Story: Missions and missionaries

Page 6. Decline of missionary influence

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Bishop Selwyn

The arrival in 1842 of New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop, George Selwyn, caused sharp conflicts within the growing mission. Selwyn’s position was partly funded by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and they planned to place the mission under his supervision, but the evangelical missionaries distrusted Selwyn’s religious values and challenged his attempt to control them.

Political developments reduced the influence of the Christian missionaries and rapidly increased racial tensions. The northern war of 1845–6 showed that even mission-educated Māori were willing to take up arms against the colonial government.

In 1847 Governor George Grey accused the missionaries of encouraging disloyalty among Māori. Henry Williams, in particular, was also accused of acquiring large areas of Māori land by dubious means. Bishop Selwyn insisted that the missionaries cooperate with the government in investigating these sales, which led to Williams’ dismissal. He was reinstated five years later, but the damage to the mission was lasting.

Māori lose respect for missionaries

Māori steadily lost respect for the missionaries as a result of land politics and settler influence. In the 1850s many tribes began trading on a large scale, a development which replaced much of their earlier enthusiasm for Christianity. The rise of the Kīngitanga movement and of new Māori religions such as Pai Mārire further distanced Māori from the churches the missionaries had established.

There were Christian elements to the birth of the Kīngitanga movement. One of its founders, Wiremu Tāmihana, began to establish Christian villages and advocated a king movement as a way to establish a Christian society. However this was contrary to the missionary vision of a racially united Christian community, and most missionaries opposed the Kīngitanga. By 1860 almost all the mission schools were closed and many missions were deserted.

Missionaries in wartime

During the New Zealand wars some missionaries, including Selwyn, became chaplains to the government troops. Many Māori believed that Selwyn was complicit in an attack on the undefended village of Rangiaowhia in south Waikato, and his reputation declined further as a result.

The Reverend Carl Völkner sent letters to Governor Grey from his mission in Bay of Plenty, and was killed by Māori as a spy in 1865.

After peace was restored from 1865, the Christian missions gradually revived but with much less backing. The settlers regarded the wars as evidence that the missions had failed, and many Māori took the same point of view.

A Mormon mission to Māori flourished from 1882 in a direct reaction to the lowered reputation of other churches.

Time to convert

Papahurihia was a system of religious worship based on traditional Māori spirituality. It arose in the Bay of Islands around 1833 and Henry Williams said its followers regarded themselves as Hūrai, or Jews. The religion’s leader, named Papahurihia, was a Ngāpuhi tohunga. He debated with the Methodist missionary William White before several thousand Māori, and changed his name to Te Atua Wera (the fiery god). In 1856 he converted to Christianity, but the tradition he had founded continued for many years in the north.

Last years of the missions

The head of the CMS in London believed that the goal of the mission was to build a church that was self-governing, self-financing and self-reproducing. In 1854 the CMS decided to gradually phase out its New Zealand mission and funds were finally cut off in 1903. The obligation to support the Māori church passed to the local Anglican Church, but the missionaries had always been very critical of the settlers, and Anglican settlers had little sympathy for the Māori mission.

The Wesleyan mission became the responsibility of the Australasian Methodist Conference in 1855. Methodist missionaries also had responsibility for European settlers and this provoked conflicts of interest. The missionary John Whiteley’s death in 1869 resulted from this clash of loyalties – Māori viewed a mission visit as an intrusion and killed him. Some missionaries like Robert Ward of the Primitive Methodists, who arrived in 1844, chose to ignore Māori and focused entirely on the settlers.

Catholic missionary work continued on a reduced scale. The Sisters of Mercy and the Mill Hill Fathers became involved in the north. Sister Suzanne Aubert worked at Meeanee near Napier, and then in the villages along the Whanganui River, and a new order of nuns emerged around her.

In 1895 the Reverend Henry Fletcher began a Presbyterian mission in Taupō. From 1918 ministry began in the Urewera, after Reverend John Laughton gained the cooperation of the Tūhoe religious leader Rua Kēnana.


    Corrected (Gate Pa replaced by Rangiaowhia) and tweaked by DG 30/5/19

How to cite this page:

Peter J. Lineham, 'Missions and missionaries - Decline of missionary influence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

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