This article is a biography of Samuel Marsden, a missionary to the Maori people in New Zealand. The focus is given to the life of this man, especially his call to mission work.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2014. 5 pages.

Samuel Marsden: The Road to Rangihoua

Some particular moments in church history have a special significance; and perhaps few are more significant than the first proclamation of the gospel to a people who have never heard it before. We are remembering such a moment this year, on Christmas Day. Two hundred years ago, on 25th December 1814, Church Missionary Society missionary Samuel Marsden preached the very first sermon ever delivered in New Zealand; to Maori people gathered at Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands.

Marsden was very aware of the im­mensity of the occasion, and equally aware that he was but an ordinary man. We so often assume that the people God calls to do something great must somehow be great themselves – an “ex­traordinary leader” or some such thing. But Marsden, according to his first bi­ographer, was anything but: “His life ... was not ennobled by birth or rank, nor was he greatly distinguished by splendid talents. Yet he was, in the true sense, a great man; and he was an instance, one of the most striking (of the middle nineteenth century, when the biography was written), of the vast results which may be accomplished when an honest heart, a clear head, and a resolute mind and purpose, are directed, under the influence of the grace of God, to the attainment of a noble object.” 1This is a good observation, and one bound to encourage the rest of us who are only too conscious of how ordinary we are. How, then, did God so order the life of this man to bring him to the Bay of Islands on Christmas Day, 1814?

Samuel Marsden was born on the 28th of July 1764, the son of a York­shire tradesman; and his early life was spent among his extended family of weavers, blacksmiths, small farmers and the like. Both his parents were known as people of integrity and godliness; being associated with the ministry of the Wesleyan Methodists. He and his family were simple, honest Yorkshire folk who shared the characteristic Yorkshire bluff frankness and lack of pretension. Later, William Wilberforce, himself a Yorkshire man, was to write that he was “a Man of solid Sense, of great Good temper tho’ not refin’d in his Notions or Manners, & capable of being made eminently useful.”2

It was as a black­smith’s labourer, at the age of 21, that Marsden’s own Christian character and desire for learning attracted the attention of Samuel Stone, an evangelical curate in the Church of England. Stone invited him to live in his household, and gave him the beginnings of his formal educa­tion. From there, through the help of the Elland Clerical Society (a group of evan­gelical clergymen who channelled funds to young men of promise to enable their further education) he went on to Hull Grammar School and finally entered St John’s College at Cambridge University.

Well connected🔗

The sponsorship of the Elland Society connected Marsden with an influential group of fine, evangelical men. One of them, Charles Simeon, was Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, and a fellow of King’s College. Through his long ministry there Simeon discipled many young men headed for the preaching ministry at home and mission work abroad. Marsden got to know Simeon at Cambridge, and throughout Marsden’s work in the Antipodes Simeon corresponded faithfully with his younger friend; encouraging him, supporting him in prayer and connecting him with men and funds when most needed. Simeon’s usefulness in Christ’s kingdom in these years cannot be overestimated; and we should be forever grateful that a man trained by him became so instrumental in the establishment of the church in New Zealand.

It was while he was still at Cam­bridge – even before he finished his degree – that he received an offer from the government to take up an assistant chaplaincy in the territory of New South Wales. This meant he would be serving what was largely a military and penal colony, together with the existing chap­lain, Richard Johnson. This offer came through the agency of William Wilber­force and his friends, who were particu­larly anxious to see that an evangelical man was given the post. Marsden at first refused, in humility feeling himself not up to the task, and wanting to com­plete his degree. However, when asked again, he agreed so long as no one more suited were found. This settled, he was appointed, and being ordained shortly afterward, went back to York­shire to prepare for his departure. He married Elizabeth Tristan of Hull a few months later, in April 1793. She was to prove a very faithful and helpful wife. They were to have a large household and many visitors. A practical, well-or­ganised woman, Elizabeth took care of a great many things and left Marsden free to achieve a prodigious amount in his busy, crowded life.


Their passage to Sydney was on a convict ship. It was not a comfortable voyage (Marsden was almost always af­flicted with awful sea-sickness); but the most difficult part was the indifference – even opposition – of the captain to Marsden’s desire to encourage spiritu­al life on board the ship. However, he persevered, and by the third Sunday he was permitted to lead worship. He found encouragement by reading David Brainerd’s accounts of his work among the American Indians. His interactions with the convicts readied him for what he would soon encounter in New South Wales: “I am surrounded,” he wrote in his journal, “with evil-disposed persons, thieves, adulterers and blasphemers. May God keep me from evil, that I may not be tainted by the evil practices of those amongst whom I live.”

Marsden, however, did not waste a moment in his aim to be a preacher who brought the lost to the Saviour. Imme­diately placed in his new station – the “barracks” of Parramatta, a few miles inland from Sydney – he preached his first Sunday in the colony on Revelation 6: “Behold the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” As he was returning home, a young man followed him into the woods, and told him how he was distressed about the state of his soul. Marsden believed he was truly convicted of his sin, and re­pentant. It was a promising beginning.

In his new role, however, he was to face many difficulties, and much opposi­tion. At first the junior of two chaplains, after 6 years he found himself the sole clergyman when Richard Johnson departed for good in 1800. There were many problems in the colony: the con­victs were a difficult bunch to administer, and all forms of vice abounded. Many of them were very reluctant to darken the doors of the church; though they were compelled to attend worship. The men were housed in barracks and worked in organised groups on farms or wherever they were needed. The women did not have proper housing, and many “slept  rough” or were enticed into all kinds of immoral situations (women were very scarce in the colony, and military and administrative officials often cohabited with female convicts). Domestic service was almost their only avenue for honest work. Harvests were not always good, and there was sometimes a shortage of food.

Lawlessness abounding🔗

In addition to his preaching and pastoral work, Marsden found himself propelled – much against his wishes and the advice of his friends at home – into serving as a magistrate. There was a genuine shortage of men to fill this role, and with law­lessness abounding, there were always criminal cases to be dealt with. In addi­tion, Marsden could see that service as a magistrate was one of the few opportuni­ties he would have apart from preaching the gospel to materially affect the course of society for good. As it turned out, he was to serve for more than 20 years in this role. It often placed him in serious difficulties with autocratic governors; he was misunderstood, blamed for troubles with the aborigines and Irish convicts; and in general, it was a thankless task.

He was altogether a hard-pressed man; but one sphere of his life afford­ed him immense satisfaction. Granted various packages of land by succes­sive governors, Marsden became a very successful farmer – even pioneering in the breeding of merino sheep and dif­ferent breeds of cattle. He also grew arable crops, producing excellent har­vests. Perhaps it was his rural Yorkshire background, or even his strong consti­tution which helped, but he loved the farming life. The colony provided him with convict labour; and built him a large and comfortable vicarage in Parramatta. Physically, he and his family were well-provided for, and he was very alive to the future possibilities for agriculture in Australia.

Attention on New Zealand🔗

The Marsden family always had visitors in their home; sometimes many at one time. Among them were numbers of New Zealand Maori who visited New South Wales from time to time. Marsden came to respect the intelligence and capacity of these people to learn; and began to wonder about the possibility of mission work in New Zealand. He had already had dealings with the London Missionary Society (Methodist) missionaries serving in various Pacific islands; and the Maori thirst for knowledge and their general interest in the gospel when compared to the Australian aborigines, turned his thoughts to missionary work in New Zealand. This, coupled with the many difficulties facing gospel work in Sydney, drew his attention across the Tasman.

In 1807 the Marsdens left for England to recruit in person, if possible, clergy­men and schoolmasters for New South Wales – efforts by correspondence having been singularly unsuccessful. He also hoped to win the support of the newly-formed Church Missionary Society for a mission to the Maori in New Zealand. The Society was a favourite project of many of Marsden’s evangelical friends, especially Charles Simeon, who was an ardent supporter of efforts to take the gospel to indigenous peoples. They were away for three years; and in that time had many important interactions with their Christian friends that were to bear great fruit for gospel work in New Zealand. (Never let us underestimate the value of like-minded, one-hearted friendship in gospel causes). Marsden met with Wilberforce, and addressed the board of the Colonial Office and various mission societies soon after his arrival in London. He was successful in persuad­ing the CMS to make a mission to New Zealand their second work.

Marsden was of the view (he was not on his own in this) that civilisation should precede the preaching of the gospel. So, with the help of these evangelical friends he arranged for two tradesmen and their wives, and later a schoolmaster, to go to New Zealand and establish themselves in farming and their own trades. The idea was that they would share the gospel with the local Maori at every op­portunity. Later, however, the CMS came to the conclusion that this was not the right policy. In their instructions to John Butler, their first ordained missionary to New Zealand they wrote: “Do not imagine when heathens are raised in in­tellect, in the knowledge of the arts and outward decencies, above their fellow-countrymen, that they are Christians, and therefore rest content as if your proper work were accomplished.” 3

Maori connection🔗

Marsden and his family set sail back to Australia in August 1809. Providential­ly, also on board was Ruatara, a young Maori chief who had served on board various ships in search of adventure, but who had been badly treated. Marsden befriended him and took care of him; and in return Ruatara gave him lessons in the Maori language. On arrival in Sydney, Marsden took Ruatara to his home, where he stayed for six months. He was to prove an invaluable help in the establishment of the mission in the Bay of Islands.

Circumstances, however, made a quick beginning impossible. Sometime around the end of 1809, the ship Boyd, in Whangaroa Harbour to purchase spars, had been burned and most of its occupants killed and eaten in retalia­tion for ill-treatment of a chief’s son by the captain of the ship. This struck fear into most Europeans; and no one would venture to New Zealand for some years afterward. Consequently, Marsden’s plans to start a New Zealand mission had to be shelved.

In the meantime, Marsden hosted several Maori chiefs in his home, and purchased the brig Active (with his own money) as few companies were prepared to risk their own vessels in a trip to New Zealand’s shores. He also foresaw the value of the CMS having its own trans­port. Finally, in November 1814, after a trial voyage to New Zealand in which Hall, King and Kendall (the three laymen who were to be the first missionaries sta­tioned in New Zealand) returned with three of the Maori chiefs instrumental in the mission’s establishment there, Marsden set off himself.

Governor Macquarie had been gen­erous; providing the chiefs with military uniforms and the nucleus of a herd of cattle to add to the stallion and two mares Marsden himself had provided. The chiefs were much gratified, and were kindly disposed to the whole mission effort. They themselves had helped Marsden learn more of the Maori lan­guage; and together the party looked forward to landing again in New Zealand.

By the 16th of December they had sighted the Three Kings islands, and on the 17th the Active moored off North Cape. Visits were exchanged between the three chiefs and parties of local Maori who came on board; and Marsden assured them of his and the Governor’s desire to see Maori receive protection from abuse by visiting European traders. (Macquarie had appointed Kendall as Magistrate in the Bay of Islands). The local Maori agreed to prepare a cargo of flax for the chaplain to buy on his way home.

Good intentions🔗

On 20th December they landed at Matauri Bay, and Marsden, despite there having been some local warfare since the time of the Boyd massacre, spent time in discussion about the massacre with the Whangaparoa Maori who came to meet him. It helped a great deal that he had shown hospitality at Parramatta to one of the chiefs, known to the Europeans as George. Both he and John Nicholas, a private gentleman on board the ship, spent the night on shore, completely unprotected by weaponry. Exhibiting con­siderable faith and personal courage, his desire was to instill confidence in the good intentions of the Europeans, es­pecially the missionaries. Marsden wrote in his journal:

I viewed our present situation with new sensations and feel­ings that I cannot express. Surrounded by cannibals, who had massacred and devoured our countrymen, I wondered much at the mysteries of Providence, and how these things could be. 4

The following day the Active sailed slowly to the Bay of Islands; and on Saturday 24th the horses and cattle were landed, to the amazement of the Maori. Marsden himself rode one of the horses, creating a heroic image in the minds of those who saw him and remembered him for many years after. Ruatara spent the rest of the day preparing for the celebration of the mission station’s first ever Lord’s Day and Christmas Day. Half an acre of land was fenced, and a pulpit was raised in the centre, six feet above the ground. A reading desk was placed nearby and some upended canoes for the Europeans to sit on. A flag was then raised above the village, which was to be hoisted regularly to mark the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship.

The next morning, Marsden went ashore to find Ruatara, Korokoro and Hongi Hika dressed in their regimen­tals, with their people drawn up ready to march into the enclosure for worship. When everyone had taken their places, a solemn silence settled on the scene. Marsden began by singing Psalm 100, the “Old Hundredth”, and went on to read the order of service from the Prayer Book; Korokoro indicating with a switch when the people should sit and stand. Since it was Christmas Day, and the first time the news of the gospel had reached these shores, Marsden preached on Luke 2:10, “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy”. Step by step, in his own good time, Jesus Christ had brought his wonderful news of salvation to a pagan people who had never heard it before on their native soil. Fittingly, it was Ruatara, who had assisted this mission work so much, who then explained what Marsden had said in their own language.

As Marsden wrote later in his journal, “In this manner, the gospel has been introduced into New Zealand; and I fervently pray that the glory of it may never depart from its inhabitants till time shall be no more.” 5

He was fully aware of the immensity of the occasion, and the possibilities for future expansion of the gospel. But as his words indicate, he was also aware how easily it could all be lost, as Judges 2:10 so hauntingly reminds us.

Our response?🔗

How, then, should we respond, today? By realising that we have work to do, too. One man and his faithful band of missionaries first brought the gospel to New Zealand; but it is our responsibil­ity to keep building on his foundation and see that the gospel flourishes. Are our hearts and minds as dedicated to the task as Marsden’s? Are our lives as committed to the glory of the gospel as his was? Each generation must commit itself anew to the task, and ask: how have we furthered Christ’s kingdom in this land and in this time that he has appointed for us 6?


  1. ^ J.B. Marsden, memoirs of the Life and Labours of the Rev. Samuel Marsden of Paramatta (orig. published 1858; reprinted Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 2011), p.1 (The author was not related to Samuel Marsden).
  2. ^ A.T. Yarwood, Samuel Marsden: The Great Survi­vor (Melbourne University Press, 1977), p. 195.
  3. ^ Marsden, p. 59
  4. ^ Marsden, p. 99
  5. ^  Marsden, p. 103
  6. ^  Acts 17:26

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