Unsung Methodist Personalities: Biographies from the history of New Zealand Methodism by Donald Phillipps

New Zealand Methodism’s First Bi-Centenary

SAMUEL LEIGH 1785–1852

Two hundred years ago today it’s likely that Samuel Leigh was putting together his case to present to the Shaftesbury Circuit Quarterly meeting in Wiltshire to be accepted for overseas mission work.

He was very nearly sent to Canada but at the last moment Conference decided he should go to Sydney to satisfy the needs of a small but vocal group of Methodists who wanted a minister.

At that point Samuel was nearly 30, the son of blacksmith Matthew Leigh and his wife Elizabeth, who lived at Milton in Staffordshire. Samuel was a blacksmith himself and was in partnership with his brother Ralph at Shelton.

By 1810 he had become a lay helper and local preacher at the Independent Chapel at Hanley – all these places are in present-day Stoke-on-Trent. A call to ministry took him to Dr Bogue’s Congregational Seminary at Gosport for two years.

Already Samuel comes across as a man of strong opinions, for he disagreed with the formidable doctor on theological grounds and left the Seminary, joining the Wesleyans at nearby Portsmouth. Almost immediately he was received on probation, and during his second year he made the decision to offer for missionary work.

Ordained just prior to sailing on the Hebe, he eventually arrived in Sydney in August 1815.

He spent seven years there, off and on, encouraged by both Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Rev Samuel Marsden. Leigh didn’t enjoy the best of health, and a ‘recuperative’ visit to New Zealand with Marsden in 1919 led him to the belief that he must establish a Wesleyan Mission across the Tasman.

After a brief return to Sydney he went back to England in 1820, officially to regain his health. But he also did his best to convince the rather unwilling Missionary Society to further stretch its resources by approving a mission to the ‘heathen New Zealanders’.

Samuel was allowed to canvass for barter goods for the mission, and believed he had received enough to underwrite the first five years of the Mission’s life. In the end they lasted not much more than one year.

Before he left England again he married Catherine Clewes at his home village of Hanley. They spent not much more than a year in New Zealand, most of it staying with the Church Mission folk at the Bay of Islands. It was only when William White and then Nathanael Turner arrived in 1823 that he actually oversaw the choice of Whangaroa as the mission site but he was again too unwell to offer any real assistance in this arduous task.

Samuel and Catherine returned to Sydney, and he spent nearly 10 more years there as circuit superintendent. On the death of Catherine he returned to England, and from 1834 till 1842 he was in various circuits around the country. His brother Ralph had become an attorney, and when he died Samuel was a fortunate beneficiary of his will, being enabled to retire in his mid 50s.

Samuel settled in Reading with his second wife, Elizabeth. There is a pleasant coincidence from this period, for in 1849 he baptised a child named Thomas Brooke. Thomas ultimately came to New Zealand as a Wesleyan minister, and from 1909 till 1924 was the general secretary of the Home Mission Department, seeking in a very different way the same goals as Samuel Leigh.

Leigh died at Reading in May 2nd 1852.

He was a man after Wesley’s own heart in the sense that he believed his only task as a preacher of the Gospel was ‘to save souls’. The reality, however, of the missionary’s task in founding a mission was that he had to build a house for his wife and family and he had to learn the language of the people he wanted to convert. He had to work with and inspire his colleagues. He had to be seen by others as a person of mana.

We may praise Samuel Leigh for his vision but let’s not uncritically turn him into a hero.

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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 7:00 PM