Why New Zealand?

‘The New Zealand islands’, wrote Robert Elwood in his 1993 study of alternative spirituality here, ‘are islands of the dawn in more ways than one’. As well as being among the first islands to see the sun rise, ‘They were also the last separate terrain to receive, subsequently, large-scale European settlement. Thus there is something dawnlike about life and culture in New Zealand. However old the cultures from which its various waves of settlers derived, in that land humanity is barely past sunrise.’

New Zealand was also among the most secular parts of the English-speaking world. This does not necessarily mean that religion was unimportant. John Stenhouse in particular has advocated a greater role than it normally played, as a locus for social activism and prestige. The older generation of Lovell-Smiths were devout Methodists who ploughed efforts into their church, with its cultural pursuits, temperance campaigns and feminism, and exemplified an avant-garde, following the Stenhouse argument. It is obvious however, that New Zealand remained among the most secular of English-speaking societies in the early twentieth century: settled in an era of advancing secularism, and without an established church, it had lower rates of church attendance, possibly allowing a greater opportunity to indulge in Spiritualist practice. At the same time, it led to an existential gap which could be filled by resorting to Spiritualism, Theosophy, or Rosicrucianism.

A sketch of Christ accompanied by the letter of a disgruntled parishioner to a vicar who had attacked Spiritualism in a sermon. The note calls for an end to ‘Theology, Orthodoxy and Ritual’ as having corrupted ‘True Christianity’.

The churches themselves were staunch opponents of all occult activity, and the 1920s see a rise in opposition to the burgeoning profile of Spiritualist practice. Christchurch's Catholic Bishop Brodie condemned spiritualism as ‘a blasphemy conceived in fraud’ in 1920; in these circumstances, the appearance of Sister Monica was especially provocative. Lovell-Smith’s own notebooks contain ample evidence of this tension; he compiled a table of Biblical verses apparently referring to psychic activity in the modern sense, including some of the citations which Brodie used in its opposition. Other signs of tugging between traditional religion and spiritualism abound – Violet Parker’s ‘Affair of the Blue Brooch’ featured an ex-Anglican clergyman as a clairvoyant, and one vicar in Rakaia had a vision on Christmas Day 1942 that the son of one of his parishioners, a fighter-pilot, had been shot down. Subsequent attempts by Lovell-Smith to recover the details of such visions were met with polite deferrals, although the Rakaia vicar did confess that he found Spiritualism fascinating.

Alternative spirituality movements other than Spiritualism abounded in New Zealand. Havelock North sported the last remaining outpost of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a reconstructed Rosicrucian foundation which expressed the Victorian vogue for the esoteric and arcane. The house of Whare Ra contained a Hermetic temple hidden beneath its foundations, in which secret rituals based on Hellenistic and Renaissance Hermeticism were undertaken by ‘wizards’. Closing in the 1970s, the house remains as a testament to the peculiar New Zealand culture which fostered higher levels of occultism than other Anglosphere countries. It was not particularly original; the British ideals of spiritualism were largely imitated by practitioners in Christchurch with little alteration, even in the war years, when contact with international spiritualism was cut off.  As late as the 1950s, the typical practices of tying the medium’s hands and feet before materialisation are commonplace, in imitation of the ongoing flow of British Spiritualist publications into New Zealand.

This Spiritualist milieu was largely swept away during the 1960s. Accurate knowledge of Asian religions replaced composites such as Theosophy. More fatally, however, was the greater loss of prestige by the churches. Paradoxically, despite being sworn enemies of the churches, Spiritualism had always mimed their outward forms. Claiming Christ as the original Psychic and calling its own gatherings on Sunday mornings ‘churches’, it purveyed the ecclesial environment scorned by the counterculture, whose spiritual meetings were ‘at any time of day other than eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning’.

It is in these other forms of alternative spirituality that the modern heir of Spiritualism can be found. Less religiously structured, and with the cultural improvisation of the colonies, it was more open to the experiments of the colonies, a pioneer of the New Age movement in its infancy..

Robert S. Ellwood, Islands of the Dawn: The Story of Alternative Spirituality in New Zealand (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1993), 2

John Stenhouse, ‘Religion and Society’, The New Oxford History of New Zealand (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), 323-356

Ellwood., 194-197

Ibid., 179-183

Ibid., 214

  • Southern Spirits
    School of Humanities
    Private Bag 4800, Christchurch
    New Zealand