At Oihi Beach in the Bay of Islands, Samuel Marsden preached in English to a largely Māori gathering, launching the Christian missionary phase of New Zealand history.
Marsden’s service was translated by the Ngāpuhi leader Ruatara. The two men had first met in Port Jackson (Sydney) in 1809. In 1814 Marsden sent Thomas Kendall to consult Ruatara about establishing a Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission at Rangihoua. Ruatara became the patron of the first Christian mission established in New Zealand, making it known to all that he was the protector and patron of ‘his Pakeha’ – the CMS missionaries Marsden, Kendall, John King and William Hall, who had now arrived in New Zealand.
It is the possible, however, that the French had beaten the CMS to the altar 45 years earlier. On Christmas Day 1769 the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville and his crew were in Doubtless Bay in the Far North. On board the Saint Jean Baptiste was a Dominican priest, Paul-Antoine de Villefeix. While no records survive, it seems highly likely that such an important Catholic festival would have been celebrated with a mass. In the absence of hard evidence, New Zealand’s English colonial traditions have favoured Marsden’s claim to fame.
Image: Samuel Marsden’s first service (detail)