William Jellie, unitarian, scholar and educator : a thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy in History at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand.
This thesis considers the life of William Jellie (1865-1963) and in so doing uses it as a prism with
which to gain a view of history. It covers a period of ninety-eight years divided between the United
Kingdom and New Zealand. His studies for the Unitarian ministry at Manchester College, removed
from London to Oxford in his final year, gave him a unique education in late Victorian Britain. A
course in sociology, economics and social problems which helped shape his world view. Taught by
Philip Wicksteed, a Unitarian minister, economist and Dante scholar, Wicksteed would pass his
passion for Dante on to William Jellie and become his friend and mentor for life.
Wicksteed’s course dealt with inequality and human suffering and in doing so made it plain that a
Unitarian minister was expected to address these issues and not ignore them. Consistent with his
views as an ethical socialist, Philip Wicksteed supported a former class mate of William Jellie’s, John
Trevor, to found the Labour Church movement in Britain in response to the prevailing conditions.
William Jellie worked in his first parish for six years in one of the poorest parts of London,
experiencing firsthand the suffering and depredation of an unreformed capitalism. The relationship
between a theology on the left of the spectrum and the accommodation of the political left becomes
an important consideration in this thesis.
Arriving in New Zealand in 1900 to organise the Unitarian cause, William Jellie enjoyed friendships
with Sir Robert Stout and Sir George Fowlds. He brought a cultured and intellectual view of liberal
religion to colonial life. He founded a church in Auckland and was instrumental in expanding the
cause to other centres. Having married in New Zealand, he returned to England just before the
outbreak of war in 1914, remaining for the next seven years. There his feelings for his country of
birth, Ireland, led him to publicly support the call for independence, a call not accepted by many of
The return of peace saw the return of the Jellie family to New Zealand. Now his ministerial work was
much more subscribed and William Jellie turned to a new occupation, tutor for the Worker’s
Educational Association in Auckland. This in many ways proved to be his forte, he was extremely
popular as a teacher and while he concentrated on English literature and Dante courses, he also
included political theory. Throughout his life in New Zealand William Jellie undertook a strong
defence of secular education and in so doing was aligned with the rationalist movement on this