Thursday, 4 December 2014

We Have No Memory

Jaded Secularism and Its "Tricks"

This year New Zealand will "mark" the 200th year since the Gospel of Jesus Christ was first proclaimed in New Zealand (as far as we are able to tell).  Our Lord had commanded that we, his servants, proclaim to the farthest reaches of the earth, His death on behalf of all men for the forgiveness of sin.  New Zealand is about as far away from Jerusalem (where He laid down this command) as is possible to get.  Thus, in terms of biblical theology and Christian eschatology, the first coming of the Gospel to this far flung country is of great symbolic significance, at the very least.

For that reason alone all Christians everywhere should take a great interest in the coming of the Gospel to a far-away land, where the inhabitants were lost in the dark night of sin.  But the nation as a whole will barely notice this bicentenary.  That's because New Zealand is officially a secular country, which means that the religion of secularism is its established religion.  To our official, established religion, the coming of Samuel Marsden to New Zealand to preach the Gospel on Christmas Day 1814 is more of an embarrassment than anything else.  It reflects a former, benighted age when people superstitiously believed in gods rather than stochastic atoms. 

Paul Moon, one of our leading historians of the period, laments the present studied ignorance of the event.
  Such disdain for Marsden and the great early missionaries was not the case when the centenary of the first preaching of the Gospel in New Zealand was celebrates--one hundred years ago.  It was remembered and celebrated as a significant event, worthy of memorial.

Not so a further one hundred years on.  Why so?  Because secularism is busy re-writing history to conform to its materialist presuppositions.  Such a comprehensive re-writing of the past where myths with which people comfort themselves are used to expunge the truth is a relative rarity.  As the old Ngapuhi proverb has it:  "it is worse to be forgotten than to be cursed".  Or, more Christianly, it should be re-glossed as, "To forget the coming of the Gospel of God amongst us is to curse oneself."

Once again, the old cynic Voltaire had it right when he sneered that "history is merely a trick the living play upon the dead."  Modern secularist revisionist history certainly falls into that category.

Paul Moon: Why historical milestones should matter

2 December 2014

The impending 200th anniversary of Marsden’s first Christian service in New Zealand deserves recognition.

Rev Samuel Marsden conducted New Zealand's first Christian service on Christmas Day, 1814.
Rev Samuel Marsden conducted New Zealand's first Christian service on Christmas Day, 1814

Bicentenaries are still rare in New Zealand, where reliably recorded history has a frustratingly short reach. But if you therefore assumed the impending 200th anniversary of the first Christian service on the country's territory would be anticipated with suitable relish, you would be wrong.

Yes, the Rev Samuel Marsden, who led that service on Christmas Day, 1814, will no doubt be mentioned in sermons throughout the country this December, and church-sponsored commemorations may gain some media coverage. But apart from that, this important punctuation point in our history will receive noticeably scant attention.

Does it really matter whether we remember Marsden's service? In one sense, centenaries and bicentenaries are little more than a decimal detail, so perhaps we shouldn't be too fussed. On the other hand, though, the image of the fleshy faced reverend in his vestments delivering a Christian service to a congregation of deferential yet slightly puzzled Maori at Oihi in the Bay of Islands has become part of our historical iconography, one of those cultural encounters that signifies the era when Europeans in New Zealand were just starting to transfigure, from a Maori perspective, from being visitors to becoming neighbours.

Marsden had laid out the plans for a mission to New Zealand as early as 1809, but when news of the sacking of the Boyd and the killing and eating of its crew in Whangaroa reached Sydney, the mood towards Maori in the New South Wales capital hardened.

Relations between Maori and Europeans were further ruptured soon after, when a group of British whalers sought revenge for the Boyd episode by sending an armed crew to the island occupied by the chief Te Pahi, in the Bay of Islands. Despite Te Pahi having no connection with the Boyd incident, he and around 60 of his community were massacred by the sailors.
Marsden was nonetheless convinced that the planned mission would eventuate, and on November 19, 1814, he left Sydney for New Zealand, accompanied by the missionaries Thomas Kendall and William Hall, and a high-ranking contingent of Maori, including Hongi Hika, Korokoro, and Ruatara.

While Marsden typically gets much of the credit for the first Christmas service, he had worked hand-in-hand with Ruatara, whom he had first met nine years earlier. Ruatara initially seemed an unlikely candidate to lead the call for a European presence in the Bay of Islands, especially after having previously only just survived a severe beating by a group of British sailors.

His gaze was not solely directed heavenwards, though. Through his friendship with Marsden, he secured a European settlement under his patronage, and the economic benefits that flowed from this. This culminated in Marsden's famous Christmas Day sermon in 1814.

A hundred years ago, the country took this anniversary much more seriously. Newspapers ran several stories on Marsden in the weeks leading up to the centenary, and it was only the outbreak of the Great War that prevented "representatives from all corners of the globe" converging on the Bay of Islands for the event.

Still, around 500 people made the pilgrimage in 1914, including Whangarei resident Caroline Bedlington, who could remember meeting Marsden during his final visit to New Zealand in 1837.

Fifty years ago, crowds thronged at the site of Marsden's first service. It was a significant enough event for 1964 to be "televised, filmed, and covered by sound radio from all New Zealand stations" as the press marvelled at the time. Marsden's great-grandson, the Rev Robert Marsden, took part in the commemoration.

Fast forward to December 2014, though, and Marsden and his sermon seem to have slipped into the growing pit of our national historical amnesia (bearing out the Ngapuhi proverb that "it is worse to be forgotten than to be cursed").

And that tired Pakeha adage about being condemned to repeat the lessons of history that we fail to learn from is not nearly as grave as the state of mind that does not even allow any history to penetrate it in the first place.

The Christmas plea from this historian, then, is that we all start to fossick around a little more in the country's past. It's there that the source of our "New Zealandness", in all its colourful, chaotic, and idiosyncratic hues, can be located.

Professor Paul Moon lectures in history at AUT University.


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