God's Gentlemen

God's Gentlemen

by David Hilliard


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781921902000
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 03/01/2012
Pages: 362
Product dimensions: 5.06(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

David Hilliard is associate professor at the School of International Studies at Flinders University. He is a world expert on Australian religious history of the Anglican church since 1945 and secularization of modern life. He is the associate editor of the Journal of Religious History, advisory editor of Anglican & Episcopal History, and a member of the international advisory board for the Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

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God's Gentlemen

A History of the Melanesian Mission, 1849â"1942

By David Hilliard

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 1978 David Hilliard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-921902-00-0


"Visionary and Impracticable Principles"

Victorian Anglicanism entered Melanesia not as the result of an upsurge in missionary interest within the Church of England, but through the imagination and restless energy of one man: George Augustus Selwyn, first Bishop of New Zealand.

In 1840, Christian missionary activity in the South Pacific, from Tahiti westward to Fiji, was dominated by English Protestants of the (largely Congregational) London Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Missionary Society. At the same time, French Roman Catholic missionaries of the Society of Mary (Marists) were seeking island bases from which to challenge the Protestant monopoly. The Church of England, by contrast, was confined to a single diocese — the diocese of Australia, which embraced both the British colonies of Australia and New Zealand and the flourishing Maori mission of the Church Missionary Society.

In May 1841, the newly created see of New Zealand was offered to Selwyn, then curate of Windsor. Selwyn was a product of Eton and St John's College, Cambridge; thirty-two years old and happily married to the daughter of a judge. The formal cause of the entry of the Church of England into the Pacific Islands was an error in the Letters Patent of 14 October 1841 by which Selwyn was appointed, which defined the northern boundary of his diocese as 34° 30' north instead of south. The effect of this was to extend the diocese far beyond New Zealand to include many of the islands of Melanesia. As a legal claim, it convinced no one but Selwyn himself. However, there was also a valedictory letter from Archbishop Howley of Canterbury, writing on behalf of the Colonial Bishoprics Council, who exhorted the new bishop to regard New Zealand as "a fountain diffusing the streams of salvation over the islands and coasts of the Pacific" — an image that echoed John Williams' widely-read description of the Tahitian mission of the L.M.S. as a "fountain from whence the streams of salvation are to flow to the numerous islands and clusters scattered over that extensive ocean". It was on the secure authority of this archiepiscopal command rather than the questionable warrant of a Colonial office clerk that Selwyn later preferred to justify his spiritual claim to the Melanesian islands. His belief that this "dark expanse" was an integral part of his diocese never wavered. He left England in December 1841 knowing nothing of the Pacific Islands, but on the outward voyage to New Zealand he studied navigation and Polynesian grammars, and soon he was envisaging a central missionary college drawing pupils from all parts of the South Pacific.

The founder of the Melanesian Mission was an old-fashioned High Churchman in his views on the sacraments, the succession of bishops from the Apostles and the excellent via media of Anglican tradition. Though influenced by the Tractarian theologians of the Oxford Movement, who were his contemporaries, in their appeal to the God-given authority of the Church and their opposition to state interference in religious affairs, he proudly proclaimed that he belonged to no church party. His missionary philosophy was as much ecclesiastical as evangelical. It followed logically from his unquestioned conviction that, despite accidental imperfections, the Church of England uniquely combined the pure doctrines of the early Church with the principles of apostolic order. Missionary work was essential for the vigour of every church, he proclaimed, but especially of colonial churches, which having themselves received the gospel from others, had a special obligation to their own neighbourhood. Most influential at the time, however, was his glowing vision, powerfully expounded to huge congregations in England in 1854, of the mission field as a potential source of new power to revitalize the dissension-ridden and erastian church at home. The mission field offered an outlet for the energies of sensitive spirits who sought in vain for ecclesiastical perfection, a refuge from sterile theological controversy and a sure sign, against Dissenting or Papist detractors, of the inherent vitality of the English Church:

if our Missionaries in foreign lands do their duty in reclaiming the waste, then we may defy any one to say that ours is not a true branch of the Church; when all theological discussion is come to an end, there will be proof that our doctrine was the truth.

The Melanesian islands were thus seen by Selwyn as a religious tabula rasa — a place where the Church of England could freely demonstrate the validity of its spiritual claims and rebuild itself on a more perfect model, closer to the church of antiquity.

These were the same goals that he was pursuing in New Zealand: "to mould the institutions of the Church from the beginning according to true principles", to be deduced from the records of the first three centuries of the Church. If his ideal ecclesiastical system were fully implemented, unhampered by the state connection and with free power of expansion, he dreamed, "the Church of England would speedily become a praise upon the whole earth". Accordingly, he laid careful plans for an independent colonial church. In 1844 and 1847, he called synods of clergy, which were the first such independent assemblies by nineteenth-century Anglicans outside the United States of America, despite the opposition of those who feared that the Royal Supremacy was thereby infringed. Ecclesiastical self-government was finally achieved in 1857 by the constitution of the United Church of England and Ireland in New Zealand, later (from 1874) entitled the Church of the Province of New Zealand.

The delay in embarking on the Melanesian Mission was not due to lack of determination, but to other demands on Selwyn's energies. He travelled ceaselessly throughout New Zealand, by sea and on foot. There were unedifying disputes with the entrenched Evangelical missionaries of the Church Missionary Society over their qualifications for ordination and the internal organization of the Maori mission. There was a Maori rebellion in the far north, unrest in the south, and the supreme difficulty of finding assistant clergy who shared his High Church sympathies and were prepared to submit to his authoritarian rule. "I have really led a very perturbed life for the last four years", he wrote in 1846, "and am only just now beginning to feel as if there were some solid ground under my feet." His opportunity finally came in December 1847, when he was able to visit the Pacific Islands for the first time, as acting-chaplain to the cruising warship H.M.S. Dido.

Selwyn's ten ·weeks' voyage on the Dido was to be of seminal importance in the evolution of a strategy for his proposed mission. Principally, it enabled him to observe the methods of two of the most successful missions in the South Pacific — the Wesleyan mission in Tonga and the L.M.S. mission in Samoa. His visit to Samoa was particularly significant. As a High Churchman, he regarded non-episcopal bodies as lying outside the divinely constituted church and therefore declined to share in their public services. Nevertheless, he was a warm admirer of the achievements and writings of John Williams, Samoa's pioneer missionary, who had been killed on his first mission voyage into Melanesia, at Erromango in 1839. Although he privately deplored the evidences of missionary paternalism, personal contacts were cordial enough. He was deeply impressed by the expansive energy of Polynesian Christianity and by the sending of evangelists to the Loyalty Islands and southern New Hebrides: "we shall be indeed disgraced, if the older Mission of New Zealand cannot do as much for Melanesia, as its younger brethren in Samoa and Rarotonga". This view was reinforced by his meeting with John Geddie and Isaac Archibald, missionaries from the Presbyterian Church of Nova Scotia, who were waiting in Samoa for a passage to their projected new mission field in the New Hebrides. "This was a striking lesson for our New Zealand Church; for I believe this was the first instance of any Colonial Body sending out its own Mission to the heathen, without assistance from the mother country."

From Samoa and Tonga, the Dido sailed westward into Melanesia, to the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. In this part of the Pacific, European contact was just out of its initial phase. Since the 1820s, whalers, traders for bêche-de-mer and shell, and trading vessels from Port Jackson bound for China had called regularly at a few favoured bays and anchorages, as far north as the Solomon Islands, New Ireland and the Admiralty group. However, it was not until 1841, when large quantities of sandalwood were found at the Isle of Pines, and later on adjacent islands, that the region became drawn into a regular European trading network. The discoveries led to a "sandalwood rush" and during the next ten years at least 150 sandalwood voyages were made to New Caledonia, the Loyalty Islands and the southern New Hebrides.

The search for sandalwood was a highly competitive and often hazardous enterprise, though it scarcely deserves its subsequent missionary-fostered reputation for unmitigated violence and fraud. The Melanesian islanders were already familiar with the concept of exchange and throughout the trade they showed themselves fully capable of using it for their own advantage. By the time of Selwyn's first visit in 1848, the boom was over; the coastal inhabitants of south-western Melanesia were becoming accustomed to sustained European contact, "sandalwood English" was widely understood and there was a growing demand for labour-saving metal tools and other favourite European goods.

Selwyn's knowledge of Melanesia was very limited, for in New Zealand, accurate information had been almost impossible to obtain. He had studied James Cook's published journal of his exploratory voyage through the New Hebrides in 1774 and James Burney's Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, published in 1803–17. From reports derived from traders and whalers, he had heard that the Melanesians were to be feared for treachery and cannibalism, and that there was scarcely an island in the region where a stranger could land in safety. Then at the Isle of Pines he met the veteran sandalwooder James Paddon, who in 1844 had established the first permanent trading-station in the south-west Pacific, at Aneityum. Despite the forbidding reputation of the New Hebrideans for hostility to foreigners, Paddon seemed safe enough. This state of affairs was due, so he told Selwyn, to his humane treatment of the neighbouring peoples and generous payment in food and trade goods for services rendered. "Don't waste time in learning the languages," was his advice, "but teach the natives English." "I confess", Selwyn noted at the time, "that I was not ashamed to ponder well upon this wisdom of the children of this world, and to draw from it many hints for the guidance of our future operations."

Selwyn was further encouraged by his friend Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand, whose fertile imagination envisaged the infant colony as a natural centre for the extension of British power throughout the South Pacific. During 1848, Grey was attempting — unsuccessfully as it turned out — to persuade the Colonial office of the immense commercial, strategic and political benefits that would follow from the immediate annexation of Tonga and Fiji. As a shrewd politician, he was anxious to assist any mission that might assist his own design. He subsidized mission schools in New Zealand, on condition that Pacific Islanders as well as Maoris would be eligible for admission, and he wrote letters of greeting for Selwyn to carry to the "Chiefs" of the Isle of Pines and New Caledonia, urging them to return with the bishop to New Zealand, to receive presents and become acquainted with English ways.

Selwyn himself saw the political issues rather differently. Like Grey, he had no doubt that English Christianity and English civilization marched forward together, with the rule of law as an essential concomitant of true religion, but this did not imply the direct extension of British rule. Rather, he saw Britain's role in the South Pacific as one of stewardship. A great and wealthy power, whose subjects predominated among Europeans in the islands, had a primary responsibility before God to prevent injustice and violence between the races, especially on the Melanesian frontier. Such police work should be carried out by a patrolling warship, under an "enlightened" naval officer, which would radiate "moral influence and good example" in place of the customary techniques of retaliatory bombardment. Thus would British naval justice serve as a preparatio evangelica for the pagan islands of the south-west Pacific.

It was against this background that Selwyn drew up plans for an Anglican mission to the Melanesian islands. Unfortunately for him, the Church of England was no means the first on the scene. The martyrdom of John Williams had stimulated the L.M.S. to continue the work he had begun, and during the 1840s, Samoan and Rarotongan teachers were left with their families at various places in the southern New Hebrides, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands. At the Isle of Pines and Futuna, some of the foreigners were killed, and many others died of fever and dysentery. Melanesia was also being entered by French Marist Fathers, who in 1848, after disastrous attempts to found missions in New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands, were trying to establish bases on the Isle of Pines, Aneityum and Murua, midway between the Solomons and New Guinea. When the Solomons missionaries withdrew from Makira Bay, San Cristobal, in September 1847, they had lost their leader, Bishop Epalle, and six other men by disease and violence in the previous twenty-one months. Also at Aneityum were Presbyterians from Nova Scotia, who arrived there in July 1848.

Selwyn was not deterred. His own plan rested on the assumption that Nature, by dividing the Pacific into separate islands and archipelagoes, had "marked out for each missionary body its field of duty". Wasteful competition and sectarian controversy could thus in principle be avoided. He himself had no doubt that God had summoned the Church of England in New Zealand, through Howley's commission, to lead the evangelization of the whole of Melanesia — "all the News", he announced to his old friend W.E. Gladstone, in an extraordinary flight of episcopal fantasy: New Caledonia, New Hebrides, New Britain, New Ireland, New Hanover, New Guinea, where, "if it please God, I hope in ten years to shake hands with the Bishop of Borneo" Missions of other churches, British Nonconformist or Roman Catholic, would have their own portions of this work (for they could scarcely be excluded), but he expected that their role in Melanesia would be a subordinate one. He drew comfort from the fact that the French priests, despite their numbers, had made no headway. "Now then is the time to shew by fruits which is the better tree."

Such reasoning, with its overtones of Establishment arrogance, was hardly likely to commend itself to the L.M.S. As his first mission field, Selwyn selected New Caledonia, together with the Loyalty Islands and the Isle of Pines, which were the closest of the Melanesian islands to New Zealand. "Bishoplike," snorted one of the L.M.S. missionaries, "his Lordship says that he looks upon the inhabitants of that group as his people." Collision was initially averted by an agreement in June 1848. In return for Selwyn's assurance that he would leave the New Hebrides (exactly which islands, it was not stated) to the L.M.S. or its allies, the Samoan mission committee unanimously consented to the transfer of its Polynesian teachers already on Mare and Lifu in the Loyalties to an Anglican mission directed by Selwyn. This they assumed — and later insisted — would be conducted by sound Evangelicals of the C.M.S., whereas Selwyn was already planning his mission on lines quite different from those favoured in New Zealand. This unfulfilled condition, and episcopal attempts to evade it, was to be the source of a bitter religious squabble. Melanesia, as Selwyn saw it in 1849, was still a virgin mission field, but one that offered no likelihood of speedy results and dramatic mass conversions. At those places where Polynesian Christian teachers had already been stationed, the native peoples were proving to be indifferent to the new religion. Its agents were at best barely tolerated; at worst, they had been driven out or massacred. Furthermore, the number of islands between New Caledonia and New Guinea was very large and their inhabitants spoke an "amazing multiplicity" of different languages, so that, unlike Polynesia, mastery of one did not open the way to a knowledge of the rest.


Excerpted from God's Gentlemen by David Hilliard. Copyright © 1978 David Hilliard. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations and Maps,
1: "Visionary and Impracticable Principles",
2: Foundations,
3: The Martyr,
4: "God is Never in a Hurry",
5: Old Methods, Slightly Adapted,
6: The Tide Turns,
7: Towards a Melanesian Christianity,
8: Dreams and Disenchantment,
9: "The Redemption of the Whole Man",
Biographical Notes,

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