A "God-forsaken" wilderness? : the effects of isolation on the development of rural religion in the Wanganui hinterland, 1880-c1920 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Massey University
Government policy after 1880 was to open up the Wanganui hinterland for settlement. Building of the Main Trunk railway greatly facilitated this. New villages sprang up along the route. Settlement was encouraged and yeomon farmers moved into the interior as land was allocated. Churches followed settlement. Most came from the Wanganui lowland area where "Wakefield" antecedents had bequeathed Anglican conservatism. Nevertheless, revivalist influence, and replication of English working-class chapel religion, ensured that hinterland townships gained strongly pro-active non-conformist churches. In reply to Government secular education, most churches operated Sabbath schools. Only the Catholics built their own primary schools. Inter-denominational competition for membership and competitive church-building created financial stress, with consequently poor remuneration for hard-worked pastors. There was little time to carry the Gospel out into the back-blocks. Primitive roading and scattered population were combined handicaps. Inability of churches to take advantage of the "Nelson System" and take the Bible into country schools, also meant that back-country children grew up without religious input from clergy or Sunday schools. Indications are that by the mid-1920's the churches had mostly lost the allegiance of a back-country generation. Improved communications had not improved congregations. Although the line was being held in the villages, the legendary, 'God-fearing pioneer' seems a rather chimerical figure. Whatever their beliefs, the back-blocks dwellers had reason to feel somewhat forsaken by their churches.