Missionaries and Christianity

The Missionaries

“It is not to be doubted that this country has been invested with wealth and power, with arts and knowledge, with the sway of distant lands and the mastery of restless waters for some great purpose in the government of the world. Can we suppose otherwise than that it is our office to carry civilization and humanity, peace and good government, and above all the knowledge of the true God, to the uttermost ends of the earth?”
British Parliamentary Papers, Report of the Select
Committee on Aborigines, 1837

“…the Missionaries of the Church Mission Society have themselves been foremost and the most successful in despoiling them [the Māori people] of their land.”
Rev. John Dunmore Lang, Snr Min for the Church of Scotland NSW


NZ’s  Rev Henry Williams acknowledged the influence that missionaries had in colonial NZ in his speech at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi,  reminding all present that:

‘…were it not for the missionaries they would not be here this day, nor be in possession of a foot of land in New Zealand …’

To retrace the colonial mindset and their methodology in all of their activities, we see that along with  those first emissaries who were ostensibly taking abroad the ‘benefits of civilization’,  went the missionaries carrying the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We find them there in the history books and in the literary archives of their respective denominations, toiling away, preaching, setting up schools and training indigenous peoples in the ways of their own respective culture and values, in NZ’s case, Great Britain’s. Doubtless most would have gone with a genuine motive to evangelize, however in the outworking of things, they were seen to be aiding and abetting the wholesale loss of lands by indigenous people. Were they used by the powers that be? Were they sucked in unwittingly to a tide that would sweep away their intent in the longer run? Some denominations did not allow their missionaries to acquire lands for themselves. Clearly others did. Certainly it cannot be argued their going in front and gaining trust allowed a greater foothold for those with a different intent.

The mindset of these early settlers as reflected in the newspaper archives of the time, was racist in many respects. For instance, at the fortieth commemoration of a significant defense by Māori of their illegally confiscated lands in the Taranaki (Scott p19), namely the battle at Te Ngutu o te Manu near Normanby, it was publicly stated by a Parliamentary representative, with no objection from either of the two Reverends present, that:

“Just as in Australia they wanted a white Australia, so we want a white New Zealand”

This was the accepted unquestioned thinking of the day. At that commemoration the people were also reminded of the fact that now the battle had been won, there was no evidence of child slavery as was rumored in the city to be taking place. This ‘legitimized’ their invasion. In fact, whilst the Great Britain presented herself as a ‘Christian’ and civilized nation, she was at the same time putting five year old children to work in mines and factories in the home country. Similarly in the US, it is recorded that Sioux chiefs who were brought from the Far West and taken through the manufacturing cities in the East, were astonished, not by the technology and machinery, nor the growth of the cities, the railway, the telegraph or the telephone, but the fact that amid the marvelous development of productive power they found little children at work.” (Henry George http://www.wealthandwant.com/HG/crime_of_poverty.html)

In a similar vein, a NZ Premier, Sir William Fox KCMG whose values and beliefs were distinctly racist, believing that they were impressed by their technology, asserted that Māori, ‘When observing the great ships and inventions of the civilized Europeans, …all declare in a language which he can understand that it is a superior race which has come to share his country. From the day when he makes this acknowledgment to himself, he feels that his greatness is departed, that his nation is henceforth a nation of Helots‘ (Miller p103). (A Helot is ‘one of a class of serfs in ancient Sparta, neither a slave nor a free citizen, neither a serf nor a bondsman – Heritage Dictionary).

Referring to them as Helots, says Miller, was a subtle hint that they should be excluded from the exercise of political rights, and in fact they were in NZ. The vote given to New Zealanders by London in 1852 was a privilege for Pakeha only. Those Māori who signed the Treaty in 1840 did not receive full rights of British citizenship as promised, and it was not until fifteen years later in 1867 that they were entitled to vote (D.Keenan, Massey University, Land wars Website).

In light of this, and remembering Great Britain was a Christian nation, one has to ask what were the motives of these carriers of “civilization and humanity, peace and good government, and above all the knowledge of the true God, to the uttermost ends of the earth”?

During the first year of the NZ Land Wars it was said the missionaries had opened Maori eyes to many things, not least the worth of Pakeha professions of Christianity. The soldiers had fought on Sundays … burnt prayer books and Bibles in the houses and even churches had been destroyed (Scott, p 31).  Rev Grace called them out on this. He stated that Taranaki’s Reverend Riemenschneider was fortunate not to have met the same fate as the German Reverend Volkner in Opotiki. When the land wars began there were missionaries who were found to have been spying on their flock and feeding the information back to the government. Volkner was of the persuasion that the peaceful unity of the two races “… was not to be brought about by an amalgamation and breeding of a half-caste race but by reducing the natives universally to the obedience and acknowledgement of the merciful government”. (Grace p 169) He was killed and beheaded by some of his flock, it was said, because he had made trips to Auckland and  supplied information to the government about Māori warrior numbers and movements. Riemenschneider had abandoned his 14 year mission at Warea and moved to New Plymouth when the land wars began, having supplied the military with a detailed description of the defences of his village, describing his flock as “hostile native hordes infesting the forest”.  (Scott p15) The village at Warea in the Taranaki, unfortified and undefended, was obliterated in punishment for resisting land acquisition by the Pakeha. Described by a captain of the Native Contingent to the expedition as “niggers”. The British warship Niger pummeled it for two days and nights with shells and rockets using twelve 32-pounder broadside guns like Nelson used at Trafalgar, and a 68-pounder (5 tonne) cannon. (Scott p11) The British, bringing “peace and good government, and knowledge of the true God”.  Peace? Good government? The true God?

Following the land wars Māori began to create and turn to other religions. Grace relates how seeing their Bishop and missionaries who had possessed their confidence, being with the troops in the Waikato campaign, counseling and leading their bitterest enemies, they lost all confidence in them.

Owning Land

Neither did some missionaries see themselves as exempt from capitalizing on their position by securing land for themselves. They were clearly in an excellent position to do so. Some of the churches or denominations forbade this, but not all.  The Reverend Williams and the NZ secretary of the Missionary Society, George Clarke, were sacked (although later reinstated) because  Governor Grey believed their missionary acquisitions of land had contributed to the Northern War.  Williams had bought 3,000 acres in the far North as an inheritance for his children, the usual rationale given. Today some 800 of his direct descendants own more land than any other family in New Zealand.

US author James Baldwin expresses this state of affairs so eloquently:

“The spreading of the Gospel, regardless of the motives or the integrity or the heroism of some of the missionaries, was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag. Priests and nuns and schoolteachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands. The Christian church itself – again, as distinguished from some of its ministers – sanctified and rejoiced in the conquests of the flag, and encouraged, if it did not formulate the belief that conquest, with the resulting relative well-being of the Western populations, was proof of the favour of God.” (The Fire Next Time, pp 65, 66)

At the aforementioned Te Ngutu o te Manu fortieth anniversary commemoration, the official speeches referred explicitly to conquest.

“It was a long time before we could subdue this land, but the country was worth fighting for…. the Māoris had been defeated … but no race of conquered people had been so well treated…he believed they realized that too, for there were no native difficulties now”.

At this commemoration Rev Boys read out chapter one of the book of Joshua found in the Bible.  It begins thus:

1After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: 2“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. 3I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.

This chapter, speaks, and it will speak especially to those who are familiar with it, of conquering the land. Proof, as Baldwin says, of the favor of God. Having fought, they had simply to go in and take possession. Then the Rev Boys later reminded those present that “if men were to arrive at the highest point they must learn self-discipline, to obey God“. Further along in verse 7  Joshua reminds the people:

7 “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Clearly the motive of land acquisition became evident when the NZ land wars began and the sight of Bishop Selwyn riding with the British troops sealed their fate in a sense and caused Māori to turn against them.  Rev Grace however, refused to be part of this and declined to serve even as an army chaplain in his clear acknowledgement of the conflict of interest such a position would bring. Grace had observed the injustice unleashed on the peoples, and observing their rapid land loss, had many times requested of the Missionary Society in England that they send a Christian lawyer to stop it. It never happened. He is cited as saying in that regard:

‘There will remain an amount of guilt on the hands of our own race for which God will surely visit us… (Rev T Grace)

Perhaps it was not in their collective interests to bring a Christian lawyer to the colony? Rev Grace himself was generally disliked by his fellow missionaries for insisting on fair and equitable trade between the peoples. They termed his insistence that Māori pay the same rates for calico as Pakeha as ‘meddling in worldly affairs’.

Jack Lee in his book ‘The Old Land Claims in New Zealand’ provides some insight into the land buying activities of many of the missionaries. During the 1830s the Anglican missionaries were ones who eagerly acquired land. Rev Samuel Marsden is described by Professor Yarwood as one of those “imbued” with “the ruling passion for respectability as measured by landed property, and the concern of the newly rich to establish heirs in unchallenged affluence” an opinion endorsed says Lee, by the Rev. John Dumore Lang, Snr Minister for the Church of Scotland in NSW.

“…the Missionaries of the Church Mission Society have themselves been foremost and the most successful in despoiling them [the Māori people] of their land.”
Rev. John Dunmore Lang, Snr Min for the Church of Scotland NSW

Regarding land sales, he described Māori as being ‘duped on every hand’.  Ngāti Tuwharetoa iwi were thwarted by the government in their attempts to get a fair price for their land; having caught on to the colonizer’s capitalistic principles of land selling, they’d sought to subdivide and sell in separate lots to the Government, however Government declined and insisted they accept a bulk price, then proceeded to subdivide themselves to make a profit, denying the iwi that opportunity. Indigenous people tend to be blamed for losing their lands. ‘Too bad’ I’ve heard it said. They shouldn’t have sold their lands. Grace was right, they were ‘duped on every side’. And as history proved, if they didn’t sell, much of it was confiscated. Or non sellers were ‘disappeared’ by such covert means as poisoned flour as was rumored on the Whanganui River. Remember England was a civilized and Christian nation bringing “peace and good government, and above all the knowledge of the true God, to the uttermost ends of the earth”.

When the white man came to Africa, the white man had the Bible and the African had the land, but now it is the white man who is being reluctantly and bloodily, separated from the land, and the African who is still attempting to digest or to vomit up the Bible. The struggle, therefore, that now begins in the world is extremely complex, involving the historical role of Christianity in the realm of power – that is, politics – and in the realm of morals. In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty
James Baldwin

The process of alienation in NZ was greatly assisted also by the colonial government’s ‘Te Kooti Tango Whenua’ or, ‘The Land Taking Court’, thus named by the government itself which was comprised of a medley of lawyers cum judges cum farmers, all very much in-house so to speak. These were not judges as we know them today, but merely local people appointed to these positions, and clearly with glaring conflicts of interest. The latter were not of such concern I suspect in a new colony with a lack of notable public scrutiny.

Be it wittingly or otherwise, the missionaries, in spite of the undoubtedly genuine desire of many of them to evangelize, had undeniably been a part of the transference of the vast bulk of indigenous lands into the hands of the new settlers and their incoming government. There was a saying in colonial New Zealand (and similarly in other countries) that the missionaries had raised indigenous eyes heavenward whilst their lands were taken from under them.

The land of our ancestors is stolen away from us …