Antipodean saints - part 1

Antipodean saints? Surely an oxymoron? Not at all. Saints are people of exceptional holiness, and post European contact in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands is marked by the example of many such people. In this short article I shall mention a few significant ‘saints’, and some lesser ones too. All have their own stories.

Christopher Wren’s epitaph: "if you seek a memorial, look around you" referred to London buildings, but fit the Antipodes too. Visitors ‘Down Under’ will notice many churches and schools named after saints such as Peter or Paul, but others are more specific to the geography and history: Peter Chanel, Selwyn, Marsden, and Williams, or settlers’ origin: Kentigern, Cuthbert, and Bede. (One early London Missionary Society missionary, George Vason, has a Nottingham connection: he came from South Muskham, and after a few years living with a Tongan chief returned to England, becoming Governor of Nottingham Gaol and a prominent member of the Park Street (Friar Lane) Chapel in the early nineteenth century.)

Yorkshireman Samuel Marsden went to New South Wales in 1794, as assistant colony chaplain. The historian Manning Clark observed "Marsden took the gospel injunction to ‘feed my sheep’ rather literally", using his position to acquire 1,720 acres of land, and 1,200 sheep "which was not calculated to win him that respect for the mission which touched him most deeply..." Was he a saint? Without him, the first colony had no religious base, but it was a very narrow evangelical tradition, which has survived there. Marsden was a flawed but highly motivated man, and his pastoral activity (in several senses) fostered the foundation of the Anglican church in Australia and New Zealand.

On Christmas Day 1814 Marsden began the first mission to New Zealand, preaching to several hundred uncomprehending Maori. A decade later a Church Mission Society man, Henry Williams, commenced work in New Zealand. Williams was an ex-Royal Navy lieutenant, courageous and determined though not very successful in ‘saving souls’. His brother William, was a linguist and language skills, the translation and printing of the Bible, Prayer Book and hymns were critical in gaining conversions.

Does enabling Maori to become a written language - make missionaries saints? Probably not, in the narrowest sense, but as interpreters of culture, they might be considered so. A contrary view is that missionaries taught Maori to close their eyes and pray, while settlers took their land. Another view, of missionaries as racist products of their own society and culture, causing the decline of pre-European Polynesian cultures of Polynesian populations, is simplistic. Replacing traditional ways undermined morale, but it was people’s sudden and dramatic exposure to new diseases which caused high mortality rates.

Today, most New Zealand and Pacific Island religious groups are indigenous - led and controlled by members of their own societies - but the forerunners, the European missionaries, are recalled as founders of the modern churches. When I went first to Tonga in 1969, most church leaders were from Britain, the USA, New Zealand and Australia, and church monuments reflected this. Twenty five years later, I saw new church buildings with lists of all the builders displayed. Without exception, all were Tongan. These are the modern saints, aren’t they?

Roger Cowell

Antipodean saints part 2
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 29th September 1999