially, this work traces the rise of a new kind of Jesus-centred religiosity that reflected wider cultural shifts. The form was particularly evident among Protestant Christians, who embraced Jesus in their efforts to modernise Christianity and extend its influence within the community. The author shows that this development was a response to change that profoundly reoriented Protestant Christianity.


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4. Social Campaigner 105


105 4. Social Campaigner From the late nineteenth century, changing social structures led to widespread concerns about social problems and to the emergence of sociological analysis. Proposals for reform were debated in New Zealand as elsewhere, and Jesus was frequently invoked in these deliberations. This chapter assesses three main contexts in which this occurred. It begins by considering the place of Jesus in social Christianity from the 1890s to about 1920, before addressing discourses of labour, unionism and socialism, and reaction to these over the same timeframe. A third context concerns the Protestant social gospel of the interwar years. The Jesus of social campaigning reflected the pressures that different constituencies felt amid widespread upheaval within society. Social disharmony threatened church leaders’ visions of a Christian society, while some also feared the competing influence of labour. The labour movement’s own position was far from assured, however, and attempts to enlist Jesus to the labour cause reflected its need of internal stability. A socialist Jesus provided a retort to conservative critics. He was also attractive to religious workers. While appropriation of him in these debates did not always amount to Jesus-centred religiosity, it did cohere with the religious tone in society. In general, Jesus was enlisted as a moral symbol, particularly through discourses of brotherhood, ethics and righteous opposition. Jesus lent moral strength to competing social ideals, and was a prime cultural reference in the contest of values. Social Christianity Attempts to Christianise the social order incorporated a range of strategies. Social...

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