Project Canterbury

A History of the English Church in New Zealand

By H.T. Purchas

Christchurch: Simpson and Williams, 1914.


Beginning from Jerusalem.

A COMMERCIAL message of trifling import may now be flashed in a few minutes from Jerusalem to the Antipodes: the message of Christ's love took nearly eighteen centuries to make the journey. For a time, indeed, the advance was direct and swift, for before the third century after Christ a Church had established itself in South India. But there the missionary impulse failed. Had the first rate of progress been maintained, the message would have reached our shores a whole millennium before it actually arrived.

But what would have been then its form and content? Had it made its way from island to island, passing through the minds of Malay, Papuan, or Melanesian on its passage, how much of its original purity would have been preserved? And who would have been here to receive it? Possibly, only the moa and the apteryx. Who knows?

These considerations enable us to look with less regret upon the check which the Christian message received after its first rapid advance. The rise of Mohammedanism in the sixth century drove the faith of Christ from Asia and from Africa, but it kept it white." It threw a barrier across the old road which led from Jerusalem to the Antipodes, but the barrier enabled preparation to be made on either side for a grander and more fruitful intercourse. On the south of the Islamic empire the migrations of the peoples brought to our islands the Maori race, who made it their permanent home. On the north, the Christian faith took firm hold of the maritime nations of Europe, from whom the missionaries of the future were to spring.

The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1452 may be taken as the turning point. It closed more firmly than ever the land-route to the south, but the libraries of this great city, in which was preserved nearly all that remained of ancient learning, were scattered by the captors, and their contents carried far and wide. New Testament manuscripts awakened fresh study in the western world, and led to a cleansing and quickening of religion; narratives of old Greek explorers made men impatient of the barrier which blocked them from the lands which the ancients had known, and thus drove them to seek new routes by sea.

Marvellous was the energy which now awoke. By 1492 Columbus had crossed the Atlantic, and Vasco da Gama, having rounded the African continent, had reached India by an ocean road which had nothing to fear from the Mussulman power.

Two routes, in fact, had now been opened, for not only did the Portuguese follow up da Gama's discoveries in the Indian Ocean, but the Spaniards from the American side soon entered the Pacific. But neither of these nations quite reached our distant islands. Their ships were swept from the sea in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, whose eastern capital was Batavia. From this port there started in 1642 a small expedition of two ships under the command of Abel Tasman. Heading his journal with the words, "May the Almighty God give His blessing to this voyage," the courageous Hollander went forth, and, sailing round the Australian continent, struck boldly across the sea which now bears his name. On December i6th the mountainous coast of our South Island rose before him, and what we may now call New Zealand was seen by European eyes. The ferocity of the inhabitants prevented the explorer from landing on its shores, but his expedition spent some weeks along the coast. His austere Calvinism prevented Tasman from observing in any special manner the festival of Christmas, but as a Rhinelander he could not forget the "Three Kings of Cologne," whom legend had associated with the Magi of the Gospels. On Twelfth Night his ships were abreast of the small island which lies at the extreme north of the country, and "this island," wrote Tasman, "we named Drie Koningen Eyland (i.e., Three Kings Island), on account of this being the day of Epiphany."

Here then, at last, was a spot of New Zealand soil to which a name was attached which told of something Christian. The name stood alone as yet, but it contained a promise of the time when the Gentile tribes should come to Christ's light, and their kings to the brightness of His rising.

For nearly a century and a half the startled Maoris treasured the memory of the white-winged ships of the Hollander, before they saw any others like them. At length, in 1769, there appeared the expedition of Captain Cook. England had now wrested from the Dutch the sovereignty of the seas, and Cook was looking for the "New Zealand" which appeared on the Dutch maps, but which no living European had ever seen. More tactful and more fortunate than his forerunner, Cook was able to open a communication with the islanders and to conciliate their good-will.

Not yet, however, was England prepared to follow up the lead thus given. Not until her defeat by the American colonists, which closed the "New World" against her convicts, did Britain's statesmen bethink them of the still newer world which had been made known by the explorer. In 1787 an expedition went forth from England--not indeed to New Zealand, but to South-east Australia, where a penal colony was established at Port Jackson. A strange and repulsive spectacle the enterprise presented, yet these convict snips were the instruments for carrying on the message which had been sent out from Jerusalem by apostolic bearers. "Did God send an army of pious Christians to prepare His way in the wilderness?" asked Samuel Marsden, the second chaplain of this colony. "Did He establish a colony in New South Wales for the advancement of His glory and the salvation of the heathen nations in those distant parts of the globe by men of character and principle? On the contrary, He takes men from the dregs of society, the sweepings of gaols, hulks, and prisons. Men who had forfeited their lives to the laws of their country, He gives them their lives for a prey, and sends them forth to make a way for His chosen, for them that should bring glad tidings of good things. How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!"

Advance and retreat; check and recovery; failure of methods which seemed direct and divine; compensating success through agencies that looked hostile; the winds of the Spirit blowing where they list--none able to tell beforehand whence they are coming or whither they will go: such are the outstanding features of the long journey of the Christian faith across the globe; such will be found to mark its history when established in this land.

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