The missionary movement had a huge impact on New Zealand, particularly on Māori, whose existing spiritual beliefs were either replaced by, or combined with, Christian ideas. The missionaries were also largely responsible for introducing Māori to the Western innovations of literacy, agriculture and trade.
Missionaries to New Zealand tended to remain for many years and often became fluent in the Māori language. This helped them to play an important political role as mediators and interpreters between Māori and government. At times when the government was openly at war with large sections of the Māori population, missionaries were key figures in keeping the channels of communication open between the two groups.
The London Missionary Society (LMS) was formed in 1795, several years before the Church Missionary Society. It sent a group of 30 missionaries to the ‘South Seas’, beginning in Tahiti. The LMS welcomed people from all churches, and its famous missionaries included John Williams (killed in Erromanga, Vanuatu in 1839), David Livingstone in Africa and Robert Morrison in China.
The missionaries who came to New Zealand were part of a voluntary religious movement, rather than an official expansion of the church’s domain.
In 1701 some Anglicans had established the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. In the 1730s evangelicalism emerged in England, as John Wesley and his friends preached a ‘heart-warming’ experience of trusting Jesus Christ. Their followers left the Anglican Church to form the Wesleyan (or Methodist) Church.
In the 1780s some of these Methodists became convinced that the gospel must be preached throughout the world before the return of Christ. Evangelicals within the Anglican Church, such as the anti-slavery leader William Wilberforce and his ‘Clapham sect’ – a group of evangelical Anglican politicians – felt that Britain needed a moral purpose to atone for its role in the slave trade. So the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was founded in 1799.
At that time only a few Europeans, mainly traders and escaped convicts, were living in or visiting New Zealand. The CMS believed that the Māori population could be converted and gradually organised into a local, and Māori, version of the Anglican church.
After West Africa, New Zealand was the second part of the world to receive missionaries from the Church Missionary Society (CMS). The main person driving that decision was Samuel Marsden. He was a Yorkshireman who became chaplain to the prison colony of New South Wales in 1794. There he met and hosted many visiting Māori, especially northern chiefs, and felt they were more receptive to Christianity than the aborigines of Australia.
Marsden’s visitors included the Bay of Islands chief Te Pahi and his sons. Marsden was impressed with Te Pahi’s ‘clear, strong and comprehensive mind’,1 and decided to set up a mission in New Zealand. He already strongly supported the work of the London Missionary Society and helped its Pacific missionaries. In 1808 he convinced the CMS to begin a mission in New Zealand.
The first men chosen as missionaries, William Hall and John King, were tradespeople. They were joined by Thomas Kendall, a primary-school teacher. These men were not ordained ministers but Marsden believed that introducing European civilisation, culture and industry to Māori was the first step towards them becoming Christians. The missionaries sailed from England to New South Wales in 1809.
Te Pahi had already returned to his home at Rangihoua, on the northern side of the Bay of Islands, in 1806. Marsden hoped to use his friendship with the chief to base his mission there. However those plans were postponed when another chief, Te Puhi, of Whangaroa, Northland, instigated the burning of the ship Boyd, and the massacre of her crew in 1809. An avenging party of whalers confused Te Puhi with Te Pahi and killed him and many members of his tribe. This tragedy delayed the start of the mission for five years.
Samuel Marsden was a harsh man who had strong disagreements with several of his New Zealand missionaries. One was William Yate, who began working at Paihia in 1826. Ten years later he was dismissed after allegations of sexual misconduct with young Māori men. Yate always maintained his innocence and claimed that ‘to be accused [by Marsden] was always to be found guilty’.2 However Yate’s fellow missionaries were also outraged by his behaviour – they burnt all his possessions and shot his horse.
In December 1814 Samuel Marsden finally arrived in New Zealand bringing with him three missionaries and some assistants. The missionaries had prepared the ground in a visit earlier that year. He was accompanied by the young rangatira Ruatara, Te Pahi’s successor, whom Marsden had got to know in 1809 on the voyage back from England. Ruatara invited them to base the mission at Rangihoua. Marsden conducted the first Christian service there on Christmas Day 1814. Ruatara died the following year and the mission then depended on the protection of another chief, Hongi Hika, who hoped it would increase his own power and prestige.
Marsden did not remain in New Zealand, but in later years he visited several times from his base in New South Wales. Despite the time and energy he put into the mission, his reputation as a magistrate in New South Wales has raised doubts about the value of his work in New Zealand. He encouraged the missionaries to develop an extensive trading business with Māori. For this purpose he bought a ship to trade with New South Wales and elsewhere. This helped the mission to run profitably, and also encouraged Māori to learn new skills and develop their own trading operations.
From the start there were many disagreements between the early Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries. Thomas Kendall set up a school, produced the first examples of written Māori and published the first Māori dictionary. However his skills were lost to the mission after he was suspended for adultery in 1822. More missionaries arrived, including the Reverend John Butler, who was briefly superintendent of the mission. Marsden suspended him in 1823 after accusing him of drunkenness.
A new mission station was opened at Kerikeri in 1819 under the sponsorship of Hongi Hika, who demanded guns in return. The missionaries depended for food and shelter on trading with their Māori hosts, and when Māori insisted on being paid in muskets, the missionaries supplied them. This trade contributed to the musket wars of the early 1820s.
In 1823 the Reverend Henry Williams, a retired naval captain, arrived to lead the mission. He encouraged the missionaries to become fluent in Māori, and to teach Māori to read and write in their own language. In 1826 Henry’s brother William arrived, and he greatly advanced Thomas Kendall’s work in developing a written form of the Māori language. Williams’s wife Jane, and other missionary wives, helped to create a more stable community with neat cottages, schools and medical care.
Charles Darwin, the author of the theory of evolution, visited the missionary settlement at Waimate in 1835. He saw ‘large gardens, with every fruit and vegetable which England produces … Around the farm-yard there were stables, a threshing-barn with its winnowing machine, a blacksmith’s forge, and on the ground ploughshares and other tools … native workmanship, taught by the missionaries, has effected this change; the lesson of the missionaries is the enchanter’s wand. The house has been built, the windows framed, the fields ploughed, and even the trees grafted, by a New Zealander [a Māori].’1
The first inland mission station at Waimate North, established in 1830, included a productive farm, so the missionaries were no longer totally dependent on Māori for food. The launching of a mission schooner enabled them to travel beyond the Bay of Islands.
As a result of the musket wars, tribes living near the mission station brought back thousands of captives and slaves from other areas. William Williams says it was these ‘persons of little note’2 who became some of the first Christian converts.
As the missionaries’ reputations grew, some became trusted go-betweens for Māori in their dealings with the New South Wales government, traders and the law. Henry Williams gained support among many Māori for opposing the activities of grog-sellers, gun-runners and other irreligious Europeans in the Bay of Islands. The CMS deliberately set up a mission at Paihia, directly opposite the notoriously lawless settlement of Kororāreka (later Russell), to contrast Christianity with the decadent forms of European life.
Henry Williams was accused of unfairly manipulating Māori by buying large areas of their land. He defended his actions as trying to provide for his large family. He has also been criticised for convincing Māori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi – although he probably did this out of a sense of responsibility towards them.
The Wesleyan Methodist movement in England grew rapidly from the 1790s. Lay Methodists, who were mostly of humble backgrounds, wanted their own mission. The Wesleyan-Methodist Missionary Society (WMS) saw the primary goal of the mission as making converts, and it rejected Samuel Marsden’s emphasis on ‘civilising’.
Samuel Leigh, their first missionary, was a Methodist minister to the convict settlement of New South Wales. Marsden encouraged his visit to New Zealand. As a result Leigh appealed to the WMS to establish a mission. A team of missionaries arrived in Tonga and New Zealand in 1822.
On the advice of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries, the Wesleyan mission station was based at Kaeo, north of the Bay of Islands. The site proved too close to the 1809 Boyd massacre, and the missionaries were forced to flee in January 1827. Three returned a year later to Mangungu on the Hokianga Harbour. The mission baptised its first converts in 1830.
As new missionaries arrived, more stations were established along the west coast of the North Island, at Kāwhia, Manukau, Kaipara and Raglan. The CMS and the WMS agreed that the Wesleyans would focus their activities on the west coast as far south as Taranaki, and the South Island, while the CMS mission took the East Coast and lower North Island. The missions grew quickly in the 1840s. WMS stations were opened at Port Nicholson (Wellington), Cloudy Bay in Marlborough and Waikouaiti in Otago. Further stations opened in Taranaki and Waikato.
The Society of Mary (whose members are known as Marists) was a religious movement which emerged in the movement to reinvigorate Catholicism after the French Revolution. The Pope approved the new order in 1836 and it supported the development of a new mission in Western Oceania. Jean Baptiste Pompallier was appointed bishop of this region and he and his small team arrived in the Hokianga in January 1838, at a site near the Methodist station.
After 30 years of missionary work in New Zealand, Bishop Pompallier returned to France in 1869 and died two years later. In 2001 his family and the bishops of France agreed to allow his reburial in New Zealand. From December 2001 Pompallier’s bishop’s coffin was taken to all six Catholic dioceses in New Zealand. In April 2002 it was reburied beneath the altar of St Mary’s Church in the tiny Hokianga community of Motutī, near the place where the bishop first began preaching in New Zealand.
Pompallier faced intense hostility from the Anglicans and Methodists, and his initial following came from Māori unhappy with those churches. Unlike his Protestant competitors, he viewed the primary responsibility of the Catholic mission as baptising converts, not challenging the lifestyle of Māori. The chanting, rituals and ornamentation of his religion were attractive to Māori.
The mission was strengthened in 1839 with the arrival of seven priests and five Marist brothers. It made a new base at Kororāreka (later renamed Russell) in the Bay of Islands in 1839. Further bases were established in Northland, Auckland, the Bay of Plenty, Wellington, Ōtaki and Akaroa. Priests travelled from these settlements, often on foot over long distances, to preach to other Māori communities.
By 1845 the New Zealand Catholic mission had baptised 5,000 people, but lack of money and land wars led to a subsequent decline. Tensions also emerged between Pompallier and the Marist order, and a Marist-staffed diocese of Wellington was formed in 1850. Thereafter Pompallier struggled to find priests for Auckland Catholics.
The North German Missionary Society, based in Bremen, sent missionaries to New Zealand from 1842, among them Carl Völkner and J. F. Riemenschneider, who worked alongside the existing missions. The Berlin Missionary Society sent missionaries to the Chatham Islands in 1843. In 1844 the Reformed Church of Scotland sent two missionaries.
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.
There are 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 sold 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. Slaves captured in the musket wars and taken to the Bay of Islands became converted there. They later returned to their own tribal areas to spread news of Christianity, sometimes before any European missionaries arrived. By 1844 the effects of Christian religious teaching had reached the southernmost tip of the South Island.
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.
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
The CMS missionaries and the Wesleyans welcomed the Treaty of Waitangi. They were well aware that the Pacific Islands had been vulnerable to European interference. They helped translate the treaty into Māori and later collected signatures for it. One 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.
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 wars of 1845 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 the dismissal of Henry Williams. He was reinstated five years later, but the damage to the mission was lasting.
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 and this 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.
During the New Zealand land wars some missionaries, including Selwyn, became chaplains to the government troops. Māori believed that Selwyn had been involved in burning the important Tauranga stronghold of Gate Pā, and his reputation declined further as a result.
The Reverend Carl Völkner sent letters to Governor Grey from his mission in the war zone of the 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.
The Mormon mission to the Māori flourished from 1882 in a direct reaction to the lowered reputation of other churches among Māori.
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 continued for many years in the north.
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 from 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.
New Zealand sent missionaries to other countries, as well as receiving them. The Anglican diocese (region) of Waiapu, on the East Coast, voted at its first synod in 1859 to support overseas missions. Bishop Selwyn developed a mission to the islands of Melanesia. He travelled there in 1847 and brought back Melanesian boys for training in mission work at a station in Kohimārama (afterwards named Mission Bay). John Coleridge Patteson became missioner in Melanesia in 1855, and was killed by local people in Nukapu, Vanuatu, in 1871.
John Patteson was an Anglican missionary who became the first Bishop of Melanesia. He travelled around the islands of the South Pacific, encouraging boys to train as missionaries at his college on Norfolk Island. In 1871 the bishop went ashore at Nukapu in Vanuatu and was killed by local people armed with bows and arrows. They may have mistaken him for a slave trader – a ‘blackbirder’ – who kidnapped locals to work on plantations in Australia and South America. A party of blackbirders had recently raided this island and killed five of its men.
Wesleyan Methodists in New Zealand inherited responsibility for missions in Polynesia and, in 1855, in the Solomons. Local Presbyterians supported work in the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu). In 1886 Motueka-born Florence Young began the Queensland Kanak Mission (later the South Seas Evangelical Mission) in Australia, as a non-denominational mission to ‘blackbirded’ (kidnapped) Solomon Islands labourers in the sugar-cane plantations.
By the late 19th century many settlers were inspired by the vision of world mission. Alexander Don’s outreach to Chinese gold miners in Otago led the Presbyterian Church to establish the Canton Villages Mission in China, while the Bolivian Indian Mission was founded by people from Dunedin. Popular missions like the China Inland Mission and missions in India were supported by many Protestants, while some Catholic men and women joined religious orders with a missionary focus.
Missions after 1850 placed a strong emphasis on a personal missionary call, and single women were welcomed as recruits. Rosalie McGeorge, a Baptist, left for East Bengal (Bangladesh) in 1887, and died of typhoid in India in 1891. Jean Begg attended the Presbyterian Missionary Training School in Dunedin and in 1910 was sent to a tiny island off American Samoa. There she taught at Atauloma Girls’ School and ran a daily health clinic. She remained there for nine years, developing a keen understanding of local culture.
In the 1970s New Zealand boasted the highest rate of sending missionaries in the world. Some made a significant mark in the countries they went to, among them Garfield Todd, who became prime minister of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid 1950s.
Many Christian missionary organistations are very active in New Zealand. For example the New Zealand branch of the original Church Missionary Society has worked in many countries, translating the Bible in Papua New Guinea, teaching in Tanzania, doing medical work in Zambia and community development in Pakistan. Māori people are now among these missionaries.
Some overseas churches, sects and other religions continue to send missionaries to New Zealand to promote their religious approach, especially among new migrants from their own countries. The New Zealand emphasis on religious freedom makes this possible.
Davidson, Alan, Stuart Lange, Peter Lineham and Adrienne Puckney, eds. Te Rongopai 1814 'Takoto te pai!': Bicentenary reflections on Christian beginnings and developments in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland: General Synod Office of Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand, 2014.
Greiler, Alois, ed. Catholic beginnings in Oceania: Marist missionary perspectives. Hindmarsh, South Australia: ATF Press, 2009.
Morrison, Hugh. Pushing boundaries: New Zealand Protestants and overseas missions 1827–1939. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016.
Newman, Keith. Bible & treaty: missionaries among the Maori – a new perspective. Auckland: Penguin, 2010.
Owens, J. M. R. Prophets in the wilderness: the Wesleyan mission to New Zealand 1819–27. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1974.
Ward, Kevin, and Brian Stanley, eds. The Church Missionary Society and world Christianity 1799–1999. Cambridge: W. B. Eerdmans; Richmond [England]: Curzon, 2000.
Yates, Timothy. The conversion of the Māori: years of religious and social change, 1814–1842. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.
A website with English translations of the French letters by the first Catholic missionaries to New Zealand.
The home page of the Wesley Historical Society (New Zealand) with valuable downloadable resources about the early Methodist missionaries to New Zealand.
The New Zealand branch of the Church Missionary Society, which now sends missionaries around the world.