Saturday, 9 November 2019

New Zealand's First Convert

Truth Or Falsehood

The first "official" convert to Christianity in New Zealand that we are aware of was a chief called Rangi.  He was tuberculous and dying.  The date was 1824; the location was the Bay of Islands.  The missionaries involved were Henry Williams and Richard Davis. 
There is record that he suffered quite severe symptoms in October 1824 and again in February 1825, but by July 1825 the disease took an even more serious turn and he suffered the rapid weight loss that gave tuberculosis its common name of "consumption". 

Despite his illness, on 7 August 1825 he made, in the language of Richard Davis, "an open confession of his faith in Christ in the presence of many of his Countrymen."  So, in the final stages of his illness, when his "bones stood through his skin", having had his faith "narrowly examined" and with the full consent of the other missionaries present, Rangi was baptised by Henry Williams and took the name Christian Rangi.  He died the next day. [Malcolm Falloon, "Christian Rangi: 'A Brand Plucked from the Burning"?,  Te Rongopai 1814: 'Takoto te pai!"  Bicentenary Reflections on Christian Beginnings and Developments in Aotearoa New Zealand. (Auckland: Anglican Church in Aotearoa, 2014),   p.130.]
Historian Malcolm Falloon quickly dismisses the paternalistic condescension of secularist historians by which Rangi's faith is rationalised into a naive act by a primitive, ignorant man.  He identifies four factors that played a role in Rangi's conversion and subsequent profession of faith.
Firstly, he had a genuine desire and thirst for the new ideas that the missionaries brought.  This was certainly not the general tenor of Maori at that time.  The missionaries correspondence is is littered with to the indifference of Maori and their careless attitude towards things of the soul.  However, from the first contact, Rangi was different.  [Ibid.]
Secondly he was very aware of the evil embedded in Maori culture at that time.
Rangi had experienced first hand the escalation in violence associated with inter-tribal warfare.  He did not need much persuasion from the missionaries to acknowledge deficiencies in his own culture. "Maori think of none of these things", said Rangi in regard to God's invitation to heaven, "they only think, I will eat, I will fight, I will distress some poor people, and take their children for slaves."  In a later speech to visitors from Tauranga, Rangi openly criticised the war policies of Hongi and other leading chiefs, perhaps one of the first to do so.  [Ibid., p. 131.]
Thirdly, Rangi had a deep strong bond of friendship with missionary, Richard Davis.  This close relationship--which led to much discussion and prayer--was publicly cemented upon his deathbed when he entrusted Davis to the care of his daughter.

Fourthly--and regarded as the most significant by Falloon--was Rangi's experience of Christian prayer.  It truly was a means of grace to Rangi.  The missionaries (Williams and Davis) were steeped in the Bible and its revelation to mankind.  They knew that entry into heaven was via an act of God, not man.  Conversion came from God, not man.  It had to be . . .
experienced as the unmediated answer, given through prayer to the Great Atua, for a new heart and for God's spirit to dwell within.  It was this experience of prayer, begun in tentative ways at first, that allowed him in July 1825 to inform Henry Williams that, "I pray several times in the day.  I ask God to give me his spirit in my hears to sit or dwell there."  By August, he told Williams that his prayer had been answered in a most wonderful way. 

The very next day, he sent a message asking Richard Davis to visit.  "He told me", wrote Davis, "[that] his heart was very full of love to Jesus Christ, that he was very in his body but that he hoped to be soon in the good place."  It was in the context of this experience that the missionaries made the decision to offer the rite of baptism.  [Ibid., p. 132.]
Following after Rangi's example came a long line of genuine converts, true disciples.  But, as is always the case, there also came a long line of false believers, false professors of faith in Christ.  Rangi's life and example serve to comfort and encourage all true believers in Christ Jesus.  It also serves to warn and admonish all false believers--then, and now.

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