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“Samuel Marsden” Speaks 200 Years On


Disclaimer: This talk was prepared for a Christmas Day service for the combined churches of Blockhouse Bay commemorating 220 years since Samuel Marsden preached for the first time on NZ soil. It is a devotional rather than an academic talk. While this speech did involve a lot of research it also involved a lot of imagination. This is very much my biased interpretation of Samuel Marsden and not intended to be taken as a historically rigorous account. I would encourage others to do their own research and find out more about such a fascinating character and time in NZ history.



Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Tena koto, tena koto, tena koto katoa

My name is Samuel Marsden and 200 years ago I had the singular privilege of being the first person to preach the gospel on NZ soil. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a copy of that sermon, although I do know that I preached on Luke 2:10, the words of the angels to the shepherds at the birth of Christ.

Today, I expect you have some questions for me, I’ll do my best to answer them.

You might ask: What sort of man was it who brought the gospel to NZ?
Well, I was a Prison Chaplain in the penal colony of NSW in Australia. I was also given some land and became a farmer, rather a good one actually. I worked hard and was practical enough to pioneer farming techniques. You may be interested to know that I was the first person to commercially export wool from Australia to Britain.

I’ve been criticised for being wealthy, but you need to understand I used my wealth to support missionary in Australia and New Zealand, including buying the good ship the Active, to use as a mission supply ship and also to trade to help finance the work.

As chaplain I cared for the convicts I had to pastor, I worked hard to stop female convicts being sexually exploited, I persuaded the British government to let convicts bring their families to Australia at public expense, and I helped found an orphanage for girls.

I was also an admirer of the Maori people, the tribes who lived in New Zealand. I spent years learning their language. I could speak Maori reasonably well, I had been learning it for years and had even written a Maori vocabulary.

I always made sure my Maori crew and workers were paid the same as Europeans and I was angry about the exploitation and abuse of Maori crew on European ships, I gathered information to make sure people didn’t get away with it. I often had Maori staying with me to learn about farming.

But, if I’m honest I also had some big flaws, I was also a colonial Magistrate, with a reputation for harshness, especially against Irish Catholics. And I often got caught up in toxic politics and personality clashes in NSW.

Yes, I was far from perfect and in Australia especially I came under a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, but God still used me mightily, because I was willing to be used.

So why was I in NZ that Chistmas?
I was here simply because I had been invited by Ruatara chief of the Nga Puhi iwi.

But you should understand I had originally met Ruatara under very different circumstances

Ruatara had left New Zealand 9 years earlier, working as a crewmember on whaling ships. For four years he tried to get to England to see King George, which he never succeeded in doing. Some ships' masters treated him well, while others would cheat, abuse and abandon him. In 1809 I was returning to Australia from England aboard a convict ship, when I discovered Ruatara on deck. He was ill and neglected, vomiting blood from being beaten so badly and naked apart from a filthy old sail cloth he had found to wrap himself in.

I felt like I had found the victim from the story of the good Samaritan, he had obviously fallen out of favour with the crew, helping him would not make me popular on board. But what else could a servant of Christ do when finding someone in such desperate need? I made sure that Ruatara was cared for, clothed and when we got to Australia he came to stay at my farm for 8 months, before he went back home to NZ.

It was only when Ruatara returned home that he discovered he was now the chief of the Nga Puhi. He was young to be chief and his openness to new ideas made some of his people suspicious of him. And so it was in his new role as chief that Ruatara invited me to bring the gospel to NZ.

So I think it is fair to say that Christmas came to NZ because I was ready and willing to be the Good Samaritan to Ruatara. Living out the teaching of Jesus I showed mercy and compassion to him when he needed it the most.

So what happened at that service?
Well I have already apologised for not having my sermon notes, but I do remember that 400 maori that had gathered held a respectful and solemn silence before the service started. Then we began by reading psalm 100, I took the usual 1662 book of common prayer service and preached from Luke 2:10, “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, etc.”

A friend of mine. John Liddiard Nicholas, who was also there writes that I spoke about “the great importance of what they had heard, which was the doctrine of the only true God, whom they should all be anxious to know and worship; and should therefore take all the pains in their power to understand the religion that was to be introduced to them.”

As I said I had been learning Maori for a number of years, and it is possible I even tried to preach all or in part in Te Reo, but either way afterwards my friend Ruatara had to speak either to translate or to clarify what I had said. The Maori found all the talk of one true God and other new concepts difficult to take in.

After the service the Maori gathered around me and performed a Haka called Te Hari o Ngapuhi an exuberant demonstration of joy and welcome that speaks of the arrival of the Pipi Wharauroa, the shining Cuckoo, a migratory bird whose arrival in New Zealand in the spring signals new life and new possibilities.

Without doubt this service was turning point in the history of these lands and set events in motion that would eventual lead to an incredible revival where perhaps as many as 50% of the tangata whenua would receive the gospel, and not in the main from European hands but from other Maori who carried the gospel further and faster than any European missionaries could, and leading to the treaty of Waitangi being signed and the nation of New Zealand that we now live in being born.

I think the gathered people knew that change was afoot that something exciting was happening and perhaps even had a touch from the Holy Spirit to stir their hearts in response to a message they were yet to fully understand.

So 200 years on what do I have to say to you?
First I think you should give thanks that there is a lot in NZ history that we can be proud of and can celebrate. I think you all need to be challenged about your ignorance. A number of Christian historians are doing excellent work and producing resources to help you understand your Christian heritage, you should take advantage of them, you need to tell our stories because often the schools and the media miss out the bits that we Christians find important and interesting!

Secondly, the first Christian service in NZ was bilingual and bicultural, it included Maori and English, the book of common prayer and a haka. How many of your services are like that today? Your Christian heritage in NZ is not European, it is Maori and European, the missionaries were invited by the Maori. The gospel came to NZ as a partnership between Marsden and Ruatara. For many churches and many in our churches biculturalism is an inconvenience, a hassle and a nuisance that you would rather ignore – that is your great loss – don’t forget your roots.

Thirdly, today you also find ourselves at a turning point, but not a good one, church attendance is on the decline, the media is increasingly hostile to religious belief, especially Christian, and public space for Christian thought and practice is rapidly being taken away. You may be wishing for some grand event or great leader to change things, saying “who is the next Samuel Marsden of our time?” but the reality is your best course, your best hope, is to go back to basic Christianity, reaching out in mercy to the stranger, showing kindness and compassion, putting your wealth at the disposal of the gospel instead of storing it up for our own pleasure, getting to know and respect those who are different from you, learning a new language to reach a different group of people. This is what, in God’s good grace, changed this corner of the world 200 years ago, and this is what, in God’s grace, will change the world today.

Because if you do all that, all you are doing is simply imitating our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was good news to the shepherds 2000 years ago, the one who was good news to the tangata whenua 200 years ago, and the one who is still good news to us today. Because at Christmas, God’s son gave up the riches of heaven and reached out to us in mercy and compassion, became one of us, lived among us, befriended us and generously paid the price that we could not, so that we could be free from sin and death and live eternally in God’s coming kingdom.

This Christmas, may we all become more like our saviour Jesus, may we be inspired by our Christian heritage, and may we show in word and deed that the coming of Jesus really is glad tidings of great joy for all humanity.

Tena koto, tena koto, tena koto katoa

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

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