Inside the Northern or Town Hall door of the Cathedral is a large monument recounting the many ways God used Samuel Marsden for the benefit of others. It does not call him the “flogging parson” but the “Apostle to New Zealand”. It is a tribute not an exhaustive history, but reading it is generally exhausting – for few men achieved so much in their lifetime.
As the second chaplain of the prison colony he not only consistently taught God’s word and led His people but also conducted marriages and burials for the whole community. At the same time he was engaged in the civil matters of the colony, bringing him into the position of a magistrate with all the unfortunate consequences of his reputation. He was also engaged in the economic construction of the community being a farmer and ship owner. In many ways he was the father of the sheep industry of Australia and the grape industry of New Zealand. Furthermore, he took a leading and active role in caring for the children of the colony, establishing and governing schools and orphanages, and with frustratingly little success, he tried to help the Aborigines.
Samuel Marsden was a convinced evangelical and so was committed to world evangelism and the missionary cause. He was deeply involved with missionary activity in the Pacific islands, and personally took a leading part in reaching the Maoris. While Marsden struggled to find a way forward with the indigenous peoples of Australia he found progress in New Zealand. He was the first man to preach Christ there and set up a mission, which required him to cross the Tasman many times.
In his period of history this concern for the salvation of mankind was often confused with improving and civilising society and especially the ‘savages’ of the world. The war on slavery was still in full swing and the horrors of human abuse touched the evangelical conscience. Adding to the complexity of these issues, the missionary movement was also inextricably bound up with the development of the European empires and their financial interests.
All this has led to very confused verdicts of later generations. Samuel Marsden’s motives and actions have often been questioned. The good that he did has often been discounted by the associated evils that he was engaged with. Late last century the Australian academic A. T. Yarwood published a full and interesting biography: “Samuel Marsden; The Great Survivor”. But dispute and controversy continues to reign over the work and life of this colourful character of colonial times.
Though I knew all this, nothing quite prepared me for a recent reading of a New Zealand travel guide. In it the author recounted the state of New Zealand in the time of Marsden. There was a toxic combination of Maori culture – practising cannibalism, slavery and fierce inter-tribal warfare – with the off scouring of European adventurers, profiteers, escaped convicts and “all manner of miscreants”. Alcohol and tobacco abuse, European diseases and gun-running led to the collapse of tribal structures. “Maori women were prostituted to the Pakeha sailors”. One settlement was described as “the Hellhole of the Pacific” and Darwin in 1835, found it as a lawless place, the home of “the very refuse of Society”.
And Marsden? The travel guide had this to say of him: “Into this scene stepped the missionaries in 1814, the brutal New South Wales magistrate, Samuel Marsden, arriving in the Bay of Islands a transformed man with a mission to bring Christianity and ‘civilization’ to Maori, and to save the souls of the sealers and whalers.” In our terms, Marsden may have been brutal, but in the day in which he lived and compared to the people he was seeking to serve, his brutality is hardly the most striking feature. And yes, he served as a magistrate in Parramatta, but he was first and foremost a minister of the gospel and came as a missionary not a magistrate. In the guide book he, and the other subsequent missionaries, are further attacked for ruining the Maori culture even for demanding that they “abandon cannibalism and slavery”!
What we have here is the later generations’ judgement on the sovereignty and sanctity of all cultures. Today’s European (Western) culture claims there are no moral certainties or absolutes, and nobody should impose their ideas upon anybody else; even by persuasion and prayer. We now are being taught that no culture is superior to another and the only immorality is to spread your culture to others. People should have been left in their own culture, whatever it was, without the arrogant intervention of Europeans.
Indeed Christians can agree that the European cultures with their rapacious exploitative greed were far from righteous. But travelling alongside those cultures, and deeply critical of them, was the Christian view of humanity, which sought to preserve the sanctity of human life, while bringing the enlightenment of God’s word on how to live it. That meant opposing slavery and cannibalism and other appalling practices such as polygamy, prostitution and (in India) suttee. Missionaries brought education and medicine, and intervened to stop the endless round of tribal warfare. They frequently helped those invaded by the commercial interests of Europe to adapt to a new world order that could not be avoided.
Those who do not believe in spiritual realities have little sympathy for the work of liberating those who have lived all their life under the fear and terror of the occult forces administered by witchdoctors. Those who were liberated rejoiced in receiving the great news of salvation. For them the images and idols were not fascinating collectables of indigenous art but the instruments of the torturous darkness of evil spirits.
The imposition of Western culture is as great today as ever – both the commercial interests and the social cultural norms. The critics of cultural imperialism often unwittingly impose the intellectual norms of Western ethical and religious relativism on others. Christians must remain as committed to world mission as ever, for as Paul told the philosophers of his day: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31).