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The Makers of Australia. No 4

Acts 28:1-10
25th May 2003

The beheading in the Solomon Islands this week of Seventh Day Adventist missionary Lance Gersbach, is a tragedy. He is the last of a long line of Australian missionaries killed for preaching the Gospel in the Pacific. Since the first missionaries left Australia to proclaim the Gospel in the South Pacific, deaths have been common.

Missionaries first spread the good news within Australia, both to the Europeans and the Aborigines. Edward Eagar, the converted convict who became our first Church secretary in 1812, helped introduce to Australia the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Australian Religious Tract Society, established the Society for the Protection and Civilization of Distressed Islanders of the South Seas, and planned a mission to the aborigines. Few in Britain considered missionary service to either convicts or aborigines worthy of as much effort as missionary outreach to Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti or New Zealand.

Our church set aside Rev William Walker in 1820 for Aboriginal missionary work, but the itinerant nature of the indigenous meant by 1824, it was admitted a failure. Our first minister, Rev. Samuel Leigh arrived in 1815 but in 1819 had to return because of ill-health. He reported to the Methodist Conference in England that overseas missions be established in new Zealand and the Pacific islands. Within two years missionaries were on their way to New Zealand, Tonga, and Van Dieman's land. By far the most successful missionary, in Australia and overseas was Rev Samuel Marsden, appointed second chaplain in New South Wales in 1793. He was depressed by the immorality of the convicts here.

He wrote: "Once I could meet the people of God and assemble with them in the place of prayer and praise; but now I hear nothing but oaths and blasphemies." He lived and preached in Parramatta, Sydney and Hawkesbury and was in charge of the religious instruction of the convicts. He considered the convicts were totally depraved. "I am surrounded, with evil-disposed persons, thieves, adulterers and blasphemers." He describes his first Sunday in the colony: "I preached the gospel of deliverance from the captivity of sin ... As I was returning home a young man followed me into the wood and told me how he was distressed for the salvation of his soul. I hope the Lord will have many souls in this place."

Every Sunday he preached first at Sydney, then walked fifteen miles to Paramatta to preach again. His preaching was plain, fervent, and pointed. This led some to conviction and conversion, while others rejected his message and denounced him bitterly. One day while walking along the bank of a river, he saw a convict fall into the water. Marsden immediately plunged in after him and endeavoured to bring him to land. The convict, however, contrived to hold Marsden's head under water to drown him. Marsden succeeded in getting safely to shore and also in dragging the convict with him. The convict, overcome with remorse, confessed his plan. He was angry with Marsden's emphasis upon sin, so he determined to kill him. He knew that the sight of a drowning man would cause Masden to rescue him. So he had thrown himself into the stream confident of drowning Marsden and then of making good his own escape. This convict overcome with remorse, became a faithful Christian, witnessed to others of his faith and Marsden employed him, for years.

In 1807 Marsden returned to England to report on the state of the colony to the government, and to solicit further assistance of clergy and schoolmasters. While in London, King George III, presented him with five Spanish sheep from his own flock. Marsden was known as the best farmer in the land and these sheep with those of his neighbour and enemy, John Macarthur, began the flocks of fine-wool merino sheep in Australia. Marsden's success as a farmer drew criticism from those who believed he should not be a minister and a farmer. His farm, "Mamre" has been magnificently restored over the past twelve years by 160 of Wesley Mission's "Work for the Dole" team members.

Marsden despaired at the behaviour of officers like Macarthur who were involved in the rum trade. They were corrupt and he found nothing but 'grief and trouble' in ministering to them, the convicts and government officials. He supervised two schools for orphans and the Female Factory at Parramatta. Governor Hunter, short of educated men, appointed Marsden a magistrate and this led to people ever since referring to him as the 'flogging parson'. Marsden accepted and meted out the punishments set at that time but which today are seen as inhumane. Yet he sympathized with others due to his own suffering. Once, Mrs. Marsden took their first-born son, then two years of age, with her in a gig visiting the sick. The horse reared, the child was thrown out and killed. Thereafter Mrs. Marsden left her younger son at home in the charge of a domestic whenever she went out. But this little one strayed into the kitchen unnoticed, fell backwards into a pan of boiling water, and died. The family suffering enabled him to help others.

Monsieur Perron, on a mission for the French government, wrote concerning Marsden: "He generously interfered in behalf of the poor sufferers in their distresses, established schools for their children and often relieved their necessities; and to the unhappy culprits, banished from their native soil, he ministered alternately exhortation and comfort." Marsden was grieved for the homeless female convicts and established a home for them. Hundreds of women were helped by Samuel Marsden.

Eventually he gained the support of the government and such distinguished Christian philanthropists as William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, and Lord Cambier. In England in 1807, he persuaded the government to send out three additional clergymen, three schoolteachers and four men to give instruction in mechanics and manufacturing. His vision was that Australia be the base for an evangelical mission to the Pacific. "I believe that God has gracious designs toward New South Wales and that His gospel, taking root there, will spread amongst heathen nations to the glory of His grace." He was thinking particularly of New Zealand and the Friendly Islands.

Life was very cheap in New Zealand. The Maoris engaged in war on the slightest provocation. They were cold-blooded and cruel. They obtained revenge by punishing innocent people. They would kill, roast and eat men, women and children. The sick, infirm and aged were left to die. The Maoris ate enemies slain in battle, specially fattened slaves for their feasts. A slave girl would be commanded by her master to fetch fuel, light a fire and heat an oven, whereupon she would be knocked on the head, cooked and eaten. They needed the Gospel.

In 1814 Marsden learned of the massacre of the crew of the Boyd in the harbor of The Bay of Islands. The ship had anchored when fierce natives in war canoes came out, captured it and killed and ate seventy passengers and crew. The only survivors were two women and a boy who were sold into slavery. Marsden could find no captain of a ship adventurous enough to take him and his party to the land of cannibals. They needed the Gospel. So Marsden purchased a ship and on November 19, 1814, Marsden embarked with a fearful crew of Christians together with a few horses, cattle, sheep and poultry. He landed at the Bay of Islands, close to the scene of recent bloodshed and horror. Would Marsden, the missionary, dare to land among the thousands of savages who lined the shore? The missionary knew that, if he landed, his life would be in extreme jeopardy. He did land! He talked with the chiefs and mingled among the natives. Then he slept the night on shore, in the open among the warriors whose spears were stuck upright in the ground.

Samuel Marsden wrote: "We prepared to go ashore to publish for the first time in New Zealand the glad tidings of the gospel." He purchased land for a mission-station. This was the first of seven voyages that he made to New Zealand between 1814 and 1837. No one ever exerted more influence over the native chiefs than he. He was the most important of the settlers and civilisers of New Zealand. His daughter wrote: "My father had as many as thirty New Zealanders staying in our home. On one occasion a young lad, the nephew of a chief, died, and his uncle immediately made preparation to sacrifice a slave to attend his spirit into the other world.

My father was away at the moment and our family was only able to preserve the life of the slave by hiding him. When my father returned he reasoned with the chief, who consented to spare the slave's life." He was greatly encouraged by the response to the Gospel amongst the Maoris. It was this work that kept him going when twenty years after he arrived in NSW, he confessed to friends at Parramatta, "My soul has been so vexed within me for the wickedness of some of this Colony that I have been strongly tempted to leave it altogether."

As the chaplain to New South Wales Marsden endeavored, with some success, to improve the standard of morals and manners. He established orphan schools and female penitentiaries and made Parramatta a model parish. Unfortunately the governors did not always give him assistance or help and in 1817 he had to bring an action for defamation of character against the governor's secretary for an article he published in the "Government Gazette". In 1820 a commission was sent out from England to investigate the state of the colony and to enquire into Marsden's conduct, but the charges against him were not substantiated. At Parramatta he set up a seminary for the education of New Zealanders, but this was given up in 1821. He last visited the Maoris as a peace-maker, in 1837. He was 72 years of age. Wherever he went he was greeted by the Christians with tears of joy, while the heathen population indicated their gladness by performing their war-dance. One old chief sat gazing at him for a long time and said, "Let me take a long last look, for I shall never see again the one by whose lips God sent to me the blessed news of salvation."

Thousands came to greet him and he sought, as always, to make known the "good tidings" of a wondrous redemption. When he was about to embark the Maoris carried him on their shoulders to the ship, a distance of six miles. As he viewed for the last time the shores of New Zealand and observed the miraculous changes effected by the gospel, the venerable patriarch exclaimed, "What hath God wrought!" Three years later Bishop Augustus Selwyn arrived to take charge of the work in New Zealand and wrote these words: "We see here a whole nation of pagans converted to the faith. Thousands upon thousands of people, young and old, have received new hearts, are offering up daily their morning and evening prayers, are valuing the Word of God above every other gift, and all, in greater or less degree, are bringing forth some fruits of the influence of the Holy Spirit. What a marvelous demonstration of the power of the gospel."

Marsden returned to Paramatta and five months later, May 12, 1838, he died at the Windsor parsonage. He was buried at St John's Cemetery Parramatta. Some Maoris subscribed a marble tablet that was erected to his memory. He has been vilified by some and glorified by others, but he was undoubtedly our greatest missionary.

Jesus had commanded his followers to go into all the earth preaching the Gospel, teaching and baptizing. Missionaries have obeyed that command ever since and many millions have died in His service. Australia has produced its share of courageous missionaries who lived their faith in serving others. Do you know the same faith in Jesus that sustained them?


  • Samuel Marsden Bearer of Good Tidings in NZ and NSW Eugene Myers Harrison
  • The Methodists: A history of Methodism in NSW D Wright & E Clancy Allen & Unwin 1993
  • Australian Christian Life from 1788 Iain Murray Banner of Truth 1988
Wesley Mission, Sydney.