Story: Elliott, Howard Leslie

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Elliott, Howard Leslie

1877–1956

Baptist minister, sectarian agitator, editor

This biography was written by Christopher van der Krogt and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Howard Leslie Elliott was born in Maldon, Victoria, Australia, on 10 March 1877, the son of Emma March and her husband, James Elliott, a bootmaker. Although brought up a Methodist, Howard trained for the Baptist ministry. On 30 July 1901 he married Bertha Katharine Reeman, at Deloraine, Tasmania.

Elliott was appointed to a succession of increasingly prestigious pastorates and served as secretary of the Queensland Baptist Union from 1906 to 1909. He also acquired a reputation for sectarian controversy. In 1909 he was invited to New Zealand as pastor of the large Mount Eden Baptist Church in Auckland. Opposed to the Bible in State Schools League's proposal for religious education in primary schools, he became a founding member of the National Schools Defence League. Elliott feared that the proposed instruction would be dominated by the larger Protestant denominations and would lead to the granting of state aid to Catholic and other private schools. He was secretary of the Auckland Auxiliary of the Baptist Union of New Zealand from 1912 to 1916.

By early 1917 Elliott had begun, under the auspices of the Loyal Orange Institution of New Zealand, to circulate numerous pamphlets and to tour the country giving public addresses of a sectarian nature. In July 1917 he resigned his pastorate and became the principal founder and full-time organiser of the Protestant Political Association of New Zealand (PPA). Reviving old sectarian canards such as the domination of the public service by Catholics, he also denounced the New Zealand Catholic Federation and its demands for state aid to denominational schools. Elliott blamed the Vatican for the outbreak of the First World War, and accused the Catholic church of disloyalty because of its support for home rule in Ireland and its efforts to have seminarians and Christian and Marist brothers exempted from conscription. He was able to exploit Protestant fears of the assertiveness embodied in the Catholic Federation and the bitter polemics of Dr James Kelly, editor of the Catholic weekly, the New Zealand Tablet.

Antipathy towards Catholicism clouded Elliott's judgement. When he charged that military censorship had been applied to his mail in the interests of the Catholic church, an official inquiry found that the allegation was untrue. Insinuations about drunken priests and lime-pits in convents for disposing of babies' bodies alienated many Protestants, including leading members of his own denomination. A further insinuation that a recently deceased nun had been pregnant earned him a horsewhipping from her brother.

While advocating moderate social reform, Elliott was bitterly opposed to socialism. He misread New Zealand politics in the light of the Australian situation, greatly exaggerating the influence of Catholicism on the New Zealand Labour Party. He had a natural empathy with Reform Party prime minister William Massey, an Ulster Protestant and former Orange lodge member. In the 1919 and 1922 elections the PPA endorsed most of the Reform Party's candidates, and in 1919 may have helped to unseat the Catholic Liberal leader, Sir Joseph Ward. In return, the government in 1920 withdrew the right to hold government-paid scholarships in private schools and passed legislation directed against the 1907 Vatican decree invalidating marriages to non-Catholics unless witnessed by a priest.

Elliott's attempt to influence senior public service appointments seems to have led to a break with Massey in 1923. From an alleged total of 200,000 members in 1919, support for the PPA declined rapidly as wartime tensions eased and a settlement was reached in Ireland. However, Elliott continued to lobby against supposedly favourable treatment of Catholic interests, protesting in 1929, for example, against proposals to extend the school dental service to private schools.

No longer able to base a career on anti-Catholic and anti-Labour agitation, Elliott turned to publishing and commerce. In 1930 he founded the New Zealand Financial Times, which he edited. He was also appointed to a number of directorates, including those of mining and financial interests. Editorship of the Nation, an Orange magazine, provided a forum for Elliott's religious views, and in the 1943 election he publicly endorsed the anti-Labour and anti-Catholic stand of John A. Lee's Democratic Soldier Labour Party.

Howard Elliott died at Te Awamutu on 11 November 1956, survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons. His brief period of success as a sectarian polemicist had owed something to the strained atmosphere of wartime New Zealand, and much to his considerable oratorical and organisational skills.