This article looks at missionaries who first came to Maori people in New Zealand, and the expansion of mission work by the Maori people to the greater part of New Zealand.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2014. 5 pages.

The Bay of Islands and Beyond

The Good News about Jesus Christ was first proclaimed in Aotearoa New Zealand on Christmas Day, a Sunday, 1814 when the Rev. Samuel Marsden preached the first Christian sermon in New Zealand. His text was Luke 2:10; “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” He had been learning the Maori language from those who had come to stay with him in Parramatta and may well have preached some of his sermon in Maori.

This was a most appropriate text for the occasion. The message about Jesus Christ is good news for all peoples and was good news for the large gathering of Maori on that Christmas Day. Without true faith in Christ the people of the world live in darkness and after death face an eternal punishment in hell. That was true of the Maori people in the early 1800s. They worshipped their own gods (atua), treated their slaves and captives of war cruelly, and practised tradition­al tribal customs of revenge (utu) and cannibalism. They, like all the peoples of the world, needed to be rescued “from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgive­ness of sins” (Col 1:13f). They needed to hear the “glad tidings of great joy”.

During the next few decades many Christian missionaries preached and taught the gospel of Christ to the Maori people and witnessed a remarkable harvest! In September of 1814, just prior to heading for New Zealand, Marsden wrote about his desire for this country;

I hope to erect the Standard of Christ’s Kingdom there, and to hear the sacred Trumpet sound the Glad Tidings of Sal­vation ... Faith and prayer will again build the walls of Jerusalem, even if we are obliged to hold the Trowel in one Hand, and the Sword in another. 1

Those early missionaries had to hold a Trowel in one hand in order to support themselves while holding the Sword of the Word of God in the other as they proclaimed the gospel. This bi-centenary year of that first proclamation gives us an opportunity to reflect on the blessing of God on this early missionary work.

A slow start🔗

Initially the mission work did not go well. Part of that was due to the European traders already working in the country. Sealers and whalers had left Europe as adventurers and, on the whole, were not particularly pious. They did not respond well to the appeal of the missionaries to set a good example to the Maori people. The missionaries, however, were not always the best examples and were sometimes quarrelling among themselves. The Rev. Thomas Kendal had an affair with his servant girl Tungaroa, and as a result was dismissed from the society.

For the first fifteen years the missionaries sowed the seed of God’s word and waited patiently for their work to bear fruit. Their initial work was among the children and the slaves of the Maori. In the first five years there were no con­verts. William Williams wrote about this time;

Many years of anxious toil were to be passed. The bread was to be cast upon the waters, but it was not to be found until after many days. 2

Strong leadership🔗

In 1823 the Rev. Henry Williams arrived in the Bay of Islands. He replaced John Butler as the Superintendent of the Mission in New Zealand. Marsden had asked Butler to resign his position because all the other missionaries dis­liked him and because his behaviour and unwise leadership generated many tensions among them; he was regarded as “hasty and injudicious, warm in his temper and unstable.” 3The strong and decisive leadership of Henry Williams brought stability and a much needed sense of direction to the mission work. From 1823 to 1840 he led this mission with energy, courage and ability. God greatly used him to further this work. He also worked hard to reduce inter­tribal warfare among the Maori people. Many times he risked his life, putting himself between forces about to join battle and insisting that he be allowed to act as mediator.

The Scriptures in Maori🔗

One of the most significant reasons for the success of this mission was the accu­rate translation of the Scriptures into the Maori language and the widespread dis­tribution of portions of these Scriptures.

William Williams (1800-1876), the brother of Henry, was instrumental in this. He was first educated in medicine and then studied for the ministry. A godly and scholarly man, he was ordained to Church of England ministry and shortly after went to New Zealand, arriving in 1825. In addition to his preaching, teach­ing and travels he became an authority on the Maori language. His brother com­mented; “He ... appears not to learn it; it seems to flow naturally from him.” 4In addition to his many other responsi­bilities he gave himself to the work of translating the Scriptures into the Maori language.

In 1827 a small book was printed con­taining Genesis 1-3, Exodus 20, Matthew 5 and John 1. Translation work was ad­vanced by the combined efforts of the Wesleyan and CMS missionaries under the leadership of William. By 1833 half the New Testament was completed and in 1837 the entire New Testament was published (Hawenata Hou).5“Soon Te Rongopai or the ‘Good News’ was being studied, memorised, copied and shared across the land.” 6The first translations were printed in Australia. Later William Colenso arrived with printing equipment and this acceler­ated the output of portions of Scripture. As the Good News spread the demand became so great that larger print runs were needed and were handled by the British and Foreign Bible Society presses in London.

These Scriptures were highly sought after and demand far exceeded supply. As a result many literate Maori copied portions of the Scriptures for themselves and passed these on to others. They re­garded a portion of the Bible as a pre­cious possession (taonga). The reading and study of the Bible brought many Maori to a saving faith in Jesus.

One of the many moving accounts of the effect of these Scriptures is that of Tarore and her small Gospel of Luke, given to her by the Rev. Alfred and Mrs Charlotte Brown. Tarore wore this in a flax basket (kete) around her neck. One day she was murdered by a raiding party from Te Arawa. One of the warriors took from her the kete with the book, read the Gospel of Luke, and was converted. He went to Tarore’s father, Ngakuku, and asked forgiveness for killing his daugh­ter. Eventually Tarore’s little book ended up in Otaki and was instrumental in the conversion of the warrior chief Te Rauparaha.7Another account comes from the Wes­leyan minister James Watkin who wrote about the response to the arrival of sup­plies and Bibles to his mission station in Waikouiti:

“It would, I am sure, very much please that blessed British and Foreign Bible Society to see the pleasure that their noble gift of the New Testament affords in this distant place ... The anxiety for the books is intense. The arrival caused great joy. Already I have had applicants from seven, ten and thirty miles distant and they say, ‘Let me have a book! Let me have a book! Let me have one for my wife, my sister, my brother...’ Never did such a precious case reach this place before. Cases of clothing, useful and nec­essary, but this, this good thing, the better, the best thing that any ship has yet, or can possibly bring them – the word of life.” 8


Samuel Marsden preached the first Christian sermon in New Zealand on Christmas Day 1814. His was the first of thousands of sermons preached by missionaries to Maori, both by the CMS and the Wesleyans. They preached in the open air and in churches they built; they preached in situations of great con­flict and danger and in times of peace and calm; they preached to those who were hostile and abusive and to those who were attentive and appreciative.

Henry Williams rejected Marsden’s view that Maori should be educated and civilised as a preliminary to con­version. Rather he was convinced that the gospel needed to be preached first and that trades and agriculture would follow after that.

The mission work was concentrated in Northland for some years but then began to spread through the rest of the North Island. Maori tribes became interested in the gospel and requested that mission sta­tions be established on their land. Just as with the Scriptures the demand for missionaries exceeded their supply.

The first minister to preach in the South Island was the Rev. William White in April 1836.9In 1840 a Wesleyan min­ister, the Rev. James Watkin, arrived in Waikouaiti (Karitane) on the east coast of the South Island with his wife Martha and five children, the youngest of whom was only ten months old. He preached his first sermon there on the 17 of May, the day after he arrived. Later he reported to the Wesleyan Mission Board in London;

This day I held a service in English which was pretty well at­tended by the men from the whaling gang, some of the agriculturalists ... and a considerable number of the natives who, of course, could not understand me. I opened my commission in New Zealand by preaching from the old-fashioned text, 1st Timothy 1:15. This is a faithful saying (and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief) etc. The attention was great. May the word spoken not have been in vain.10

Prior to this Watkin had been a mis­sionary in Tonga and had shown a great ability in learning the language. After arriving in the South Island he quickly learnt Maori and within four months was able to preach in the southern dialect. He translated the gospel of Matthew in South Island Maori and sent that to Sydney for printing. Through his preach­ing, teaching and widespread travels, and through the practical love and care of his wife for the Maori women and children, they had a very effective ministry in that region.11

Maori to Maori🔗

We should not underestimate the effect of the preaching of the gospel by the missionaries, but the good news about Jesus was also passed on by the Maori people themselves, person to person.

For a long time the work had been confined to the Bay of Islands but in the 1830s the missionaries sought to es­tablish mission stations in other parts of the country. A group of them sailed to Thames and went up the Waihou River. There they gathered a group of 150 to 200 natives and began to lead a service. They were astounded when the assembly joined in the singing and made responses to the prayer in unison! Later they dis­covered that these people have received instruction from three youths who had lived with mission families in Paihia and had then moved away as missionaries themselves. Similar stories were told of the work of converted slaves who had returned to their own tribes.

In 1838 William Williams went through the Waiapu district and was astonished to find that he was not preaching to unbelievers but to people who already had a basic knowledge of Christianity. He wrote, “A great work has been accomplished in which the hand of God has been signally manifest. It has not been through the labour of your missionaries; for the word has only been preached by Native teachers. We have literally stood still to see the salva­tion of God.” 12

In 1839 Henry Williams began trav­elling back from Waikanae on “his his­toric 300 mile trek back to the Bay of Islands”. As he went north he “found the gospel message had preceded him just about everywhere he went, although no white man had been there before him.” 13

During his three and a half years of ministry in Otago, James Watkin had trained 26 Maori pastors and teachers to pass on the Christian faith to their own people.

Today the indigenous people (the tangata whenua) say, “The missionaries brought Christianity to this country, but it was our people who gave it to each other.” 14

God’s blessing🔗

A steady stream of missionaries arrived during the 1820s and 30s. They devel­oped a generally good relationship with the Maori who treated them kindly and with respect and seemed to appreciate having them live among them. They con­tinued to establish schools for Maori chil­dren and these were well attended and had a good effect on the people. Teach­ing centred on learning language through the words of the Bible. As a result chil­dren learned to read the Bible, the Anglican Prayer Book and the Catechism.

The first baptism of a Maori convert took place in 1824. An old man, Rangi, was approaching his death and came to a saving faith in Christ. This cheered the drooping spirits of the missionaries who were often discouraged by the lack of response to the gospel.

After 15 years of patient work the mis­sionaries began to see the fruit of their work. The Lord blessed their labour and there were many conversions. In 1831, at the beginning of this spiritual harvest, William Williams wrote;

I trust that our children and grandchildren will behold for years to come, with pleasure and ad­miration, those exquisite pieces of work which our forefathers accomplished in the infant state of things in this land.” 15A year later he reported that “the seed which had been scattered was beginning to vegetate ... At Waimate the chapel was far too small for the congregation ... At Ohaiawai there was an average at­tendance of from sixty to seventy ... At Kerikeri the desire on the part of the natives to read the Scriptures was increasing. Those who made a profes­sion of faith discovered great earnestness, and the senior baptised natives rendered much assistance in giving instruction. 16

Keith Newman wrote, “From around 1836 the impact of the Christian message was so dramatic that New Zealand was considered one of the most successful mission fields in the world.” 17

In 1837 Samuel Marsden made his seventh and final visit to New Zealand. At the age of 73 he was still mentally vigorous but could no longer travel far by foot. The Maori people, whether Christians or not, regarded this old man as a father and a friend and insisted on carrying him in a litter from Hokianga to Waimate. He visited all the mission sta­tions in the Bay of Islands. “This veteran soldier of Christ was permitted to see a large body of Christians in every locality he came to, while the New Testament was coming into circulation, and ac­complishing that sure and certain work which God had appointed.” 18

In 1839 William Williams described a time of great harvest; “God had poured out his Holy Spirit, and has inclined great numbers to listen to the invitation given to them. At all the old mission stations in the north there was a great increase in the congregations, and in six months two hundred and twenty nine persons were received into the church.” 19

Those who were converted witnessed to their relatives, seeking to bring them to Christ. By 1840 Williams estimated the total number of attendants at worship to be more than 30,000, not counting those converted through the Wesleyan mission.

Final Reflections🔗

It is worth noting that the first mission work in New Zealand was focused on the translation, distribution and preaching of the Bible. The CMS and Wesleyan mis­sionaries were convinced of the authority and power of the Bible and put time and money into translating and printing the Scriptures and teaching people to read it. We have already noted the work William Williams did in translating the New Testa­ment into Maori. This is in striking contrast to the Roman Catholic mission strategy which concentrated on printing books of Roman Catholic prayers and writings of the church fathers. The CMS missionar­ies, however, believed that the Holy Spirit would use the Scriptures to convert un­believers and build new believers in the faith, and the Spirit certainly blessed this work. He also blessed their faithful and courageous preaching of the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ.

The work of these early missionaries brought the gospel to New Zealand but it was the Maori people themselves who passed this on to their own people. This has been the pattern through much of the history of the New Testament church. In the first century the early believers were forced out of Jerusalem by a severe persecution; the apostles remained in the city but those who were scattered spoke about the good news wherever they went (Acts 8:4). Studies conducted over the past few decades have shown that by far the majority of people who are converted come to faith through the witness of someone they know, a family member, friend or workmate.

We should also note the patience and perseverance of these early mis­sionaries. They laboured for ten years before the first convert was baptised and for fifteen years before they saw much fruit from their work. Yet they pressed on and did not give up. They believed they were doing the Lord’s work and that he would prosper their efforts in his time, and so it was. We seem to be in a time of cultivating the ground and sowing the seed rather than of reaping a harvest (John 4:37f). We too need to persevere with this hard work, praying that one day the Lord will bring about a harvest, as he did in the 1830s and 40s.

Today we can look back on this period of mission work as one of the bright spots in the church history of New Zealand. The Holy Spirit used these dedicated and godly men and women to bring many Maori to a saving faith in Jesus and so turn them away from a lifestyle of fighting and revenge to one of love and peace. We give thanks to God for the pioneering work done by these faithful and godly missionaries and their wives and for his rich blessing on their labour. Let’s pray that God may raise up more workers, both among the Maori people and among all the people of New Zealand, and that we may see a similar great work take place in the future.


  1. ^ Keith Newman, Bible and Treaty, Penguin Books, 2010, p. 29
  2. ^ William Williams, Christianity Among the New Zealanders, Banner of Truth, p. 30
  3. ^ Williams, Christianity Among the New Zealand­ers, p. 33
  4. ^ Newman, Bible and Treaty, p. 67.
  5. ^ In 1844 William Williams also published a Dic­tionary of the New Zealand Language.
  6. ^  Keith Newman, Beyond Betrayal, Penguin, 2013, p. 17.
  7. ^ This story has been wonderfully written for chil­dren by Joy Cowley and is beautifully illustrat­ed. Tarore and Her Book has been published by the Bible Society of New Zealand (2009) and is available on request.
  8. ^ Newman, Bible and Treaty, p. 168f
  9. ^ Newman, Bible and Treaty, p. 164
  10. ^ Newman, Bible and Treaty, p. 165
  11. ^ Newman, Bible and Treaty, pages 164ff for an encouraging description of their work.
  12. ^ Williams, Christianity Among the New Zea­landers, p.290
  13. ^ Newman, Bible and Treaty, p. 132f
  14. ^ Cowley, Tarore and Her Book, p. 13
  15. ^ Nola Easdale, Missionary and Maori, Te Waihora Press, 1991, p. 10.
  16. ^ Williams, Christianity Among the New Zea­landers, p.146.
  17. ^ Newman, Beyond Betrayal, p.17
  18. ^ Williams, Christianity Among the New Zea­landers, p 251
  19. ^ Williams, Christianity Among the New Zea­landers, p. 260

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