Reviewed by PAT LYTHE.
TE RONGOPAI 1814, TAKOTO TE PAI — Bicentenary Reflections on Christian Beginnings and Developments in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Allan Davidson, Stuart Lange, Peter Lineham, Adrienne Puckey (General Synod Office, “Tuia”, Anglican Church in Aotearoa and Polynesia, available from Anglican General Synod Office, PO Box 87188, Meadowbank, Auckland 1742. firstname.lastname@example.org) $30.
New Zealand is approaching the bicentenary of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries and their interaction with Maori here and is preparing to mark the occasion of Samuel Marsden’s preaching of the Good News on Christmas Day, 1814, at Oihi in the north.
This collection of 13 essays explores the implications and re-evaluates the impact that Christianity has had on shaping the nation.
The essays began as papers presented to a conference in November 2012 on that very topic and aimed to stimulate critical reflection on missionary beginnings in New Zealand.
As a Catholic, my knowledge of the arrival of Christianity in New Zealandhas largely begun with the arrival of Bishop Pompallier in the Hokianga in January 1838, 24 years, nearly a quarter of a century, later. Although knowing that Marsden and missionaries of the
Church Missionary Society (CMS) arrived much earlier and that when the Catholics
arrived there was much distrust, suspicion and competition from the earlier missionaries, I knew little else.
The general histories of New Zealand by Keith Sinclair, Michael King and James Belich devoted very little space to the missionaries, although recent books by Judith Binney and Caroline
Fitzgerald, among others, have covered individual missionaries in more detail and been received by a wider audience.
Nevertheless most accounts of this early missionary period have been in academic journals and denominational memories.
These essays explore different aspects of the influential (mainly Anglican) missionary endeavours, providing fascinating historical contexts, dialogue, debates, and perspectives. Some opinions have held that missionaries cooperated with Maori and were remarkably understanding of the cultural differences, whereas others have critically seen the influence in a negative light, portraying missionaries as agents of colonisation.
The volume begins with a Maori perspective, recalling the dance and song of joy, Te Hari a Ngapuhi, sung by those present as a response to the Gospel message on Christmas Day 1814.
Allan Davidson gives an overview of the growth of missionary activity, with a concomitant theology and methodology appearing after the founding of the Church Missionary Society at the
beginning of the century. Both lay and ordained were accepted as missionaries, with artisans as important as ministers.
The relationships between the missionary societies and the maritime networks are explored as well. Many sea captains were Christians who held prayer services on their ships and were
often instrumental in encouraging and supporting the missionaries.
The second section features a discussion as to whether Marsden preached that famous first sermon in English, translated by the chief Ruatara, or in Maori, explained (rather than translated) by Ruatara, who had been living with him in Australia and accompanied him
and facilitated his acceptance by Maori.
Daily life on the stations is covered in a number of essays, one of which uses the samplers embroidered by the women as source material.
A major theme is Maori interaction with the missionaries; were Maori easily “converted”, or were they prepared to take some parts of the message and the benefits of “civilisation” but keep their own beliefs, whereas some missionaries put their major effort into “civilising”,
leaving converting to follow, while other purists eschewed that policy. Maori reflections and reactions are included.
Failed attempts to establish local seminaries for Maori are also explored.
Finally there are discussions as to how attitudes to slavery and peace influenced the missionary thinking and how, in recent times, written missionary observations have been used as evidence in Treaty claims.
The essays are comprehensively referenced and footnoted, offering a huge resource for further reading.
I cannot see a better preparation for the celebration of the bicentenary of the arrival of Christian missionaries in Aotearoa New Zealand than to read this book, especially for those who, like me, were woefully ignorant of that period.
Pat Lythe is the executive secretary of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations.
Reviewed by PAT LYTHE.