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

Honoring the Bicentenary, Donald Phillipps. Without Anglican assistance through Rev Samuel Marsden, Methodism would not have become established in New Zealand for some time to come.

1814 - Honoring Samuel Marsden

As the bicentenary of that first celebration of Christian worship in New Zealand by Samuel Marsden approaches, Te Haahi Weteriana has every reason to honour him. Without Marsden’s like-minded friendship and practical support the beginnings of Methodism here could not have come about.

Methodism in this part of the world began in Sydney in 1812 when class meetings were started by devout Wesleyan laymen.

One of these was Thomas Bowden, who had come to Sydney in 1811 in response to Samuel Marsden’s appeal for a schoolmaster for the convicts’ children. Bowden was a London Methodist and the master at a Charity School. He became the leader of the group that petitioned the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society to send a missionary to the new settlement in New South Wales.

Their appeal was acknowledged by Conference and the Rev Samuel Leigh arrived in Sydney in August 1815. Neither the local Methodist leaders nor Leigh wished to establish ‘dissenting’ Methodism – they wanted a ‘primitive Methodism’ that was not hostile to the Church.

Their attitude won the friendship of Governor Macquarie and a promise of support was given. But it also simplified their relationship with Marsden, who was able to help the Methodist societies as friends and not competitors.

Marsden’s parents were, it has been written, of ‘lowly Methodist’ background, from Horsforth, near Leeds. Like his predecessor in New South Wales, Richard Johnson, Samuel was educated at Hull Grammar School, whose headmaster was an Anglican evangelical. Marsden then entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, as a sizar (working student) and while there came under the influence of Charles Simeon, a leader of the Evangelical Revival.

It has been suggested that Marsden never forgot his own Methodist beginnings, and in Sydney he and Leigh became ‘hearty friends.’ They worked together in the founding of the Asylum for the Poor and of the Bible Society, in spite of the opposition of those who thought both these groups should be under the control of the Anglican clergy.

In 1818, moreover, Marsden gave to Leigh the ground at Windsor, NSW (inland from Sydney) on which the Methodist Church still stands.

Marsden had established the first mission in New Zealand in 1814, as an industrial lay enterprise under Hall, Kendall and King. It did not work smoothly and was of constant concern to him.

In 1819 he decided to seek Leigh’s help. The latter was unwell, and Marsden suggested he would recruit his health by making a trip to New Zealand on Marsden’s brig ‘Active’ while at the same time reporting on the state of affairs at the Bay of Islands. Leigh did so, and remained for six weeks at the Mission, returning to Sydney in late June.

Leigh’s endeavour in Aotearoa

How far Leigh was successful in his task is open to question but he came back convinced there should be a Methodist mission to New Zealand.

Leigh’s health did not improve, and he returned to England on medical advice. There he tried to convince an unwilling Wesleyan Missionary Society to undertake a new venture.

Their unwillingness was matched by Leigh’s obsessive determination. He undertook to gain financial support from the manufacturing districts, and having convinced the Committee that he had enough goods for barter to last five years, his scheme was approved. He returned to Sydney, and then made his way to the Bay of Islands, on the Active, arriving in January 1822.

While Leigh awaited the arrival of the two men who were to assist him in establishing the new mission, Marsden involved him in what proved to be a long-drawn-out inquiry into the personal life of Thomas Kendall. Kendall’s behaviour was so divisive for the Church mission families at Rangihoua that they even asked Leigh to celebrate the sacrament for them. Leigh finally refused to do this – possibly out of his deep respect for Marsden.

The decision to establish a New Zealand Wesleyan mission in the first place went against Marsden’s advice. He thought New Zealand should be left to the Church Missionary Society.

The choice of Whangaroa as the site for the Wesleyan Mission must have further stretched Marsden’s patience, for he had visited the harbour on a couple of occasions and had planned to establish a mission there himself, so he chose Paihia instead. Nevertheless, as Dr John Owens remarks, though the “missionary world was thick with judgment, recrimination, and reproof, no harsh words ever appear to have passed between Leigh and Marsden.”

Marsden’s on-going support

When Marsden himself visited Whangaroa in August 1823 he brought with him Nathaniel and Mrs Turner, John Hobbs, and a maid for Mrs Turner. It was Marsden who now negotiated the agreement with the three Ngatiuru chiefs for the ceding of land for the Wesleyan mission station at Kaeo. At the end of that same trip it was Marsden who convinced Leigh that he should return, for health reasons, to Sydney.

Without the good will of the Church missionaries, and by implication of Samuel Marsden himself, the Whangaroa mission could not have survived. The CMS schooner brought them supplies from the Bay of Islands, for example.

In the first year or two, the CMS men continued to come to Whangaroa to offer support, particularly in connection with the teaching of language. At various times, William Hall, John King, William Fairburn and Thomas Kendall all visited Whangaroa, and helped with the preaching and the learning of te reo.

When relationships within the tiny Wesleyan team at Whangaroa began to crumble some of them turned to the CMS staff for comfort or support. Their proximity made such consultation inevitable, though the initiative sometimes came from the other side – especially over their problems with William Yate.

The mana of the CMS operations had been enhanced by the appointment of Henry Williams in 1823, and of his brother, William, in 1826. Though it is a subjective judgment, it is hard to imagine that the Maori of Whangaroa regarded the Wesleyan missionaries with the same respect they accorded the Williams brothers, and, more particularly Samuel Marsden.

But in all the years between 1822 and 1827, if Marsden’s name is not directly associated with the activities of the Whangaroa Mission, his goodwill towards it found expression in the consistent support the Wesleyans received from the CMS staff. The fact of the matter was that the CMS mission was larger, better organised, better funded, and, particularly, better led. In that initial period the new Wesleyan missionaries tended to accept their inevitable and necessary state of dependence.

In their time of peril in 1827, the CMS staff came to their aid, meeting them at the waterfall at Kerikeri when they fled from Whangaroa. They cared for them at the Marsden’s Vale (Paihia) mission, while Turner and Hobbs tried to reach a decision in respect to the future of the Wesleyan Mission.

When Marsden visited the Bay of Islands in 1827, just a few months after the destruction of the Whangaroa mission he pointed out to the chiefs from Whangaroa and elsewhere the gravity of their crimes in robbing the Wesleyans. When he returned to Sydney, Marsden met up with Turner, Hobbs and Stack, and confirmed that the account they had written as a report to the authorities in England “contained nothing but matters of fact, that the picture was not too highly coloured nor the truth in any way distorted.”

Marsden continued to come to New Zealand, until shortly before his death in 1838 but by then the Mission he had founded was virtually autonomous and his visits had a different character. The Wesleyans, under William White, also wanted to assert their independence, and the two missions gradually and inevitably moved apart.


Samuel Marsden 1764-1838


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