Having written this review in the lead up to Christmas seemed very appropriate, as it reviews the life of Samuel Marsden, who brought Christian missions to New Zealand with the first service held on Christmas Day 1814 in the Bay of Islands. The traditional Maori Christmas carol Te Harinui commemorates this event. It seems strange then that Samuel Marsden is relatively unknown and absent from representation in New Zealand history.
Andrew Sharp is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Auckland. This latest book is the product of a great deal of research over eight years. It is a very strong addition to New Zealand History in the 1800s. Andrew’s book is strongly referenced and illustrated throughout with images of the locations and people described. It is not a quick read, but a satisfyingly deep one.
Samuel Marsden had a modest upbringing in England. He had a straightforward, uncomplicated belief in The Bible, and in man’s place in society. His belief and scholarship meant that he became involved with the London Missionary Society. He married shortly before leaving England for Australia, after a charmingly awkward written proposal to his future wife, Elizabeth.
Samuel Marsden moved from England to Australia, initially to Botany Bay, then moving to Paramatta. He became a magistrate, and an antagonist of a series of local Australian governors, in particular Governor Macquarie. The feud between Macquarie and Marsden is an excellent example of strong contradicting opinions in local government! It was around this time that he developed his reputation as ‘the flogging parson.’
His ability in Te Reo and friendship with Ruatara and later Hone Heke helped him to settle in New Zealand. It seems remarkable that he met Ruatara, as Ruatara returned from his unsuccessful trip to meet George III. Samuel took care of him during the long sea journey and Ruatara lived with the Marsden family for a few months before attempting to return to New Zealand. Samuel Marsden was very interested in ‘civilizing’ through agriculture, and gave Ruatara wheat seed to take with him.
Overall Samuel Marsden preached a message of adherence to the bible, leading a productive life full of bible reading, church attendance and work, to avoid giving in to the temptations of the flesh and to show commitment to a ‘lively’ repentance from sin. He felt sure that hearing his evangelical message would have a civilizing impact on all audiences. It was felt that you first tame the ‘uncivilised’ population through agriculture and then they would be receptive to his sermons. He was a committed sheep farmer, determined to breed the perfect productive sheep for the local environment.
This is a big book. I would have liked to hear a little more about Marsden’s family life. That being said, given that it was such a long time ago it is probably quite difficult to research that. There are a number of dry sections – explaining religion and English societal structures being two I found that demanded my concentration, but these did provide important context to the events described in later chapters.
Andrew Sharp notes that reviewing people with today’s standards is somewhat unfair. I found Samuel Marsden as a historical character difficult – he is hard to like when you look back. However, his accomplishments and achievements in quite short time periods were quite remarkable. He was active in New Zealand during a really interesting time in our history. Whether or not you agree with his religious beliefs or thoughts on bringing ‘civilisation’ to ‘native populations’ he was someone who got stuff done, and did it with an eye to his ‘eternal reward’ rather than necessarily making friends or seeking glory. A thought-provoking read.
Reviewed by Emma Rutherford
The World, the Flesh & the Devil
written by Andrew Sharp
Published by Auckland University Press