Frederick Augustus Bennett was born on 15 November 1871 at Ohinemutu, Lake Rotorua. His mother, Raiha Ratete (Eliza Rogers), a high-born woman of Ngati Whakaue section of Te Arawa, gave to her son the culture and whakapapa of her race. His father was Thomas Jackson Bennett, a storekeeper, who had emigrated to New Zealand from Ireland in 1849. He had a splendid command of the English language and was a keen church worker. Frederick's dual ancestry equipped him powerfully for his life's work.
His early years were spent in Maketu, where he was baptised by S. M. Spencer. He attended Maketu Native School, and, on the family's return to Rotorua, Ohinemutu Native School. In 1883 he gained a scholarship to St Stephen's Native Boys' School in Auckland, and in 1884 studies were continued at Te Wairoa Native School at Lake Tarawera. The Pink and White Terraces there were the centre of the tourist trade; consequent problems developed with liquor traffic and a temperance organisation was formed. Frederick, at 14, was secretary of this society, and the interpreter for guests. It was here that Bishop A. B. Suter of Nelson met him. With parental consent he took Frederick back to Nelson to continue his education at Bishop's School, then Nelson College where he was a prefect and member of the First XV. He sang in the Nelson cathedral choir, taught Sunday school, and assisted at services in outlying areas.
In 1893 Bennett accepted a post at Putiki, Wanganui, as lay reader under A. O. Williams at the Maori mission. Anxious that others should have the advantages of education, he immediately began to raise funds to build a school. He had returned to Nelson by the end of 1895 to engage in further study. He was ordained deacon in 1896, completed his licentiate in theology and was ordained priest in 1897. As assistant curate at All Saints' Church he organised the choral singing, but his ministry was far flung. Bennett was influential in building a church at Motueka, and a school at Whangarae Bay, Croisilles Harbour.
From the 1890s Bennett was associated with Te Aute College Students' Association (precursor of the Young Maori Party). He attended their conferences and resolved to devote his life to mission work, supporting the association's aims of improving the physical, intellectual, social and spiritual condition of Maori people.
On 11 May 1899 he married Hana Te Unuhi Mere Paaka (Hannah Mary Park) of Te Ati Awa at Motueka. She had been educated at Hukarere Native Girls' School and together they accepted a call to Bell Block in Taranaki. Bennett's first task was to raise funds, through concerts, for the erection of a hall as a centre for mission work. In 1903 he was involved in the opening of the first native school in Taranaki, at Puniho. Bennett showed considerable courage in going as a representative of a Pakeha religion to a territory where Pakeha were scorned and hated following the conflicts of the 1860s. He attacked the liquor traffic and appealed to James Carroll, the minister of native affairs, to introduce legislation against the sale of liquor to Maori for consumption off licensed premises. This led to the Licensing Acts Amendment Act 1904. The time and energy he gave to this campaign brought him into conflict with his diocesan superiors. Despite support from local Maori and Pakeha, Bennett's resignation followed.
Bennett moved to Rotorua in 1905 as superintendent of the Maori mission. His area extended from Rotorua to Taupo and south to Tokaanu. Fund-raising to establish buildings was again a priority. A special concert party was formed, and with the income from tours a church was built at Whakarewarewa, and a hall at Ohinemutu. Additional churches were later established throughout the mission area. New recruits for the ministry were sought, and during Bennett's tenure a number of students were sent to Gisborne for training at Te Rau Theological College.
One of these students was the catalyst for the famous Rotorua Lakes case. Returning home on holiday in 1907, Manihera Tumatahi was apprehended by an acclimatisation society ranger for fishing from the foreshore of his parents' property. When Manihera was fined, Bennett spoke out against the injustice of fining a man for fishing on his own lake frontage for fish liberated in the lakes without the consent of the lake owners. Others joined the protest and the matter was taken to the Native Land Commission (the Stout–Ngata commission) in 1908. The case hinged on ownership of the lake bed, and the commission encouraged Te Arawa to take it to the Supreme Court. Eventually, in 1922, a compromise was reached, whereby the government agreed to pay the Maori owners £6,000 per annum in perpetuity. This money was placed under the control of the Arawa District Trust Board (now Te Arawa Maori Trust Board) which continues to use this income for the welfare of the Maori people.
Hana Bennett died in August 1909. She and Frederick had had three sons and two daughters. On 14 December 1911 at Gisborne Frederick remarried. His wife, Arihia Rangioue Pokiha, the daughter of Hemana Pokiha of Ngati Pikiao, was his constant helper.
After 13 years at Rotorua Bennett went to carry out Maori mission work in Hawke's Bay. He was installed in 1917 as pastor at Waipatu, and his mission area extended from Nuhaka to Waipawa. He was elected a member of the standing committee for the diocese of Waiapu, and served on the Te Aute Trust Board. Throughout his ministry Bennett devoted much time to the publication of pamphlets and periodicals. This began in Nelson with He Kupu Whakamarama and Te Pipiwharauroa, and continued with Te Kopara, Te Toa Takitini and later Te Reo o Aotearoa. These publications provided a link between Anglican Maori throughout New Zealand, to communicate ideas, opinions and news.
The rise of T. W. Ratana's influence from 1918 brought difficulties for the Anglican church and for Bennett's own ministry. He was caught between the disillusionment of Maori which had given rise to the movement, and the arrogance of the settlers and their church, of which his ministry was a part. The Anglican church was initially supportive of Ratana, but when he proclaimed his own church in 1925 he and his followers were regarded with hostility. For Bennett and many others the duty to remain loyal to their priestly vows was to cause them great personal distress.
Partly in response to the formation of the Ratana church, in 1925 it was suggested at General Synod that a Maori diocese be established with its own bishop. Progress became deadlocked over the issue of the bishop's race. The Pakeha church and its bishops insisted that a Pakeha be the first bishop, while the Maori section of the church, under the leadership of Apirana Ngata, was just as insistent that the bishop be Maori. This issue caused tension between Ngata and Bennett, who was prepared to accept a Maori-speaking Pakeha bishop. The deadlock remained until the 1928 General Synod, which passed a compromise statute creating a titular bishopric of Aotearoa but without any territorial jurisdiction of its own. The bishop was to be an assistant to the bishop of Waiapu.
The choice fell on Frederick Bennett. On 2 December 1928 he was consecrated bishop of Aotearoa, the first Maori bishop in New Zealand's history. His work was to minister to Maori in all the dioceses of New Zealand, under licence from diocesan bishops, but many bishops refused to license him. They preferred to carry on Maori pastoral work themselves, a sad hindrance to Bennett's vision of a reorganised Maori mission. (These conditions were to survive until 1978, when the bishop of Aotearoa was licensed by the primate.)
Along with his spiritual duties, Bennett participated enthusiastically in social activities. He encouraged the development of Maori cultural groups; in 1938 he was elected president of the New Zealand Alliance, which continued to battle for liquor law reform; he was a member of the Hawke's Bay Radio Society and the Rotary Club. In 1938 Bennett attended a missionary conference in India, where he was able to meet Christian missioners from all parts of the world.
In August 1946 Bennett celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination. In 1948 he attended the Lambeth Conference in London, and during this visit preached at Westminster Abbey. He then proceeded to the first assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam. Along with these overseas commitments he was engaged in the revision of the Maori Bible. In the New Year's honours in 1948 he was made a CMG. His work was complex and beset with difficulties, calling for talent, infinite patience and an ungrudging sacrifice of time. Bennett's loyalty to his church never flagged and he maintained a constant faith, a catholicity of outlook, and a quiet, unruffled calm.
All but one of Bennett's 19 children survived into adulthood. Seven sons served in the armed forces during the Second World War and were commissioned; the service of Charles with the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion was particularly distinguished. Bennett was determined to give his children the best advantages his meagre resources would allow, and most graduated from tertiary institutions. All were active in public life and many received honours and awards. His son Manuhuia became the third bishop of Aotearoa.
Frederick Augustus Bennett died at his home at Kohupatiki, Hawke's Bay, on 16 September 1950, survived by his second wife and 18 children. He was buried beneath the sanctuary of St Faith's Church, Ohinemutu, a stone's throw from where he was born.