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Baptist Women New Zealand

1947 –

This essay written by Elaine E. Bolitho was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1947 – 1993

Constituted in 1988, Baptist Women's Ministries (BWM) replaced the Baptist Women's League (BWL), which operated first in Auckland from 1947 and nationally from 1953. BWM in the 1990s co-ordinated and encouraged all women in New Zealand Baptist congregations in local, regional, national and international activities spanning all areas of church life. Its eight-member board, elected by and answerable to the annual Assembly of the Baptist Union, served at least 12,500 women, [1] and liaised with other Union boards.

Baptists were among New Zealand Company settlers from the early 1840s, and the first officially recognised churches began at Nelson and Richmond in 1851. Early Baptist women, who were recorded by their husband's initials or just as Mrs __, were active in church affairs. Prayer meetings in Mrs Donald's home, for example, led to the formation of the Otahuhu Church, and Mrs Hampson's 1881 Dunedin missions resulted in 350 conversions. Catherine MacDougall, city missioner to the Hanover Street Church from 1868-72, helped found Dunedin's first 'women's refuge'.

Founders of the world's first missionary society in 1792, Baptists enthusiastically promoted overseas missions. This work gave Baptist women both a sphere of service and greater recognition within their denomination. The New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society (NZBMS), founded in 1885, sent Rosalie MacGeorge as their first missionary to India in 1886. In 1887 Annie Newcombe followed. She returned, married the Reverend H. H. Driver, and initiated a Missionary Training Home and the Baptist Women's Missionary Union (BWMU). Approved at Assembly 1903, BWMU united women throughout New Zealand in shared information, prayer and fundraising.

Baptists fair
Stallholders at a Baptist Church fair in Wellington, November 1903. This fair was held concurrently with the annual Assembly of the Baptist Church of New Zealand, at which the formation of the Baptist Women’s Missionary Union was officially approved.

Women's contribution to BWMU earned them speaking rights, first as delegates to the NZBMS annual meeting, and then in the Assembly. A 1908 resolution, carried enthusiastically, recognised that 'women equally with men are eligible as delegates from churches to the meetings of the Union'. [2] BWMU remained an all-women organisation until 1987, when it was renamed Baptist Missionary Fellowship (BMF) and could include men. BMF was not incorporated into BWM, but complemented its concerns.

After meeting needs arising from the Depression and World War II, local Baptist women's groups continued their religious and social work. Janet Williams, who was aware of the need to co-ordinate these ventures, had been inspired by the British Baptist women's groups during an overseas trip. Her invitation to local women to hear Greta Jenkins, a key figure in the British Baptist Women's League, led to the inauguration of the Auckland Baptist Women's Association on 7 July 1947, with Williams as president. The concept also spread to Christchurch and Wellington. At Assembly 1952, BWL was initiated on a Dominion-wide basis, with the motto 'Prayer—Fellowship—Service'. Illness prevented Williams from filling her elected role of first national president, but later she toured New Zealand, encouraging Baptist women's groups in all districts to affiliate to the league.

BWL linked members of affiliated groups for regular rallies and practical social service, and supported their local activities. It also encouraged women to respond to the needs of their post-war communities by contributing prayer, time, skills and finance to the development of social service outreaches. Older women continued these roles, while those returning to paid employment provided greater financial support, often enabling others to work in, for example, preschool, family and psychiatric support services.

BWL representatives to the National Council of Women (NCW) and the Women's Committee of the National Council of Churches provided a liaison role and a voice for Baptist women. In 1979 Vivienne (later Dame Vivienne) Boyd of BWL became NCW national president for four years. Such experiences gave women the confidence to increase their involvement in the church and in society, a good example being Dame Vivienne's election as the first woman president of the Baptist Union in 1984–85.

BWL also promoted the Baptist Māori Mission, giving prayer and financial support to Sister Joan Milner, the first Baptist deaconess, from 1954–78. In her marae-based work in Pukekohe, Milner ran Sunday schools and youth nights, cottage meetings and Bible studies, as well as 'being there as strength to families in sickness and need'. [3] The league's plans and prayers for more indigenous leaders were answered by 1979, when all full-time workers for the Māori Board were Māori. The first of these was Sister Mere Pou, who was commissioned at Hastings in 1968. For fourteen years her work included home visiting, home meetings, Sunday school and Bible classes, and also court work, first in Hawke's Bay, then in Gisborne and Pukekohe. 'She was much loved.' [4] BWL's and the Māori Ministries' representation on each other's boards also encouraged sensitive interaction. From the 1980s, as Māori Ministries' work grew throughout New Zealand, Māori women continued to bring bicultural perspectives to retreat days and other activities; some also went with 'Te Waka Moana Nui' missions to Pacific Islands.

BWL created links with the Baptist Women's Union of the South West Pacific, and with the Women's Department of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). From 1953 these included Annual Days of Prayer, which linked women in 150 countries. At the five-yearly BWA conventions, New Zealand representatives, Māori and Pākehā, made valued cross-cultural friendships.

When the Baptist Union restructured in 1988, the renamed Baptist Women’s Ministries (BWM) retained the BWL vision: to 'co-ordinate the witness and activities of women's ministries in churches', and to enable women to 'speak and act unitedly in religious, moral, social and educational efforts ... for the kingdom'. [5]

Many changes took place in Baptist women's groups over the years, for example in dress, language and formality. Baptists more readily accepted change when it was seen as initiated by God, rather than by the women's movement, although the feminist promotion of mutuality and equality in fact paralleled a BWM aim: 'To build the Kingdom of God by challenging men and women to be partners within the Baptist denomination.' [6]

In the 1970s the charismatic movement, which promoted the use of all Christians' gifts in worship, church administration and expanding social service, led to an increase in lay ministries and in women's participation. Both BWL and BWM encouraged these moves, and also supported the women who chose the more formal paths of deaconess work or ordination. Deaconess training was instituted in 1956, but when ordained ministry became an option for women in the 1970s it was increasingly preferred by trainees and churches. Ministers could undertake a wider role than the deaconesses, who were designated mainly for work with women and children.

Although Thelma Gandy was a Baptist Theological College foundation student in 1926, it was 1973 before Patricia Preest became the first accredited Baptist woman minister. She worked first as a hospital chaplain, and from 1989 as an assistant pastor. Following Margaret Motion's 1978 induction as a pastor, heated correspondence in the NZ Baptist debated whether Scripture allowed a woman to speak in church. In 1992 Motion was training pastors in Bengal, while Marjory Gibson was dean of the MissioNZ Training School. Ngaire Brader, the first woman to become an accredited sole-charge Baptist pastor (1982), commented, 'People were amazed that not only could a woman conduct a funeral, but that she could do it well.' [7]

In the 1980s Baptists continued to attract women of the baby boom generation. The 1986 census showed a younger age profile for the Baptist denomination than for other mainstream churches and New Zealand generally.

By supporting women's ordination, lay leadership and service, BWL and BWM recognised that 'women's ministry truly provides opportunity for every woman to serve and be served'. [8]

Elaine E. Bolitho

1994 – 2018

Baptist Women NZ logo

In 2017, Baptist Women’s Ministries changed its name to Baptist Women New Zealand, to align with other Baptist ministries. From 1994, the organisation made women in leadership a main focus. Change in Baptist churches and related organisations followed, although it was agreed that more was needed.

In 2015 and 2016, very popular courses were run to give women skills and confidence in voice and creativity for preaching. By 2018 five more women had become president of the Baptist Union of New Zealand: Judy Harvey, Merrilyn Withers, Angela Cossey, Josie Te Kahu (2017–18) and Beulah Wood (2018–19). By 2018, Karen Warner was the national leader for Children and Families; Ruby Duncan led the Neighbourhood and Justice Initiatives; and Rachel Murray was the General Director of New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society, on a par with the CEO of the denomination. In the same year, for the first time, Carey Baptist College had more women than men in the Pastoral Leadership and Youth Pastoral Leadership tracks. Editors of the Baptist Magazine had included a husband and wife couple, Fran and Duncan Pardon, as well as Julie Belding and Linda Grigg.

Women also led some strong organisations that grew from Baptist churches, strengthened by a large phalanx of volunteers, some of whom learnt to be leaders and moved into paid positions. Josie Te Kahu chaired Te Aroha Noa, a community services centre in Palmerston North. Daphne Marsden was the Director of Project Esther in Christchurch, and became a chaplain at Christchurch women’s prison. Lisa Woolley headed Vision West, a community services provider that began in Glen Eden Baptist church, with community based services in West Auckland reaching over 15,000 people every year, under the guidance of 1000 employees. 

Another significant contribution by BWNZ faced out to the Pacific. As a member of the Baptist Women’s Union of the South West Pacific (BWUSWP), BWNZ fostered women’s leadership in Baptist churches in the Pacific, especially in Fiji and Papua New Guinea (PNG). BWNZ helped to develop Village Health Providers in PNG, which had one of highest mother and child mortality rates in the world. Women raised money for ‘birthing huts’ and the training of birth attendants in the Western Highlands of PNG. The decrease in death rates was significant. Reciprocal visits of NZ and PNG women aided fund-raising and deepened the relationship. Amelia Gavidi, Fiji, President of BWUSWP, visited and spoke in churches in 2018.

In 2018 the BWNZ chair was Andrea Page and the secretary/treasurer was Naomi Quirke.

BWNZ as a board sought to serve all women in Baptist churches, resourcing and equipping them through workshops and area days. Its Strategic Aims began with this statement:

As women in Aotearoa New Zealand we walk on ground that Tangata Whenua have walked. We will listen to their footsteps and journey with them, taking into account the future path that has and will have many other cultural footsteps joining in. Together we walk forward in Christ.

Beulah Wood


[1] In 1993 BWM did not have a membership list as such, but counted all women in all 237 Baptist congregations as its constituency.

[2] Baptist Union Annual Conference minutes, 15 October 1908.

[3] Interview with Joan Milner, 1992.

[4] Interview with Joan Milner, 1992.

[5] NZ Baptist, July 1988, p. 14.

[6] BWM publicity pamphlet, 'Introducing Baptist Women's Ministries', 1991.

[7] Interview with Ngaire Brader, 1989.

[8] NZ Baptist, July 1988, p. 14.

Unpublished sources

Baptist Women's Association records, 1947–1952, Baptist Historical Society Archives, Carey College, Auckland

Baptist Women's League records, 1952–1988, Baptist Historical Society Archives, Carey College, Auckland