Ormond Burton

This is brief summary of David Grant's biography of Ormond Burton given in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. This summary concentrates on Burton's Christian pacifism, which was the main thrust of the Chaplaincy Network talk; read the original for a fuller account.


Burton, Ormond Edward   1893 - 1974
Teacher, soldier, war historian, pacifist, Methodist clergyman, writer. Ormond Edward Burton was born in Auckland on 16 January 1893. ... As a child Ormond ... developed a love of the written word and the New Testament stories of compassion and forgiveness.

At Remuera School, ... it was religious instruction, at home and at Sunday school and Bible class, that had the greatest influence on Burtonís character. ... 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.

....

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 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. ...

... Burton was ... asked to write the official history of the Auckland Infantry Regiment. ... 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 ... joined the New Zealand Labour Party, whose nationalisation policy was aligned closely with his own ideals. ... 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.

...

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 Burtonís idealism, energy and charm, people returned. ... 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. ....

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 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 ... found work with a frozen products firm and in June became editor of the CPSís 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. ... Justice Archibald Blair ... sentenced Burton to 20 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 monthsí remission for good behaviour ... After his release Burton wrote In prison, an account of his experiences and recommendations for change.

...

He maintained his pacifist faith. This included an intolerance towards non-Christian pacifism, which he regarded as an armchair philosophy, lacking in passion. ... he believed that only the church had the faith, commitment and depth to end war. ... When ... 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. ... In 1968 he regarded Lloyd Geeringís 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.

...

Ormond Burton died in Wellington on 7 January 1974, survived by his wife and two children. ...


Alan Creak,
2006 July.