As thousands of Cantabs swarmed about on Lichfield Street in the dimness of the early evening, their target was a parked cab that had been summoned to whisk preacher Arthur Bentley Worthington away to safety. As the cab was unable to move, Magistrate Richard Beetham climbed onto its roof and for the first – and only – time in Christchurch history, the Riot Act was read out in the hopes of dispersing the crowd.
This was met with booing and hissing but the crowd retreated and reassembled in High Street. Whether Worthington looked up at the angry faces or not, he must have known his time in New Zealand was truly over.
Arthur Bently Worthington – first known as Samuel Oakley Crawford – was born in New York in 1847. The son of a lawyer, Worthington appears to have found God upon the battlefields of the American Civil War.
In 1867, he became a Methodist Minister. He proved to be a powerful preacher – smooth and charming – putting people instantly at ease and offered them peace and hope for their future. So it may have come as a surprise to those who knew him when he was arrested for fraud and was sentenced to two years behind bars.
Upon his release, he travelled all over the States; changing names, occupations and wives as he went. He even fathered three children during these bigamous marriages but this didn’t stop him from fleecing their mothers and leaving them penniless and heartbroken. Rich widows were his favourite targets.
In 1890, Worthington and his latest wife – Mary Plunkett – and her two children from her first marriage (which Worthington had broken up) arrived in Lyttelton. He advertised his upcoming lectures on metaphysics, natural philosophy and religious studies in the papers. He even put on magic shows for children, naming himself the ‘Wizard of the South West’.
It didn’t take long for these popular lectures to turn into revivalist meetings. At first, even though he preached on his support of marriage and celibacy for the unmarried, he soon promoted his more non-Christian beliefs of reincarnation, and rumours soon spread of his sex advice and demonstrations given for couples in private appointments, along with the promotion of free love and wife swapping.
Still operating under the Methodist flag in all his workings, he was seen as an embarrassment by fellow city church leaders.
Reverend John Hosking of the St Asaph Free Methodist Church was the first to dig around into the past of Worthington. Even his findings didn’t stop the ‘Temple of Truth’ (pictured) being built on the corner of Armagh and Madras Streets – fully funded by his followers, the ‘Students of Truth’.
With its basilica design, it closely resembled the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church – which was lost to the 2011/2012 earthquakes. The temple was opened on 11th August, 1892.
When the first exposing article was published in the Christchurch Star in June 1893, the words ‘…fraudster…villain…liar…swindler…’ were used. He was also accused of having numerous sexual liaisons with his female attendees and breaking up marriages. He remained silent against these accusations and, in around about way, threw his wife to the wolves. She was banned from the church and fled to Australia – but not before revealing what life had been like with Worthington, despite signing a contract that she wouldn’t speak of the church to anyone.
With a new wife, Evelyn Maud Jordan, at the ready and even though a lengthy court case was underway, they departed for Australia in December, 1895.
Many mourned his departure while many breathed a sigh of relief.
It wasn’t to be last of him though; he returned to Christchurch two years later – re-advertising his lectures at the Oldfellows Hall in Lichfield Street as the Temple of Truth refused to host him. His three meetings were well attended, the biggest being his last with 6000 people. But amongst the loyal were those who hated him, causing constant interruptions while he spoke.
After his final departure from New Zealand in May 1899, his ex-wife Mary Plunkett returned to Christchurch from exile later that year. She was offered her old home which had been built beside the church and although she remarried and regained the custody of one of her children, she suffered from great depression. Tragically in June 1901, she was found drowned in the ornamental pond at the church she helped found. Her death was ruled a suicide.
We next find Worthington in Melbourne under arrest for fraud in 1902. He served 7 years and returned to America after his release. He became a Presbyterian Minister and continued his life of lies and deception. Back in jail by 13th December 1917, he died of a heart attack after being confronted by one of his female victims. One of the judges who had Worthington in his court said that he had been one of the most dangerous conmen he had even faced.
As for the Temple of Truth, it was sold in January 1898 and renamed to the ‘Choral Hall’ and proved to be a popular place for young people to hang out and dance. It was demolished in 1966 and the grounds were made into a car park.