WOHLERS, The Reverend Johann Friedrich Heinrich
Pioneer missionary and teacher.
A new biography of Wohlers, Johann Friedrich Heinrich appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Wohlers was born on 1 October 1811 at Hoyerhagen, a North German township 30 miles from the city of Bremen. His father, Gerd Wohlers, came from peasant stock and was a man of some substance for he was elected squire, or Bauermeister, of the parish.
From an early age Wohlers lived in the home of his grandmother and went to the village school. Later, when anxious to study, he found the district poor in books. For reading he had to depend on the yearly land calendars, tracts, and the Bible. At 26 he entered the Mission College of the Reformed North German Mission at Hamburg. Wohlers was ordained in 1842 and arrived in New Zealand in June 1843, and until the following April he did pastoral work in rural Nelson. When Frederick Tuckett, Chief Surveyor to the Nelson settlement, chartered the schooner Deborah to sail south in search of suitable land for the proposed Scottish settlement, Wohlers accompanied him. When Wohlers set foot on Ruapuke Island on 17 May 1844, it contained the largest Maori settlement in southern New Zealand. Rising out of Foveaux Strait, Ruapuke, 8 miles long and 4 miles across, is an island of rugged beauty some 12 miles from Bluff, Southland's port. Wohlers found its inhabitants grouped in scattered villages and living in savage, sunken, and dirty conditions at a Stone Age level of civilisation. With only one birth to every three deaths, the Maoris were apprehensive about their future. To convert them to Christianity, to improve their social life, and to inspire them with hope became the life work of the German missionary.
The Ruapuke Maoris had had some contact with religion and were debating the claims of the Anglican and Wesleyan churches. Wohlers wisely avoided controversy, founded his own church, and worked for unity. He studied the Maori language until he could give simple addresses at the services. At the outset of his work, he found it necessary to produce his own food and he encouraged the Maoris to practise agriculture. Largely through his influence, sheep and cattle were introduced into Ruapuke and wheat and vegetables were grown. After five years of lonely toil, Wohlers paid a short visit to Wellington and married a widow, Elsie Palmer. She attempted to solve the social problem by training the girls in housework and showing Maori families how to care for their sick kinsfolk. In boats built by Europeans who had been sealers or whalers, Wohlers visited the mixed settlements at Stewart Island and along the shores of the strait. Many people came to Ruapuke for baptism and spiritual guidance. In 1868 a public school was opened on the island and, after two years when the teacher resigned, the Government agreed that Wohlers should take charge.
By this time, the population of Ruapuke was declining through emigration to the mainland and other islands. Wohlers ultimately moved to Stewart Island and died there at Ringaringa on 7 May 1885.
Unlike the earlier Protestant missionaries, Wohlers did not believe that barbarians could be civilised within a few years by the influence of the Gospel. A man of infinite patience, he laboured in a dark corner of the earth knowing that religious and social advance could proceed only slowly. His faith, courage, and self-sacrificing devotion enabled him to do much to civilise the southern Maoris and to prepare the way for friendly cooperation between them and the Europeans.
by Arthur Joseph Deaker, M.A., Secondary-school Teacher (retired), Invercargill.
- Memories of the Life of J. F. H. Wohlers (autobiography), Houghton, J. (transl.) (1895)
- Rakiura, Howard, B. (1940)
- Maori and Missionary, Pybus, T. A. (1954).