A man of his times: Samuel Marsden biography review

by Samuel Carpenter / 07 March, 2017

A new book on the life and times of missionary Samuel Marsden isn’t just a standard biography but an impressive work of scholarship.

As a political scientist, whose lectures at Auckland University on the English Civil Wars fascinated me, Andrew Sharp might appear to have undergone a somewhat improbable transformation in tackling the life of one of Australasian history’s most recognisable figures. But if Sharp proved in the lecture room and in print his scholarly fascination with the seventeenth century religious-political sects, he has proved himself equally able to interrogate and illuminate the world of a British convict chaplain and evangelical missionary to the South Seas.

Sharp’s familiarity with the strangeness of the seventeenth century past means he is quite prepared to comprehend the strangeness of Samuel Marsden’s world, including the isolating and savage convict settlement of New South Wales where Marsden spent most of his adult life.

The book’s title heralds Sharp’s conviction that we should locate Marsden in this ‘other country’ we call the past. What Sharp has produced is not a standard biography or narrative, but rather a fulsome account of Marsden’s intellectual and political contexts. He confesses to having emerged from this eight-year project less a philosopher or moralist – ready to sit in judgment on Marsden – than an historian – ready to explain Marsden’s words and actions in their contemporary settings. The book opens with Sharp explaining all of Marsden’s ‘freight from England’ – not himself, wife and material possessions freighted to the Australian colony in 1793, but Marsden’s ideas and theology.

Marsden’s struggles with Governor Macquarie’s dictates on forms of church worship, marriage banns, and restricting the free movement of chaplains and parishioners (even to attend church) has something of the old English struggles between ‘church’ and ‘state’. This nice distinction is proved false by the New South Wales of the early nineteenth century. And as a British colony, it could not escape the Irish troubles that beset the mother country, the authorities harshly putting down rebellions and rumours of rebellions. Marsden was caught up in these affrays, although Sharp reveals him as oft-times a reluctant magistrate.

Marsden’s resistance of gubernatorial tyranny recalls the old Puritan insistence on vital religion, free of state over-lordship. He may have been a Church of England man, but his rise from the lower social ranks (farmer and blacksmith) under the sponsorship of leading evangelical social reformers of the late eighteenth century (William Wilberforce included) shows in his refusal to simply accept dictates from on high. To the final authority of the holy scriptures and his God he could always, and did, appeal.

Marsden also appealed to traditional English sensibilities about appropriate subordination and hierarchy. He realised the importance of civil government in enabling the peaceful exercise of religion. Embryonic mission projects too would do well to build on the relationships between the Australian governors and key Maori leaders. Although Marsden never lived in either New Zealand or Tahiti, he was a staunch supporter of mission enterprises to those isles, and he certainly travelled with the New Zealanders (Maori) to their homeland on several occasions – often after they had stayed with him, at his Parramatta base.

Sharp’s book is an impressive work of scholarship, collating and interpreting vast amounts of Marsden’s words and those of his contemporaries. Its daunting length is saved by an intelligent arrangement of thematic chapters in loose chronology, by its many pages of colour images, and beautiful production values. Sharp’s Marsden is not “the flogging parson” of Australia nor a “founding father” of New Zealand, but a man of courage and practical nous who sought the increase of goodness and civility in the Antipodes, according to the lights he possessed.

THE WORLD, THE FLESH & THE DEVIL: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF SAMUEL MARSDEN IN ENGLAND AND THE ANTIPODES, 1765-1838 by Andrew Sharp (Auckland University Press $75)

Samuel Carpenter is a Wellington-based historian, currently working on a PhD exploring early New Zealand political thought.

Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

What to do with leftover food
78385 2017-08-21 11:26:01Z Food

What to do with leftover food

by Lauraine Jacobs

Instead of throwing out food that doesn’t get eaten, try some of the many ways of using it in another meal.

Read more
Podcast: Dead man walking - a conman's lie unravels
78369 2017-08-21 08:47:47Z Crime

Podcast: Dead man walking - a conman's lie unravel…

by Megan McChesney

Harry Gordon successfully faked his own death and had been living a brand new life for five years – until he bumped into his brother.

Read more
Should your social media account be mined by broadcasters?
78367 2017-08-21 07:32:43Z Technology

Should your social media account be mined by broad…

by Colin Peacock

The BSA suggests broadcasters should get permission to run items lifted from social media accounts - but is that realistic?

Read more
Kiwis pay tribute to Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads
78363 2017-08-21 07:01:47Z Sport

Kiwis pay tribute to Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads

by RNZ

Sir Colin Meads has been described as having "skills like a bat and the strength of a rhinoceros", as tributes pour in for the All Blacks rugby great.

Read more
Dental work for poor should focus on prevention - dentists
78359 2017-08-21 06:41:36Z Social issues

Dental work for poor should focus on prevention - …

by Sarah Robson

Winz spent $140m on emergency dental grants over the past six years, but dentists say cheaper checkups could help avoid more expensive work later on.

Read more
Leaky home victims file complaint against High Court judge
78290 2017-08-21 00:00:00Z Property

Leaky home victims file complaint against High Cou…

by Maria Slade

Robin and Patricia Kelly say Justice Mark Woolford’s connection with the founder of Signature Homes was a conflict of interest.

Read more
Northland youth get help designing their future with studio Akau
76389 2017-08-21 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Northland youth get help designing their future wi…

by Kate Evans

Kaikohe collaborators Ruby Watson and Ana Heremaia are the “Twin Towers” giving youth in the Far North a vision and a voice.

Read more
Labour needs more than star power
78356 2017-08-20 19:20:03Z Politics

Labour needs more than star power

by Bevan Rapson

Labour does a solid line in celebrity endorsements, but the line up at the end of its campaign launch was a reminder of its recent lacklustre history.

Read more