Elinor Thornton (nee Wilson) was a preacher/evangelist in her 20s and early 30s. After marrying Guy Thornton, they served together in several Baptist churches and preached together at evangelistic missions in the United Kingdom.

Elinor’s story is unusually significant to the writer (Beulah Wood, Baptist Union President in 2019), because Elinor Thornton’s ministry brought Beulah’s grandfather into the family of God.

Elinor was born in 1867 in Dungannon, County Tyrone, Ireland, and arrived in New Zealand on the Carisbrooke Castle in September 1875.

One of six children in a farming family, she loved to learn scripture. She told how when she was 12, she had to stay home to plant potatoes instead of going to a scripture exam – but then, due to a flooded river, the examiner was delayed, and to her delight she was able to participate, coming first! She told how she was ‘strangely moved’ at confirmation at 14, but still longed for God.

Her family was cultured and enabled her education. Books were her friends. At 15 years of age, she became a schoolteacher. She rode six miles to and from the school where she taught. On one of these trips in her first year, her horse shied at some paper and galloped into the fern and tea-tree, throwing her from the saddle with her foot caught in the stirrup, dragging her half a mile with her head almost on the ground. When her spur finally tore her shoe, she fell, bruised and lacerated, and could finally get up and make her way home with no serious results.

Elinor moved to teaching at Thames, still feeling restless and incomplete. There, she was touched by a witness from the Salvation Army. Rereading scripture again, she found the Saviour, and her life as a believer restarted when she stood in a public meeting and admitted to trusting Christ. That was the beginning of her speaking in front of others. She started a small weekly meeting in the village, and another in the school after teaching for the day. The first convert was a boy of 18 who later went as a missionary to Africa.

Shortly after, she moved to Remuera school, the ‘pet school’ of the Auckland Education Board. The headmaster, also a Christian, helped her with the increased responsibilities. She thrived on being in Auckland, the ‘great centre of Christian activity’. She taught Bible Class and helped with Christian Endeavour and the Sailors’ Mission for three years. Then she found that ‘a great door and effectual’ opened for mission work ‘in the heart of the New Zealand bush’ when a Rangitikei land and timber mill owner, Mr Ewen McGregor, invited her to teach school for 40 children, teach Sunday School and take a service every Sunday evening. (The previous minister had left because it was too lonely on the river between Ohingaiti and Mangaweka before the railway.)

She wrote afterwards that ‘Mr and Mrs McGregor were as astonished as I myself when a girl was suggested. But I prayed over the matter for a month or two, then realised that the call was from God.’

Elinor left the desirable Remuera position, accepted the job under the Wanganui Education Board, and set out, taking a ‘few odds and ends of furniture’ and her ‘theological library, consisting of Bible, a book of Bible readings by DL Moody, and half a dozen of FB Meyer’s shilling booklets.’ From Hunterville the journey proceeded by buggy and then ‘a cage running on a wire rope and worked by an engine’ to cross the river.

Elinor spent two years there (approximately 1897 – 1899) and taught school daily. She studied her Bible, took a Sunday School class and a service each Sunday to which practically the whole village came. During this, men and women were led to Christ. Here is one of her memories.

On the wettest, darkest nights in winter, men, women and children could be seen carrying storm lanterns, coming in every direction down the rough bush tracks, wending their way to the schoolhouse. I sought to preach Christ in my own very simple fashion hardly, however, looking for or expecting any definite or immediate results—for I knew nothing of evangelistic methods—when one evening, as I was about to close the meeting in the usual way by announcing a hymn and pronouncing the benediction, a member of the congregation rose to his feet and asked if he might say something. He was a Mr Alexander, the clerk and manager (of the timber mill), a man of 35, a splendid character, greatly respected by everyone. I feel still the tense silence, the feeling of expectancy in the meeting as I said we would be glad to hear what he had to say. Then we listened to words something like these: ‘I want to say that until I began to attend these services a few months ago, I never realised that it was for me that Christ had died. Now I know it—I want everybody else to know it, and I am so glad to acknowledge myself His follower. By His grace I will follow Him and serve Him as long as I live.’

The effect of this open declaration was electric. No sooner had Mr Alexander sat down than there jumped to his feet the young Scotch engineer who worked the engine that ran the cage across the river, Mr Robertson… saying ‘I am ashamed to say I have never taken my stand as a Christian, and I must do so tonight.’

This began what I can only describe as a revival. We experienced continually days of the right hand of the Most High… The blessing continued—it seemed only a natural thing that it should—until, in almost every home, there were those who openly identified themselves with Christ.[1]

In another story Elinor tells of an invitation to take a service at a cook-house near which a number of men were building the main trunk railway line. She and elderly Mr McDonald walked several miles and found awaiting them a large number of men. They sang a hymn, ‘God loved the world for sinners lost’, Elinor commented on the personal love of Christ in the hymn, and the men listened to the service with rapt attention. On the way back, McDonald told her with tears streaming down his face, ’I did not know until today, when you spoke about the ‘me’ in the hymn that Christ had actually died for me…’

After two years McGregor encouraged Elinor to give up teaching and devote all her time to evangelism. She commenced work in Mangaweka, which was then the terminus of the main trunk rail line. In her diary she noted 98 people whom she had visited, among whom she held prayer meetings for six weeks. Then she rented the town hall, put up notices of meetings and sermon subjects, distributed handbills and held a week’s mission. All sorts of people attended, and she was amazed at the results. She gave a second series of meetings, continuing for about two years, travelling and preaching.

[1] Thornton, Elinor, Reminiscences, Wright & Jaques Ltd, Auckland, 1943, 23

In 1902 Elinor married Rev. Guy D Thornton whom she had known from seven years previously. They would have two daughters, Lilian Ruth (Platt) and Marjery McGregor (Bradley). The couple joined in itinerant mission work and brief pastorates at Otahuhu Baptist Church (1905) and Sydenham, Christchurch (1906–8). They began a Baptist mission at Ohakune (1909–12) working among railway workers, sawmillers and bushmen in the backblocks. Short pastorates followed at Morrinsville (1912–13) and Whangarei (1914).

Rev Ayson Clifford wrote of Ohakune, which was hemmed in by forest, 1700 feet above sea level, rough and raw and overshadowed by Mt Ruapehu.

An unusual assignment called for an unusual man. Rev. Guy Thornton was such a man. He came from a missionary family. His father was for 30 years principal of Te Aute College. Converted, and baptized in the sea near Gisborne, Guy became an eager evangelist… He brought his wife and family to Ohakune. At first they lived in a cold shanty. There was no church building. A billiard saloon was sometimes the only place where a service could be held. There were few supporting Christians. Congregations consisted largely of non-Christians. The locals called Guy ‘the wowser’, but he got them to listen to the Gospel and some of them were won to God.

His health suffered. There were weeks when he was laid up. But he had a remarkable wife in Elinor. She was a person of great saintliness and a fine preacher. She could maintain his work when he was out of action.

When Elinor had health questions in 1912, the Thorntons exchanged pastorates with the Smiths of Morrinsville.[1]

Then Guy left for service during World War 1, probably as a chaplain. Undeterred, Elinor kept preaching. Over some months she accepted successive invitations for service series in Whangarei, Invercargill and Riccarton. Then Guy, ill in hospital in London, cabled her to come to him. On the sea voyage to England Elinor’s daughter told some passengers her mother could preach so the captain arranged a service attended by nearly all the women and children in the steerage of the ship. (On the return trip she took services for both men and women, with wonderful response.)

For a while Guy and Elinor served as missioners in England under the YMCA. Elinor conducted the afternoon Bible Readings at each mission and spoke in some of the evening gatherings in places like Sunderland, Leicester, High Wycombe, Edinburgh, York, Manchester, Tiverton, Doncaster and Wales.[2]

At one stage in Woolwich, Elinor and Guy chose not to include an evening sermon from her because it was a large venue and they thought her voice may not carry. But the minister of the church said that people would be disappointed, and urged her to preach, after checking that she could be distinctly heard. She then spoke on several occasions, with more conversions occurring.

Elinor returned to New Zealand before Guy and started services in Lyall Bay, Wellington. After Guy returned in 1922, he became pastor of the South Dunedin Baptist Church. Recurring poor health forced his early retirement in 1926, and he died 1934.

Elinor’s love of words continued with five published booklets. The first, “Soul Secrets”, she wrote before leaving England. Others were “A Fragrant Life”, “Guy D Thornton”, “Peace: is it Possible?” and, when she was in her sixties, “Reminiscences”. She died in 1946 and is buried in the Hillsborough cemetery, Auckland.

[1] Clifford, Ayson, A Handful of Grain Vol 2, N.Z. Baptist Historical Society, 1982, 74

[2] Thornton, Elinor, Reminiscences, Wright & Jaques Ltd, Auckland, 1943, 23, 29

Sources

Thornton, Elinor, Reminiscences, Wright & Jaques Ltd, Auckland, 1943.

Clifford, Ayson, A Handful of Grain Vol 2, N.Z. Baptist Historical Society, 1982.

Angus MacLeod. ‘Thornton, Guy Dynevor’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3t35/thornton-guy-dynevor (accessed 27 November 2020).

Alexander family line

Walter Alexander married in 1907 and settled near Lichfield, Putaruru, where the first two children were Ruth and Matthew. Ruth married John Baldwin who had become a convinced Christian through his friendship with Matthew and under the guidance of Walter Alexander. Matthew and John founded Trinity Lands Trust and Putaruru Brethren Assembly. Ruth and John’s eldest daughter, Beulah, married Brian Wood of Belmont Baptist in 1967 and they served God in India and Nepal, raising four daughters.

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