Book Review: Collision, Compromise and Conversion During the Wesleyan Hokianga Mission, 1827-1855
Methodism in New Zealand approaches the bicentenary of the arrival of Samuel Leigh who established the Wesleyan mission at Whangaroa in 1822. Gary Clover’s study of the Wesleyan Hokianga mission from 1827 to 1855 is therefore a timely publication. It constitutes a major contribution to the fields of mission history and early engagement between Europeans and Maori. He is especially interested in how Maori heard the gospel preached by the Wesleyan missionaries. If their goal was conversion, how did Hokianga Ngapuhi respond to this key emphasis which the Wesleyan evangelists expected to elicit? Is the eighteenth century evangelical notion of conversion an adequate category in which to consider Maori appropriation of some aspects of the Christian message?
Gary Clover’s interest in mission history had its origins in research for his MA in 1973 with an investigation of the Wesleyan mission in South Taranaki. His supervisor was John Owens whose pioneering work on the Methodist mission was published as Prophets in the Wilderness: The Wesleyan Mission to New Zealand 1819 – 1827 (1974). Alongside his decades in parish ministry, the author has pondered the nature and impact of the mission on Maori. The present volume seeks to honour the work of John Owens. Clover acknowledges his indebtedness to his teacher and takes the story beyond 1840 where Owens’s PhD thesis concluded. He is above all concerned to “write as thorough a critical analysis of the process as I could by which Hokianga Ngapuhi embraced aspects of the missionaries’ Wesleyan Christianity” (xv). Much work has been done on the better-known CMS mission and the Roman Catholic mission. This work seeks to redress the balance.
There is no doubt the field of mission history is contested territory. Since Keith Sinclair’s A History of New Zealand (1959) the role of missionaries has been under attack. Secular historians have marginalised the role that missionaries played and some have argued that it was destructive of Maori social structures. Others have seen the missionary endeavour as part of a wider imperialism which claimed cultural superiority and which sought to impose an alien world view and spirituality. Gary Clover takes the risk of entering the fray and is part of an emerging school of historians who are willing to take a broader view without abandoning critique. The other risk that the author is acutely aware of is that he is writing as a Pakeha about Maori and their experience. Some Maori historians see this as a continuation of colonisation. His response is: “But given the paucity of independent, contemporary Maori sources of early contact New Zealand, this work will attempt to take the risk of doing so as I believe it is more important to tell the story of missionary-Maori interaction with as much completeness and integrity as possible, than not to tell it at all. The story is as much a Pakeha story as a Maori story” (xviii).
Central to Gary Clover’s approach is the claim that it is not possible to come to an authentic understanding of the origins of Aotearoa New Zealand without giving sympathetic yet critical attention to the project of the missionaries. He contends that when we take the missionaries out of their historical context and judge them by the standards of our day we will do them an injustice and view them through a distorted lens. The time has come for a reappraisal which honours their commitment and courage.
The first and last chapters of Collision, Compromise and Conversion are devoted to developing an interpretive framework in the light of what theorists have offered. Chapters two to sixteen constitute a narrative which outlines in detail the trials and triumphs, the weaknesses and strengths of the mission story in the Hokianga. There is enough of betrayal and conflict, struggle and heroism to make the narrative lively and engaging. Many themes are explored along the way including relations with the Wesleyan Missionary Society founded in England in 1814; relations of the Wesleyan mission with the CMS; personal struggles among the Wesleyan missionaries and, of course, the attempts with varying success to learn Te Reo and to establish relationships with Maori along the Hokianga harbour. Looming large in the narrative is the figure of William White who has been vilified for his disputatious personality and his unconventional methods as a missionary. Clover, drawing on the biography by Murray Gittos, Mana at Mangungu: A Biography of William White 1794-1875, draws a picture of this complex man who was accused of adultery and of developing business interests, alongside his missionary work. On the whole, a sympathetic portrait emerges in which Clover sees White going beyond the narrow focus of the Wesleyan mission to relate to Maori at a deeper level.
Above all the author discusses the preoccupation of the missionaries with the goal of conversion understood as a personal spiritual response of the heart which involved awareness and rejection of sin, accepting the atoning work of Christ leading to moral transformation. Clover depicts Maori as being cautiously interested in the message of the missionaries. They listened with curiosity to the teaching from scripture and asked questions about heaven and hell. But the communal life of Maori did not predispose them to an individualistic presentation of the Christian message dressed as it was in the clothes of post-enlightenment Protestantism. It was difficult for them to appreciate the emphasis on personal salvation. Clover depicts Maori as having a sophisticated spirituality that was willing to engage with the missionaries but on their own terms. They were inclined to receive what they could integrate into their world view and reject other aspects that were not so congenial.
The thesis of this work is that Maori were not passive recipients of a gospel message that came to their shores and which they could either accept or reject. Rather they were active agents in hearing, sifting and assessing the message and embracing what they found they could relate to. In this regard Maori were agents in adapting the message and indigenising the interpretation of scripture, liturgy and doctrine. Clover is drawn to the model developed by Richard White in the North American context where the missionary and indigenous people meet “on the beach.” This is a model where neither is dominant and where each explore who the other is and what the other has to offer. There is more going on “on the beach” than the delivery of the message and what can result is that both parties can be “converted.” I wonder what light Anne Salmond’s work might have shed on the questions that Clover addresses?
The conclusion that Gary Clover reaches is that the evangelism of the missionaries and the response of Maori was part of a wider process whereby Maori engaged with modernity. Maori critically engaged with modernity and received that which they believed would enhance their lives and this included adapting aspects of what the missionaries brought such as literacy, peacemaking and some liturgical innovations. So a narrow understanding of conversion is not adequate to represent the diverse and searching response of Maori to the gospel. Indeed, it is argued cogently that the most successful evangelists in service of the gospel were Maori themselves who had grasped an understanding of the vision of Christ and new creation. This is a major study which deserves recognition for its breadth and depth and the thorough research it represents. The writer has largely succeeded in his aims and the result is a landmark in mission history in this land.
Terry Wall, a recently retired Methodist minister, served in parish ministries in New Zealand and the United Kingdom and was Maclaurin Chaplain at The University of Auckland. His research interests are in Holocaust Studies, spirituality and liturgy. An ecumenist, for seventeen years Terry was Convenor of the Faith & Order Committee of the Methodist Church. Since 2005 he has been editor of the Journal of the Wesley Historical Society of New Zealand. His book The Footwashing Community was published in 2014.
Note: This book is available for purchase from the author.