Story: Missions and missionaries

A small band of Christian missionaries had a big impact on Māori society. At first Māori seemed more intent on the technologies the missionaries brought with them, such as farming, and reading and writing, than on the Christian message.

Story by Peter J. Lineham
Main image: Chief Te Puni being baptised by Reverend Octavius Hadfield

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Church Missionary Society

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) began in London in 1799, when a group of Anglicans decided that the Christian gospel should be preached around the world. At that time there were few Europeans living in New Zealand. Most were traders or escaped convicts.

First missionaries

In December 1814 the first missionaries arrived in the Bay of Islands, escorted by the chaplain to the prison colony of New South Wales, Samuel Marsden. The CMS had chosen William Hall, John King and Thomas Kendall for the task.

The missionaries established their first mission at Rangihoua, under the protection of Ruatara, the local chief. When Ruatara died, the missionaries relied on the protection of Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika. When a new mission station was opened at Kerikeri in 1819, the missionaries supplied him with guns in return for his support.

Kendall, a teacher, set up a school, and published the first Māori dictionary.

Henry Williams

In 1823 Henry Williams arrived to lead the CMS mission. His brother William joined him in 1826. At first the missionaries had little success converting Māori to Christianity. Henry Williams gained some support from Māori for opposing gun runners and people who sold alcohol.

Methodist and Catholic missions

The Wesleyan-Methodist Missionary Society (WMS) sent three missionaries to Kaeo in Northland in 1823. They were forced to flee by local Māori in 1827. In 1828 they set up a new mission station at Mangungu on the Hokianga Harbour.

To the annoyance of these missionaries, Jean Baptiste Pompallier, a French bishop, began a Catholic mission close by, together with his helpers. In 1839 12 priests and brothers arrived to help. Māori were attracted by the rituals of the Catholic Church.

Māori converts

Missionaries travelled widely on foot and on horseback to preach to Māori. Mission stations were established throughout the country. Missionaries such as Henry Williams became trusted peacemakers during the musket wars between tribes.

As deadly new European diseases spread amongst Māori, many turned to the Christian faith. When some chiefs converted to Christianity their whole tribe would become Christians.

Treaty of Waitangi

Henry Williams led missionary opposition to large-scale colonisation plans by the New Zealand Company. Missionaries promoted the Treaty of Waitangi to protect Māori land ownership.

As the number of European settlers grew and more Māori land was sold, Māori lost their respect for missionaries. When land wars broke out some missionaries became chaplains to the government troops. However settler leaders accused missionaries of taking the side of Māori.

Missions decline

In 1854 the CMS decided to phase out its funding for the New Zealand missions. The WMS became the responsibility of the Australasian church from 1855. Catholic missionary work also declined, although French sister Suzanne Aubert established a new order of nuns.

Overseas missions

New Zealand also sent missionaries overseas. The Anglican and Methodist churches sent missionaries to Melanesia and Polynesia in the mid-19th century. Later in the century the Presbyterian Church set up missions in China and South America.

In the 20th century missionaries went to many countries. In early 21st century the New Zealand branch of the Church Missionary Society had missionaries in a number of countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Zambia and Pakistan.

How to cite this page:

Peter J. Lineham, 'Missions and missionaries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2019)

Story by Peter J. Lineham, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 8 Aug 2018