Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burton, John Wear (1875–1970)

by A. W. Thornley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Burton, n.d.

John Burton, n.d.

photo supplied by family

John Wear Burton (1875-1970), Methodist minister, was born on 8 March 1875 at Lazenby, Yorkshire, England, second son of Robert Burton, joiner, and his wife Maria, née Bell. In 1883, to benefit Maria's health, the family migrated to New Zealand, eventually settling at Masterton. Burton left school at 12 and worked as a fleece-picker and in a retail store before becoming apprenticed to his father's wheelwright trade. At 17, influenced by a family missionary tradition and an active local church life, he became a lay preacher and in 1895 began theological training in Auckland. Appointed as a probationer two years later to Paeroa, where he studied part time for matriculation, and then to Malvern, he enrolled for university work at Canterbury, saving for fees and fares by 'batching' in the local church vestry. In 1897 he attended the inaugural meeting in Melbourne of the Student Christian Movement of Australia and New Zealand. There he joined the Student Volunteer Movement whose members were pledged to be missionaries. After ordination in 1901 he was shifted to Christchurch but was soon asked to take charge of Indian missionary work in Fiji. On the day of departure, 24 April 1902, he married Florence Mildred Hadfield (d.1953).

In Fiji Burton was appalled by the indentured Indian labourers' living conditions on the sugar estates, and exposed the abuses in his most influential and controversial book, Fiji of Today (London, 1910). It was regarded as a pioneer work by Rev. C. F. Andrews in India, whose later agitation helped to terminate the indenture system in 1920.

Family illness forced Burton to return to New Zealand in 1910. After three years in New Plymouth he was invited by F. J. Cato to be secretary in Victoria for overseas missions. At the University of Melbourne he continued his interrupted studies (B.A., 1918; M. A., 1920). In 1918-20, as an honorary major with the Young Men's Christian Association, his assisted with the demobilization of Australian troops in London, where he was converted to pacifism. Returning to Victoria, he indicated his growing interest in Christian unity, sponsoring United Mission Study Schools and helping to initiate the National Missionary Council, of which he was chairman for eleven years.

In 1925-45 Burton was general secretary in Sydney of the Methodist Missionary Society of Australasia. Though criticized for his dominance, he was an outstanding leader during the Depression and World War II, with a natural organizing ability and a capacity for single-minded pursuit of aims. His astute recommendations often effected decisive changes in mission policy. He regularly visited stations in India, north Australia and the Pacific and was an early advocate of devolution of authority. Convinced of the need for better-qualified missionaries, he introduced training programmes including language study and a course in anthropology devised by A. P. Elkin. For six years secretary of the Australian Intercommunion Group, Burton helped draft a mutual communion formula for use in Papua; it was subsequently adopted by Episcopal and Presbyterian churches in the United States of America and by the United Church of North India. In 1935, reputedly while sitting on a log in the outback, Burton and John Flynn originated the concept of a united church in north Australia, which was achieved in 1946.

A student of Bonhoeffer and Tillich and a member of the local 'Heretics' club, Burton acquired a reputation as a theological radical which was confirmed by his support for Professor Samuel Angus though, like others at the time, he was cautious in his public utterances. In 1931 he had been president of the New South Wales Methodist Conference. He was president-general of the Methodist Church of Australasia in 1945-48, his elevation having been deferred during the war because of his uncompromising pacifism. He toured North America in 1945, receiving an honorary doctorate of divinity from Victoria University, Toronto. Retiring from the ministry in 1948, he was one of Australia's two representatives on the South Pacific Commission until 1950. Survived by five children, he died on 22 May 1970. His son John Wear was secretary of the Department of External Affairs in 1947-50.

Burton was handsome yet austere in appearance. Disdaining popular judgments and adhering to principles of justice and utterance of Christian conscience, he belonged to the social and humanitarian tradition of Dr Charles Strong, one of his heroes. For twenty-three years editor of the Missionary Review, Burton clear-sightedly analyzed missionary achievement in its editorials. His published works dealt with the responsibility of colonial nations to their dependent territories, and the role of the missions in assisting their peoples through years of rapid modernization.

Select Bibliography

  • C. F. Andrews, India and the Pacific (Lond, 1937)
  • M. McKenzie, Mission to Arnhem Land (Adel, 1976)
  • Methodist Missionary Society of Australasia, Missionary Review, June-July 1970
  • Methodist (Sydney), May-July 1970
  • J. W. Burton papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Methodist Overseas Missions papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Strong papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

A. W. Thornley, 'Burton, John Wear (1875–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burton-john-wear-5438/text9231, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Burton, n.d.

John Burton, n.d.

photo supplied by family