Gammell, John


(May 16, 1836-December 15, 1913), educator and minister, was the third Unitarian minister to arrive in New Zealand. As a school inspector he influenced educational thought and policy in the Colony. As an educator he often wrote and spoke on religious issues. He was instrumental in establishing the Unitarian Free Church of Wellington and often occupied its pulpit.

John was born in London, the eldest of two sons of John and Sarah Gammell. His father was a Congregationalist whose family came from Ayrshire in Scotland and his mother, a Londoner, was a member of the Church of England. He was baptized in his mother’s church, Old Church St Pancras. John never married.

Gammell was educated for the Congregational ministry at New College, St John’s Wood, in conjunction with London University. He took first class honours for four consecutive years and won prizes in theology and Biblical literature. He earned a B.A. degree from London University, with distinction in classics and Hebrew. Besides classical and modern languages, he studied Assyrian and Babylonian. He also studied mathematics and science.

When Gammell entered New College in 1852, it was only a few months after William Hale White (1831-1913)—briefly a Unitarian minister, later a minor Victorian writer whose pen name was “Mark Rutherford”—had been expelled for having questioned the authority of the scriptures. Gammell came under the influence of professors who held similar views to White. By the time he entered the ministry he too had become a Unitarian. He preached in several Unitarian chapels as an occasional supply, but his only settlement, lasting four months in 1862, was at Hale and Altrincham.

On resigning this position Gammell gave up the idea of the ministry, apparently because of the strain of pastoral work. He then became a schoolmaster at Nottingham and later at Brighton. Here he taught at the Unitarian school, Hove House, Brighton. The school was attended by the brothers Christopher and James, sons of Christopher Richmond, third President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (BFUA). They later emigrated to New Zealand.

Gammell then spent a brief period in the United States, teaching in New York and California. In 1871 he emigrated to New Zealand. He conducted his own private school in Wellington, 1871-79, then held the position of Mathematical Master at Wellington College, 1879-80. He attended Unitarian services held in the home of Justice Christopher Richmond. At the beginning of 1881, he re-established his private school at the English High School in Wellington. Because he was both a popular teacher and a good scholar, many of the College students followed him there.

From around 1885 to before 1894 Gammell served as Inspector of Schools in Southland. Later, it is reported, he was Inspector of Schools in Westland and Secretary to the Westland Education Board. In these positions he advocated reducing the drudgery of rote memorization in order to awaken a love of learning. “Abolish [the examination system],” he wrote in an annual report, “and you will secure in your schools not only knowledge but wisdom; your scholars will learn how to think as well as how to remember.”

Gammell was President of the Southland Branch of the New Zealand Educational Institute, 1896-97. He called upon teachers to oppose the establishment of a state church and the introduction of religion into state schools. He advocated teaching ethics in state schools as a branch of mental and social science, not dependent on religion. He dedicated his 1897 address to the Institute on this theme, Inductive Ethics or Moral Teaching in the State Schools of New Zealand, to his friend Sir Robert Stout, whom he had first met in Wellington a few years after his arrival in the Colony.

While in the South Island he gave many lectures, some later published, on aspects of modern Biblical scholarship. These included The Rational Theory of The Book of Daniel (nine lectures, 1898) and The Pentateuch of Post-Captivity Date. In 1889 and later he gave a series of lectures to the Dunedin Freethought Association (founded by Stout), including one on The Nature of Mind. He was a vigorous controversialist, an able speaker and lecturer, and he kept himself current in his favourite studies—theology and biblical criticism.

By 1899 Gammell had retired from the Education Department and was living in Wellington at Seatoun Heights Miramar. He was one of the pioneers of the Unitarian movement in Wellington. The 1904 visit by the Rev Charles Hargrove, delegate of the BFUA, led to the formation of the Wellington Unitarian Society. The society held services once a month until Tudor Jones, the first minister, arrived in 1906. Gammell was the first president of the church, 1906-08, one of the original five trustees, and served on the church management committee until 1912. He gave public fee-paying lectures to help raise funds for the church.

Gammell delivered addresses to the society, and later the church, on such subjects as: The Pauline Christ; The Pre-Christian Jesus; The Book of Acts of The Apostles—: Is It History or Romance?, 1910; The New Theology; and Rationalism. He brought current scholarship to bear and exposed mythical elements of Christianity. When the Wellington church building was completed in 1909, he was chair of the church committee for the opening service. He composed one of the hymns for the occasion. He often filled the pulpit, allowing the minister to undertake missionary work outside Wellington and to take his annual vacation.

Gammell supported liberty and freedom of thought. In 1910 the Wellington city council forbade the famous rationalist speaker Joseph McCabe, then on his New Zealand tour, from lecturing in the town hall. Gammell was part of a deputation that persuaded the council to rescind the ban. On the last day of his Wellington visit McCabe gave a lecture to a packed Unitarian church on “The Evolution of Woman”.


Gammell died at his home in Seatoun, Wellington. His funeral service was conducted by David Ernest Beaglehole, President of the New Zealand Unitarian Association. On the following Sunday evening Sir Robert Stout gave a memorial address at the Wellington Unitarian Free Church in which he told of his forty-year friendship with Gammell. “Truth, wisdom, freedom, love of friends—all these were his,” said Stout. “I do not think we can set before our youths a nobler example of a good citizen than John Gammell.” In 1920 a brass memorial tablet was placed in the church to commemorate him. Stout performed the unveiling ceremony.


The New Zealand Public Trust Office has the records of Gammell’s will. His writings include The School Inspectors Conference (1894); Adam Kadmon, or The Pauline Christ (1905); The New Testament Problem Solved: or Professor W. B. Smith on The Pre-Christian Jesus: “Der Vor-Christliche Jesus” (1907); Unitarian Free Church of Wellington, Calendars (1906-13); and the church’s Report of the General Management Committee (1920). Information on Gammell and his times can be gleaned from G. E. Evans, Record of the Provincial Assembly of Lanchashire and Cheshire (1896) [and the source for Gammell is “Notes by his brother W Gammell, London” (1895)]; C. Hargrove, Letters Home (1905); Alexander Gordon, The Story of Hale Chapel and its Ancestry (1924); A. G. Butchers, Education in New Zealand (1930); Frank M. Leckie, The Early History of Wellington College, N. Z. (1934); Profanum Vulgus, “Early Dunedin Freethought”, The New Zealand Rationalist (August/September 1941); Mark Rutherford, Autobiography and Deliverance (1969); V.G. Boyle, Southland Education Board 1878-1989: A History (1991); and B. Cooke, A Rebel To His Last Breath: Joseph McCabe and Rationalism (2001). There are obituaries in The Dominion (17 December, 1913); New Zealand Times (December 24, 1913); Christian Life (January 31, 1914); and The Inquirer (February 21, 1914).

Article by Wayne Facer
Posted January 17, 2005