Background History: Christian Beginnings in New Zealand in 1814
The sermon that the Revd Samuel Marsden (1765-1838) preached at Oihi, Bay of Islands, Christmas Day 1814 and the service he conducted were the culmination of his growing relationship with Ruatara (?-1815) in particular, and also the formal inauguration of missionary beginnings in New Zealand.
Samuel Marsden was Anglican chaplain in the colony of New South Wales. Alongside his ministerial responsibilities, Marsden was a very successful farmer developing his land holding at Parramatta. He also gained a dubious reputation for his harshness as a magistrate. An Evangelical, Marsden was sympathetic towards the early pioneering missionary work in the Pacific undertaken by the inter-denominational London Missionary Society (LMS). He became the LMS agent in Sydney. He also developed friendly relationships with some of the first Māori visitors to Australia. These included Te Pahi (?-1810), the Ngāpuhi leader who met Marsden in 1805.
While Marsden was on leave in England in 1808 he approached the Church Missionary Society (CMS) about the possibility of them beginning missionary work in New Zealand. The CMS was a voluntary Anglican missionary society established in 1799 to encourage and support evangelistic outreach around the world. The Society was strongly supported by leading lay Evangelical humanitarians such as William Wilberforce and others who were in working for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.
The British Protestant Missionary Movement was still in its infancy. The CMS in 1808 had little practical experience of missionary work. The bishops and many of the clergy in the church were suspicious about this new found missionary enthusiasm. Marsden, drawing on the methods adopted by the London Missionary Society, argued that artisan missionaries should be employed to teach “industrious and moral habits” and “open a way for the introduction of the Gospel”. Artisans who could teach skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing and twine spinning using flax were recommended by Marsden. These missionaries in Marsden’s view should possess four qualifications: “Piety, Industry, Prudence and Patience”.
Marsden returned to Australia in 1809 accompanied by two artisan missionaries, William Hall (?-1832), a carpenter, and his wife Dinah and their son, and John King (1787-1854), a rope maker. On board the ship Marsden discovered Ruatara, a young Ngāpuhi leader from the Bay of Islands. Ruatara was in ill-health having been badly mistreated on his voyage to England where he had been refused permission to land. Marsden befriended Ruatara and nursed him back to health. On arrival in Australia Marsden provided Ruatara with hospitality at Parramatta. He also introduced Ruatara to new methods of agriculture including wheat growing.
Plans for beginning a mission in New Zealand were delayed by news that following the ill-treatment of Māori sailors, including a chief, the Boyd had been sacked at Whangaroa in 1809. The death of most of the Pākehā on board the Boyd provoked a European reprisal raid. This resulted in the death of some sixty Māori including Te Pahi who was not involved in the Boyd incident. Given the social and political instability in northern New Zealand and the difficulty of obtaining passages for the missionaries King and Hall took up work in Australia. There they were joined by Thomas Kendall (1778-1832) a schoolmaster and farmer.
Ruatara made an unsuccessful attempt to go home to New Zealand, again encountering ill-treatment by sailors. He eventually returned to Rangihoua, Oihi, in the Bay of Islands in 1812. There he brought stories about his adventures in very different worlds. His introduction of wheat growing, for example, provoked scepticism until sometime later he was able to grind the wheat and make bread.
In 1814 Marsden gained approval from the New South Wales Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, to open up contact with New Zealand. Marsden bought his own ship, the Active. William Hall and Thomas Kendall were despatched on an exploratory voyage to discover whether it was possible to inaugurate a mission. During their time in New Zealand they read prayers on board ship, sometimes in the presence of Māori. They were welcomed by Ruatara and other chiefs and developed a favourable impression of
the local people.
The Active returned to Port Jackson in August 1814. On board were Ruatara, the great Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika (1772-1828), Korokoro and other Māori. Beginnings were made in teaching them writing. While in Australia they were introduced to many aspects of European life: blacksmithing, carpentry, spinning, weaving, brick making, gardening and farming practices, the “English Sunday”, the magistrate’s court and they met Governor Macquarie. Marsden recorded:
They tell me when they return [home], they shall sit up whole nights, telling their People what they have seen, and that their men will stop their Ears with their Fingers – We have heard enough, they will say, of your incredible Accounts, and we will hear no more – they are impossible to be true.
The acquisition of new technology, material possessions and exposure to a whole variety of different experiences both expanded and challenged traditional ways of doing things.
In November 1814 Marsden sailed on the Active from Australia with five Māori chiefs: Ruatara, Hongi Hika, Korokoro, Tuhi and his brother and three other Māori; Thomas Hansen, the ship’s master, his wife Hannah and son Thomas; three Church Missionary Society missionaries and their wives: Thomas and Jane Kendall, William and Dinah Hall, and John and Hannah King, and five children; two Tahitians, four sailors, John Nicholas (described as “a gentleman”), two sawyers, one blacksmith, and one stowaway convict. The ship also carried three horses, one bull, two cows, a few sheep and poultry.
Delayed by bad weather before leaving the Australian coast, Ruatara in particular had second thoughts about introducing the missionary party to New Zealand. He was concerned that they would just be the vanguard to many more people coming who according to Nicholas’s account would “become so powerful, as to possess themselves of the whole island, and either destroy the natives, or reduce them to slavery”. Ruatara’s concerns originated from comments made to him in Sydney, particularly about the way in which Europeans had treated Aborigines. While Ruatara was reassured by Marsden some doubts remained.
Marsden’s first landing was at the Cavalli Islands. At Matauri Bay Marsden sought to act as a peacemaker with the Whangaroa Māori who had burnt the Boyd. Together with Nicholas he stayed the night on shore learning from them firsthand the reason why the Boyd had been sacked. Marsden was very sympathetic towards their explanation, although he urged them “that it would be for their interest and happiness to turn their attention to agriculture and the improvement of their country than continue to fight and murder one another”. With Ruatara acting as his cultural advisor, Marsden hosted the chiefs on board the Active for breakfast giving articles of similar value as presents to men of the same rank avoiding any possible cultural mistake. This underlines the significant role that Ruatara played for Marsden and the missionaries in introducing them to Maori kawa and customs.
The missionary / Māori party arrived at Oihi Bay and Rangihoua Pa on the 22 December. When they landed horses and cattle Nicholas records how the people were “bewildered with amazement, not knowing what to conclude respecting such extraordinary looking animals”. Marsden mounted the horse and “rode up and down the beach, exciting their wonder in a tenfold degree”. Ruatara’s stories about big dogs that could be ridden no longer seemed preposterous and according to Nicholas: “This was, therefore, a day of triumph to Duaterra [Ruatara]”. Later that day, Korokoro and Ruatara staged a large mock battle on the beach for the missionaries’ entertainment or education, with the fighting parties concluding by joining in a vigorous haka. We gain glimpses into the exchanges that were taking place on both sides as Maori and Europeans were learning about each other.
On Christmas Eve, 1814, Ruatara, on his own initiative, organised the space where the church service was to be held as an open air church with an improvised reading desk, pulpit, and canoes serving as pews. On Christmas Day, Ruatara and Korokoro, wearing the uniforms given to them by Governor Macquarie, acted as Master of Ceremony indicating to Māori how they should behave – when they should stand or sit. At the end of his sermon, Māori said that they could not understand what Marsden meant. Ruatara replied that “they were not to mind that now, for they would understand by and by; and that he would explain my meaning as far as he could”. Significantly Māori heard Marsden’s sermon through Ruatara’s translation. What they heard and understood we do not know. What is significant is that Māori were hearing Marsden’s message from a Māori. Nicholas described how Māori responded to the service:
three or four hundred, surrounding Mr. Marsden and myself, commenced their war dance, yelling and shouting in their usual style, which they did, I suppose, from the idea that this furious demonstration of their joy would be the most grateful return they could make us for the solemn spectacle they had witnessed.
The engagement of Ruatara and Marsden, iwi and tauiwi, Māori and missionaries, inaugurated the missionary starting point at Rangihoua in December 1814. This is a foundational event in New Zealand’s history. It ranks alongside the encounters between Māori and Abel Tasman in 1642, Māori and James Cook in 1769, and the signing of the Treaty between Māori and the British Crown at Waitangi in February 1840.
Marsden’s sermon and the service on Christmas day marked beginnings that had profound effects on the developing relationship between Māori and Pākehā. Those beginnings at Oihi in 1814 gave rise to a complex story which historians still seek to unravel.
 J.R. Elder, ed., Marsden’s Lieutenants, Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie, 1934, p.443.
 J.L. Nicholas, Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, Performed in the years 1814 and 1815 in the Company of the Rev. Samuel Marsden, Principal Chaplain of New South Wales, 2 vols., London: James Black, 1817, vol.1, p.41.
 Elder, Marsden, p.89.
 Nicholas, Narrative, pp.171-73, Elder, Marsden, p.91.
 A.K. Davidson and P.J. Lineham, Transplanted Christianity: Documents Illustrating Aspects of New Zealand Church History, Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1989, p.28.
 Nicholas, Narrative, I, p.206; Elder, Marsden, p.94.
Samuel Marsden’s Account of Christmas Day 1814
Duaterra [Ruatara] passed the remaining part of the day in preparing for the Sabbath. He enclosed about half an acre of land with a fence, erected a pulpit and reading-desk in the centre, and covered the whole, either with black native cloth, or some duck which he had brought with him from Port Jackson. He also procured some bottoms of old canoes and fixed them up as seats on each side the pulpit for the Europeans to sit upon; intending to have Divine Service performed there the next day. These preparations he made of his own accord; and in the evening, informed me that everything was ready for Divine service. I was much pleased with this singular mark of his attention. The reading-desk was about three feet from the ground and the pulpit about six feet. The black cloth covered the top of the pulpit and hung over the sides. The bottom of the pulpit as well as the reading desk was part of a canoe. The whole was becoming and had a solemn appearance. He had also erected a flag-staff on the highest hill in the village, which had a very commanding view.
On Sunday morning (December 25th) when I was upon deck I saw the English flag flying, which was a pleasing sight in New Zealand. I considered it as the signal for the dawn of civilization, liberty, and religion in that dark and benighted land. I never viewed the British colours with more gratification, and flattered myself they would never be removed till the natives of that island enjoyed all the happiness of British subjects.
About ten o’clock we prepared to go ashore to publish the glad tidings of the Gospel for the first time. I was under no apprehensions for the safety of the vessel, and therefore ordered all on board to go on shore to attend Divine service, except the master and one man. When we landed we found Korokoro, Duaterra [Ruatara], Shunghee [Hongi Hika] dressed in regimentals which Governor Macquarie had given them, with their men drawn up ready to march into the enclosure to attend Divine service. They had their swords by their sides and a switch in their hands. We entered the enclosure and were placed in the seats on each side of the pulpit. Korokoro marched his men on and placed them on my right hand in the rear of the Europeans and Duaterra [Ruatara] placed his men on the left. The inhabitants of the town with the women and children and a number of other chiefs formed a circle round the whole. A very solemn silence prevailed–the sight was truly impressive. I got up and began the service with the singing of the Old Hundred Psalm, and felt my very soul melt within me when I viewed my congregation and considered the state they were in.
After reading the service, during which the natives stood up and sat down at the signal given by the motion of Korokoro’s switch which was regulated by the movements of the Europeans, it being Christmas Day, I preached from the Second Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, and tenth verse: “Behold! I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” The Natives told Duaterra [Ruatara] that they could not understand what I meant. He replied that they were not to mind that now for they would understand by and by, and that he would explain my meaning as far as he could. When I had done preaching, he informed them what I had been talking about. Duaterra [Ruatara] was very much pleased that he had been able to make all the necessary preparations for the performance of Divine service in so short a time, and we felt much obliged to him for his attention. He was extremely anxious to convince us that he would do everything for us that lay in his power and that the good of his country was his principal consideration. In this manner the Gospel has been introduced into New Zealand; and I fervently pray that the glory of it may never depart from its inhabitants, till time shall be no more.
When the service was over we returned on board, much gratified with the reception we had met with, and we could not but feel the strongest persuasion that the time was at hand when the Glory of the Lord would be revealed to these poor benighted heathens and that those who were to remain on the island had strong reason to believe that their labours would be crowned and blessed with success. In the evening I administered the Holy Sacrament on board the Active in remembrance of our Saviour’s birth and what He had done and suffered for us.
Source: J.R. Elder, ed., The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden 1765-1838, Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie, 1932, pp.93-94.
John Liddiard Nicholas
John Liddiard Nicholas’ Account of Christmas Day 1814
On my re-landing, I found Duaterra [Ruatara], with some of his people, busily employed in enclosing a piece of ground for a stock-yard; and suspending this useful labour for a while, he turned himself to one of a more noble description, which, as it originated entirely in the suggestions of his own heart, was the more gratifying to his friends, who could trace in it the finest testimonies of his inward worth. Anxious to give the earliest proof of his zealous co-operation in the view of Mr. Marsden, he managed with some planks and an old canoe, to fit up a place where my friend might peform divine service; and the erection he contrived was an excellent substitute for a reading-desk. At a short distance in front of it were long planks supported like forms, for the Europeans to sit upon, and every thing was in a state of preparation for the ensuing day, when for the first time the voice of Revealed Religion was to be publicly raised in New Zealand.
This day, which was impatiently anticipated, soon arrived; and was rendered doubly sacred by being the Sabbath, and also the anniversary of that day which gave birth to the Divine Redeemer of mankind. The missionaries, with their families and all the crew, except the captain, who remained on board to take charge of the ship, went on shore at an early hour; and the orderly deportment even of the sailors, who were generally so heedless of religious observances, bespoke the peculiar solemnity of the occasion. As soon as we had landed Korra-korra [Korokoro] drew up all his men and marched them rank and file into the enclosure, where the whole population of Rangehoo [Rangihoua] had assembled in expectation of our arrival. The chiefs were dressed in their regimentals, with their swords by their sides, and keeping their people in good order, awaited, with becoming silence, the commencement of the service. When we were all seated, Mr. Marsden, dressed in his surplice, ascended the place designed for him, which was covered over with the black cloth manufactured in the country, and began in a solemn and impressive manner the service for the day. The natives being ranged in a circle at a convenient distance within the enclosure, were directed by Korra-korra [Korokoro], with the flourish of a cane which he held in his hand, to rise and sit down as we did; and he was not more exact in giving the signal than they were in attending to it. If he saw any of them inclined to talk, he tapped them on the head with his cane, and immediately enjoyed silence; but he had seldom any occasion to employ it in this way, as they behaved in general with much more regularity than could be expected from such auditors. When the clergyman had finished the morning service, he addressed himself to his rude congregation, through the medium of Duaterra [Ruatara], explaining to them the great importance of what they had heard, which was the doctrine of the only true God, whom they should be all anxious to know and worship; and should therefore take all the pains in their power to understand the religion that was to be introduced among them. Duaterra [Ruatara] was ready enough to act as interpreter in the communication of these “glad tidings;” but to several importunate questions from his countrymen, regarding the minute particulars of the subject, he made no other reply, that they would be fully acquainted with them at a future time. Splendid temples and costly decorations are not always the most pleasing to the Deity; and I should hope that the orisons thus offered up by a few Christians under the open air, and in the midst of their dark fellow-creatures, were as acceptable in his presence, as if poured out with the studied accents in the most magnificent cathedral.
The service ended, we left the enclosure; and soon as we had got out of it, the natives, to the number of three or four hundred, surrounding Mr. Marsden and myself commenced their war dance, yelling and shouting in their usual style, which they did, I suppose, from the idea that this furious demonstration of their joy would be the most grateful return they could make us for the solemn spectacle they had witnessed. It was not, however, without feelings of sincere pleasure at the promise afforded by this day, of the future success of the mission, that we stepped into the board to return to the ship; and the chiefs, with their people, gave us ever reason to hope that they might, at no distant period, become as civilized as they were brave, and as enlightened as they were hospitable.
Source: John Liddiard Nicholas, Narrative of a a Voyage to New Zealand, peformed in the years 1814 and 1815 in the company with the Rev. Samule Marsden, Principal Chaplain of New South Wales. London: James Black, 1817, pp.203-206.
Directions to Marsden Cross at Oihi Bay, Northland
View plans for the development of the Marsden Cross site for the bicentennary.
Marsden Cross was unveiled at Rangihoua, Oihi, in the Bay of Islands in March 1907 by the Governor General, Lord Plunket. The monument is a large Celtic stone cross with the inscription:
On Christmas Day, 1814
the first Christian Service in N.Z.
was held on this spot
by the Rev. Samuel Marsden.
The accuracy of this description has been questioned as Christian services were held in New Zealand before this date. It is very likely that Father Paul-Antoine Léonard de Villefeix, a Dominican priest and ship’s chaplain on board Surville’s Saint Jean-Baptiste, conducted Mass on board ship in New Zealand waters in 1769 . London Missionary Society missionaries on their way to Tahiti were in New Zealand waters in 1805. During the exploratory voyage of Thomas Kendall and William Hall to New Zealand in 1814 Kendall recorded that they had prayers on deck the first Sunday they were in New Zealand. One week later, on 18 June, Kendall read “the prayers of the Church” on board ship and commented that
Two or three chiefs were also with us, and the behaviour of the natives during Divine service was very decent and commendable. It was a new thing with them to see our way of worship and to hear of a day of rest from labour, and they seemed to enjoy the idea very much. The Union jack was hoisted on board the Active….
The significance of the service Marsden conducted and the sermon he preached on Christmas Day 1814, however, was that it took place on land and included both Māori and Pākehā in the congregation. The service also marked the inauguration of missionary work in New Zealand and the beginnings of Christianity in New Zealand in a permanent form.
The erection of what has become known as “Marsden Cross” to mark the spot where Marsden preached on Christmas Day 1814 was originally suggested by the Anglican cleric, the Rev’d Dr John Kinder. The cross was designed by the Rev’d Philip Walsh who was archdeacon of Waimate from1901 to 1912. Walsh was a noted amateur artist and architectural draftsman who designed several churches. The cross cost £223 with £100 being donated by John Kinder’s widow, Celia.
Marsden Cross not only marks the area where the congregation gathered on Christmas Day 1814 to take part in worship but also the land where the first missionary settlement was erected. The first missionary houses and school room were located on this site. During February 2012 a joint University of Otago and Department of Conservation archaeological investigation found evidence of the early missionary buildings.
The land surrounding Marsden Cross is under the management of the Department of Conservation. For more information see Marsden Cross Historic Reserve on the Department of Conservation website.
The Marsden Cross Trust Board has purchased land adjacent to Marsden Cross which gives access to Oihi Bay and Marsden Cross. The Trust Board are working towards developing parking and toilet facilities, an interpretive centre, a pathway from the roadway to the Cross with way stations explaining aspects of the history and a gathering centre. For further information see Marsden Cross Heritage Centre.
Marsden Cross is a significant site for the annual commemoration of the arrival of Marsden and the first missionaries with Ruatara and other Māori in December 1814 and the conduct of worship on Christmas Day. The site is also a place of pilgrimage throughout the year by people who are interested not only in the early Christian beginnings at this place but in New Zealand history. The setting of Marsden Cross at Oihi Bay is one of serenity and great beauty. Historically the place is charged with memories of the warm beginnings which took place here in the early interaction of Māori and Pākehā. These beginnings at Oihi were the starting point for Pākehā daily engagement with Māori and eventually led on to the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and the birth of New Zealand as a nation.
 Michael King, God’s Farthest Outpost – a History of Catholics in New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1997, pp.34-36.
 J.R. Elder, Marsden’s Lieutentants, Dunedin: Coulls, Somerville, Wilkie & A.H. Reed, 1934, p.63.
 Archaeological investigation at Oihi Bay/Marsden Cross – project updates, http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/historic/by-region/northland/bay-of-islands/marsden-cross-historic-reserve/archaeological-investigation/project-updates, accessed 27/3/2012.