According to reliable sources Samuel Marsden was born on 25 June 1765, at Farsley, Yorkshire, England, the eldest of the seven children of Bathsheba Brown and her husband, Thomas Marsden. He was baptised at Calverley, near Leeds, on 21 July 1765. At the age of 14 or 15 he went to work in his uncle's smithy, and in 1786 was recruited by an Anglican evangelical group, who sent him to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1790. Two years later he accepted an appointment as assistant chaplain to the colony of New South Wales. In 1793 he was ordained, and at Hull on 21 April he married Elizabeth Fristan.
Marsden arrived at Sydney Cove on 10 March 1794 with his wife and new-born daughter, Ann, the first of their eight children. He took up residence at Parramatta in July, and concerned himself with the welfare of orphan children and female convicts. In October he took up a 100 acre block, where he quickly put to good use the gardening and farming implements he had brought with him. Late in 1795 he also consented to serve as a magistrate (gaining a reputation for severity) and as superintendent of government affairs.
In the next few years Marsden was very busy, not merely as chaplain and magistrate but as a rising landowner. However, he early felt the call to evangelise. He lent his warm support to the infant missions to the South Seas, and in 1804 took up the post of local agent for the London Missionary Society's Pacific operations. Marsden's attention gradually turned to the Māori of New Zealand as a promising people for evangelisation. He often accommodated visiting Māori, putting them up in his own house and teaching them, entirely at his own expense. As early as 1805 Te Pahi was a visitor.
The extension of the mission to New Zealand was another matter. In 1800 Marsden had been called on to act as sole chaplain for New South Wales, and it was not until 1807 that he was free to return to London to plead his cause before the Church Missionary Society. He then raised a band of lay settlers to prepare the way for ordained missionaries. They were William Hall, a joiner; Thomas Kendall, a schoolmaster; and John King, a ropemaker. It was not until August 1809 that Marsden left England aboard the Ann with Hall and King. Ruatara, of Ngāpuhi, who was discovered in England in a sick and neglected state, travelled with them and was to spend eight months with Marsden, to whom he taught the rudiments of the Māori language.
The establishment of the New Zealand outpost was further delayed. The missionary societies rejected Marsden's proposal to link Sydney, Tahiti and New Zealand, and, probably in February 1814, he was obliged to buy his own ship, the Active, for £1,400, most of which came out of his own pocket. The temporary Colonial Office veto of any further settlement in New Zealand almost proved the last straw. Hall and Kendall (who had come out in 1813) did not reach the Bay of Islands until June 1814; Marsden himself did not arrive until December.
On the face of it the new venture began well enough. On 20 December, at Matauri Bay, Marsden persuaded Ngāti Uru and Ngāpuhi to make peace. On the 22nd he landed at Rangihoua, Ruatara's place. On Christmas Day Marsden led off with the Old Hundredth (Psalm 100) and then preached from Luke 2:10 – 'behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy' – to a large, well-drilled congregation. Ruatara translated for him. On the 26th Marsden set up a charcoal forge to replenish his stock of axes; and on the 27th he went to Kawakawa to lay in a supply of kahikatea. Early in the new year he perambulated the bounds of his extended parish with Hongi Hika and Ruatara. On 13 January 1815 he went aboard the Active with Te Morenga of Taiāmai, near Waimate North, another old friend, to prospect the coast as far as the Thames. On 15 February he completed his cargo of flax and timber, and on the 24th, after buying the mission site of some 200 acres at Rangihoua, he cleared for Sydney.
All the same, success was far from assured. In his walks abroad Marsden had seen much want and misery. He had also been made aware of the inveterate jealousy of the hapū, their tendency to violence and revenge, their attachment to tapu and to their own gods. The death of Ruatara soon after Marsden's departure was a serious blow. The evil conduct of the crews of passing ships, the matching of violence with violence, was further cause for concern. In addition, the ever-increasing cost of blankets, clothes and tools for visiting chiefs at Rangihoua and Parramatta, rice and potatoes for Kendall's school, provisions for the mission village at Rangihoua, and the salaries of the New Zealand settlers, was soon a major worry. The Active had to be sent whaling to pay her way. There were, before long, personal difficulties with his missionaries. They seemed unable to work amicably together, or to agree on what should be done.
A year or two later things were no better. Marsden's chief ground for complaint at this stage was the private trade in firearms, which he had banned as early as 1815. In February 1819 he was obliged to entreat his settlers once again to desist. They all except Hall agreed to do so, and then promptly yielded to temptation once more. Marsden's own connection with the venture was also in doubt. In New South Wales his material success, and his violent disagreements with the governor, Lachlan Macquarie, and others had caused his missionary ventures to be regarded with suspicion and even contempt. In response to Macquarie's repeated refusal to grant him leave to revisit the Bay of Islands, Marsden took in increasing numbers of Māori at Parramatta and taught them fish-curing, ropemaking, and brickmaking. He also added to his properties so that he could employ all who came in gardening and agriculture, mixed with moral and religious instruction. He plied the settlers at Rangihoua with advice, supplies, and extra hands at his own cost, and kept the Active going back and forth, to pick up pork and timber and more visitors.
In mid 1819, with the Church Missionary Society's blessing, Marsden moved to take an even firmer grip on the venture. In the course of his second visit to New Zealand, from 12 August to 9 November 1819, he dismissed two of the settlers and banned once more the traffic in powder and muskets. In February 1820, at the beginning of his third visit, he remonstrated in vain with Kendall about the latter's impending visit to England with Hongi. In June 1822 he suspended Kendall for adultery with a Māori woman. He also found himself obliged to report the disobedience of the Reverend J. G. Butler, the superintendent of the mission since July 1819.
In the same period he also set about strengthening the mission. In 1819 he established a new settlement at Kerikeri, and 'bought' from Hongi a 13,000 acre block of land there, which he thought might answer the needs of any poor colonising families the society might send out. In 1820 he stationed James Shepherd with Te Morenga at Taiāmai. In August 1823 he opened a further station at Paihia for the Reverend Henry Williams. He also gave what help he could to the infant Wesleyan Methodist mission established at Kaeo, near Whangaroa, in 1823.
The objectives of Marsden's visits to New Zealand at this stage were, however, very different in kind. He wanted to see the country and its people, and his remaining journals describe in vivid detail his long journeys, often in rugged, heavily bushed country where no European had ventured. On his third visit, from 27 February to 5 December 1820, he went as far as Tauranga, then back to Kaipara, accompanied by Te Morenga. He also wished to examine at first hand Māori economy, institutions and religious beliefs. Above all, he had come to teach and to preach. Wherever he went he talked, often far into the night, on all manner of subjects – agriculture, commerce, navigation, the principles of government – but especially on the absurdity of tapu, the root cause of all their wars, 'upon the works of Creation, the being and attributes of God, and the institution of the Sabbath Day, and the resurrection of the dead.' He also hoped to press ahead with the translation of the Bible into Māori.
In his latter years Marsden was still to suffer much pain and sorrow in the pursuit of what he deemed to be the Lord's will. The setting aside of his claims as archdeacon in 1824 he looked on as of small moment, but he was deeply distressed by W. C. Wentworth's libels in the third edition of A statistical account of the British settlements in Australasia (London, 1824), and a reprimand in December by Earl Bathurst, the secretary of state for the colonies, in response to Marsden's charges against the government official H. G. Douglass. He felt he had served his country faithfully and to the best of his ability for 34 years, and at the last had been held up as a promoter of public discord.
The crisis passed, and Marsden's publication in London in 1826 of An answer to certain calumnies, and the removal of Douglass from office in 1827, silenced his enemies and produced an effect in his favour in the colony. Even more happily, the new governor, Ralph Darling, encouraged his missionary endeavours, although Marsden's advice to the New Zealand mission was not always accepted. The missionaries, under Henry Williams, often tended to go their own way.
Marsden's brief visits to the Bay of Islands were packed with action. On his fifth visit, in April 1827 aboard the Rainbow, he pointed out to various chiefs their crimes in robbing the Wesleyans at Whangaroa. On his sixth visit, with his daughter Mary, from March to May 1830, he played a vital part in restoring peace between the rival armies in the bloody Girls' War. A no less significant move was to set up a farm at Waimate North, to render the settlers less dependent on uncertain and expensive supplies from New South Wales and to set an example of peaceful, constructive industry. He threw himself into the work of teaching the small groups of anxious young inquirers who visited him in the evenings, and preaching in Māori to the crowds who gathered round him wherever he went.
Marsden never really retired, although in his latter years he began to show signs of wear and tear. In October 1835 Elizabeth Marsden died. She had been disabled since 1811. The following December Marsden himself was taken ill. He recovered, but still refused to rest. In February 1837, with his daughter Martha, he undertook yet another voyage to New Zealand, at his own expense. This visitation assumed the proportions of a triumphal procession. At Hokianga hundreds came to pay their respects to the grand old man. On his arrival at Waimate North, where he was borne on a litter through the bush, he was greeted with reverence. On 1 April he visited Kaitaia where Māori came in party after party. For all his physical weakness he nonetheless threw himself into the ordinary business of the mission. He not only spent endless hours at committee meetings on all manner of subjects, but ventured many times with Henry Williams into the rival grog-drenched, convict-infested pā, in a vain effort to negotiate an enduring peace between Pōmare II and Tītore. More happily, he visited most of the mission stations within 100 miles of Waimate North, to teach and preach to their scattered parishioners and to lend the weight of his name to the rapid spread of the arts of reading and writing, the diffusion of peace and order and of the Gospels.
His final departure was on 2 June 1837 aboard the Rattlesnake, via the Thames and Cloudy Bay. On his arrival at Sydney he spoke of returning to New Zealand perhaps once a year. He became progressively more feeble, however, and on 12 May 1838, on a visit to Windsor, he breathed his last. He was buried in the churchyard of St John's Church, Parramatta.
Inevitably, Marsden was much misunderstood in his generation and just as often misrepresented. In essence he was simple-minded and honest, even to a fault. He was also open-handed, almost prodigal with his time and his money. If he apparently neglected to evangelise the Aborigines it was not from want of trying. He also looked with pity on the fallen and the lost; he often befriended convicts. He was extraordinarily generous towards those who disappointed him, or even those who hated him. As he was always ready to admit, he could make mistakes, from human weakness, or from lack of counsellors in times of trouble. If he had a serious fault, it was his predisposition to take offence.
His role in the gradual emergence of New Zealand is difficult to assess. Without him the conversion of Māori to Christianity might have been long delayed. Marsden also transformed the Māori economy and laid the foundations of New Zealand agriculture. It can be said, too, that he made a notable contribution to the debate which ended in the British annexation of New Zealand. In 1831 he urged Darling to put a stop to the growing trade in tattooed heads, and protested with great energy the participation of a British captain and crew in the abduction and torture of Tama-i-hara-nui of Ngāi Tahu by Ngāti Toa. He urged the dispatch of a naval vessel with due power to restrain such scandalous misbehaviour, and recommended the appointment of a British Resident with proper authority, to whom Māori could appeal for redress.
In the last resort, however, as Marsden recognised, all this would hardly be enough. He was far from objecting to the occasional colonisation of thinly peopled or vacant districts, and opined that if 'a body of good men were to sit down as Colonists…it would prove a great blessing to the Island.' Whatever the case, it would be necessary for some power to take New Zealand under its protection if the anarchy that prevailed at Kororāreka (Russell) were not to become universal. That that power was ultimately Great Britain was in large measure due to the apostolic labours of Samuel Marsden.