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.


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

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