Story: Burton, Ormond Edward

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Burton, Ormond Edward

1893–1974

Teacher, soldier, war historian, pacifist, Methodist clergyman, writer

This biography was written by David Grant and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Ormond Edward Burton was born in Auckland on 16 January 1893, the son of Mary Alice Beatrice Winn and her husband, Robert Burton, a carter, who was later a market gardener. As a child Ormond learnt the value of hard work and a sense of fun. He also developed a love of the written word and the New Testament stories of compassion and forgiveness.

At Remuera School, where he excelled at literature, science, football and cricket, he was unpopular with other boys because he did not swear and was popular with the teachers. In standard five he was awarded a Rawlings Scholarship, which enabled him to attend Auckland Grammar School. But it was religious instruction, at home and at Sunday school and Bible class, that had the greatest influence on Burton’s character. As a member of the Young Men’s Bible Class movement at St Luke’s Presbyterian Church, Remuera, he led discussions among his peers, honing his talents as a public speaker and debater. At his first Easter Bible camp in 1907 he publicly criticised an evangelist who was intent on encouraging conversion through what Burton considered was emotional and hypnotic propaganda. By then he had determined that a commitment to Christianity must be reached thoughtfully, and be based solely on an unconditional love of Jesus Christ. He would never waver in this belief.

Burton entered Auckland Training College straight from school and while there took papers at Auckland University College. By 1913 he was sole-charge teaching at Waimana Sawmill School, in the Bay of Plenty. Here, and later at even smaller schools in the area, he developed an innovative educational programme, largely based on the natural world around him. At night he read assiduously: the Bible, history, philosophy and poetry. Only Saturday cricket broke his routine.

Early in 1915 Burton sailed with the No 1 New Zealand Field Ambulance. At Gallipoli he stayed aboard the Lutzow to tend the wounded and dying, but was later a stretcher-bearer. In September 1915 he was evacuated to Egypt, and by May 1916 was with the New Zealand Division in Flanders. In the spring of 1917 a friend was killed and he volunteered to take his place in the infantry. Refusing all leave, he won a reputation for gallantry. In August 1918 he was wounded for the third time and awarded the French Médaille d’honneur, alongside a Military Medal already won. That year he was sent to Cambridge for officer training and in January 1919 he became a second lieutenant.

In 1917 Major General Sir Andrew Russell asked Burton to write a short account of the New Zealand Division in the war. The monograph was published as Our little bit and given to every serviceman at the armistice. It was extended and about a year later published as The New Zealand Division. Burton was also asked to write the official history of the Auckland Infantry Regiment. He submitted the manuscript as an MA thesis at Auckland University College late in 1920. Earlier that year he had graduated BA, and in 1921 he graduated MA. Based on extensive interviews with soldiers, the history was published in 1922 and praised for its stark realism and eulogies of the self-sacrifice of the common soldier.

Burton had fought in the war because he believed the destruction of Prussian militarism would usher in a new age of peace and freedom through forgiveness and reconciliation under God. Horrified and disillusioned with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he became a resolute convert to Christian pacifism. In 1923 he told students at the New Zealand Student Christian Movement conference that Jesus Christ was above family, friends and country and urged them to resign their commissions in the territorials and refuse to join the armed services.

After the war Burton was barred from teaching because he refused to sign a new oath of allegiance to the Crown unless a rider was added stating that the oath must not conflict with his duty to God. He returned to teaching in 1924 after being allowed to include this conscience clause. Meanwhile, he worked for the YMCA, and joined the New Zealand Labour Party, whose nationalisation policy was aligned closely with his own ideals. In 1925 he became vice president of the Auckland Labour Representation Committee. But when the party demanded complete loyalty to the party line, especially on conscience issues, he resigned. At the 1928 election he stood in the Eden electorate as an independent Christian socialist, polling poorly.

On 26 January 1926, in Auckland, he married Helen Agatha (Nell) Tizard, secretary of the YWCA. Burton found a sole-teaching job at Whangarata, near Tuakau, and embarked on a doctoral thesis, ‘A study in creative history’. The work was later rejected by Auckland University College, but published as a book in England in 1932. In 1930 he began teaching at Wesley College, a Methodist boys’ school. He persuaded the school to abandon the cadet corps and cajoled all but the headmaster to stop using the cane. In the evenings he began writing another war book, which was published in 1935 as The silent division .

In the early 1930s Burton decided to train as a clergyman. He was a lay preacher in the local Presbyterian church, but the church was undergoing a right-wing theological upheaval, which in stressing the wrath of God was opposed to his creed of loving all enemies. Instead, he found a niche within Methodism, then imbued with a pacifist spirit. After training, he was appointed minister of the Methodist church in Webb Street, Wellington.

The surrounding area was a depressing slum; the church was derelict, the congregation reduced to less than a dozen. Slowly, attracted by Burton’s idealism, energy and charm, people returned. Youth groups were re-established and Nell Burton organised a Sunday school. Together they worked tirelessly to care for the down-and-outs in the area. On Sunday afternoons Burton held an open forum at the nearby Basin Reserve, where he argued the faith with hundreds of atheists, agnostics, communists, rationalists, drunks and the curious.

In March 1936 Burton and his circuit steward, A. C. Barrington, established the Christian Pacifist Society of New Zealand (CPS), to which only adult communicant members of mainstream churches could belong. On Friday nights, from January 1938, poster parades marched from Webb Street to Allen Street in the city, where small crowds listened to Burton speak against participation in any forthcoming conflict.

The day after the Second World War was declared in September 1939, Burton and two others condemned it before a crowd of 200 outside Parliament. Under emergency regulations only hours old, expressing such views was unlawful and all three were arrested. Burton was visited in gaol by the deputy prime minister, Peter Fraser, who was worried that Burton, a returned soldier and a charismatic speaker, might attract the nucleus of a large and embarrassing anti-war movement. Burton rejected Fraser’s plea to desist and resumed speaking in Allen Street. He was arrested and fined three times in the next four months, and after a large meeting in February 1940 at Pigeon Park, was sentenced to a month’s hard labour. On his release he went straight back to the speaking podium and was imprisoned for a further three months. When he was in prison Nell Burton spoke from a soap box at the Basin Reserve and carried on their work in the parish.

By June, Burton’s permit to speak at the Basin Reserve was cancelled, poster parades were banned, and street speakers were forced indoors. Subsequently, Burton and 10 other CPS members spoke briefly at Pigeon Park before being arrested. On this occasion Burton was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment.

Burton was more worried about his survival in the Methodist church. In February 1940 the church had determined that the pulpit should not be used to encourage either recruitment or resistance to military service. Burton, in prison, regarded the manifesto as a slap in the face and wrote A testament of peace , an implicitly pacifist doctrine of worship on which he announced he would base his future ministerings. At the 1942 Methodist Church of New Zealand conference Burton was charged with refusing to accept the discipline of the church. He appealed to the delegates, but after a long and acrimonious debate they voted 70 to 45 to expel him. Significantly, over 100 delegates abstained.

Burton was devastated. He found work with a frozen products firm and in June became editor of the CPS’s bulletin. In his first issue he commented on the recent sedition trial and acquittal of A. C. Barrington and printed a mild anti-war poem. The controller of censorship, who intercepted the newsletter, considered it subversive. Burton faced three charges of editing, publishing and attempting to publish a subversive document. At his Supreme Court trial on 23 October 1942, Burton argued for his democratic right to think and speak as conscience dictated. Justice Archibald Blair disagreed, telling the jury it was a time when the mouths of ‘cranks’ would have to shut. The jury found Burton guilty, but recommended mercy. Under the emergency regulations the maximum sentence was 12 months’ imprisonment, but Blair invoked a rarely used provision in the 1910 Crimes Amendment Act and sentenced Burton to 2½ years. He was offered immediate freedom if he agreed to refrain from writing or speaking on pacifism, but he rejected the offer.

International appeals from pacifists and theologians failed. Burton served his full term, less 11 months’ remission for good behaviour, mostly in Napier prison away from his family. He spent his time gardening and writing. During his absence Nell Burton took a leadership role in the CPS as well as bringing up their two children. After his release Burton wrote In prison , an account of his experiences and recommendations for change.

He found work as the night-shift cleaner at Wellington Technical College and by 1946 was teaching English to night classes. He moved to the day school in 1947 and three years later was appointed head of the English and social studies department. In 1953 he became principal. Between 1942 and 1954 he had no contact with Methodism; instead the family worshipped at St Peter’s Anglican Church. It was not until 1955 that the Methodist conference allowed him to return. Posted to Otaki, Burton revitalised the local church.

He maintained his pacifist faith. This included an intolerance towards non-Christian pacifism, which he regarded as an armchair philosophy, lacking in passion. Although he had earlier worked with activists from the New Zealand Peace Pledge Union and the Peace and Anti-Conscription Council, he believed that only the church had the faith, commitment and depth to end war. In the 1950s and 1960s he refused to work with ‘loose’ federations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the United Nations Association of New Zealand. When, in June 1966, the CPS’s international counterpart, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, opened its doors to non-Christian members, he was horrified. After campaigning, unsuccessfully, for the CPS to disaffiliate in protest, he sadly resigned from the movement he had founded 30 years earlier.

Burton also refused to compromise his theological dogma. He remained rigidly conservative, ignoring the spontaneity of the Methodist tradition in favour of a more solemn and liturgical approach. In 1968 he regarded Lloyd Geering’s radical challenge to the orthodox view of the resurrection as heresy. In bitter rebuttal he wrote To whom shall we go? , an exposition of traditional orthodoxy, which generated considerable public debate on religion and the church.

Burton was dogged in later years by persistent pessimism resulting from attacks by liberals and the failure of the wider church to embrace pacifism. But he remained outwardly cheerful and caring and visited every parishioner once a week. After retiring in January 1960, he continued writing, including a book on Octavius Hadfield and a massive autobiography, ‘A rich old man’, which remained unpublished because he refused to reduce it. He travelled to Wellington to preach and to lead marches against the Vietnam War, and he guided visitors around the historic Rangiatea Church.

Ormond Burton died in Wellington on 7 January 1974, survived by his wife and two children. Despite his autocratic nature, he had been widely admired and respected for his courage, even by those who did not agree with his message.

How to cite this page:

David Grant. 'Burton, Ormond Edward', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/5b53/burton-ormond-edward (accessed 1 May 2017)