Story: Fraser, Charles
Minister, educationalist, journalist
This biography was written by Ian Breward and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990
Charles Fraser was baptised in Aberdeen, Scotland, on 29 July 1823, the son of Hugh Fraser, a merchant, and his wife, Christina McAllan. Educated at the Grammar School of Aberdeen from 1833 to 1838 and then at Marischal College, at the University of Aberdeen, where he was Gray mathematical bursar, he graduated MA in 1842, standing third in his year. He then studied divinity at Christ's College, Aberdeen, until 1845, and at New College, at the University of Edinburgh, in 1846. He was not ordained until 1855, when the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland sent him to Canterbury, New Zealand, to minister to 300 Scots whose leaders had written requesting a minister. Fraser had already had brief missionary experience from 1854 to 1855 at Landernau, Brittany, among Scots textile workers. As well as giving strong religious leadership, he had founded a library and savings bank and lectured on scientific and literary subjects.
Fraser married Jane Bissett before emigrating to New Zealand. It is not known when or where the marriage took place. The couple arrived on the Oriental at Lyttelton on 12 April 1856; Fraser took his first service the following day in the Wesleyan Church. The Presbyterians had obtained a site and begun building, but Fraser conducted services in the Wesleyan Church in Christchurch until St Andrew's was opened on 1 February 1857. Fraser inducted himself and spent the next few years travelling over his vast territory between the Waitaki and the Hurunui rivers. He founded charges at Akaroa (where he preached in French), Lyttelton, Kaiapoi, Prebbleton, Hokitika and Timaru, and organised a Canterbury Church Extension Association in 1862 to fund this expansion. Canterbury Presbytery was founded in 1864, and in 1873 Canterbury Synod, comprising the presbyteries of Christchurch, Westland and Timaru, was formed. Although Fraser played an active part in these bodies, he did not always abide by procedures and clashed sharply with colleagues in 1865 over the ordination of a minister to Lyttelton, a matter which had to be resolved by the General Assembly.
Within Fraser's own congregation there were serious tensions on several occasions because of his wide-ranging understanding of ministry to the whole community and because of the varieties of theology and churchmanship in the congregation. In September 1861 two of the deacons, William Wilson and John Anderson, questioned the accounts for extensions to the church buildings. Wilson and Anderson resigned their offices at St Andrew's and became leaders of a more evangelical and confessionally orthodox group which formed the charge of St Paul's in 1864. They also found Fraser's scientific ideas too advanced for their liking: he was a keen naturalist, who could deliver learned papers on seals, but his views on theistic evolution indicated a deep interest in the ideas of Charles Darwin.
As well as buying over 1,000 acres of land, Fraser was active in the cultural and intellectual life of Christchurch. He was a founding member of the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury in July 1862 and its secretary in 1868 and 1869. In 1867 he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London and was a founder of the Canterbury Museum and Library in 1870, becoming one of its 12 trustees; he resigned in 1874 over the decision to open these facilities on Sundays. Fraser served on the committee of the Canterbury Society of Arts, helped to establish the Christchurch Mechanics' Institute and the Young Men's Christian Association, and secured land for the first public cemetery in Christchurch in 1858. Although controlled by trustees from St Andrew's, it was to be open to all denominations. Any profits were to be used for the purchase of sites for religious and educational purposes, the relief of the poor and the provision of bursaries for Christchurch Academy, or High School, founded by Fraser in 1858 as an alternative to Christ's College.
Fraser's contribution to education in Canterbury was very important, as he assisted in founding a number of schools, which had more than 400 pupils by 1863. The academy had a fragile career between 1858 and 1873, when it was purchased by the provincial council, ultimately becoming Hagley High School. Fraser not only served as chairman of the board, but taught gratis to help the school's finances. He was involved in the complex discussions and disputes over the foundation and site of Canterbury College, and argued in September 1867 for the establishment of a university of New Zealand. He was a foundation member of the board of governors of Canterbury College from 1873 to 1886, and a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1879 to 1883. In addition, he played a significant part in the debates in church and community over a national system of education, advocating secular education in order to overcome sectarian bickering and to free the churches for their proper work of religious education.
A frequent writer for newspapers, Fraser was for a time leader writer of the Lyttelton Times, as well as editing and publishing the New Zealand Presbyterian from 1866 to 1867 and the Canterbury Presbyterian from 1873 to 1874. Widely read and articulate, he was a notable preacher and lecturer on literary, historical, scientific and theological subjects. During his ministry he preached his way twice through the New Testament and the Shorter Catechism. He worked for union of the northern and southern Presbyterian churches and is a fascinating example of the strong links between Scottish Calvinism and liberalism.
Fraser's last years were tragic. When his first wife died childless in 1869, he thought of resignation and unsuccessfully applied for chairs in Classics, history and English literature at Canterbury College, which was established in 1874, and for a chair at the University of Otago; he was, however, appointed lecturer in English language and literature at the Canterbury Collegiate Union (predecessor of Canterbury College) from 1873 to 1874. He continued his heavy load of duties until accused of sexual misconduct and deposed by the Canterbury Presbytery in January 1883. Fraser initially refused to surrender the church keys, wrote a devastating pamphlet in reply to the presbytery, and appealed in vain to the General Assembly: ultimately he had to give way. He married Margaret Anna Blyth on 21 March 1883 at Christchurch, retired to his farm and unsuccessfully stood for Parliament and the North Canterbury Education Board in 1884. One supporter, Henry Leslie, built a small church for Fraser, which was opened on 26 October 1883. Fraser ministered there until his death on 25 August 1886.