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Robert Alexander Crookston Laidlaw, CBE

1922 – 1942 / Board member, NZ Bible Training Institute
1943 – 1965 / President, NZ Bible Training Institute

Robert Laidlaw joined Rev. Joseph Kemp and others in July 1921 in prayerfully deciding to establish a Bible Training Institute in New Zealand. A foundation Board member, he was actively involved in the planning and donated money towards the Institute’s start-up costs. Later, he was to play a key role in negotiating the sale of land for the Institute’s campuses in Queen Street and Lincoln Road. His wife, Lillian, was the first President of the Ladies’ Committee, and the couple hosted many students in their home.

Laidlaw had been raised an Open Brethren and experienced a personal conversion at age 17 at the 1902 mission of American evangelist Dr Reuben A. Torrey. At 18, he wrote a pledge to start giving one-tenth of his earnings to the Lord. Two years later he pledged a graduated scale of tithing as his earnings increased, committed to not allowing “money to get a grip of my heart”. At age 25 he changed the tithing scale to start at 50%. [1] By that time he had established a mail-order company, Laidlaw Leeds. When he sold that to the Farmers Union Trading Company in 1918, he became the General Manager of Farmers and oversaw the rebuilding of what was a struggling company into a thriving department store with multiple branches.

At the request of his staff, Laidlaw wrote down his reasons for believing in Christ and produced a 64-page booklet, The Reason Why, in 1913. That little book went on to be translated into 33 languages, with an estimated 30 million copies printed. During World War 2, Laidlaw distributed the booklet among the troops as he served as Director of the Army Scripture Readers Association. He toured all 150 military camps throughout the British Isles and followed the Allied troops into France a few months after D-Day.

While in England, he was appointed President of the NZBTI upon the death of Board Chair, Mr R. Stewart. He was in his 60th year when he returned to NZ in early 1945, stepping back from his role as General Manager of Farmers so that he could devote more time to Christian work. He spoke at many Christian meetings, conferences, and campaigns. He established a charitable trust, Bethesda, and used it for supporting Christian and charitable work in NZ. By now he was giving 90% of his income away. He paid some NZBTI students’ fees anonymously and started the Institute’s Henderson campus building project off with a donation of 10,000 pounds – also paying the architect’s fees of 5,000 pounds.

Perhaps one of Laidlaw’s most difficult speaking engagements was at the funeral of NZBTI Principal John Deane, Deane’s daughter, and grandson, after their fatal car accident in 1959. With feeling he reminded those gathered, “Our God is not on trial here today ... we are on trial, and our devotion and trust in the face of this inexplicable thing are being tested”. [2]

In 1965, aged 80, Robert Laidlaw stepped down as President of NZBTI, though still attended Board meetings until December 1970. He passed away on 12 March 1971, aged 85. [3]

In August 2008, the Bible College of New Zealand was renamed Laidlaw College in honour of Robert Laidlaw. He dreamed of a College that brought theology to the marketplace in order to form leaders passionate about the biblical story and capable of being successful across all of society.

[1] Robert A. Laidlaw “Giving to God”, The Reaper Vol. 34/9 (1 Nov 1956), 349.

[2] L. Rushbrook, “In Retrospect”, The Reaper, Vol 38/12 (1 Feb 1960), 445.

[3] A biography of Robert Laidlaw has been written by Ian Hunter, Man for our Time: Triumph against all Odds (Castle Publishing, Auckland, 1999).

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