A man of his times: Samuel Marsden biography review

by Samuel Carpenter / 07 March, 2017

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

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.  

Latest

Lauren Southern, Israel Folau and the problem with criticising religion
93915 2018-07-23 07:12:26Z Social issues

Lauren Southern, Israel Folau and the problem with…

by Graham Adams

Is there one rule for criticising Christianity and another for Islam?

Read more
Where should we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?
93928 2018-07-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

Where should we draw the line between free speech …

by Karl du Fresne

A ban on two Canadian far-right activists speaking at Auckland Council venues has ignited the debate over hate speech and freedom of expression.

Read more
Is New Zealand a tolerant society?
93954 2018-07-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

Is New Zealand a tolerant society?

by Karl du Fresne

Offences against religious minorities suggest an undercurrent of prejudice exists in the country.

Read more
Theresa May gets Trumped in London
93853 2018-07-23 00:00:00Z World

Theresa May gets Trumped in London

by Andrew Anthony

Notwithstanding the blimp, the presidential visit proved a deflating experience in the home of football.

Read more
Win a copy of The House of Islam by Ed Husain
93910 2018-07-23 00:00:00Z Win

Win a copy of The House of Islam by Ed Husain

by The Listener

The House of Islam tells the story of the Prophet, the origins of the Quran, the Sunni-Shia schism and sharia.

Read more
A NZ director goes inside the mind of groundbreaking Chinese designer Guo Pei
93826 2018-07-22 00:00:00Z Movies

A NZ director goes inside the mind of groundbreaki…

by David Larsen

NZ director Pietra Brettkelly goes into the opulent world of Chinese designer Guo Pei in the beautifully shot documentary, Yellow is Forbidden.

Read more
Is fake meat really a threat to New Zealand's economy?
93623 2018-07-22 00:00:00Z Economy

Is fake meat really a threat to New Zealand's econ…

by Rosie Bosworth

Rosie Bosworth looks at the risk to New Zealand's economy in a post-animal world of plant-based meat and dairy products.

Read more
What is fake meat made out of?
93642 2018-07-22 00:00:00Z Nutrition

What is fake meat made out of?

by The Listener

Meatless meat is yet to get a clean bill of health. This is what Joanna Blythman found when she studied the ingredients of an Impossible Burger patty.

Read more