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Enigma of Auckland’s First Wesleyan Church

By Doug Burt

In March 1841 Governor William Hobson removed his administration to the Waitemata Harbour. Six months later Rev James Buller, who was then the Wesleyan Methodist missionary stationed at Tangiteroria, Kaipara, visited the area. The following year Buller reported there were Wesleyan societies in Auckland of 13 Europeans and 150 natives, and urged that an early appointment be made.

In the meantime he secured a church site in High Street and set up a trust consisting of himself, Rev James Hobbs, two saw millers (Florence Gardiner and Captain Stone), and John Langford, in whose carpenter shop services were sometimes held.

On July 6th, 1843 Buller wrote to the Mission Secretaries in London. “You have been appraixed (sic) that we had obtained from the local government an eligible section of land for a chapel and that arrangements had been made for the erection of a neat weather boarded chapel 25 x 40 feet. We are happy to inform you that the building is now completed, and, having received notice of its being ready, we met by appointment last week, Bro. Warren proceeding here by vessel from the Bay of Islands and Bro. Buller in his boat from Kaipara.”

There were good attentive congregations at both afternoon and evening services. He then wrote “We think that we shall ever look back with pleasurable feelings on this day which opened the first Wesleyan Chapel in any European settlement of New Zealand. Our prospects here are very encouraging and a wide and interesting field is open before us. It is a matter of congratulation that our chapel is nearly free from debt? A large chapel will doubtless be necessary very soon after a Preacher shall reside here and then the present one will answer the valuable purpose of a schoolroom, etc. We presume that a Preacher will be appointed by the ensuing Conference.”

This letter poses an enigma. The small heart kauri church in the Silverdale Pioneer Village, which the Wainui Museum Society has restored in the belief that it is the original mother church of Auckland Methodism, measures only about 26 feet by 23 feet, about two-thirds that described in Buller’s letter. This building was supposed to have been barged in pieces from Parnell to the Wade (Silverdale) in 1860.

A report on the Silverdale centennial in the Methodist Times in 1948 said the local people felt the need to authenticate its provenance. “Unfortunately some of the early records have either been lost or devoured by silverfish and so in preparing for the Centennial it has been necessary to piece to together authentic verbal accounts that have been gleaned from descendants of the pioneer families, and trustees some of whom have seen and read the missing documents.”

In a signed affidavit a former trustee, Mr JL Carter cited a deed of conveyance from 1897 which proved beyond doubt that the Silverdale Church was at some time removed from Parnell, as the deed refers to an earlier (deed) on November 4th 1856.” Now even the later deed cannot be traced. Nor has any link between the High Street chapel and Parnell been found.

Keith Carter continued his father’s research and he posits an earlier smaller building in High Street in use in October 1842. “It was built quickly to fill a desperate need, until a bigger chapel was built.” He included, without comment, a photocopy of a sketch or painting of early Auckland drawn before 1844 by John Adams in which the Wesleyan Chapel is clearly identified.

While the authenticity remains unproven beyond doubt, Keith’s comment that it was built quickly to fill a desperate need accords with historical events. On October 9th, 1842 the Duchess of Argyle and the Jane Gifford delivered 500 immigrants to the Waitemata. Three timber-skilled Methodist trustees could well have met the challenge of providing an immediate Bethel for new arrivals. They would also be raising an established congregation for the already planned chapel when it opened the following July.

It must be remembered, however, that Rev James Buller’s letter leaves no possibility of an earlier ‘first’ building. Later the Methodist historian Dr Morley recorded that Rev Isaac Harding when superintendent of the Auckland circuit (c. 1860) built and opened the first church at the Wade (Silverdale) but he doesn’t mention that the building had any earlier existence. Between these historic blanks, the enigmatic Silverdale Pioneer Chapel rests in reasonable doubt of being Auckland Methodism’s mother church.