Monday, 22 February 2016

The Curious Case of the Commonwealth Covenant Church

Hope Christian Centre, formerly the CCC

Today British Israelism in New Zealand is overwhelmingly associated with a few outlier sects largely made up of former Worldwide Church of God members, but that wasn't always the case. Lying out on a parallel trajectory is the curious story of the Commonwealth Covenant Church. Founded in the 1930s by two brothers, it drew inspiration from a visit to the country in 1922 by Smith Wigglesworth, a Yorkshire evangelist who is also regarded as a founding father of New Zealand's Elim Church. Philip Carew in his MA thesis on the Assemblies of God writes:
"The Wilson Brothers' Commonwealth Covenant Churches commenced in Auckland and Wellington in the late 1930s bringing an intense interest in prophecy and the British Israelite doctrine." (p.19)
Smith Wigglesworth
The Commonwealth Covenant Church was never a large body, but it was active, widely known and well resourced with at least four congregations in the North Island. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was the main group people would think to associate with BI. As late as the 1970s there was a British Israel Book Depot on Auckland's Queen Street, and a CCC church building in South Auckland (Kolmar Road in Papatoetoe). But by then BI was in decline. The 1996 census showed only 168 members (WCG had 624 in the same census). From there it was all downhill. 2006 figures showed a mere 18, and in the most recent census (2013) that dropped to 6.

What happened? It's a confused picture, made even more so by a lack of relevant information. In fact, nobody within the movement seems to have been even faintly interested in recording the history and transformation of the CCC. As a result, it is largely a forgotten footnote in the story of New Zealand Christian denominations. One of the few sources to make an effort is Religionz: A Guide to Religions in New Zealand (2005) by Massey University academic Bronwyn Elsmore. There, under 'Christian Covenant Church', she writes:
"This denomination was formerly known as the Commonwealth Covenant Church. It has been present in New Zealand since its originator, Smith Wigglesworth (1859-1947) a Yorkshire-born lay evangelist and healer, visited this country in the 1920s... In the 1930s it was allied with the British Israel movement and included interpretation of the Bible in relation to world events."
It's important to note that Elsmore's approach was "to give descriptions that reflect the viewpoint of the believers" (p.5). The CCC, like other bodies, was able to review the draft section on their movement before publication. This meant that many entries were insipid affairs (the WCG entry is particularly egregious) and that they told the tale from a sympathetic viewpoint. Knowing this, note the past tense in that last sentence. Prophecy has been de-emphasised and BI has been relegated to something left behind after the 1930s, which was hardly accurate. Elsmore continues:
"Most recently it has gone through changes that include name, teaching and spiritual renewal. It is associated with the wider Pentecostal movement... There are around 700 members in New Zealand" (p.42,43)
The difference between census results and the claims in Religionz is striking. Even allowing for inflated numbers, the simplest explanation is that most members no longer identified with BI or the label Commonwealth Covenant by 2005. From what I can gather, what was once the CCC in Auckland is now a small, ethnically diverse Pentecostal congregation (Hope Christian Centre) with little or no interest in its unique past.

It's worth noting for the record that overt racism does not appear to have been a defining feature of the church. At Otenuku, a Tuhoe marae in Ruatoki, there is evidence of that in the form of a plaque.
The plaque commemorates one of the last great paramount chiefs, Takarua Tamarau, who died in 1958 aged 86. It reads: "Tamarau was a protector and guide to his Maori people and a loyal supporter of the British flag." 
The memorial at little Otenuku Marae, the last of the many marae which dot Ruatoki Valley Rd was erected by the Commonwealth Covenant Church "in high personal esteem and as a token of arohanui between the Maori and Pakeha peoples". (NZ Herald, Guerillas in the Mist, Oct. 20, 2007)
From BI to dumplings
Looking at the Hope website you'd have no idea that it was founded on BI doctrine. This also appears (from what little information is available) to be true of the other congregations which seem no different from their Pentecostal brethren. Over the past thirty years, the Commonwealth Covenant Church has morphed into something quite different from the body the Wilson brothers envisioned. Effectively, as far as BI goes, it has simply disappeared off the radar and, remarkably, almost nobody has either noticed or cared. That's probably not a bad thing, though as they say, "those who forget the lessons of the past..."

And that British Israel bookstore? It relocated many years ago to cheaper premises in Mount Eden. In 2015 it's doors closed for the last time and the phone was disconnected. The shop now sells Chinese dumplings.

It may be different in the US where so-called 'Christian Identity' groups continue to spout an ugly version of BI, but in this country BI is a spent force; irrelevant both in the wider society and even within Christian culture. It happened more or less simultaneously in both the WCG (now Grace Communion International) and CCC - though different factors may well have been at work. Only a few small, graying ex-WCG fringe sects hold on, as relevant as Social Credit candidates at a General Election. Sadly for them, nobody seems to be listening.

UPDATE: More about the CCC and its effect on members here and more recently here. Apparently it wasn't just a bit potty, it was toxic.


Anonymous said...

Oh how I welcome the return of Ambassador Watch ! My hope is that you will be able to update regularly, giving us the usual insights and nuggets that characterized your earlier iteration Thanks for your time and effort and admirable news gathering and research capabilities Have yet another valuable resource on Armstrongism to look forward to devouring

Paul D. said...

I don't know what kinds of books and newsletters you have from British Israelist churches, but I'd love to see some excerpts if you ever feel like posting some.

larry said...

I must confess that I have never understood how some people equate British Israelism with "racism". They are two separate and distinct beliefs. Anyone who has ever been the victim of real racism will be glad to tell you the difference.

Minimalist said...

Also, the former location of the BI bookstore/reading room in Q'land Aust is now 'Chinatown'!! - how counterprophetic - not the outcome and relevance they were anticipating!

Pam said...

I was unaware of the Wigglesworth B-I connection! So I rummaged a bit just now, googling his name and B-I together, and came across this related story of another evangelist of the 1930s in New Zealand who combined Pentecostal and faith healing doctrines with British Israelism too! Have you read about a Arthur Henry Dallimore?

Sample excerpts:

"The years between 1927 and 1932 were known as the Dallimore Revival or Revival Fire Mission Revival. By 1932 he had two thousand people attending his meetings. A local magistrate estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 people had "fallen under the power" in Dallimore's meetings over a five year period and none of them had been hurt."

"Dallimore came under attack by the religious, medical, political forces in Auckland. The government created a committee to investigate the healing claims of the ministry. They concluded that there were no verifiable healings. Church members raised complaints in the local papers when the committee refused to speak to those who were more than willing to give medical evidence of their healings. Dallimore did not participate since he viewed the entire proceeding as prejudiced and unlikely to give him a fair hearing. The outcome was that the church was no longer allowed to meet in the Town Hall. Within two months Dallimore's supporters had rallied and forced the government to allow him use of the building once more."

Dallimore focused on two areas; divine healing and British-Israelism. The thesis of British-Israelism, also referred to as Anglo-Israelism, is that Great Britain was the geographical home of the lost tribes of Israel. The teaching identified the present day Anglo-Saxon people as God's Chosen People. Charles Parham was a major proponent of British-Israelism. The teaching was popular at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th but has generally fallen out of favor. Dallimore believed that corrupting European philosophies, including communism were to be fought by men of God. In 1932 Dallimore wrote two books, the first was on healing "Healing by Faith, Including Many Testimonies of Healing Received by People in New Zealand" and then "Britain-Israel : chats about our empire, our people and our origin."

"Dallimore became increasingly unorthodox. His teachings on British-Israelism overshadowed other doctrines. In 1932 he predicted that Edward VIII would not marry but lead Anglo-Saxons into a new purity, which would then bring the return of Christ in 1936. He also shifted his story of being healed as a youngster to being raised from the dead by his mother. Dallimore spent a lot of time teaching that the Great Pyramid of Giza had special significance. Healings became less frequent and his converts started moving into more traditional churches. His congregation steadily shrank. Dallimore achieved more notoriety in the 1950s by becoming an anti-Trinitarian. It is interesting to note that his wife became an Anglican in the 1950s, evidently feeling that Dallimore had left the fundamentals of the faith by that time. He remained in ministry until 1960. The Revival Fire Mission closed its doors in 1968. A. H. Dallimore died in Auckland on July 23, 1970 at the age of 96."

The website linked above even has a cool collection of photos of newspaper articles from Auckland in 1932 about the inquiry. They are listed and linked at

Damocles Junior said...

All this is very interesting. In Nelson there is an intersection, cnr Bridge & Collingwood, also known as 4 Spirits Corner, It still has 2 Pubs, there was also a BP Fuel outlet and on the 4th corner there was this mysterious church, The Commonwealth Covenant.(Long Gone)I had never been able to work out what it was all about. Extreme Pentecostal with BI roots, how strange and interesting.