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Rev. Joseph W. Kemp

Founder and Principal, NZ Bible Training Institute, 1922-1932

Joseph William Kemp was born in the port city of Hull, England, in December 1872. His father, a policeman, drowned while on duty, and his mother died less than two years later when Joseph was 9. He only had 18 months of primary school education when he left to take care of his four younger siblings. At age 13, Kemp was taken into the home of a Christian man, a grocer called J.H. Russell, who discerned in this young boy some of the promise he was later to fulfil.

In 1892 Kemp went on to train at the recently established Glasgow Bible Training Institute. Despite his limited education, Kemp’s determination to succeed saw him granted the Diploma of Merit. After graduation he became an evangelist for the Lanarkshire Christian Union, and then minister of the Kelso Baptist Church (where he met and married Wilhelmina (Winnie) Binnie).

In 1902 he was called to pastor Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh, where a congregation of 35 welcomed him. An opportunity to witness the Welsh Revival saw him return to his own church with a longing to see a similar movement of the Spirit. He shared his burden with some church members at a prayer meeting, and from that moment the floodgates opened – night after night, the prayer meetings increased in intensity. By the end of that year, 1,000 people had been converted. During these years he also began a weekly Bible Correspondence course – so great was the volume of papers returned for marking that the Edinburgh Post Office often had to despatch a postal van to carry the load.

In 1915, Kemp accepted a call to the Calvary Baptist Church in downtown New York. Here, again, he saw spiritual revival – within two months the congregation had increased five-fold. Three years later he became pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in New York. His work in both pastorates was affected by ill-health.

In 1920 Rev. Kemp arrived in Auckland to pastor a then sparsely attended Baptist Tabernacle. His ministry revitalised the church, with people sitting in the aisles and on windowsills to hear him preach. His weekly Bible study drew an interdenominational audience of 600. The Reaper magazine was birthed out of those Bible studies in 1922, with Kemp devoting space to notes of the studies he had taken, as well as sermons and topical articles. Kemp was also in demand as a preacher beyond his parish, and ‘dead churches became throbbing centres of spiritual life’. [1]

His arrival in New Zealand provided the impetus needed to see a Bible Training Institute established – a place where lay people could be offered sound, Biblical teaching, and be equipped for Christian service. After weeks of prayer for direction by Kemp and others, including Robert Laidlaw, the decision was made to establish the NZ Bible Training Institute (NZBTI). The Institute opened in 1922, with Joseph Kemp as Principal, and Charles Rolls as Superintendent – these two men shouldering much of the teaching in the early years. [2] Kemp also continued to pastor the Baptist Tabernacle.

Kemp was a strict disciplinarian, and had no patience with latecomers or slackness. Yet many a student found him a sympathetic listener and counsellor. He was passionate about evangelism, often saying to students, “Young people, catch the fire”. [3] At one of his last appearances at an Institute function he made glad reference to the fact that 80 graduates had sailed to foreign mission fields. In words that proved prophetic he added, “If my Lord privileges me to see 100 students go out from our doors to foreign lands, I shall look into His face and say, ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” [4]

During 1932 his health began to deteriorate but, despite growing disability, he conducted a successful summer conference at the Baptist Tabernacle in January 1933. That proved to be the last time he was heard in public. In February he suffered a complete breakdown and for seven months lay quite helpless until his death on 4 September 1933, at age 60. The high esteem in which he was held was evidenced at his funeral, with an estimated 6,000 people gathering outside the Tabernacle Church and lining nearby streets to pay tribute to this remarkable man.

On the day of his death, missionaries 99 and 100 had their passages booked and sailed that month – Kemp’s vision was realised.

[1] J.O. Sanders, Expanding Horizons: the story of the NZ Bible Training Institute (Institute Press, Auckland) 1971, p. 2

[2] Kemp’s appreciation for his benefactor, J.H. Russell, was expressed in tangible form when he laid Mr Russell’s well-worn Bible behind the foundation stone of the new Queen Street campus in 1926.

[3] J.O. Sanders, Expanding Horizons: the story of the NZ Bible Training Institute (Institute Press, Auckland) 1971, p. 23

[4] ibid, p. 24

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