Settler Childhood, Protestant Christianity and Emotions in Colonial New Zealand, 1880s-1920s

Hugh Morrison provides us with a brief teaser of Chapter 5 in Childhood, Youth and Emotions in Modern History: National, Colonial and Global Perspectives, which came out yesterday with Palgrave.

By Hugh Morrison

This chapter examines the intersection of religion and emotions for Protestant settler children and young people in one British colonial context, through a focused case study of an urban Presbyterian parish in colonial New Zealand. It argues that there is value in thinking about childhood religion in terms of the emotional communities to which children belonged. These communities were characterized by emotionally framed narratives that defined or redefined their lives from childhood well into adulthood. This is still a relatively underexplored dimension of juvenile religion. Christianity was an important influence that shaped many children’s and young people’s lives and identities in British settler societies; albeit mixed with notions of empire, nation and cultural superiority.

Cover Palgrave Olsen

Colonial childhood and religion have been approached traditionally from an institutional angle, with most emphasis on Sunday schools or on the many sites of missionary, religious or state education. Yet there were other domains in which children were religiously formed, enculturated and socialized. Juvenile religious formation occurred in the home, amongst peer networks, and was influenced by a wide array of artefacts (literary and non-literary) through an increasingly pervasive child or youth-centred consumer culture. Therefore childhood religion was as much a matter of experience, emotion or embodiment as it was one of intellectual engagement. While the institutions were important, just as significant were the ways in which religion was communicated, received, perceived or experienced both emotionally and intellectually within and beyond institutional boundaries. One way by which to gain a fuller view of childhood and religion is to consider the intersection of these emotional and institutional perspectives as they played out in the colonial context. While the colonial religious context was not exclusively unique (these patterns also pertain to the British metropole), children were differentiated in colonial settings in terms of race and culture in particular. In New Zealand there was a clear division between ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler’ childhoods by the early twentieth century. Religious children were further differentiated by the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide. Therefore the chapter focuses on settler Protestant children.

It concludes with these observations. This colonial micro historical context provides a window into wider modes of thought and behaviour operative across Anglo-American religious settings, both settler and metropole. In these contexts adults’ memories of religious childhood were often constructed from within a shared theological-emotional discourse. Their juvenile lives were shaped in similarly defined emotional-religious communities. Equally clear, however, is that any further analysis needs to find and take account of what children thought of these communities and how they responded or resisted; through both written and oral testimony. As such an emotional approach helps to redress the imbalance of an institutional emphasis. It also causes us to think more critically both about the local and the global contours of childhood religion. As global Protestant networks expanded from the late nineteenth century, emotional constructions of childhood religious thinking, conventions of behaviour, and actions were activated in local settings but also crossed national boundaries, thus rendering those divisions fluid rather than concrete. Children of different nations were bound together, at least in theory, by these common understandings or experiences. Differences wrought by colonization, however, are a warning that any such constructions of religious emotions were culturally or racially configured; and thus variously imposed, rejected, misconstrued or re-appropriated. An emotional approach appropriately serves to problematize childhood religion, beyond the neat boundaries of such things as denomination, institution, nation or culture; and therefore helps to further liberate both its practice and our understanding.


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