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The Great Christmas Congress

The Great Christmas Congress

The Salvation Army New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa has a rich and varied history which is preserved at the Heritage Centre and Archives (Plowman Research Centre). This edition looks at our territory’s first Congress, held in Dunedin in 1883. A congress is a series of meetings held in a central location where all people associated with The Salvation Army can gather, celebrate and listen to selected speakers.

‘The first Congress, held in Dunedin between Christmas and New Year 1883, was a rousing success. Brass bands from Dunedin, Christchurch, Sydenham, Ōamaru and Tīmaru, and a drum-and-fife band from South Dunedin marched between five and six hundred uniformed Salvationists through the crowded streets to a series of meetings in the Garrison Hall. It had a capacity of sixteen hundred, but many were unable to gain admission. The Congress concluded with a “great field day” at the Caledonian Grounds. As Major George Pollard stood at a saluting base and watched the “grand march past” of his officers and soldiers, he was fully entitled to see the parade as a striking demonstration of the way in which this new and peculiar religious body was adapting itself successfully to New Zealand conditions.’

This is a report that was included in the New Zealand War Cry 5 January 1884, and since reprinted in Cyril R. Bradwell’s book on The Salvation Army in New Zealand, Fight the Good Fight.

Mentions of this first Congress were found in other editions of War Cry, including notices in 15 December 1883 and 16 February 1884. This report expresses that the large numbers of people that they saw at Congress were, as Major Pollard remarked, ‘only samples’, and ‘that they had left plenty more at home’.

Captain Stratt expressed the excitement that was felt around the territory for this first Congress, explaining, ‘On Monday night (Christmas Eve), our soldiers and officers from various corps in the South Island came pouring into the city of Dunedin, to take part in the Great Christmas Congress. Happiness, confidence, and unbounded enthusiasm were the defining characteristics written upon every face.’

An overall review of the event and the response from those outside The Salvation Army was as follows: ‘A stranger coming into this vast building, and looking upon the shining and happy faces of the Salvation soldiers, could not fail to notice the evident sincerity beneath all this display of flags, music and singing’.

One hundred and thirty-eight years on from that first Congress in our territory, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa most recently held ‘Encounter’ Congress in 2019 in Wellington, which was held in October. General Brian and Commissioner Rosalie Peddle were in attendance, with the General sharing the importance of being an international Army and seeing beyond the borders to better ‘appreciate my brothers and sisters’.

There is some uncertainty around the date of the next Congress for the territory, due to the challenging nature of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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