Story: Missions and missionaries

Page 5. Māori converts

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Although it took 15 years for Māori to adopt Christianity, the religion spread widely in the 1830s. Sales of the New Testament and the number of people attending services, being baptised and received into communion all increased rapidly.

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) set up new bases at Kaitāia, Thames, Tauranga, Matamata and Te Awamutu. William Williams opened a mission at Tūranga (Gisborne), Octavius Hadfield went to Ōtaki and Richard Taylor was assigned to Whanganui. These missionaries extended the reach of the Anglican Church. By 1840 the CMS had about 30 missionaries working in different parts of New Zealand.

Missionary peacemakers, doctors and teachers

There were various reasons for the missionaries’ rapid success in the 1830s. The musket wars had decimated many tribes and displaced others, and afterwards Māori were eager to maintain the fragile peace. From about 1828, when Henry Williams intervened in tensions between Hokianga tribes, missionaries gained a reputation among Māori as valuable peacemakers.

As new and often deadly diseases spread among Māori, many also felt that their own tohunga (religious experts) could no longer cope with the challenges that the missionaries’ European culture presented. Perhaps the most important factor was the eagerness of Māori to learn to read. To be literate was seen as possessing great power. The New Testament was first published in Māori in 1837 and 60,000 copies had been distributed by 1845.

Some rangatira such as Patuone, Tāmati Wāka Nene and Rāwiri Taiwhanga were baptised, and their entire tribe then did likewise. Other chiefs became eager to have missionaries in their villages. Many slaves captured in the musket wars and taken to the Bay of Islands were converted there. They later returned to their own tribal areas to spread news of Christianity, sometimes before any European missionaries arrived. By 1844 Christian religious teaching had reached the southernmost tip of the South Island.

Tarore’s legacy

Alfred Brown was the first missionary in Matamata. In 1836 tribal warfare forced the mission station to close. Brown’s Māori assistant, his daughter Tarore and others crossed the Kaimai Range towards Tauranga. However a group of warriors attacked them and Tarore was killed. Her father successfully urged his people to seek reconciliation rather than the traditional utu (revenge). Tarore died with a copy of St Luke’s gospel in a bag around her neck. Her killers retrieved the book and one is said to have learned to read from it. Another helped set up the CMS mission in Ōtaki in 1839.

Missionaries and the Treaty of Waitangi

To strengthen the missions and protect his Māori converts from undesirable European influences, Henry Williams led missionary opposition to the New Zealand Company and other large-scale colonisation ventures. Instead, the missionaries favoured intervention by the British government.

Henry Williams agreed to the government’s request to use all his influence among the chiefs ‘to induce them to make the desired surrender of sovereignty to Her Majesty’1 by signing the Treaty of Waitangi. In contrast, the New Zealand Company tried every possible means to have the treaty overturned or set aside, regarding it as ‘a mere blind to amuse and deceive ignorant savages’.2

Well aware that New Zealand, like other Pacific Islands, was vulnerable to European interference, the CMS missionaries and the Wesleyans welcomed the Treaty of Waitangi. They helped translate the treaty into Māori and later collected signatures for it. A CMS missionary, George Clarke, was appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines (that is, of Māori).

The Catholic Bishop Pompallier, after an assurance that all religions would be tolerated, also accepted the treaty.

Missionary influence in New Zealand perhaps reached its peak in February 1840, when chiefs such as Hōne Heke and Tāmati Wāka Nene gave their Christian faith as their reason for signing the treaty.

  1. Quoted in H. Carleton, The life of Henry Williams, Archdeacon of Waimate, Vol. 2. Auckland: Upton, 1877, p. 7. Back
  2. Lord Derby, 1845, quoted in Memorial to His Grace the Secretary of State for the Colonies. London: Church Missionary House, 1861, p. 25. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter J. Lineham, 'Missions and missionaries - Māori converts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

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