Story: Archer, John Kendrick

Page 1 - Biography

Archer, John Kendrick

1865–1949

Baptist minister, socialist

This biography was written by Barry Gustafson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

John Kendrick Archer was born on 3 March 1865 at Thornton, Leicestershire, England, the son of Mary Kendrick and her husband, Thomas Archer, a master butcher. Thomas was a keen Methodist and Mary a devout Baptist. John was raised as a Methodist and educated at Market Bosworth Grammar School, Leicestershire, and University College, Nottingham. From 1888 to 1891 he attended Midland Baptist College, Nottingham. On 10 July 1894 he married Phoebe Elizabeth Gee at the Baptist chapel, Peterborough, Northamptonshire. Initially a Methodist lay preacher, John Archer subsequently became a Baptist minister. After his ordination in 1891 he served in the north of England as pastor at Peterborough (1891–95), Heptonstall Slack (1895–1903) and Grimsby (1903–8).

Archer was strongly influenced by the great Baptist preacher and Fabian socialist John Clifford, who taught him to be 'a prophet as well as an evangelist, a citizen as well as saint, a socialist as well as a foreign mission enthusiast'. Two other Baptist models for the young Archer were Thomas Cooper, an early Chartist, and Robert Hall, an anti-slavery campaigner. Although theologically conservative and evangelical, Archer was committed to the social gospel and he developed a passionate and enduring commitment to Christian socialism. In England he belonged to the Fabian Society and was an early member of the Labour Party.

Archer was elected to the school board at Hebden Bridge, near Heptonstall, in 1901. At Grimsby he served as a Poor Law guardian. He was active in opposing the Education Act 1902 which taxed ratepayers to support voluntary schools. Many Protestants refused to pay and goods were seized by officials. Archer lost some of his theological books but bought them back at auction. He was to remain a committed opponent of state aid to private schools.

In 1908 Archer and his family moved to New Zealand where he became minister of the Baptist Church, Napier. Subsequently, he was minister at Esk Street, Invercargill (1913–16), and Vivian Street, Wellington (1916–19). He also served for part of that time as a military chaplain at Tauherenikau Camp, near Featherston. From 1919 until 1932 he was minister of the Baptist Church in Sydenham, Christchurch. After his retirement in 1932 he remained active in the church, serving as president of the Canterbury Auxiliary of the Baptist Union, organising a Sunday school in Christchurch and helping to start a Baptist church at Greymouth.

A powerful preacher and socially committed pastor at the local level, Archer was also active and prominent nationally within the Baptist denomination and the wider Christian community, especially the prohibition movement. He became a member of the executive committee of the Baptist Union of New Zealand in 1909 and was appointed to preach the Union sermon at the 1910 annual assembly of the Union. He was president of the Central Auxiliary to the Baptist Union from 1910 to 1911. From 1912 to 1918 he was secretary of the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society and from 1916 to 1918 president of the Baptist Union of New Zealand. He won the latter position from the minister of the Mount Eden Baptist Church, Howard Elliott, only after the Baptist assembly had voted twice.

Archer was not only a prominent leader in the Baptist church but also gave long and influential service to the early New Zealand Labour Party. Prior to its formation in 1916 he was an active advocate of such a party. In 1910 at Napier he delivered six evening lectures on socialism, and in 1913 he was editor of the United Labour Leader, promising to 'wage increasing war' against the 'parasite' and the 'sponger'. Following the July 1913 Unity Congress he joined the new Social Democratic Party, which was absorbed into the Labour Party in 1916.

Archer stood unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for the House of Representatives four times: in Invercargill (1919), Christchurch North (1922 and 1928), and Kaiapoi (1931). The Labour Party appointed him a member of the Legislative Council in 1937. Archer was disappointed that he never became a member of Parliament, but with inexhaustible energy he threw himself into the organisational leadership of the party and into local government. He was president of the party from 1928 to 1929 and served six terms as vice president between 1922 and 1931. On several occasions he clashed with Michael Joseph Savage over land and liquor issues.

At the local government level Archer was an Invercargill borough councillor (1915–16) before serving as a Labour Party representative on the Christchurch City Council (1921–35). From 1925 to 1931 he was mayor of Christchurch, winning three successive elections. He was also a top-polling candidate for the North Canterbury Hospital Board and served on the Christchurch Tramway Board and Christchurch Fire Board.

A strong supporter of the Workers' Educational Association, John Archer tutored in economics during and immediately after the First World War. He was, for example, foundation president of the Invercargill WEA in 1915 and subsequently active in the WEA in Christchurch. He was publicly attacked in the press and criticised as a dangerous revolutionary. Sir Robert Stout, chief justice of New Zealand and chancellor of the University of New Zealand, criticised him at a meeting of the university senate. Consequently, the senate decided to investigate the grants it made to support the WEA. When Stout refused to make his criticisms in public Archer sued the New Zealand Times, which had published Stout's remarks, and won.

In 1918 he delivered one of the most powerful and controversial presidential addresses ever given to a Baptist assembly. It was published afterwards as a pamphlet entitled Covetousness. In it Archer expressed views on politics that arose naturally out of his religious convictions. After arguing that everyone was guilty of the sin of covetousness, he declared competitive commercialism to be the most un-Christian thing on earth and advocated the transfer of the business of producing and distributing the necessities of life from private to public hands. He urged Christians, Baptists in particular, to lead a movement to consecrate the ballot box to Christ and humanity: 'God and gold are, we believe, the alternatives. Labour, rightly understood, is the recognition of this truth'.

Described as 'a man of war from his youth up', Archer was a blunt, some suggested abrasive, man. Certainly, he was not one to compromise his principles or the message which he believed had been entrusted to him by God. His preaching and actions reflected the moral righteousness and millennialism of British puritanism and the urgent and total commitment to social change of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah and Amos. Nonconformist in religion and politics, he argued that 'faith without works is dead' and that imperfect human relationships arose out of economic and social injustice caused by sin, which he defined as selfishness and the worship of material self-interest. To Archer there was no conflict between his political and religious activities; both were the same sacred vocation. John Archer died in Christchurch on 25 July 1949 survived by his wife, Phoebe, and two sons.