Te Rongopai

image4On the back of South West Baptist’s 2014 Advent Calendar, the story of the gospel coming to New Zealand is recounted. Perhaps you are visiting this page because you’ve read that story and want to know more.

The story on the Advent Calendar was written for children and like all good children’s books, focussed on the essential elements and the main players, just keeping it simple. You can read it here. Although essentially true, the story’s simplicity and brevity hides a layer of complexity which isn’t widely known.

If you continue on this page and wander down some of the links you will learn other perspectives on the story of the coming of the gospel to Aotearoa New Zealand. Running up to Christmas Day 24 December 2014, many of us will celebrate the first recorded instance of the preaching of the gospel of Christ to Maori, it was 200 years ago.

1. The First Sermon: The Standard Story
Big Understanding One: Debate surrounds the notion of this ‘first’ sermon
Widely accepted (facts) Contested (facts)
First recorded sermon that was preached by an ordained Minister of the Church of England. First recorded sermon that was preached by an ordained Minister (that we know of). Some commentators argue that oral histories suggest that ship Captains/crews shared the gospel with Maori prior to Marsden’s sermon.


2 The First Sermon: The personalities involved
Big understanding two: Historical figures should not be seen as flawless or portrayed as heroes… God uses mortals
Widely accepted (facts): The ‘good’ Contested (facts): ‘the bad’
Te Pahi: A widely respected and prominent rangatira of the north with a settlement in Whangaroa harbour on the island of Te Puna. In trips to New South Wales he impressed the Governor King with his acumen. Samuel Marsden too was impressed with his intellect and skills, so much so that he began to plan the establishment of a mission on Te Puna under the protection of Te Pahi. Te Pahi: Before a mission was able to be established, Te Pahi was implicated (possibly wrongly) in an incident in 1809 when the crew of the brigantine Boyd, were massacred in Whangaroa Harbour then eaten.
Ruatara: He was related to Te Pahi and made good on the request to establish a Christian mission on Ngati Rahiri land in Rangihoua Bay. Like Te Pahi, Ruatara was an adventurer and one of the first Maori entrepreneurs avidly pursuing the Pakeha technologies around agriculture. Ruatara sold land in Rangihoua Bay to Marsden in order to set up the mission. He also agreed to protect the mission but as with all chiefs at that time, his mana and influence was maintained only by his ability to provide for his hapu, then to survive the interests and jealousy of rival chiefs. Sadly, Ruatara fell ill and died only months after the mission had been established – what a dilemma that must have presented for Marsden.
Hongi Hika: After the death of Ruatara, Hongi Hika is established as the paramount chief of Rangihoua and he continues to provide protection for the missionaries there. Hongi Hika is the one of the main early drivers of the acquisition of muskets. There were inter-tribal scores to settle with Ngati Whatua and Waikato in the south and over many years, he ensures that his hapu dominates the musket wars. His relationship with the mission ensured this.
Samuel Marsden:
• Samuel Marsden trained in the ministry and had a calling to the colonies taking up a position in 1794 in the convict colony of Sydney. (Sydney was first populated with mainly convict immigrants when the first fleet of 11 ships arrived from Britain carrying 759 convicts).
• Initially, he had significant support from William Wilberforce (acknowledged as the leading protagonist for the abolition of slavery and other social improvements in Britain).
• He became the head of the London Missionary Society and the Church Mission Society in Sydney.
• He was hard working and advocated hard work, building a large run-holding in Parramatta, west of Sydney.
• He worked at establishing the gospel among the immigrants and convicts.
• He gained significant political mana and was appointed a magistrate.
• He worked to establish a mission to the aboriginal peoples but this was largely unsuccessful.
• In contrast his experience with Maori is quite the opposite: he befriended and cared for many on his farm; including northland rangatira Te Pahi, Hongi Hika & later Ruatara, being impressed with their intelligence, willingness to learn and commercial acumen.
In New South Wales, Marsden’s legacy is troubling:
• He was accused of self interest in establishing huge personal wealth, including the use of convict labour to finance the growth in his land and farming interests.
• He lacked understanding of the aboriginal world view to the extent that he dismisses their eligibility to be saved.
• He was accused of cruelty in the dispensing of punishments to convicts for minor breaches (nicknamed the flogging parson).
• He demonstrated partiality when dealing with the Irish and the Catholics – both convicts and those who had served their sentences.
• He interfered with the judicial process and was sacked twice as a magistrate.
• He conducting personal vendettas against political foes.In New Zealand, Marsden is afforded almost hero status for his work in establishing the gospel and bringing about peace amongst some of the warring tribes he counselled. Yet there are some moments of disquiet here too:
• His evangelical endeavours were grounded in turning savages into civil men, so they could then be deserving of salvation.
• Indeed the first ‘missionary’ appointments were artisans or skilled craftsmen (not his choice specifically as the CMS was having difficulty recruiting ordained ministers): a school teacher; a builder; a rope maker and all hopelessly under-prepared for their work and unable to work together throughout their entire time here.
• The first mission station at Rangihoua was grossly inadequate for supporting the mission and they could only survive by trading (it’s not clear whether Marsden was truly aware of this or whether he accepted this as a foothold into the new land with the expectation that more would follow).
• Hongi Hika returned from Sydney with muskets on the very ship on which the missionaries sailed.
• Marsden himself was implicated in weapons trading.

That’s some of the background on the main players in the story of the gospel which was preached at Oihi Bay on the Christmas Day of 1814, 200 years ago. It’s still the early beginnings of the Good News but maybe the miracle in the story is the fact something good and enduring can prosper and survive even though it gets filtered through self-interest and flawed characters… people just like us?

Over the next 200 years the story contains many ups and downs; with more than 50% of Maori professing the Christian faith at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 but by 1870 most of that interest had dissipated. As we move into the 200 year period questions we need to ask ourselves are where are we with the Christian faith among Maori today and what will we take into the next 200 years?