Robert Laidlaw: A Biographical Essay

Robert Laidlaw was an influential man, and a bit of a hero in New Zealand. He started up one of our major chain stores, and was one of the founding fathers of Laidlaw College (where I got my degree, whoop whoop!) He is still a major source of inspiration to me, so I thought I would share. Here’s a little project I did on him a few years ago:

Robert Laidlaw is a major historical figure for New Zealand in both Christian and secular circles. He was a businessman, a philanthropist, a theological writer, and an inspiring character. He migrated from Scotland with his family as a child, and left school at sixteen to work full time at his father’s hosiery company. From early on he had an interest in business, and an ambitious drive that made itself evident in his accomplishments.[1]

His faith was a largely forming aspect of his life, since his conversion at the Torrey Alexander Mission in 1902.[2] In the first few weeks of his new life he formed a group called “Daniel’s Band” with several other new converts his age, some of whom went on to become missionaries.[3] Thus started his long and active life of ministry.

He made a commitment of complete abstinence, including swearing, smoking and drinking. This is an important detail as it was so out of character for the times. Although there were others who made such commitments, there were few who were in his circles. During his job as a wholesale traveller, it was basically expected of him to take prospective clients to a bar and shout them a drink in return for their patronage. As a longer lasting alternative, he gave out high quality pocket knives, and let his character act as a testimony in itself.[4]

He spent his early life in Dunedin of the South Island. During that time, travel was difficult and people had to travel by horse or rail, and the city in which he lived in was very far from the central hubs such as Auckland. There were many townships consisting of farmers, however, which provided the business potential that Laidlaw recognized. Two years after he moved to Auckland where it was easier to obtain stock, he opened his own mail order company in 1909, naming it ‘Laidlaw Leeds’.[5] This company was among the first of its kind in New Zealand, taking up a trend that had started in America and Europe. The company grew with amazing speed, and merged with the Farmers Union Trading Company in 1918, where Laidlaw became the General Manager. The name was later shortened to ‘Farmers Trading Company’, or more commonly ‘Farmers’ and is one of the largest chain stores in New Zealand today. 

Within his company, Laidlaw stuck to his ideals when creating his company policies such as staff behaviour. Staff were not to swear, or act in an unseemly manner, but were to be generally optimistic and create a healthy working place. To encourage and maintain this he edited a company magazine named ‘The Optimist’ which was published monthly and distributed to all staff, plus several interested others.[6] This in turn reflected Laidlaw’s personal optimism and habit of always looking for the best in people.

When Laidlaw was 18 years old he made a tithing contract with God in his diary, committing to tithe 10% of his income.[7] Two years later in 1906 he edited this commitment, creating a scale that increased his tithing alongside the increase in his income.[8] Eventually, in 1919 at the age of twenty five, he scrapped this scale in favour of tithing the greater amount of 50% to various organizations and charitable trusts.[9]  The relevance in these facts is the illustration of his values and commitments which were to become a major part of his legacy throughout his life. In his success he blessed many organizations, groups and families that he encountered. He was chairman of the board of the New Zealand Bible Training Institute (now renamed Laidlaw College in his memory) for twenty years, as well as being heavily involved in the Brethren assemblies, Christian broadcasting and providing grants via the Bethesda Charitable Trust.[10] He also not only supported many missionaries himself, but was ready to step in and intervene when corporate sponsors were not honouring their commitments to the families they had agreed to provide for.

By request, Laidlaw also created a pamphlet called ‘The Reason Why’ in 1913.[12] This was in response to the suggestion that many would benefit from his testimony and the discussions he had shared with some, but that he would never get around to talking to them all.[13] The pamphlet was written in a clear and precise manner to address the general questions of the reason of life and faith. Since then, it has been translated into many languages and distributed in many countries by uncountable numbers. It has also been translated into contemporary English and was re-published several times. Furthermore, it was also adapted into a play by a travelling Christian theatre group several years ago, which I remember watching as a child.

When the First World War broke out, two of Laidlaw’s brothers were enlisted and died in service. Robert Laidlaw was exempt from being enlisted as he was the only remaining son of the family, and the main source of income. At his mother’s request, he chose not to go. However, he maintained a passion and dedication to the Great Commission and wished that he could have gone and spread the gospel with him.[14] When World War Two broke out, Laidlaw was in Britain with his family and decided to stay on in an evangelical role. He sent his family on the first available boat to New Zealand, and immediately he took on the role of Co-Field Director of the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Christian Association which he had been supplying with ‘The Reason Why’ tracts since the First World War.[15] His service here involved overseeing and opening canteens in order to encourage and evangelize, as well as travelling throughout both Britain and greater Europe in order to spread the gospel to civilians and soldiers likewise. He spoke at many public evangelical mission events not unlike the one he had been converted at himself, and continued this even after the end of the war with a vision to spread the gospel until he died.

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Bibliography

Gilbert, Nathan and Joyce Zemans eds. Making Change: Fifty Years of the Laidlaw Foundation. ECW: Toronto, 2001.

Hunter, Ian. Robert Laidlaw: Man of Our Time. Castle: Auckland, 1999.

Kay, Malcolm. Inside Story of Farmers. The Farmers Trading Company Ltd: Auckland, 1954.

Orange, Claudia ed. The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three: 1901-1920.

Auckland University Press: Auckland, 1996.

Laidlaw, Robert A. The Story of “The Reason Why”. G.W. Moore Ltd: Auckland, 1969.

Woodbridge, John D. ed., More Than Conquerors. Moody: Chicago, 1992.

Footnotes:

[1] Robert A. Laidlaw, The Story of “The Reason Why”, (G.W. Moore Ltd: Auckland, 1969), 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 3-5.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 7-11.

[5] John D. Woodbridge ed., More Than Conquerors, (Moody: Chicago, 1992), 351.

[6] Malcolm Kay, Inside Story of Farmers, (The Farmers Trading Company Ltd: Auckland, 1954), 60-62.

[7] Laidlaw, 25.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Claudia Orange ed., The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: Volume Three: 1901-1920, (Auckland University Press: Auckland, 1996), 272.

[10] Orange, 272.

[12] Woodbridge, 351.

[13] Laidlaw, 22.

[14] Ibid., 47.

[15] Ibid., 48-49.

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