Establishing the Church Missionary Society

Samuel Marsden and the Church Missionary Society

A key figure in the establishment of the first Christian mission in New Zealand was Samuel Marsden. During his time in Australia as chaplain to the penal colony, he met many visiting Maori and developed a close association with the Rangihoua chief Ruatara.

Marsden returned to England in 1807 to secure support from the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) and to recruit lay settlers to prepare the way for ordained ministers. He was convinced that 'commerce and the arts have a natural tendency to inculcate industrious and moral habits. The attention of the heathen can be gained and their vagrant habits corrected.' It was not until 1809 that he was able to return to Sydney with the first lay missionaries or 'mechanics' – William Hall, a joiner, and John King, a rope maker. Ruatara, befriended by Marsden in Britain, was also on board the ship.

When news of the attack on the Boyd reached the Colonial Office, any settlement in New Zealand was vetoed. It was not until June 1814 that Hall and Thomas Kendall finally arrived in the Bay of Islands as the first missionary mechanics. Marsden arrived on 22 December at Rangihoua, Ruatara's home, where, on Christmas Day, he gave the first Christian service in New Zealand.

Marsden believed Maori were perfect candidates for conversion as they had grasped the benefits of trade, a key aspect in terms of accepting European ideals and beliefs. Trade would make them dependent on Europeans and thus open the way to salvation.

The natives of New Zealand are far advanced in Civilization, and apparently prepared for receiving the Knowledge of Christianity more than any Savage nations I have seen … The more I see of these people, the more I am pleased with … They appear like a superior Race of men.

Claudia Orange, The story of a treaty, p. 9

'Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy'

The theme of Marsden's first sermon on Christmas Day 1814 largely fell on deaf ears. Maori were clearly in a position of strength, so there seemed little reason for them to heed the new message. Some aspects of the Old Testament might have been seen as incorporating Maori values such as utu, but, as historian Gavin McLean noted, while men such as Ruatara and Hongi Hika 'listened politely and let children attend the stations' schools', they 'rejected the low-church mechanic missionaries' gloomy emphasis on an angry God' looking to damn their souls to eternal fires. Furthermore, conversion to Christianity was considered to be a blow to the mana of a chief – and to convert the people, the chiefs had to be won over.

Despite increased missionary activity during the 1820s, there were no Maori baptisms before 1830. Maori had their own beliefs and customs, and from a spiritual perspective the missionaries had little to offer. The missionaries were seen largely as another trade opportunity to be manipulated. Missionaries could do little about this as their economic and physical welfare were dependent on the goodwill and patience of Maori.

How to cite this page: 'Establishing the Church Missionary Society', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/missionaries/marsden-and-cms, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Mar-2014